Mariana, Sterling and I set off from Vancouver for the Brew Hut Trail at 9am as the hike wasn’t too long and we were planning to camp overnight. Our aim was to hike the 3-4k forest service road to the Brew Lake Trail which is then a further 4k up to the lake and then 45 mins up to Brew Hut. The hut is run by UBC and while that was our destination we were still planning to camp for the experience. The hike itself while not very long is described as ‘very difficult’ involving climbing over boulders and scree slopes but with the benefit of amazing scenery.
The forecast was poor, heavy rain forecast for Tuesday but then clearing up for Wednesday. As we left Vancouver the forecast looked questionable as it was turning in to a lovely day. However, as we approached Squamish it started to rain before building to heavy rain as we approached what we thought was the the foot of the trail. We had gone down the wrong road at the end of which was a weird sort of village, very modern and smart but at the end of a dirt track, we decided it must be a cult or something but they were very friendly and pointed us in the right direction.
We finally located the correct road, Brew Main Road and after a couple of wrong turns (its a maze) found the correct forest service road. The instructions say if you are in a 4×4 you can go about 4k and if you are in a 2 wheel drive you can go a few km/s. We didn’t even manage one as it was hilly and very wet and we didn’t want to get stuck. As we parked and started to sort our kit the rain started to turn to snow. This started to get heavier and in the 5 minutes it took us to get ready it was now snowing heavily and beginning to settle.
We hiked the 4k forest service road to where it joined the trail. This should have been fairly straight forward but with the visibility being poor and the snow starting to settle, by this point an inch must have fallen, we couldn’t believe that this was pretty much September! We had to stop a number of times to consult the map to make sure we were taking the right road as there were a number of options. This and included crossing a bridge that had holes everywhere. We couldn’t tell what the condition of the bridge was under the snow, so we sent Sterling with his poles first as the sacrificial lamb. Luckily we had no problems and found the trail pretty easily.
We followed the path markers and to start with this was simple but it soon started to go wrong. With the bad visibility and still heavy snow falling it was very difficult to follow the trail markers, mostly orange markers, and there was not sign of the trail under the inch or two of snow. Throughout the hike we struggled as a number of the markets were covered with snow and there must have been more buried. As we proceeded there was a range of markers ranging from big orange squares to ribbon tied to trees. Our first mistake, which we didn’t find out till too late, is that the trail was primarily marked with orange markers (although not 100%). After a short period of time we were following a number of ribbons of various colours (red, orange, blue, pink).
This part of the hike was great fun. All three of us working our way through the forest hunting the next ribbon. We were making good progress although we were a bit confused by how many options were available. Due to the 1-2 inches of snow on the ground there was no way we could see a path. While we were working our way through the forest the snow eventually stopped and it started to turn sunny, we didn’t get any of the warmth though as we were in the trees. The conversation started to turn to our plans for swimming in the lake at lunch before heading up to the hut.
We continued to follow the ribbons but it was becoming increasingly difficult as we were moving over tough terrain where trees had been chopped down. This resulted in a number of falls and very slow progress. Eventually the ribbons ran out and we decided that it was time to consult the map and GPS. It turned out that we had got very lost and gone completely the wrong way. The ribbons were used for marking out logging areas not the trail. This was a bit of a disaster however we corrected our direction and set off back towards the trail. As we were still in logging territory and we couldn’t see what was under foot it was very slow and hard progress.
We eventually rejoined the trail and there was much rejoicing. It instantly became a lot easier as there was finally a route (still pretty vague) to follow. This only lasted for about 20 mins before it disappeared again. We consulted the route and we had to go back about 50m, take a sharp left and then cross a boulder field. We did this and found 1 orange marker on a tree in the boulder field but that was it. The boulder field was very steep, very rocky, very slippery with the snow and from the last marker there was no obvious route out. We stopped for a minute to consider our options as we were starting to feel the cold, this was the first point where we discussed the likelihood of making the hut and the option of heading back to the car.
We decided to go on and eventually managed to scramble to the top of the cliff/boulder field and regrouped at the top. At this point morale was very low, we were all struggling with the cold (my hands basically didn’t function) and we were realising we were up against our match in the snowy conditions. We had enjoyed our exploring earlier on but it had been draining and we still had a long way to go. We also knew we were off the trail again but now we had the route and GPS out we thought it should be fairly straight forward to get back on track. We headed off uphill following the route and despite being very close we never relocated it.
We struggled up the hill for about half an hour (4:30) and regrouped again. We could now see the mountain that we were going to have to go over to get to the lake in front of us, the hut was at least an hour on from the lake. We also looked at the contours and realised hat we still had at least 400m of vertical climbing before we descended to the lake. We had previously found a spot we could have retreated to and camp if we realised we weren’t going to get to the lake/hut. We now realised there was no chance we were going to get to the hut before dark given we couldn’t locate the trail and we all believed we needed to make the hut given the conditions. It was a short discussion and we all agreed that turning around and heading back to the car was the best option.
We set off back down the mountain following our tracks. It was amazing how quickly we warmed up now that we could move at a reasonable pace. We had got cold due to the fact we hadn’t been able to move at more than 10-20m at a time without having to check where we were going. My hands were very appreciative and started to function again. There was one downside though in that descending a snowy rocking mountain is much harder than ascending. We were all much happier as we were going back and so we were much more tolerant of the slips and falls as they were many but we were making good progress.
We made it back to the point where we had rejoined the trail from the wilderness. The snow here had started to melt and the trail route was now obvious as the snow melts first on the route. We realised how easy we could have had it and that had there been no snow it would have been very easy to notice we were lost. We were all interested to find out at which point we had gone wrong and it wasn’t long till we found out.
It was on a couple of small ponds and the correct trail took a sharp right up over some rocks, whereas we had stayed in the ravine following the ribbons. We spent a while here discussing it and even now knowing the correct route it was not obvious. I don’t know if there were markers covered by the snow but it was poorly marked. I believe had there been no snow at this section we would have seen the path but with nothing visible it was impossible to see.
We carried on back down and it wasn’t long before we were back on the forest service road heading back down to the car. It was now the most beautiful afternoon (6pm) and we all agreed that it was a shame we hadn’t made it to the hut as it would have been absolutely spectacular up there in the snow for the sunset and stars at night. At the same time the temperature was beginning to plummet so we didn’t know if it would have been enjoyable being at that altitude. It was definitely below zero as all the puddles had frozen and we were all now just desperate to make it back to the car and get home (it turned out that our food had frozen as well and frozen Cliff Bars are really hard to eat! We also learnt that if iPhone’s get very cold they just switch off.). This final part of the hike was also the first time that my face was feeling the cold which meant the air temperature had fallen considerably. We had thought we had time to spare but as it turned out we turned around at the right moment as it was getting dark when we got back to the car.
We were all absolutely frozen (well extremities – I was no where near as cold as I was cycling Seymour last week) jumped in the car with the heating on full and headed to Timmy’s (Tim Hortons) in Squamish for some hot drinks. When we got back to Vancouver I realised I was absolutely exhausted and took me a long time to fully warm up.
So what are the take aways from this trip.
I didn’t grow up in the mountains but have been very lucky do to a lot of skiing. This however is all in a very controlled protected environment and I am realising quickly that I am not in my comfort zone in the mountains, like I am on boats for example. The level of knowledge and experience just isn’t there.
Every time I go on a trip I will be learning and this was a trip with a steep learning curve that had potential to go wrong but I don’t think we made many mistakes. We had the correct gear. We had a safe end location (the hut). We were carrying enough food and equipment. We had safety equipment. We had told people where we were going. We had the physical capability to complete the hike. We chose the right moment to turn back.
So what mistakes did we make:
We had checked the weather and the forecast had been rain, none of us predicted the snow and that caught us off guard. In terms of the conditions and outcome I don’t think this was a problem as we were set up for snow. Interestingly I think snow and rain affect you and how you get cold very differently. Its easier to get cold slowly without realising in snow and then it takes a long time to warm up. What the snow definitely did that we didn’t realise is it made a difficult trail almost impossible. With nothing in the way of a path to follow we really struggled to make progress and we didn’t even get to the hardest part of the trail which is at altitude.
We didn’t eat and drink enough. This is something I first encountered sailing in bad weather and also applies to my triathlon. If you don’t eat and drink enough you very quickly lose performance and energy and eventually will get cold easily. We had a plan to get to the lake and have a hot meal (rather than just snacking) but we probably should have had a time to eat and stuck to that. This would also have prevented us from getting as lost as we would have checked our position quicker. It didn’t matter in the end on this occasion but it could in future.
Adjusting to the weather in navigation. In hindsight following a very wide trail of ribbons blindly in poor visibility seems ridiculous. But at the time it made complete sense as the trail previously had consisted of various markers but they eventually turned in to just ribbons. Had the ground been free of snow I believe it would have become apparent very quickly that we were going wrong and we should have checked the map sooner. We had researched the hike and every report said it was hard so it only made sense that snow made it harder so when it was nearly impossible we didn’t question it. This was an inexperienced mistake that could have saved us a lot of time and energy.
The positive to take from all this is that we all retuned safely and I learnt a lot. We also had a lot of fun in the process which is what it is all about. It does remind you though that the mountain is as, if not more, unforgiving as the sea.
I will definitely be back to complete this hike as I think making it to the hut will be special. Doing it in the snow, and the beautiful afternoon/evening, would have been spectacular but not for us this time. I won’t be back until next summer now though unless going with someone that has done it before in snow. While our main error would be easily corrected, we still never relocated the trail after the boulder field and I think you need to to get up over the mountain safely.
One thing for sure is that winter has very much arrived in the mountains in the first week of October!