Into the Mystic

 “… Deep in the long shadows something caught my eye. Movement. Fast. Two tiny specks far below, streaking in from the west coast. We peered down at them, curious.  The specks rapidly took form, two CF-18 fighter jets racing across Kunlin Lake.  They suddenly banked hard, hard, upward, our eyes widening in disbelief as they took direct aim at us on the summit of Colonel Foster. The entire sky filled our heads with a deafening, brain-cracking scream as they approached the peak. Then, hardly more than a rope’s length from us the closest plane did a 180˚ roll-over. Our jaws dropped as we saw the pilot, upside-down, looking out from his cockpit – did he actually wave? They continued rocketing up into the sky above the East Face of the Colonel, faded to tiny specks, then disappeared. Into the blue. Gone. We were left in stunned silence, dumbstruck, wondering who had been the most surprised…”  

Route line of Into the Mystic, Mt Colonel Foster

Corrie Wright, Chris Lawrence and I had just finished a new route on Mt. Colonel Foster’s huge east face. We were already feeling pretty pumped and the sudden display of aerial acrobatics seemed like a perfect victory roll for our success.

In the spring of 1988 I had made my way out to Strathcona Park Lodge for work and teamed up with Chris and Corrie, climbing on the nearby crags and in Squamish. The Colonel was a frequent topic and we plotted and schemed all sorts of new route ideas but none were more appealing than the steep, direct plumline buttress off the Northeast Peak.

Chris and I made an eye-opening visit to the mountain that summer, climbing the standard Southeast Peak and the Flavelle-Beckham North Buttress route. It was enough to get a taste for the mountain’s flawless basalt. Later in August 1988 Sarah Homer and I made our way up to Landslide Lake intending to climb it. Dazed from an excessive, substance-filled party the night before, we hiked in, wandering around the base in a literal and figurative fog for a day or so before somehow finding our way up Cataract, a 1400 metre arête below the south summit

Through the following year Chris, Corrie and I managed to talk ourselves into committing to the route and finally on the evening of July 9th, 1989 after finishing work at Strathcona Lodge for the week, we threw our kit into Corries’s van and headed for the Elk River trail. The ‘ERT’ is a gorgeous hike and a magical approach for a big alpine route, a ten kilometre walk up a deep old-growth valley along the bank of the rushing river. Through the towering forest are glimpses of Elkhorn Mountain and Rambler Peak. It’s not until the final steps up the moraine to Landslide Lake that Colonel Foster finally comes into view. The buttresses and jagged summit ridge loom more than a thousand metres above the deep, emerald water of Landslide Lake on the far side of the picturesque cirque.

It was dark by the time we’d made our way around the lake shore and pitched camp in a little heather meadow beside the creek that drains the higher Foster Lake into Landslide Lake. The mountain was ink-black against the starry, moonless sky, its silhouette a backdrop to our apprehension and determination. With the nervous chatter over we drifted off to sleep.

Main buttresses of Mt Colonel Foster’s northeast face. Into the Mystic in red.
Photo taken the day we climbed the route, somewhere there are three tiny dots!
Photo by Harold Blier

The high-summer sunrise sun hit the northeast face immediately and it was already hot and bright as we hiked to the upper moraine, around Foster Lake, and kicked steps in the sun-cupped snowfield to the toe of the buttress below the Northeast Peak. Close under our intended line, the buttress disappeared behind a wall of overhangs above. We dropped into the snow moat and roped up for two easy, scenic pitches alongside a tumbling waterfall to reach a prominent ledge that spans across the base of the buttress.

An aromatic heather-covered ledge provided a comfortable place to figure out our next step. The Island basalt has a distinct white colour when over-vertical it’s a dead-giveaway for steep rock. But we’d known the first third of the route was going to be steep.

Wandering leftward along the ledge toward the base of the couloir taken by the Bajan-Nichol winter route, we found a narrow line of weakness between the maze of roofs. I took the lead and headed up with my heart in my throat and thrill in every vein. Technically the climbing didn’t turn out to be anywhere near as hard as it looked; 5.8 or so, but it was sustained and runout for three full rope-lengths, in the intense atmosphere of the vertical wall.

Corrie and Chris climbed simultaneously on the twin ropes bringing packs with our overnight gear, food and stove. The system worked well as long as our dodgy belays weren’t tested. After those three pitches Chris took the lead. We lost sight of him as he crested over a steep arête and carried on above it. The climbing was incredible. Although the leads were very runout, the rock was totally solid, and the moves airy and gymnastic enough to be both challenging and a lot of fun.

We found Chris jammed into the base of a steep chimney with a wide grin on his face. He tied us off and continued on up, bridging across the chimney. At the top I watched Chris make a spectacular move across to exit the chimney. Corrie missed the show as he had dozed off asleep.

Pitch after pitched was knocked off and as the snowfield and lakes fell far below we became immersed in the vertical world of the buttress. The mountains of Strathcona ran off southward as far as the eye could see; Rambler Peak, the Golden Hinde and way off in the distance, the jagged spires of Mt Rosseau.

I led three easy pitches up easier angled rock dotted with tiny wizened cedars, hardy little trees that make tough belay anchors, which amongst all the runout was certainly welcome. Higher and higher we climbed, Chris took the next three leads and still the difficulties weren’t over. Another amazing chimney feature followed, then still more sustained, steep rock, still holding at the moderate grade of 5.7 to 5.8 . The character of the rock began to change to a more fractured and coarser texture, and the protection improved.

The buttress now tapered, getting gradually thinner with a pronounced crest, becoming a beautifully exposed arête.  Above pitch-sixteen more overhangs forced us left close to the back of the Direttissima  couloir, and a crossing of the huge vertical dyke that runs about half the length of the buttress. From there it was back out right closer to the crest on easier 5.6 terrain.

The day was nearing its end, and not far from the summit we found a decent bivvy ledge for three, in the fading light, just above a gendarme on the buttress crest. A small snow patch dripped a welcome trickle of cool, clear water. With the best belay of the day, five pitons driven soundly home, we relaxed on our high perch and prepared our supper. What a feeling! Sun-baked and exhausted from the exertion and adrenaline-filled day, we were truly high on the mountain. With full bellies and a last night-cap of sweet tea our excited chatter gradually ebbed as three happy climbers drifted off to sleep.

Chris Lawrence & Corrie Wright starting the day at the bivvy, Into the Mystic, Mt Colonel Foster

Sunrises and sunsets from the high peaks of Strathcona Park are sublime. Gazing eastward as our breakfast stove hissed at sunrise, the eastern skies above Garibaldi, the Selkirks, and the Rockies were diffracting into fiery streaks of golds, reds and oranges, a spectacular display for which we had a front row seat.

Once we finally got going, it was just a quick scramble up a series of chimneys onto the summit of the Northeast Peak and our encounter with the fighter pilots, streaking in from the west coast on perfect schedule to salute our new route.

Into the Mystic TD+ 5.10a (V)
FA: Chris Lawrence, Philip Stone, Corrie Wright 10-11 June, 1989

Max Fisher & Bill Phipps Trip Report with photos>