In terms of alpine climbing on the global scene, Vancouver Island lies somewhere between an enigma and total obscurity. In a province blessed with high-profile destinations like the Bugaboos, the Waddington Range and iconic peaks like Mt Robson and Mt Assiniboine, the Vancouver Island Alps continue to fly under the radar, in the shadow of the better known mainland ranges.
Yet it is this very far-flung location, overlooking the mighty Pacific Ocean, garbed in the deep green of a magnificent temperate forest, that weaves a special magic that is found in the Island alpine.
Exploration and alpine route development on the Island has proceeded over the past hundred years at a pretty laid-back pace. Despite the vast potential for high quality routes, the challenges of long approaches, a dearth of in-depth information and a relatively small climbing community have conspired to leave countless gems that in more established ranges would have been climbed decades ago.
But steadily this is changing and Vancouver Island is quietly progressing to become a notable and highly regarded alpine climbing destination. While it’s true that many of the plums on the better known peaks have been climbed now, there are still countless possibilities on both the more accessible, and remote, mountains.
Vancouver Island is a place where future classics are still being discovered.
So, what is it that makes the Island alpine so special to its devotees? It can’t be the bush we’ve all come to love or hate, or dread? Well okay in part it is! In a nutshell, it is simply that, alpine on an island is a very special environment.
The Vancouver Island mountains rise over 2,000 metres only a handful of kilometres from the open ocean. So while on the surface of it, the summits have modest elevations, the overall vertical relief is pretty impressive. The soaring peaks, that close to the Pacific, attract a breathtaking quantity of precipitation. In cooler times this accumulated into mighty glaciers that surged seaward, carving their way both east and west.
As the glaciers retreated they left an intricately sculpted landscape of deeply scoured valley-canyons now cloaked with expansive forests of giant trees and, high above, countless sheer mountain faces and inter-connected ridges. Wildflowers carpet an exotic, Eden-like subalpine and a unique collection of animals roam wild through the forests below. The Island alpine is both familiar and unknown, inviting and yet foreboding. It is a place where the pioneers’ spirit is alive and well.
Everything in the Island Alps, from the unusual topography, to the exceptional sunsets is influenced by the surrounding ocean. It is a very distinct experience to stand on a mountain summit and see the ocean in two (or more) directions; to stem up a long, exposed rock pitch with the surf rolling in on the west coast behind; or to taste the salty air on a fog-bound glacier-crossing. The maritime environment shapes the vegetation, fuels a massive snowpack (with very special skiing and climbing characteristics) and is an intricate part of the Island alpine experience. There’s wide diversity in the geology too, creating beautiful, exquisitely-sculpted peaks. All this along with some quirky and determined climbers come together to make a very special climbing area.