An Introdcution to Winter Mountaineering on Mt. Cokely (January 23rd, 2021)
Reconnecting with my friends was a large motivating factor in deciding to move back to Victoria in January. Naturally, as soon as I got settled, I started reaching out to see if any of my friends wanted to do some training together or get out for a hike, as islanders do. People responded enthusiastically, but the first activity that lined up with my rigid work schedule was Sam, a UVic Triathlon Club friend, looking for people to join him for a winter ascent of Mt. Arrowsmith. The idea sounded great to me, but I didn’t know much about Mt. Arrowsmith, or winter mountaineering for that matter. I grew up doing a lot of hiking, backpacking, climbing, and had even done my Avalanche Safety Training Level One before I’d left the Kootenays, but had never traversed a glacier in the winter.
I’ve been hiking since my dad had to trick me into finishing a short trail in Nelson, where I grew up. He told me we’d turn around at the next big rock. Little did I know the next big rock was Pulpit Rock, our original destination. I’ve done a backpacking trip almost every year since. Kokanee Glacier was a common route for my dad and I. We’d plan for three days, and hike up along the river bed that connected the glacial lakes in the high alpine, following a U-shaped path that wound itself higher and closer to Kokanee Peak until it reached the foot of Kokanee Glacier. On the third day, we’d always turn around to make our descent back down to the vehicle instead of setting foot on the Glacier.
Last time I was in Europe, my dad and I hiked Germany’s highest mountain, the Zugspitze. In Europe, mountaineers do a different kind of backpacking. We carried only our sleeping bags and were fueled by warm Bavarian meals and beer served at mountain cabins spaced very appropriately along the trail. On our Zugspitze trip, we crossed about eight hundred meters of glacier knocking the crampons, which the man at the outdoors shop had sold us the day before, into the ice as we zig-zagged our way up to the next set of rocks.
So, although I would not consider myself a mountaineering expert, I felt comfortable at least entertaining Sam’s proposal. Over the next week, we spoke about the length and difficulty of the two routes, daylight hours, avalanche conditions, the forecast, and the logistics of traveling up the island to do the ascent.
Mt. Arrowsmith via Judges route is a six-kilometer round trip that takes about four-and-a-half hours in the summer, and people who have hiked the route recommend budgeting double that for a winter ascent. Mt. Cokely, a peak connected by a ridgeline to the north of Arrowsmith, is five kilometers round trip and would take closer to three-and-three-quarters hours in summer conditions. Sam and I went back and forth about which route to take. Arrowsmith holds a certain prestige, being the more difficult of the two climbs; however, Cokely was safer having weighed all factors. The night before our planned ascent, we conferenced one last time to solidify the plan. We’d drive up the next morning and attempt Cokely with a two-o’clock turnaround time to make sure we’d make it back to the car before dark.
On Saturday morning we loaded up the car with hiking boots, ice axes, crampons, and ropes, leaving enough time to get on the road by 5:00 am. We left Victoria northbound on highway 1 and waited to pick up coffee until after we’d covered some distance and crossed the Malahat.
We arrived at the Cameron Main gate at 7:30, half an hour before our planned arrival. The active and well-maintained logging road took us back south-east in the direction we came until we turned onto Pass Main at the foot of Arrowsmith which led us up and around the foot of the mountain. As we traced a clockwise spiral from the south to the north side of Arrowsmith, the sun rose, illuminating the Pelham and Somerset ranges with a pink hue that faded off into the, still blue, sky. Eventually, we hit snow that hadn’t gotten enough sun to melt away yet and followed a small honda civic in front of us as it struggled to reach the parking lot a few hundred meters ahead. We climbed out of the car to stretch our legs and learned that the two in the civic were a father/son duo from Saltspring who had come back after doing Cokely the weekend before to attempt Arrowsmith by the “Hourglass” route. They set off after strapping on their avalanche transceivers and loading their backpacks. We followed several minutes later.
When the snow got hard enough, we stopped to put on crampons and another party caught up to us. They told us that they had done Cokely on the previous weekend as well, but had taken a gully off to the left of the usual route. Once we reached a plateau where we could evaluate further, we decided to follow the recommendation we had just received and follow the father and son up the narrow gully to the left. It was steep and slow going as we pushed our ice axes into the snow with each step to brace our incline towards the slope. But, we made it to the ridge where we met the party in front of us who had stopped for lunch. Sam and I used the fact that we are more triathletes than mountaineers to excuse our slow pace up the gully. That backfired when the father and son told us they both did triathlon as well. We all laughed and the topic shifted to the newly discovered shared interest.
After some more pleasant conversation, the father and son continued on to finish their climb and we sat for a while longer, eating lunch, admiring the view enhanced by the clarity of the day, and evaluating how to proceed to the weather station which capped Cokely. It was in clear view only about a kilometer away from where we sat.
We reached the weather station by 11:00 and stopped to take our obligatory mountain summit photos. Turning around to make our way back, we decided to take the gully we used to come up for our descent because it was familiar and we didn’t want to have purposelessly brought a rope. So, we set up a snow anchor, digging a trench around a sturdy tree, and placed the rope we’d use to rappel on into the groove. Rappelling down was significantly easier than the climb up and we arrived back at the car by two o’clock with plenty of daylight to spare.
In the car we recounted the day, remarking that it had been a well-planned and executed adventure. The sun was out, the snow was hard-packed, and avalanche risks were at an all-time low. We both knew we’d choose to do Arrowsmith next time under the same conditions. Exhausted but fulfilled by the time we’d spent in the mountains, we drove back to Victoria.