Heat Stress: 1/2 day “speed” climb of Mt. Landale

On Wednesday I decided to go up to the Summit of Mt. Landale. You see, I’m on a bit of a break from work and kind of training for a race in the middle of the hottest part of the summer. So, I’ve got mid-week time and figured a 6km logging road run followed by a 1200m scramble would be the ticket for training. The west of North America is in the grips of a very hot summer. June was one of the warmest June’s on record around here. These records go back almost 150 years, so that’s saying something. The day of my run/scramble was about like all the others lately. In the 30s C, windless, and blazing sun. This was perfect for my aim of a hard day out in tough conditions. To make it better, I futzed around the house until about noon, so didn’t get to the trailhead until about 1:30.

Mt. Landale lies just to the north of Lake Cowichan, a WNW/ESE trending fjord-like lake which almost saws off the bottom third of Vancouver Island into two separate islands. Much of Vancouver Island’s spine is mountainous and the mountains north of Lake Cowichan are seen as the start of “real” alpine around here. In this case, “real” alpine means elevations nearing treeline, heather and blueberry meadows, lakes, abundant winter snows and some decent views. In these respects, Mt. Landale is a typical modest summit. Also typical about Landale is that it sits on land owned by Timberwest, which is a forestry company that owns about 10% of Vancouver Island outright. They own it. They can do what they please with the land, they can lock you out or lock you in. They are a company operated for profit, not for recreation so using their mountains is done purely at their mercy. Although this boggles my mind — that one company can own so much ecosystem and such large and diverse contiguous blocks of land — this is the way it is. Given that the summer has been hot and extremely dry, they have an official closure on all of their lands except for a few campgrounds that they operate. So, any hope of driving up a logging road was non existant.

I arrived at the Cottonwood Creek main, a bit west of the small town of Youbou, at 1:30. There are closure signs everywhere, the gates are locked, there are no trespassing signs. I guess it was clear that I wasn’t wanted there. But, this kind of played into my plan. My hope was to run the 6km of logging road. And being on foot is low impact, fire safe and silent so the chances of being discovered were really small. I loaded my running pack with 1.5 L of water, a few cliff bars, some gels, a pack of shot blocks and a baggie of buckwheat crepes and sliced salami which combined breakfast leftovers with fridge food scraps. I also had a headlamp, my phone, two hand held 22 oz water bottles, and a wind shell. I had a rough return time of about 8PM in mind but realized I hadn’t told anyone where I was going.

So, nervously expecting to be found out for trespass; nervously wondering what would happen if I hurt myself; and nervous about the unexpected that lay ahead, I trotted off up Cottonwood Creek road. The run was pleasant. I knew it climbed about 250 m up into a valley as it followed alongside Cottonwood Creek. After about 3 km I realized that it was pretty hot. Sweat was running off in rivulets and I was well into my first water bottles. Whew. At 5.5 km and a few right trending forks, the road reaches a decommissioned bridge. Apparently it’s the law for forestry companies to destroy roads that are no longer to be used. Apparently Timberwest had had their fill from the Cottonwood Creek valley and this was their statement to that effect. There is a creek gauging station here, and Lomas creek comes in from the right. The way forward is a 4 wheeler track fording the creek which was flowing surprisingly well given the dryness of the summer. Beyond the crossing, the road took on an alder-ey overgrown appearance and climbed steeply into a clear cut. At about 6.5 km in, the road up the Lomas Creek valley forked off to the right.

From the Lomas Creek turnoff on up is considered the “trail” although the next couple of kilometers could have been mistaken for logging road still. The alders had grown in, but you could still drive a car up there. Eventually, this lead into a nice patch of hemlock forest and the road narrowed into a track that gradually switchbacked up the flanks of Mt. Serivice. This track was alternately alder choked, open and rocky, bordered by dense newgrowing hemlock and doug fir and featured numerous Grouse flushing that startled me every time. Every now and then views up the west flanks of Mt. Landale opened up or snippets of Mt. Service would appear. I sat down about 9 km into my hike and up 600 m of climbing for a first break. I was about 1:30 in and had gone through about 2/3 of the water in my handhelds and a few sips off my pack. In the shade, I pulled out my phone to get some GPS bearings on a map. Everything looked as it should and after what would be my last pee for 20 hours, I was on my way.

Just beyond a left-turn switchback soon after lunch, a small camp marked by a fire ring signalled the start of the trail. Normally when scrambling around Vancouver Island, the word trail would be written “trail” indicating that it is barely a track and choked with bush that’s festooned with flagging tape. But, in this case, the trail was nicely groomed, steep but not terrible, modestly flagged and entered immediately into a beautiful grove of shady old growth hemlock. I was stoked to be in the cooler forest and my map locating had put me a few hundred vertical meters below Lomas Lake. The trail continued for 3 more km making a couple of small stream crossings and opening up for a couple of views down into Cottonwood Creek valley. Bluffs started to appear near the trail, blueberry started to come into the understory, and occasional views of El Capitan or Mt. Service indicated the arrival to the “alpine”.

At 12.5 km from the car, the trail dropped a bit to the shore of Lomas Lake. This lake is nestled in a steep cirque that cuts into Mt. Landale and has El Capitan as it’s northern wall. The slopes around the lake quickly lead to cliffs save for a couple of gullys that seemed to penetrate. The eastmost gully had the clear signs of the mine tailings that I’d read about in the various guides and online postings about the mountains. The dryness of the season had left the lake about 10 feet lower than normal, but its waters were still clear and deep enough for a swim. By this point, 2:30 in, I was feeling a bit tired and was wondering what to do. I had been hoping to get home early enough to have a bit of an evening with Liz and was unsure of my water supplies. But, I’d come that far and who knows when I’d get back there, and the way forward looked so enticing. I laid down in the shade of a boulder on the gravel bar where the inlet creek had formed its delta and ate a snack and drank the last of my water bottle water. I was about 1150 m above sea level and knew Mt. Landale is just under 1500 m. So, I didn’t have far to go, but knew that there was some scrambling to get there. Well, curiosity killed the cat, and I decided to see what was at the top of the gully where the mine tailings were.

From the lake, the route remains flagged but is less distinct. I soon lost the flagging as the route entered an old avalanche and its broken down trees. I invented a route boulder hopping and jungle gyming through the downed trees and across a talus slope. Eventually, I wound back to the route just as it hit the scree of the mine tailings. I slogged up through that with shakier and shakier legs and then past the mine and up to the pass. My mountain sense had told me that the summit route would be above and right of the gully and when I got there I found a nice little bench leading around to the SW. The agreement with myself on the way up that this would be my high point was soon annulled. I wanted to at least get to the scrambling difficulty. So, around the bench and slightly down lead to a ledge entrance to another gully leading up through the major cliff bands. I could see a couple of minor rock steps but nothing steep and nothing exposed. With curiosity, onward. I delicately scrambled the gully wishing for a helmet but not feeling much endangered otherwise. This topped out with a steep exit onto another, larger bench. I rediscovered the route here and decided to get onto the ridge above to see if I could pick up cell service. If I could, I’d let Liz know where and when I was and continue on. If no service, then this would be my high point.

Ha. Cell service was found and I called to find out that Liz was in the midst of birth craziness and wouldn’t be around for the evening. I told her I was on Landale and that I wouldn’t be back until 9 or 9:30. Also, from this ridge, the way forward was clear and looked easy. After taking in the amazing views back down to Lomas lake, which seemed very far away already, I headed onward. From that ridge, a high point has to be descended to reach the summit block of Mt. Landale. The trail goes along the east side of the ridge and soon crosses the small pass and begins to climb up and to the west for the finals step. This last step is a very moderate scramble/veg climb leading to some small tarns and then the summit.

The view is amazing from there. I hadn’t been on the summit of anything since Mt. Allan Brooks earlier in the year, so was more impressed than normal. And, solos tend to heighten the experience even if the route isn’t all that difficult. With the clear skies I had and Mt. Landale’s prominance, I could see Cascade volcanoes, to the ranges near Tofino, and up to Mt. Arrowsmith and beyond. Mt. Tzouhalem and Maple Mountain were nestled down to the SE near home looking like small bumps from that height. I made a note to try to spot Landale from Mt. Tzou next time I was up there. With the heat getting to me, I grabbed the summit register and found some shade for a good rest and a snack. I’d made it up there in about 3:45 so the time was a bit after 5PM. I lounged in the shade and ate while reading and writing in the register. Then took a photosphere panorama and started to make my way down at about 6PM.

The path back down was easier as I knew where I was going and could see the trail laid out before me. The gullys went easily and I found the official path through the avalanche which was much much easier than the way up I’d chosen. I was soon back at the lake where I finished the last of my water, filled up my pack’s bladder with backup water (I was hugely lamenting my lack of water treatment tabs which weigh nothing and would have made my trip much more comfortable). Then I jumped in the lake naked and cooled my jets for a few minutes. A week before I had run out of water on a slightly shorter climb with greater heat and knew that the descent would be killer because the temperature would be going up as I went down and my body’s ability to cool would be reduced as well. So, I packed back up and went for it. 12.5 km to go and about a vertical kilometer to lose.

The trail down was pleasant and actually quite runnable. Again, this presented a dilemma — to run gets one home more quickly, but it also generates more heat which increases the need for water. So, I settled on speed at a nice easy trot. At the largest creek crossing, I grabbed some water for my bottles hoping not to have to try to drink it, but just in case. And down I went making good time.

I popped off the trail an hour off the summit and made good time on the road/4-wheeler track. But the heat was catching up to me. I freed the drinking tube from my pack and began to spritz my legs with the lake water which felt really good. By squeezing the bladder with my other hand, I could spritz my head and feel the hot sweat run off in a wave of coolness. Well, cool wasn’t right. Maybe coolerness? As I came into the clear cut near the Cottonwood Creek main I knew I was going to make it. I only had 7 km or so to go and it was almost all downhill. At the decommissioned bridge where the trail fords the stream I laid down in the cold waters with my legs up and my head and armpits in. I splashed water on my chest and neck to signal to my brain that everything was cool — literally, it was all cool. This felt great but wasn’t getting me home. So, I climbed out of the stream with soaking wet clothes and trotted my way down. As I heated up, I’d use the water in my bottles to spray my head and feel the hot sweat wash off on the wave of coolerness. At about 2 km to go I ran out of water. At 1 km I almost stopped to walk it in, but realized I needed to build some mental reserves so kept at it. Soon the gate appeared, I bounced up the sneak-past trail, and hit stop on my watch. I walked up to my car and pulled out the liter of water I had in there and drank 1/3 of it walking back down to Cottonwood Creek. I climbed down to the creek and laid in it guzzling the rest of the liter and feeling pretty damn beat but also pretty damn good. I’d made it, and I didn’t get caught for trespass, and I saw a beautiful little corner of the island that’s one of thousands of hidden gems out there.

On the way home I stopped in Youbou and spent the $4 in change I could scour from my car on a powerade and a popsicle. Both were gone in a flash. I got home and drank fresh beer from a growler then ate a BBQed sausage while drinking more. It wasn’t until the next morning and about 6L of fluid that I had my first pee.

Trip totals were 28.5 km, 1580 m climbing, and 5:35 of moving time and about 6:40 start to finish.

Overall, this was a great outing. It could easily be done very quickly if a mountain bike was used to cover the first 8 km or so. This would leave about 13 km of hiking for a nice balance. Running as much of that as possible would enable someone to go car to car in 4 hours, maybe? On a cooler day, with water, and knowing the route. I’m sure a mountain machine could do it in much less.

Before, Languid

Before mountainscape
the sun settles down,
bites its lower lip
gnawing anxious apology.
Despite bare chest runs,
Icy crystals pelt flesh
before ducking back into forest.
Before Orion departs
the air is still, crystal.
One last fire
before smoked glass
before summer rushes back in
all business
on the heels of chlorophyll
on the scent of cottonwood
on foot
and on fire

an ode

At each upward glance
ducking around rock and limb
soft contour of arbutus red
brown green diffuse lit supple
and shaded in cove and crook
I thought of your skin and
the expectation of you on a bluff
as I steam through the plucked cliffs
over moss and dripping salt
finally seeing the subtle tonalities
of mountain shadowed shoulder
For once a guiltless infidelity
mistaking a tree for you
on the same trails other
poems were written onto
where an unsettled summer had to
die off into bleakest winter
to allow resurrection into clean new skin
paper curls of red flaking to the ground
lime green beneath
and time’s every etched groove
still palpable. grey branch bones
scattered, moss on rock, doug fir shade
rotting cliff killed deer
and camas pushing up from
imagined soil
we have a lot to explore there
you and I
we still have almost everything to learn