January 2, 2018

Dangerous Sea to Sky winter hikes

— Discover Squamish
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Looking back on Mount Habrich beyond the Sea to Sky Gondola. — Leigh and Spring McClurg

Leigh McClurg is a Squamish outdoor adventurer, writer and photographer who describes himself as always testing the limits of what is personally possible. 

The changing of the seasons from summer into winter can be one of the most beautiful times of year in the Sea to Sky Corridor. The light begins to stay golden for longer, the leaves turn shades of yellow and red and the occasional chill in the air can feel refreshing after a long, hot summer.

But with this change also comes some additional considerations for hiking up into the mountains. 

Perhaps you had a checklist of places you wanted to visit this summer and there’s still a few left on the list. 

Or maybe you woke up to a beautiful sunny day in town and plan to head out to spend your time visiting a local mountain summit. 

Winter up high around Squamish is personally my favourite time of year. The stark mountain landscape adorned in its white, seasonal livery is something special to behold. 

But it is important to be extra diligent when the mountains become more dangerous through the fall and into winter. Some hikes that were simply a stroll in the heat of summer might require extra training and experience or simply be off limits in the fall and winter, until spring after the snow has receded. 

Extra attention and respect should be given to adventures in wild places through this time of year. 

Here is a short list of some popular local hikes that can become treacherous in winter. 

While these places are more dangerous, they aren’t unreachable. Consider looking into courses in avalanche safety, backcountry skiing, and winter camping so that you too can experience the mountains we have around us through all four seasons of the year.

 Panorama Ridge 

This Garibaldi Provincial Park hike is high on most people’s wish lists in the Lower Mainland. It offers a world-class view and a picturesque hike that also makes you earn your lunch at the top. Getting to the viewpoint in summer is about 15kms one way with close to a mile of uphill climbing. 

In late fall and winter, the distance alone can become unreasonable to cover. Deep snow through Taylor Meadows, the exposure to wind along the ridge as well as avalanche terrain and sections of ice hard snow can make the route treacherous. Due to the amount of elevation that is gained, it can be common to feel warm in the sun at the Rubble Creek trailhead but later find yourself wading through the knee-deep snow by Taylor Meadows, bracing against subzero temperatures. 

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Cold temperatures lead to iced up eyelashes in winter. - Leigh McClurg

 Mount Sky Pilot 

A difficult but popular mountain to climb in summer, it can become more difficult to ascend to its summit in winter. Few people will continue along the rocky ridge to the top once the ledges begin to get wet and filled with fresh snow.

The area below Sky Pilot has become popular with individuals ski touring in winter. Snowshoeing has also become popular in this area. It’s worth noting that the avalanche terrain beyond the Sea To Sky Gondola becomes increasingly complex as you continue towards Sky Pilot. 

Travel beyond the recommended trails near the top of the gondola is recommended only for those with experience avoiding avalanches and also performing a rescue should one occur.

 Lake Lovely Water 

Another local lake that is quickly becoming extremely popular as hikers, and others, are choosing to either fly in via helicopter or float plane or cross the wide Squamish River by canoe, stand-up paddleboard or inflatable raft. 

However, it is worth noting that the popular Tantalus Hut that sits along the shores of the lake closes in early October most years and is not accessible through the winter. While the lake is still reachable, the trail to it can become treacherous as you transition through the frozen and icy ground along the sometimes-precipitous trail. 

A destination that is highly recommended to visit during the warm months of summer. 

 Summit hikes in the North Shore mountains 

Through the fall, winter and spring the North Shore mountains that straddle the Sea to Sky Highway and make up the majority of the Vancouver skyline become notorious for search and rescue incidents. While steep in nature, and relatively safe in summer, they can become particularly dangerous when covered in snow. The terrain is complex and varied. With snow covering the trail it can be easy to get lost in the forest and end up stuck above icy cliffs or loose gullies. 

Cornices, overhanging shelves of snow, can become common along ridges, masking where the ground is below you and can collapse, triggering an avalanche, as you walk on them. 

Great care should be taken in these mountains to always be prepared with warm clothing, extra food and a good knowledge of being able to navigate back to safety should the trail become covered in fresh snow. 

With all of this said, many experienced individuals will continue to visit these locations in winter, on snowshoes or skis. With the right education and experience, you can make travel in the mountains in winter an enjoyable and safe experience.

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Navigating the ridge from the summit of Mount Harvey. - Leigh and Spring McClurg

© Copyright 2018 Discover Squamish

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