Years ago there was some talk of the ‘Golden Horseshoe’ as the ultimate hike in Strathcona Park. Strathcona Park Lodge advertised it in the late 1980s as a three week trek from Paradise meadows around to the Elk River Trail. The route would follow the height of land through the park, along the watershed boundary of the Campbell River. The general concept is a fabulous idea. The rough line takes in some of the most spectacular scenery on Vancouver Island, which right there makes it world-class.
In my travels in Strathcona I always had this idea in the back of my mind and as I become more familiar with the terrain, and the intimate details of what this mythical golden trophy might entail, the more I became both enthralled and dismayed at what an undertaking following the true line in its entirety would be.
More than 30 years on I have visited almost every part of the Campbell River divide on foot, on skis, snowshoes, by mountain bike and canoe. It amounts to some amazing topography. But interspersed here and there are short sections that have alluded me and one of those runs right up and over a portion of Vancouver Island’s principle alpine peak, the west ridge of Mt Colonel Foster.
The complete west ridge rises from a low pass at the head of Butterwort Creek arcing up to divide Butterwort, and by extension the Campbell River from tributaries of the Ucona, to the top of Mt Colonel Foster’s Southwest Peak. From many vantages the ridge is indistinct but viewed from the north near Puzzle Mountain (and presumably from somewhere 180˚ to the south) it does stand out quite well.
On July 14 Josh Overdijk headed up the Elk River Trail with the west ridge in our sights. It was an ideal window of weather as much of the 2020 summer alpine season has been. Moderate temperatures perfect for the exertion, clear and sunny. The hike up to Landslide Lake and on to Foster Lake was uneventful save for the obvious proliferation of Instahikers posing at nearly every scenic point. We pushed on up the southeast chute to the south col finding the route easily enough and generous snow cover for the top half leading into the col.
Next morning we were out of camp for 7 am and made a short ascent up the boulderfield below the South Gullies to a very small shoulder on a rib that opens the door to the long traverse below the west face. It took about an hour to traverse the talus and remaining seasonal snowslopes to the base of the upper ridge. We looked up the Southwest Couloir giving a nod and some commiseration to Karl Ricker and the Neave brothers whose 1957 climb was so close yet misguidedly far from making the mountain’s first ascent.
It was easy to locate the transition from the lower ridge to the upper, climbable rock face, where we wanted to climb, as the slopes fanning out from the peaks end abruptly at the rim of a glacier-scoured cirque below the northwestern half of the mountain (see photo above). Nearing this feature we turned our attention upward and started scrambling up a steep heather gully alongside an outcrop of bright, white granite. A small headwall forced us leftward into another major gully identifiable by a bulging roof on the righthand wall. By now were a total of about 200m above the lower scree fans. Here the rock steepened and it was clear this was the point to pull out the ropes and switch into pitched climbing.
The first pitch was a full 60m rope length up a clean slab on the left wall of the gully at around 5.7. A second, easier slab forced us into the gully where a small chockstone gave a short 5.6 step leading into a wide amphitheatre. From a belay at the head of this widening we followed an angled corner slab breaking off to the left of the main gully (5.7). Some fun climbing then led into a second, larger amphitheatre. After close to another rope length pitch we belayed at the base of a band of granite running up the crest of the ridge.
This was what I was hoping to find, a place straddling the Campbell and Ucona watersheds, where in the same stream you could pee in the Pacific and Salish Sea!
Looking up at this granite we were quite excited. It must be the west part of the same, familiar granite intrusion that is encountered on the east side of the mountain following the summit traverse line up from the small glacier up the Southwest Peak. Josh led off scrambling up over a series of granite blocks above the belay and onto the crest of the west ridge. He disappeared out of sight and I belayed and wanted my turn. Following I found a jumble of boulders on the north side of the ridge which led into a beautiful granite corner. Here was one of the most enjoyable pitches of the route and being granites a rare one at that. A pair of spectacular 5.9 finger cracks led up to an airy belay where I found Josh straddling the now well-defined ridge crest.
We laughed a bit after discovering that as beautiful a pitch as it was the thin cracks were totally avoidable by keeping to the south side of the ridge where a series of easy 4th class to low 5th class ledge led up to the same stance.
There was some discussion about following an amazing granite sill which ran out across the left side of the upper arete but we were now a little past it so decided to tackle a second steep corner instead. This corner turned out to offer some more fun climbing with some strenuous 5.8 moves to reach a boulderfield on the ridge crest. it turned out we had made a good choice because it looked like the enticing sill led into a jumble of loose boulders. Potential bullet dodged.
That was the end of the technical climbing and we scrambled up ~65m of low 5th class and 4th class terrain through boulders and rock steps up to the crest of the summit ridge a little to the north of the top of the Southwest Peak.
It was a gorgeous day and it was only just about noon so we took our time on the peak having lunch and taking in the view. A few misty clouds drifted by giving us a little advance warning of the forecasted change in the weather.
Repacked we started to make our way along the summit ridge to the south. We took a look down the gully on the west side to get into the col but an exposed slab convinced us to make a quick rappel instead. We scrambled over the perched blocks jammed in the col between the Southwest and Southeast peaks and then a quick roped pitch up the awkward corner and narrow chimney onto the top of the Southeast Peak.
We took the major gully to the southwest off the peak and were back in the South Col for around 4pm. We knew that the weather was on the change so I quickly pitched a tarp on a flat heather shelf a little below the col as clouds piled up all around us. Sure enough the rain started in the early morning hours and we were thankful for the shelter as we packed and had breakfast.
We had a soggy but uneventful descent down the snow and rock slabs back to Foster then Landslide lakes.
Mt Colonel Foster
West Ridge * AD 4th class to 5.9 (lll) 450m
FA: Josh Overdijk, Philip Stone 15 July, 2020