Island Alpine - rock climbing
The main attraction for climbing on Vancouver Island is the variety of rock types and the high quality of each of them.
Volcanic basalt dominates the geology of Vancouver Island and is found throughout the high alpine peaks and forms the vast majority of the lower elevation Island crags. Friction can be superb and the basalt is typically very solid with little loose rock on steeper ground. Scree does of course collect on ledges in gullies and lower angle terrain.
At the low elevation crags the basalt is prone to heavy moss and lichen growth and almost all the climbs now established were once coated in vegetation of one type or another. A great deal of work has gone into scrubbing and preparing these routes for regular climbing. This makes the attraction of clean rock in the alpine all the greater. Comox Lake and Crest Creek are two of the more established cragging areas on the Island and the best places to get a taste for the alpine climbing on the high basaltic peaks.
The main drawback with the basalt is the infrequency of natural protection placements. Many of the sport crag routes are bolt-protected, or at the least a mix of fixed and natural gear. There are very few sport climbs on basalt with purely natural pro, long continuous crack systems are rare.
The same goes for the alpine basalt although natural protection on the cleaner alpine rock is generally better. The use of fixed protection especially bolts in the alpine is basically nonexistent. In large part this is due to climbers tackling routes well within their ability, the logistical challenges of placing bolts in any significant numbers and a local pride in keeping the sensitive alpine environment free from unnecessary impact, especially within the parks like Strathcona, Schoen Lake, and Woss Lake.
Climbing on the basalt faces like Mt. Colonel Foster, Elkhorn, Victoria Peak and Rugged Mountain does take a cool head on routes of every level. It’s good to be prepared for some run-out leads and often some extreme exposure even on the moderately difficult scrambles. Luckily what the Island basalt lacks in secure protection it makes up for in solid, high-quality rock with positive holds and varied climbing in stunning surroundings.
Choosing a rack is a very personal process but gear that seems to be frequently useful includes: mid-size camming units (eg: #1-3 Camalots or equivalent), a good range of stoppers and a selection of pitons. There are no bolts on any alpine routes (although some have been used for rappel stations on descents) and it would be a very well-respected ethic to continue to keep the Island mountains bolt-free and especially within parks where any development is expressly prohibited within wilderness conservation zones. Whatever your own choice please never add bolts to an existing climb.
As far as descents go, many of the more technical alpine peaks require rappels to get off. The more popular routes may have regular rappel stations that are easy to locate but don’t take that for granted, become familiar with creative anchor building and bring plenty of webbing or cordallettes to rig new rappel anchors. Generally there are natural features like boulders, spikes and threads to secure a simple rappel anchor to. Pitons can be especially useful as a kind-of backup, small and mid-size angles and lost arrows seem to work well. The small, tough trees that seem to spring out of even the steepest faces are often used for belay and rappel anchors.
An ice axe or even crampons may be needed for some summertime descents.
Other rock types can be encountered in the Island alpine notably granite in the southern areas of Strathcona Park and to a lesser extent limestone which is scattered randomly at various places around the Island.
The Island granite is superb but is a largely overlooked climbing resource despite the high quality. Unfortunately the vast majority of the clean, climbable granite on Vancouver Island is stashed away in remote corners of Strathcona Park. Places to look include: Volcano Lake, Mt Burman and the numerous faces of Phillips Ridge especially the west aspect overlooking Carter Lake, Tennent Lake and the connecting ridges between Mt Myra and Mt Thelwood. Someone should do a thorough exploration of the high ground along the Tahsis Road in the Upana Caves area, there’s a lot of granite high enough to be clean all within sight of the road. Whether it’s good enough to put significant effort into remains to be seen although there have been a few routes done - Bilbo’s Palace anyone?
The Island granite zenith is the impressive south face of Mt. Tom Taylor which has a series of 1,000 ft (300 m) buttresses. Greyback Peak and the Nomash Slab have several routes but the potential here has hardly been tapped.
Any hiking trip by rock climbers to the Mt. Myra and Mt. Thelwood areas should see rock shoes thrown in the pack to take advantage of the endless bouldering on the maze of granite crags. As to be expected with granite the protection here is superb and if you’ve climbed at Squamish you’re primed for the Island granite experience. You just might have to dig out some gear placements so be sure to pack an old nut key for the job
As far as the limestone goes, the most impressive concentration of this climber’s dream rock is around Marble Meadows and Marblerock Canyon in Strathcona Park. There are other low elevation limestone outcrops at Horne Lake near Qualicum Beach and some potential at a small ridgetop crag between Woss and Nimpkish Lake in the North Island - Denny Ridge.