Mt Colonel Foster – Great West Couloir

It’s hard to believe that mountaineers are still learning and figuring out the mysteries of a mountain located a scant 10 km, as the crow flies, from a major highway but Mt Colonel Foster, on Vancouver Island, even in 2019, still holds a few secrets.

Mt Colonel Foster is undoubtedly the most challenging peak on Vancouver Island and its complex buttresses and couloirs have attracted climbers of all ilks for decades. By any route the main summit, located mid-way along a jagged and hellaciously exposed ridge, is tricky to reach. Since the first ascent in 1968 by Mike Walsh, who followed the ridge crest from the north end, most climbers seeking a direct route to the highest point have followed the craggy line over five main rock spires from end to end.

The two kilometre summit traverse can be completed either from south to north or north to south. Alternatively if the mountain’s apex is the prime objective the ridge crest can be followed ‘out and back’ from either the south or north col. When Mike Walsh climbed the peak for the first time he traversed from the north col, over the Northwest Peak, down into a deep col with the Northeast Peak, up over the Northeast Peak and on to the Main Summit. On the return leg he backtracked as far as the deep col between the NE and NW peaks and descended off the mountain down a gully on the mountain’s west side, which has been used multiple time since and local mountaineers have now attributed his name – Walsh’s Return.

The east face of Mt Colonel Foster above Landslide Lake

An interesting historical twist, from about the 1950s to today, has played a key role in climbing activity on Mt Colonel Foster, the evolution of the approach routes. This, as you will see, is at the heart of this particular story.

When mountaineering interest really began in earnest on Mt Colonel Foster through the 1950s, 60s and 70s the approach routes used were split fairly evenly between: following the Elk River to Landslide Lake to reach the east and south flanks of the mountain, and Butterwort Creek, a tributary of the Elk River that curves around the north and west side of the massif. Perhaps most emblematic of the utility of the latter route was Ferris Neave, Hugh Neave and Karl Ricker’s first ascent of the Southwest Summit via the gully that splits the west face between the SE and SW peaks on July 31, 1957.

At that time the highest summit had not been conclusively identified, as the Southwest and Central peaks are only a few dozen metres apart in elevation, and from many view points the Southwest Summit appears, mistakenly, to be the highest. As successful a climb as it was, the Neave brothers and Ricker’s spirited adventure placed them on the wrong spire to make the first ascent of the massif’s high point. They had climbed it in a thick shroud of cloud and so weren’t afforded a view of the higher, central peak from their own high point. In the following few years local, Island climbers realized their error and set their sights on the true summit.

The Neave-Ricker approach route up Butterwort Creek did not go unnoticed and many of the following trips to Mt Colonel Foster then used Butterwort Creek to reach the North Col which alternated with the Snow Band Route from the south as the favoured route to gain the summit ridge. Eventually it was via Butterwort Creek and the North Col that Mike Walsh made his successful ‘foolhardy foray’ to the highest, Main Summit on July 20, 1968.

Through the following decades the Elk River Trail was steadily improved, culminating with the construction of a sturdy bridge over Butterwort Creek in the mid-1980s. What had up to this point been a fairly serious creek-crossing through large boulders and cold, fast moving water now became literally pedestrian. As the trail toward Landslide Lake then became better and better the choice between bushwhacking up the Butterwort valley or sauntering up the elegant Elk River Trail quickly put the former into disuse. The final nail was added in the early 1990s when the last, much needed bridge over Landslide Creek was installed completing a hikers’ highway to Landslide Lake. Now there really was no reason to take a second glance at Butterwort Creek ever again, or was there?

With climbers’ attention on Mt Colonel Foster now firmly centred around Landslide Lake, and the south and north cols, very few people had caught a glimpse of the mountain’s west face. In fact unless you climbed to the top of Matchlee Mountain or Mt Donner, which even today are fairly rarely visited peaks, or took a airplane flight over Donner Lake, there are very few vantage points from where good views of Mt Colonel Foster’s west face can be seen. But here and there by drips and drabs a few photographs from exactly those locations began to circulate. What they revealed amongst a slightly shorter, but equally impressive, maze of steep buttresses and clefts, was a wide, curving snow-gully splitting the west face to the south of the Main Summit. As more images and beta accumulated, it seemed that the snow in this gully was consistent and persisted late in the summer season, even remained year round. Potentially this great couloir could offer an abbreviated option to climb the Main Summit of Mt Colonel Foster.

Curiously, amongst those to spy an impressive couloir, on the west face, was Ferris Neave who made a reconnaissance flight with Jack Beban, in advance of their 1957 trip. It was unfortunate for his party that he didn’t also notice the relative heights of the summits to steer them on the right course because the gully that attracted his attention led them astray on their quest to make the first ascent of the mountain’s high point.

You can read Ferris Neave’s account as well as some great additional stories and links on Lindsay Elms’ Beyond Nootka: Mt Colonel Foster page>

Amazingly the first recorded use of the Great West Couloir wasn’t until 2014, by Hunter Lee and Mike Shives, as a descent route off the mountain, after completing a winter ascent of the magnificent Direttissima on the East Face (Bajan, Nichol 1978).

Finally, later that same year, December 30, 2014, Hunter Lee, Josh Overdijk and myself climbed it as a winter route, making the first recorded ascent. Personally I had two motives for this climb: firstly, to spend some time exploring on the west side of Mt Colonel Foster in winter and secondly to find out if indeed the Great West Couloir might be used as a route to the summit. The thinking being that in winter a snow gully would be in its best condition of the year, packed full of snow and frozen solid.

Looking up the Great West Couloir (left of centre) on the west face of Mt Colonel Foster in winter

That climb went well. In sublime winter conditions, clear cold outflow and a stable snowpack we took four short, late-December days to complete it. Approaching to Foster Lake the first day, ascending the snow chute to the south col and traversing around to the west shoulder camp on the second day, climbing the couloir and returning via the south col back to our base camp at Foster Lake on the third day and exiting the Elk River Trail on the fourth and final day, New Year’s Eve 2014. Read the trip report here>

We learned that the Great West Couloir is a fairly deep cleft, shaded by the two enclosing, parallel rock-features. Despite being oriented generally southwestward it receives very little sun. About 75% of the length of the gully is a pretty modest 45-50˚only steepening for one ~60m section near the top.

With a successful winter ascent of the Great West Couloir complete there was a sense of ‘proof of concept’ but I couldn’t help feeling that until it had been climbed in more typical seasonal conditions it would remain a bit of an outlier, winter climbs on the Colonel are few and far between. The question still remained if the Great West Couloir offered the potential for a technically easier, ‘standard’ route on Mt Colonel Foster during the months that see the majority of attempts. So the seed continued to germinate for a high-season ascent.

At last, at the end of May, 2019 a trip departed up the Elk River Trail: Natasha Rafo, Andrew Schissler, Renée Stone and myself. By this point the idea of ‘proving’ the Great West Couloir had expanded a bit. Now not only did we intend to climb the couloir but we had widened the scope of the adventure to include a novel approach via Elk Pass, and to reinvigorate an historical access route for our exit. You’ve guessed it, Butterwort Creek!

We left the trailhead at about 1pm our first day (May 28) and began the familiar trek up the Elk River Trail. With long, spring days ahead we had hoped to make it to the Hemlock Camp in the upper Elk River valley that night but the Gravel Flats Camp at 10km had to suffice. We were still open to approach options and from the Gravel Flats the south col was still on the table. But as we chatted around a water break alongside Landslide Creek it seemed we were all of an adventurous mindset, curious of the possible advantages of avoiding the south chute which has become increasingly problematic with the disappearance of the snowfields it used to hold. So we took the left fork, leaving the Elk River Trail and headed off into the upper valley toward Elk Pass.

Water break in the upper Elk Valley

The tread through the forest into the upper Elk valley is a well worn route. Hikers en route through the Golden Hinde Traverse to Myra Falls and mountaineers heading for Rambler Peak have beaten a well-trodden path.

As the route exits the treeline into the alpine at the Rambler Canyon, the cool of the old-growth forest gave way to a searing heat as the mid-spring sun was reflected and re-reflected by the extensive remaining seasonal snow cover. But what the heat from the snow exacts it returns in ease of travel. The cascading upper Elk River lay buried safely beneath a thick blanket of snow. Huge avalanche debris piles and furrows at the bottom of the canyon showed that the spring thaw was finishing and that the high risk slopes had already disintegrated and fallen off the mountains making conditions safer for venturing onto the steeper upper slopes.

We continued following the river course, keeping to the west side of the creek, well away from any remaining hazard from falling snow off Rambler Peak to our east. The snow conditions were reasonably firm but still soft enough to steadily tire us out.

Natasha Rafo and Andrew Schissler in the upper Elk Valley with Elkhorn Mountain behind.

From Elk Pass we had two main route options to continue our approach toward Mt Colonel Foster: either up over Slocomb’s Rise, a high point overlooking the Colonel’s south col, or to descend to an unnamed lake south of the mountain and from there up forested slopes to the base of the west face. I was pretty confident about the viability of the route over Slocomb having gone that way some years ago en route to the Southeast Summit. At that time with just day packs we had scrambled down off Slocomb down an exposed gully, traversing and down climbing easily into the South Col. Hazy as the memory was, I couldn’t help having a nagging feeling that it could turn out to be more involved with overnight packs. Not to mention the effort required late in an already long day to make the extra ascent up onto Slocomb in the first place.

The other option via the unnamed lake seemed technically easier but would involve a loss of a few hundred metres and it was unknown. In the end we reached a consensus that it would be better to take on the unknown, albeit slightly longer, but less technical route and descend to the lake.

The route from Elk Pass down to the lake was ‘all there’ but was fairly steep with a little exposure in places. We made it down safely but it was time-consuming, taking about two hours to make the decision and the descent. On the sunny, west facing slope with ever lower elevation the snow cover became softer and thinner. Being a gully-chute some of the rotten snow covered a small creek. It required care but it all worked out. A week earlier and it would have been a twenty minute boot ski! Once down this gully the next question was: would we be able to find a route around the lake shore to the open meadows we had spied from above? Again luckily the answer was yes.

From the base of our gully-chute we decided to take the longer but much more open and gentler terrain around the west side of the lake, travelling in a clockwise direction following a series of wide benches above the shore.

Making way around the unnamed lake, Mt Colonel Foster in the upper left, Slocomb’s Rise in the centre.

In what was still a very snowy world we found a beautiful patch of warm heather at the south end of the lake to have a nice long snack break and assess the route ahead. From where we were the terrain around the west side of the lake looked very straightforward, magical really. I had looked down off Mt Colonel Foster numerous times at this alluring lake imagining what it might be like to wander through those meadows. Now 31 years since my first glimpse of it from the Southeast Summit, here we were!

What didn’t look so inviting was the 12% slope to regain the 500m of elevation we had lost, to get back up into the alpine below Mt Colonel Foster’s west face. The forested hillside was riddled with avalanche chutes and we could tell from the texture of the vegetation that what little old-growth trees were there were poking through a dense thicket of shrubbery. We pressed on around the lake like willing victims to a trial of our own doing.

Looking across the unnamed lake south toward Mt Colonel Foster (R) on a previous trip to Rambler Peak.

The walk through the sub-alpine, lakeside meadows was just gorgeous. By now the light was warming into evening and the scent of elk hung heavy in the air. We made our way all the way to the north end of the lake and scurried down through a few bushes to the outlet. Some small but adequate logs formed a jam at the outlet and we crossed the creek without incident to the small meadow at the base of the steep forested slope that now loomed above us.

We had made mental notes of a general line to trend as we ascended the slope. For a few metres we weaved up a narrow, boggy creek but it soon disappeared above us in the dense, stocky trees. It seemed like eternity but checking the time stamp on my photos I now know it was about two hours of heavy lifting up a slope of solid B4 bush. Eventually though the vegetation gave way to open snow between the trees and granite outcrops and we all felt a sense of relief to leave the bush behind. As 7:30pm came and went there were a few calls inquiring about camping but I knew that we were now within striking distance of the west shoulder and that once there, on a stunning, flat perch with Mt Colonel Foster rising above us and the west coast off in the distance that all ideas of carving out a manky bivvy on the snow slope would evaporate.

We dug in deep and pushed on. As we made the last stretch toward the west shoulder the golden light of the setting sun lit everything around us in a beautiful warm glow. If you need one reason to chose a visit to the west side of Mt Colonel Foster the evenings would have to be it.

Crossing the snow slopes on the west flanks of Mt Colonel Foster, with Elk Pass and Golden Hinde

At 8pm after what can only be described as a pretty full 12 hour day we landed on the west shoulder of Mt Colonel Foster just in time to watch the last rays of the sun set behind the silhouette of Rugged Mountain and the Haihte Range off to the northwest. It took some time to find a suitable camp spot. The ridge was still mostly covered in snow but as hard core as we like to think of ourselves, sleeping on snow at the beginning of June just wasn’t in the plan. Eventually we settled on a pair of the least lumpy craters, in the little open heather there was, and pitched our tents. The sunset and afterglow was just incredible. Above us the dark spires of the Colonel jutted into an ever deepening indigo.

The next morning we stirred half-heartedly. I knew pretty quickly that the aches and pains from the previous day’s exertions were too much to leap up and start our climb and no one else was up and packing their climbing kit. A rest day was unfolding. No worries, we had packed and planned for five days and a rest day would put us in great shape for a climb the following day.

What a treat to lounge around camp and just watch a day go by from one of my most favourite places on Earth! It was pretty warm though and we were glad to have the small amount of shade from the stunted hemlocks that were dotted around our camp. Andrew wandered up the ridge above us to check on the line into the couloir. When Josh, Hunter and I had climbed it in the winter we had started from this same camp by descending off the ridge in to the northwest cirque and then up the cirque as it funnels into the Great West Couloir. But on our way back down we discovered a narrow ledge that led from the base of the couloir straight across to the ridge crest making for a very elegant line and eliminating the unnecessary elevation loss and gain down the cirque and back up to camp on the ridge shoulder. Andrew returned with news that the ledge looked good and the couloir was full of snow as far up as he could see. We filed that away for the next morning.

That night we were treated to another spectacular sunset, although my photographer’s eye kicked me as the colours didn’t quite match the previous night’s that I had ignored due to the fatigue of that day.

We set our alarms for 5 something and headed for sleep. Next morning brought more clear skies and we were up and on with breakfast as the sun started to light up Matchlee, Mt Donner and the endless ridges to our west. By 6:15 am we were fed, packed and underway from camp. Not exactly an alpine start but a reasonably early departure.

Packing up from camp on the west shoulder for climb day

Above the flat shoulder where we had camped, on the lower west ridge, the ridge tapers as it rises to meet the craggy west buttress of the Southwest Peak (see photo above). The Great West Couloir is to climbers’ left of this ridge. We left camp and made our way up through the steepening krummholz to the point where our appointed ledge ran off to the left toward the base of the Couloir. Because of the way the buttresses jut out there’s no real view of the couloir until you’re almost right below it. Now, from the traverse ledge we could all look up and see the wide chute of snow curve up the couloir, it looked just perfect for climbing.

Heading up the lower west ridge with the Great West Couloir now in view (L).

The ledge we traversed in on is a little exposed, with some loose, wet sand and gravel so we quickly roped up to get across to the snow. Once on the snow at the base of the couloir we began simul-climbing up the snow. It’s a long 300m ascent up the couloir, the angle is pretty low almost all the way up but with an icy surface and the hazard of falling rock it’s a place to play it safe. There’s fantastic alpine atmosphere as the steep rock walls close in above the gully. We were given some concern from the hundreds of rocks dotting the snow around us that had fallen from the surrounding cliffs. But we never saw much rock moving while we were there. Most likely this shrapnel has accumulated from several years and is probably most active during cycles of freeze-thaw and snow-sluffing.

Climbing the Great West Couloir on Mt Colonel Foster

A long steady climb on beautifully firm snow led us ever upward. It took us an hour and a half to climb the main length of the couloir and reach the base of a steepening in the gully. This was the obvious obstacle that I was curious about and one of the reasons that Hunter, Josh and I had first came to climb the feature in winter conditions in 2014, when it was choked full of ice and snow. Now as we looked up from the last ledge of the continuous snow, the gully above us was mostly clear and dry with a few sections of snow, and had more of the form of a chimney.

We regrouped and assessed the terrain ahead. There was enough exposed rock that we decided to pack the crampons away and put our second tools away, keeping one behind our packs for easy access on the snow patches. Andrew took the lead and scabbled his way up the first few moves in the chimney. A bit of crumbly ice gave way and some soggy gravel squished down the back of the chimney but luckily the rock on the sidewalls of the chimney was mostly solid and dry. Past a first steep step (5.5) and a small, dodgy chockstone the chimney angle eased and there was a ribbon of snow for about 20m. He climbed as far as the rope allowed and set an anchor and belayed the three of us up a full 60m pitch.

Once we were all gathered at the belay Andrew set off again, up the remaining tongue of snow until it petered out at a second constriction and steep step. Here there was some damp, dusty sand on the rock and it took some delicate work on the rock but the chimney was narrow enough to stem which helped take some of the edge off the ~5.6 moves. Above this step the angle eased again and the snow returned in a nice long runnel to meet the upper glacier.

Andrew Schissler leading up the second step in the upper chimney (5.5/6)

By 10:15 all four of us had regrouped at the top of the Great West Couloir at the base of the gendarme on the upper glacier. The views to the east opened up with King’s Peak, Elkhorn, Elkhorn South and El Piveto all framed by the surrounding rock towers. Far below, Landslide Lake and the deep green forest in the Elk River valley. Four hours from camp and we were on the summit ridge and half-way from the south col to the Main Summit in to the bargain, not bad! We took a snack break and downed some water.

Above us to the north, climber’s left from the exit of the couloir, was the next obstacle, the wall on to the top of the ‘Utopian Fin’ a feature that had been climbed by Sandy Briggs and Ignazi Fluri July 4-5, 1991: Shunt’s Utopia. When we were all re-snacked and ready to go I took the lead and scrambled up the wall, making a rising, leftward traverse that followed the line of weakness but also ensured that any dislodged rock fell harmlessly away from the other three below. We were climbing using two light ropes (Edelrid 6.9mm Flycatchers) and Andrew was on one and Renée and Natasha wishboned on the other. A little unorthodox perhaps but for the level of difficulty and the savings in weight they seemed a good choice for the task at hand.

The climbing up this wall is pretty straight-forward. Mostly 4th class with a few low-5th class moves depending which way you go, maybe a 5.6 move here and there. The line works up ledges and short steps. There’s exposure of course and the protection that there is is of small comfort, only serving to determine which of the ledges you’d hit on the way down in the unlikely event of a fall. At the top the wall is very flat and open. An important snippet of beta is that there is a perfect bivouac spot at the west end of the crest of the wall, something it turned out we wished we had known beforehand.

Renée and Natasha climbing up the wall above the upper glacier onto the Utopian Fin.

Once on the crest of this wall the rest of the route to the Main Summit is in plain sight. It turns right and follows the sharp arete along its crest as it bisects the main summit ridge. The line weaves from the south to north side as needed. It’s all pretty obvious, and very exposed! At the far right (east) end of the fin it stops at a little pinnacle of shattered, clean, grey rock. In front, the precipitous east face of Mt Colonel Foster drops away almost in one complete drop over 1000m to Foster Lake. The climbing route along the summit ridge returns to an orientation with the summits and makes a right angle turn to the north dropping down a clean, open slab. The Main Summit is still in sight but for us it quickly became a case of so near but so far.

Somewhere in the last 200m we had used up two hours. Thinking back I can’t explain how, but as all four of us gathered up above the next obstacle, a rappel down the slab into a col north of the Utopian Fin, the time was homing in on 1pm and we still needed to eat a proper lunch. I started to get a nagging feeling that our time for a day ascent from camp was running out. I blurted that out-loud as we pulled lunch out of our packs and we chewed our food as ravenously as we chewed through the options. It wasn’t helping things that the climbing ahead looked intimidating. At that point it’s a case of, you know the beta is good but what’s staring you in the face just isn’t inspiring.

Despite the evaporating time we decided to press on. Andrew and I rappelled down off the end of the Fin down the slab into the next col. Above to the north of this col is a two-tiered pinnacle. Andrew climbed up the pinnacle but by now our hearts weren’t into it and as the clock hands metaphorically moved past 2:30 pm we reluctantly turned around. We had cunningly left one of ropes set on the rappel anchor so I top-roped Andrew back up the slab onto the Fin and then quickly followed on the second rope. This is a strategy I had thought of sometime ago – it’s risky leaving a rope but in certain conditions it could take the edge off that slab and save some time versus leading it on a return leg.

Andrew, Natasha and Renée at the east end of the Utopian Fin, Main Summit to the left.

We retraced our steps back along the Utopian Fin, discovering the bivvy spots near the rappel anchors at its west end. One long 50m rappel each and we were back down on the upper glacier. We had a little trouble pulling the ropes, but eventually were setting up the first of two rappels down the upper steep part of the Great West Couloir.

The first, a half-rope rappel followed by a second almost full-rope rappel onto the top of the main snow chute. I went down the rappels first and with ropes safely coiled out of the way took the opportunity to clean out some of the more precarious loose rock in the chimney.

As 6pm arrived we were all down the rappels and back on the snow in the couloir. The upper half of the snow is a tad steeper than the lower half and it was feeling a bit crusty as the evening temperatures dropped so we stayed cautious and belayed Natasha and Renée down the first 150m with Andrew and I alternating setting anchors and plunge stepping down. By 7:30pm we were exiting the couloir at the traverse ledge linking with the lower west ridge.

Andrew and Natasha exiting the base of the Great West Couloir

Now out of the shade of the enclosed couloir the snow was soft and gloriously slushy in the evening light. We weighed up the options of returning down through the krummholz-festooned ridge or boot-skiing down the cirque. Looking down the cirque it looked like we could get a beautiful run down and then sneak a traverse line across the sidehill and pop back onto the ridge right at our camp. Bootski or krummholz? An easy decision!

Natasha & Renée making easy work of the descent back to camp.

The line traversing out of the cirque worked like a charm with just a few metres of ascent and a well-flattened remnant-cornice to contend with. We were back in camp just before 8pm. Another pretty full day! And another stunning Strathcona sunset.

As we prepared and ate supper discussion was not surprisingly of our exit strategy. There were a few options. Returning down to the unnamed lake and Elk Pass, the way we had come, was obviously off the table! But we could traverse south under the west face to the south col and descend to Landslide Lake. A similar option would be to traverse north and descend from the North Col to Foster Lake and on to Landslide Lake. But as we looked out from our perch on the west shoulder the most obvious, most direct route was down into Butterwort Creek and, as unknown to us as that was, it just seemed like the pioneers would approve and our own curiosity sealed the deal and we settled on that for the morning.

Leaving camp and heading down the lower west ridge toward Butterwort Creek

For all the time I’ve spent on and around Mt Colonel Foster over the years I couldn’t help feeling like my relationship with the mountain… Okay, relationship is a bit strong, I don’t think that lump of rock actually cares one bit about any of us. But anyway point is, without having fully experienced Butterwort Creek I felt as if there was a crucial part of the mountain that was unknown. So I really was very excited to be heading down into that valley and the others seemed blissfully enthusiastic too.

Renée hiking down the lower west ridge in the shadow of Mt Colonel Foster toward Butterwort Creek (L)

The story of Ferris Neave, Hugh Neave and Karl Ricker’s adventure was about to come alive for us as one of the memorable pictures of their climb is of them at the tarn at the base of the northwest cirque. The tarn can be seen from many points along the summit ridge and it is as intriguing as it is inaccessible.

Karl Ricker (L) and Hugh Neave (R) at the tarn at the base of the Northwest Cirque, 1957
photo: Ferris Neave

The route down the lower west ridge went incredibly smoothly. The ridge itself is such an elegant feature. It curves off the Southwest Summit in a beautiful arc, cradling the tarn and at the same time presenting a formidable barrier from Donner Lake and the Ucona valley to the west. The snow cover made for perfect travelling. In a few spots there were some short, steep rock steps but they presented little difficulty as the centuries of bear travel had worn the right lines nicely and we worked our way down the ridge with no trouble.

At a key point we knew we had to leave the ridge crest and descend to the east to locate the tarn. This would be crucial as we needed to cross the creek flowing out of the tarn to then make our way into Butterwort Creek valley proper.

The tarn in the northwest cirque in 2019

This turned out to be truer than we realized so our route choice paid off. As we neared the tarn we could hear the outflowing creek roaring as it cascaded into a narrow canyon almost immediately downstream of the tarn. Keep that in mind if you’re heading that way – plot a route that crosses that creek at the outlet at the tarn.

We took a break at the tarn admiring the view of Mt Colonel Foster towering above. Crossing the creek outlet was a bit entertaining with some pretty thick conifers barring the way, but we pushed through and made our way into the open old-growth on the other side and here began a magical experience in Butterwort Creek, as if it hadn’t been pretty cool so far.

We descended the slope east of the creek flowing out of the tarn, heading northwesterly to cross to the far side of the valley. We knew from collective intel that there are a series of avalanche paths that run down from Mt Colonel Foster’s north side all the way to the valley floor in Butterwort Creek and that the travelling would be best at this point on the north side of the creek to avoid them. We kept a watchful eye out for openings in the forest ahead that would warn us of the bush and keep us on track to cross Butterwort Creek at the best location. This we duly did and although we had a glimpse here and there of the bushy avalanche paths running right across the creek, we never did get into them. Phew!

The travel down this upper part of the valley was simply stunning. So much of the vegetation was open heather meadows between the trees. The creek itself was also sublimely beautiful, in many places flowing lazily at a low angle, the banks lined with heather, early spring flowers and then alternately running over clean open rock slabs. Just magical.

Small, open meadows in the upper part of Butterwort Creek valley.

Mid-way down Butterwort Creek the slopes on the east side of the valley ease and form a wide bowl below the North Col of Mt Colonel Foster. From alongside the creek the North Tower can be seen above the trees striking a dramatic scene. This is the line to use to approach the North Col. Back in 2006 Ryan Stuart, Tobin Leopkey and I had skied down this bowl after a few days skiing above Landslide Lake, we had continued out Butterwort Creek to the Elk River Trail so from this point I was back in hazily familiar territory.

The travelling was smooth until about two and half kilometres from the Elk River. Here the valley walls close in, forming a bit of a canyon. I remembered from that ski trip to keep high on the hillside away from the creek where there is a narrow bench providing the best line. There are several deep side-creek gullies coming down off Volcano Peak that require negotiation and keeping at the correct elevation is key to finding the best way across these obstacles. On the steep sidehill with pretty thick bush there was some tough going as we neared the exit of the valley.

The keys to Butterwort Creek are: in the two or three kilometres closest to the main Elk River valley keep to a sidehill traverse a hundred and fifty metres or so above the elevation of the creek on the north side of the creek, there is a faint but important elk trail at the right elevation, find and it and keep to it until well into the middle of the valley; further up the valley passing the north end of the Northwest Peak of Mt Colonel Foster, again stay on the north side of the creek to avoid long avalanche paths that run across the valley floor.

It was a tired group that finally hit the Elk River Trail and swung north on what looked now like a veritable highway. A great way to end an amazing adventure on Mt Colonel Foster. I’m sure we each have a variety of feelings about missing the actual summit but as great as that would have been it could only ever be a line item on what was all-together an amazing trip. We travelled through some very rarely visited parts of Vancouver Island, proved I think now beyond any doubt that the Great West Couloir is the most obviously straight-forward route to reach the Main Summit of Mt Colonel Foster and that Butterwort Creek still has a role to play in exploration of Vancouver Island’s most majestic mountain. Now go get at that!

Philip Stone

Map of our route encircling Mt Colonel Foster

For anyone planning to climb the Great West Couloir it’s worth noting that either of the more common approaches via Landslide Lake to either the south or north cols would work as well as they do for any other route. The route traversing around the massif from the North Col requires a little extra attention route-finding and some exposure crossing an open talus slope below the NW Peak. Other than that both lines work fine to reach the west shoulder camp. The other option would be as described in the article above, approach to Elk Pass and go up and over Slocomb’s Rise to the south col.

For more photos of spring climb May 2019>
Photos of winter climb December 2014>

Trip report of Great West Couloir in winter>