Outdoor Adventures

Mt. Albert Edward

Colin Wiseman - Albert Edward 03

Peak-seekers meet a stormy rebuff on Vancouver Island

It was early afternoon by the time my girlfriend Steph and I reached the
treeline on Mt Albert Edward. The sun was quickly being replaced by fingers
of clouds reaching up from the valley below. A natural staircase of broken,
lichen-stained granite climbed to a small plateau a few hundred metres above,
before bearing gently away to the sharp point of the summit.

While it looked pretty close, we knew it was at least an hour’s push to
the top. We had already been climbing for about three hours and the first
droplets of rain were starting to feed the cascading waterfalls in the
amphitheatre that lay between us and the peak. “Should we go for
it?”

Steph stared longingly at the peak, knowing the answer. In the best
conditions, Albert Edward is a challenging hike. Walking into a rain storm on
top of the fourth highest peak on Vancouver Island is just plain
stupid.

Mt Albert Edward is located in the Western corner of 250 000 hectare
Strathcona Provincial Park just outside of Courtenay, British Columbia. A
classic hike on Vancouver Island, the journey to Albert Edward’s 2
093-metre peak and back requires roughly 31 kilometres on foot from the
Paradise Meadows trailhead just below Mount Washington Alpine Resort. It can
be reached in a single day but is most commonly done as a one- or two-night
trek with a stay at the backcountry campsites of either Circlet Lake (1 191
metres) at the mountain’s base or Kwai Lake (1 173 metres), an
hour’s hike from the beginning of the summit trail and a slightly more
challenging route.

With two nights to complete the hike, we had chosen to camp at Kwai and make
the longer walk to the summit on the second day. After paying a $20
backcountry camping fee, we set out slowly into the ferns and fir trees.
Abundant opportunities for trailside rest breaks presented themselves with
each secluded lake, and whenever we stopped whiskey jacks would swirl to land
on our fingers in search of an afternoon snack. By the time we reached our
campsite, hints of pink and orange were already teasing the edges of the
clouds on the horizon. Setting up camp quickly after the 7.3-kilometre walk,
we went to sleep early in preparation for the morning’s
climb. 

Ascending around 1 000 metres in just over six kilometres of rough trail and
ridge walking, Mt Albert Edward presents a substantial challenge for those
not accustomed to climbing mountains on their days off. Because of our
decision to stay at Kwai, we first had to walk over three kilometres to the
trailhead from the Kwai Lake campground through rolling, bear-friendly
meadowlands, replete with wild flowers and muddy tracks adorned with the
footprints of a wide variety of wild life.

After pausing to fill our water bottles one last time at a small, clear pond
at the foot of the climb, we began. The route up Albert Edward’s
eastern flank begins with an abrupt scramble up a rough, steep and heavily
forested face. Within 15 minutes, I was sweating heavily in shorts and a tank
top, cursing the weight of my camera as I reached overhead for roots to pull
myself through the gullies and cliffs through the steepest part of the
climb.

Following an hour of scrambling through the rough terrain, we abruptly
crested the first section of the climb and were greeted with a distinct
change in the landscape: a small plateau speckled with stagnant pools of snow
melt and short, wind bent conifers clinging to jagged rock formations.

Behind us, we could see the ski trails of Mount Washington rolling away
towards the Straight of Georgia and the glaciated Coast Mountains on mainland
British Columbia. To the east, the peak of Albert Edward came into sight
behind the sharp line of a nearby ridge. Cresting the ridge, the mountain
opened up over a 100-metre cliff face, dropping into a scree slope adorned
with melting snow fields that continue to cling to the walls of the deep
basin late into the heat of August. The caroms of falling rock echoed
throughout the vast bowl every few minutes, reminding us of the magnitude of
the mountain environment that we had entered.

As we began to climb again, a bank of fog crept up from the valley to our
left, obscuring the rock cairns that had lead us up the mountain. Steph
stared at the peak. “Should we go to the top?” I asked.

She pretended not to hear as I dug a flimsy red windbreaker out of my
backpack and wrapped it around my back, repeating my inquiry. Biting rain
blew over the ridge, pushed by a wall of dark, rolling moisture, intent on
sapping the warmth out of this August afternoon. One final look and I turned
down the ridge, knowing that we wouldn’t make it to the summit that
day.

As the rain brought rich, green hues out of the previously dry and dusty
foliage, my jacket quickly soaked through. I had naïvely trusted the
weather forecast, ignoring the fact that mountain weather can change in an
instant, and was now paying the price. Sharing the remaining trail mix with
Steph and picking wild blueberries as we walked, the wrinkles in my heels
began to burn as moisture rubbed its way through my boots and into my socks.
I tried to forget about the oncoming pain and focused on shuffling my way
down the crags of the mountain to the trail back to camp.

As I trudged the last few metres up through the forest, the whiskey jacks
poked around our campsite, singing in the rain. Within seconds of returning
the only sound coming from our tent was the deep breathing of worn-out
bodies. Even though we didn’t make it to the summit of Mt Albert
Edward, we had been rewarded with amazing views and the unique experience of
being perched high on an alpine ridge on the fringe of a coming storm.
Besides, the mountain will be there next year, and next time I will remember
to bring a rain jacket. V

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