Big Den – Mia Couloir

Big Den – Mia Couloir – trip report 28-30 December 2013

Sometimes we are drawn back to the ‘scene of the crime’ and Big Den Mountain definitely has that pull for me. Back in 1990 Chris Lawrence and I had a close call dodging hypothermia when a four-metre thick cornice and a bottle of water-contaminated white gas presented us with a December night to remember.

Benighted at the top of a 300m gully we aptly named ‘The Great Escape’ we spent one of the longest nights of the year soaked and shivering until the grey fingers of dawn spurred the last ounces of energy out of us to tunnel onto the summit and find our weary way back to our tent and fresh stove fuel.

The flat-topped summit of Big Den isn’t anywhere near as dramatic as some of the better known peaks of Vancouver Island but it does have some perfect natural climbing lines secreted on its north east face. The dark line of the Great Escape gully is one of the more obvious lines and the parallel buttress to its right equally so. After that harrowing winter ascent, the following summer of 1991 I returned with Jacki Klancher and climbed the buttress finding a fun and moderate scramble we called Perimeter Ridge as an homage to the ‘escape’.

We accessed the ridge about halfway up from a shelf that cuts across the left part of the north east cirque, the same way as Chris and I had reached the Great Escape. At that time the Elk River Timber Co. logging road provided easy road access and, importantly, a bridge over Tlools Creek. As enjoyable as Perimeter Ridge was I always had it in mind that one day I would like to climb the full length right from the base of the cirque and the exquisite Mia Lake. However, the years flicked by and my interests coursed elsewhere. The logging road was eventually deactivated and the climbing potential of Big Den seemed destined to slip into obscurity.

But those draws have an uncanny way of resurfacing and last December three things conspired to renew my interest in Big Den. The first was a eureka moment in reimagining the access into the northeast cirque from the complete opposite side of the mountain which avoided crossing both Tlools Creek and the even larger Elk River. The second was the unusual weather and snowpack that prevailed in the Vancouver Island Alps through late November and into December keeping the ski hills closed but forming perfect winter climbing conditions. And lastly and most importantly was the fusion of a keen team of climbers brought together by the very successful Island Climbing FaceBook group.

So it was on December 28th, 2013 Josh Overdijk, Garner Bergeron, Nic Manders and myself pulled into the BC Parks Elk River Viewing parking lot with big smiles, big packs and buckets of enthusiasm. None of us had climbed together before but one advantage of connecting online was that we each had a pretty good idea of the others’ resumés. Nic was the youngest member of the team at 19 and new to ice and winter climbing but I knew Nic from home on Quadra Island where we had mountain biked a bit together and I’ll never forget how as a whip of a 14 year old he had kept up on an especially challenging cross-country ride. I had no doubt he would rise to the occasion. We were all coming off successful summer alpine climbing seasons, it was a solid team.

Garner hiking up the Idsardi Creek valley

We made the decision to forego taking snowshoes, and with the gear sorted and packed we hiked out of the parking lot and west along the highway. We crossed the highway bridge over the Elk River and then began looking for a line into the forest and hopefully an elk trail to follow into the Idsardi Creek. I had seen major elk trails through both high passes at the head of Idsardi Creek on past treks and it came as no surprise that quickly after leaving the road we found a well-worn path heading up the west bank of the creek.

What was a surprise was just how easy the travelling was. Tales of coastal bushwhacking are legion in Island climbing circles but Idsardi Creek defied the norm and presented us with an incredibly open forest; easy route-finding along an obvious elk trail and snow-free hiking for the first kilometre or two. Our plan was to hike up Idsardi Creek under the west flanks of Big Den Mountain and then ascend a spur ridge up to a high sub-alpine shoulder that joined the long north ridge of the mountain. Ideally from a camp somewhere on the shoulder or north ridge we would find a line down the east side of the mountain into the base of the north east cirque. Google Earth and the topo map all made it look eminently doable.

The steep, lower whitewater cascades of Idsardi Creek levelled out a couple of kilometres up the valley and we found a huge high snow-capped log to cross the creek. After the easy travel of the valley floor the grunt work began to ascend the steep forested hillside and gain the shoulder.

A well-defined forested rib led us upward. There was minimal snow cover still although the cold, hard, icy ground was a bit of a challenge to get purchase on and Nic, wearing an old, worn pair of borrowed Invernos was having a bit of a time edging into the rock-hard ground. Eventually though we reached snow and the travel improved. The terrain levelled off onto the promised shoulder and as the daylight faded we pushed on as high up the low-angle ridge as time and energy allowed.

We found a nice flat area between the thick mountain hemlock and yellow cedar trees for camp and by headlamp light, Garner & Nic pitched their tent and Josh and I erected a tarp. Supper devoured we headed to bed with plans for an early start.

Next morning we were on the move an hour or so before first light and continued weaving up between the trees through gradually more open terrain and the crest of Big Den’s north ridge. The weather was overcast, a little warmer than we would have liked but calm and with decent visibility. Once on the ridge crest we swung north following it until a line led off to the east descending steep forest into an open gully and then way down into the base of the main north east cirque. It was all coming together.

Descending off the north ridge into the northeast cirque of Big Den Mountain

We had two options for climbing, either the full length of Perimeter Ridge or a long coulior that paralleled the right (north) side of the ridge. As we dropped into the cirque the cliffs to our right were dripping with ice. Things were looking really good! We passed an awesome coulior that had us all licking our chops but pressed on to the very bottom of the cwm and the toe of Perimeter Ridge. The closer we got to the ridge the less appealing the conditions on it looked. The snow & ice cover wasn’t quite right so we headed up to look into the adjacent coulior.

The lean early season snow pack meeting the huge remnant snow cone from past winters at the base of the coulior was an unusual sight. I had an aerial photo I had taken in June a few years prior that showed this coulior chock full of snow to the point it looked skiable. As such I was prepared for little more than a long snow plod but as we ate a quick early lunch at the jaws of its base there were clearly some steep steps ahead before the rest of the chasm curved up out of sight.

We geared up and Josh and I were off ahead and booted up the coulior to the first step. Nice grade 2 steps with excellent snow led around a curve and more easier ground. About 150m up the gully the walls closed in and we arrived at the base of a steep ice step. The unwelcome sound of running water took us back as we assessed the ice. There was a steep, vertical hollow pillar to the left and a better but poorly protected ramp feature to the right.

Josh starting up the first steep pitch

We pulled out the rope and set a belay while we could see Nic and Garner coming up below. I was prepared for disappointment as Josh gingerly stepped up to the thin ice pillar. But axe swing by swing he calmly worked his way onto the ice and delicately made progress upward. He made it past the pillar and around the corner out of sight but still the rope paid out and up he went. The other two joined me at the belay and I took the second rope and after the ‘on belay’ call made way up to see what was in store. It was steep and thin but it worked, grade 4 in those conditions, might be easier another time.

Mindful to leave as much ice intact for the others as possible I climbed carefully. The thin pillar gave way to much thicker ice and soon was with Josh at the belay. Garner came next and then we threw one rope end back down for Nic and I belayed him up while Josh and Garner soled up more easy snow above.

By now the air had slipped above freezing and there was some activity from the side walls of the coulior. Small ice chunks repeatedly fell onto the snow around us and whizzed down the fissure. Nic and I made our way up following Garner & Josh’s tracks. We found them in a second narrowing with an incredible ice pitch rearing up above them. The walls of the coulior were thick with deep blue ice. We were now about 300m up.

Garner took the lead and swung his mountain axe into the nevé. This pitch looked incredible! No running water here just lots of thick steep ice. Garner disappeared above followed by Josh and I climbed third.

Garner leading the second steep pitch

The falling ice chunks were now coming down in a constant barrage of shrapnel. It was ominous but it was all very small, everything from spindrift to grape or golf-ball size but we never saw anything any bigger. Garner’s pitch was long and I soon found myself breathing hard. I inhaled an ice pellet or two. It felt full-on pushing up through the maelstrom but the quality of the ice was addictive, total hero nevé. A full 60m rope length pitch brought me to the belay jammed in a narrow slot between rock ribs. I took over the belay, repeating the process of returning one rope end back down for Nic and Josh and Garner pressed on up ahead. We could see a long stretch of easy snow above, but again it curved up around a corner, hiding more possible delights.

Nic joined me at the belay with a huge grin, what a fantastic first ice climbing experience he was having! I decided we should play it safe and keep us on belay, so Nic and I swung a handful of easy snow pitches up and around the curve to see the finish come into view. As we passed a particularly steep cliff off the side of Perimeter Ridge the falling ice debris stopped. From a crazy, relentless ice storm it went in an instant to an eerie calm.

Nic topping out from the second steep pitch

We could see Josh and Garner huddled under the cornice waiting for us to get up and in a safe spot before the inevitable debris from hacking the cornice began. Nic and I found a good spot tucked behind a bit of rock and then Josh worked up off their ledge to figure out the finish. It took a lot longer then it looked like it would, but cornices are like that!

Josh swung away at the snow over and over. It’s times like this I wonder why adzes have got so small? Our Island winter climbing is very Scottish in style and I hankered for my old Mountain Technology Vertige with it’s shovel of an adze. It was painful to watch how much effort it took Josh to dig enough of a trough before he could pull up and over onto the top. Still compared to the last time I was dealing with a cornice on this mountain with Chris Lawrence this was a cakewalk. At the top of the Great Escape, Chris and I had dug at least an 8 metre tunnel! It was so long we actually had to cut a dogleg ‘landing’ as a safety precaution!

I was the last over the cornice just as darkness fell. And dark wasn’t the only thing coming down, right on cue It started raining!

Dark and rain be dammed, we decided we should make the summit so turned south and up easy, wide open snow slopes to find it. We found the ice rimed cairn and took a few pictures of us in the downpour.

Nic Manders, Josh Overdijk and Philip Stone on Big Den’s rainy, dark, summit Photo Garner Bergeron

The descent dragged on a bit, we basically had to follow the north ridge until we found a line down to the point we had reached the crest that morning and then retrace our tracks back to camp. Even with a GPS we still took a few blind stabs at getting down off the upper ridge but eventually it all came together and as the intensity of the climb and descent faded the weather obliged too. The rain eased and by the time we were back in camp it was pretty pleasant. 2 am by the time we had cooked and eaten supper and enjoyed some hard refreshments and then settled down.

The return trip down to the highway went smoothly, I’d go as far as to say that the route we used up and off Big Den was the best of any off-trail approach route I’ve found to a new route. It was simply excellent and definitely the recommended way to reach Big Den’s awesome winter climbing.

Mia Coulior AI 3-4 700m
FA: Josh Overdijk, Garner Bergeron, Philip Stone, Nic Manders 29th December 2013