By Jack Christie Photography by Louise Christie
Remember the childhood thrill of playing on a jungle gym or nimbly scaling a rock wall? Playgrounds are reminders that kids are born scramblers. With age, the urge to clamber like our primate kin may diminish, but it never entirely extinguishes.
Care to reconnect with the feeling of stretching your legs while grasping for handholds? It's open season for scrambling. Although a respectable snowpack persists in the subalpine regions around Whistler, hardy green ground cover is resurfacing. It's flashback to spring along the Duffey Lake Road past Pemberton after the Sea to Sky Highway crests the Cayoosh Pass. That's where the fun begins. Pick from a dozen routes on either side of the narrow valley during a panorama-packed passage toward Lillooet. Bring along some like-minded friends and honour the code: if in doubt, bail out.
The most easily accessible route to scrambling country threads its way through Joffre Lakes Provincial Park past a trio of lakes so bewitching that you'd best look the other way while passing, lest your will to reach higher ground wither under their spell. Wonder at the three jewels later, on descent. Many of those with whom you share the path shoulder mountaineering equipment. And well they should, especially if Joffre Peak is their objective. Joffre is a trophy summit, and tests the upper limits of climbing skills.
If you're new to this or simply hunger for a mellower outing in the peaks, consider a less-weighty option: a scramble. According to author and mountaineer Matt Gunn, scrambles are mountain climbing simplified. On the phone from his home in Kimberley, where he relocated after a decade of exploration around Vancouver, Gunn told Pique the beauty of this approach is that "you can hike unencumbered with a light pack, cruise fast, and often be back home the same day after seeing amazing places." In the same breath, Gunn cautioned that scrambling can be a dangerous activity and that it involves inherent risks.
When asked to describe what sets the Coast Mountains around the Lower Mainland apart from elsewhere in the province, such as the East Kootenay, where he cut his teeth as a young mountaineer, Gunn singled out the ruggedness of local peaks, which are often linked by welcoming alpine ridges. "To reach those ridges requires considerable elevation gain through a lush rain-forest environment," he replied. "The Coast Mountains are so different from the Rockies and Purcells. It's all rock and glaciated terrain in southwest B.C. One of the neat characteristics is the visually dramatic landscape of broad, glaciated peaks." Another defining feature is the geological composition of the Coast Mountains themselves: "Granite makes for solid scrambling with less scree, which means it's less scary, as handholds aren't as liable to shear off. The change in geoclimatic zones as you move inland from the coast lends more diversity as well, plus there are incredible views from the ridges where you look down on lakes and fiords. You won't find that anywhere else."
Among the choices for easy exploration off the Duffey Lake Road are a number of logging roads that lead to trailheads at higher elevations. One of these is Ainsworth Lumber's Downton Creek Forest Service Road. It's linked to a well-maintained hiking route that leads into the open alpine headwaters of Downton Creek, one of Gunn's favourite scrambles.
It's easy to see why. Swaths of pink-blossomed fireweed as tall as cornstalks surround the trailhead, above which rises a grey-maned massif. If it's possible to fall in love with a peak at first sight, meet your newest heartthrob. Go ahead and bestow a name on it, as you'll be keeping company for the duration of your scramble. Not that its pinnacle is your objective: be satisfied to reach an adjacent ridge that Gunn has dubbed Peak 840. To do that in comfort, plan a weekend away from Whistler. Pack in camping gear and, after a two-hour hike from the trailhead, rest up overnight at a small campsite beside one of two alpine tarns fed by Downton Creek. There's only enough level space among the moss-covered hummocks for two tents, so plan accordingly.
When it comes to making your way from the lakes to Peak 840, use your wits. There's no marked trail, nor is there much need of one. The way is clear. Simply start scrambling uphill from the lake past tightly packed copses of fir and through meadows of alpine flora. Your presence will arouse the curiosity of a colony of hoary marmots, many of whom will be sunning themselves atop boulders scattered across the multihued amphitheatre. When you finally look down from the windblown peak, the sweet wine of success never tasted so good, all because you freed your inner child for a little scrambling.
ACCESS : Duffey Lake Road (Highway 99) begins 44 kilometres north of Whistler in Mount Currie and leads 100 kilometres to Lillooet. Joffre Lakes Provincial Park lies 25 kilometres northeast of Mount Currie. The Downton Creek Forest Service Road begins about 40 kilometres north of Joffre Lakes on the north side of the highway. After 5.7 kilometres on that road, turn right where the road forks and right again at 10.7 kilometres onto "Branch 2". Drivers of vehicles with low clearance should park here; otherwise, stay left where the road forks at 12 kilometres and continue two kilometres further to a clearing. The well-marked Downton Creek Trail begins on the north side. For information on Matt Gunn's Scrambles in Southwest British Columbia (Cairn, 2005) visit www.cairnpublishing.com . To gauge snow levels in the local Coast Mountains, view Whistler Blackcomb's Web cams at www.whistlerblackcomb.com/weather/cams/index.htm . Information on Joffre Lakes Provincial Park is at www.env.gov.bc.ca/bcparks/explore/parkpgs/joffre_lks