It hasn’t been the best year for winter activities. Between the pandemic restrictions and the avalanche ratings, it’s been hard to get out and enjoy the snow. We went snow camping at Lightning Lakes in late January and we’ve been trying to fit in a second trip ever since. The avalanche ratings have been pretty consistently at ‘Considerable’ and ‘High’ throughout the last month and we ended up cancelling our trip twice. But we finally got decent conditions this past weekend and decided to go for it as one last snow activity to close out the season.
Zoa is popular among backcountry skiers because it’s a relatively easy hike up an old forestry road and thanks to the low incline, most of the hike is in simple terrain. Interestingly, the first time Carolyn and I ever snow camped was at the base of the Zoa Peak trail. We’d intended to go to Manning, but a wrong turn on the highway landed us in the Coquihalla Rec Area and we decided to snowshoe 1km in to the Zoa Peak/Falls Lake trailhead and camp on the summer parking lot (which isn’t plowed in the winter). So we felt like we’d come full circle by returning to this area and hiking up to Zoa.
It was a busy day on the trail with both skiers and snowshoers, but we were the only ones staying overnight and the crowds quickly thinned out when we reached the top. However, it was a very challenging hike up the mountain. Because it was mid-March, it wasn’t really ideal snow conditions for any kind of activity. We debated for ages whether we should wear snowshoes or spikes and ended up with me and Brandon hiking in spikes and Carolyn and Steve in snowshoes. There was really no right answer, but in retrospect, I think snowshoes were overall the better choice.
The first kilometre along the access road was very well packed and I had no problem in spikes, but once we started climbing up the old forestry road, snowshoes were preferable. It was really sunny, so the snow became a bit slushy and while we weren’t punching through the snow with spikes, it was a bit like walking on sand and made for a very draining hike up. Most of the elevation gain is done on the forestry road and with the sun beating down on us and reflecting off the snow, it ate up a lot of our energy. We all wore sunscreen on our faces, but I ended up getting burned on the underside of my chin from the reflection off the snow!
After about 2.5km, you need to exit the road and hike into the woods. The summer trail exits the road earlier, but in the winter it’s better to continue further up since the grade is lower there. There is some pink flagging tape to mark the turn-off, but it’s easy to miss so I recommend being on the lookout and using a GPS. From there you hike up through the woods until you reach the ridge. It’s still steep, but the trail is more packed through the trees, so my spikes worked better here. It can be a bit confusing because the skiers take all kinds of different paths down through the trees, but as long as you keep going up, you really can’t go wrong and will eventually reach the ridge.
Snowshoeing along the ridge up to the sub-peak is gorgeous! I did part of Zoa in the fall once, but it’s much more scenic in the winter because the snow lifts you up higher among the trees, resulting in a better view and not confining you to a single area. In the summer, the brush makes it impossible to travel along the entire ridge and the trees limit a lot of the view, so I much preferred the winter views.
In total, it’s about 5km from the highway to Zoa Peak. We decided from the beginning that we would cut off a kilometre and only hike as far as the sub-peak. This is because after the sub-peak the trail gets steeper and the avalanche terrain changes from ‘simple’ to ‘challenging’. The avalanche risk on the day we went was ‘moderate’ in the treeline and ‘considerable’ in the alpine. Zoa seems to be kind of on the cusp between treeline and alpine, so we decided to play it safe and camp at the sub-peak.
By the time we reached the ridgeline, we were all exhausted, so we decided to camp just below the sub-peak. It was calling for a bit of wind overnight and we wanted to be sheltered, plus the views are gorgeous all along the ridge. So we found a good looking spot and got right to work on setting up camp. Unfortunately, stopping triggered a few issues for me and after a few minutes of shoveling I found myself getting really lightheaded. I think I was dehydrated, so I took a break and tried to re-hydrate with some electrolytes. We all suffered some mild dehydration throughout the hike, so it was a good reminder to drink lots of water prior to a hike as well. Fortunately we had lots of electrolytes and were all able to recover.
So Brandon did a lot of the shoveling for our set up and eventually I got to work on a snow kitchen. The snow was really sticky so it was good for setting up a kitchen and we didn’t have to pack it down too much. There were 4 of us, so Brandon and I shared one tent and Carolyn and Steve shared another. We had a great view of what I think was Thar, Nak, and the back of Yak Peak and enjoyed hanging out watching the mountains. One of the benefits of going so late in the season was that we had a bit more daylight in which to enjoy the view.
Brandon made us miso soup to help with rehydrating and then we all got to work on melting snow for dinner. I shared Brandon’s classic thai curry chicken, which is my absolute favourite backcountry meal! My parents had sent me some chocolate from Newfoundland Chocolate Company, which we enjoyed as a treat for dessert.
Usually when we go snow camping, we go to bed super early because it gets so cold and dark, but it was a warmer evening and the clouds had completely cleared out, leaving a beautiful view of the stars! So we stayed up much later than we usually do and I took star photos while Steve messed around with his radio to get us some tunes. Two night hikers passed us right after it got dark, but otherwise we were the only ones around and enjoyed a beautiful sunset. It ended up being 9:45pm by the time I finally crawled into the tent for bed, which is by far the latest I’ve ever stayed up snow camping!
I didn’t get the best night’s sleep as the wind picked up overnight and shook us around a bit. Nothing to be concerned about, but it did make it a little harder to sleep. I made an egg and bacon hash for breakfast and then Brandon and I hiked the last few metres up to the sub-peak to check out the view. Otherwise we just took down camp and packed up again to head home. It was a lot easier on the second day because the sun stayed behind the clouds, meaning the slush had become more solid and was easier to hike out in spikes. We didn’t see as much traffic and powered down the trail in just an hour and a half (versus the 3 hours it took us to hike up).
So overall it was definitely one of the more challenging hikes, but the weather and views from the top were amazing and we ended up having a great time!