Hiking The Chief

There are lots of popular hikes in Southwest BC, but I would argue that The Chief in Squamish is one of the most iconic. I had experience hiking before I moved to BC, but my practical knowledge was very limited and has grown enormously since I moved here. The only trail I was aware of before moving across the country was the West Coast Trail and I thought it was similar to the East Coast Trail in that it extended down the entire West Coast and could be day hiked in sections like in Newfoundland. I was obviously very wrong and quickly learned that it is actually a remote hike that requires substantial backpacking skills over 7+ days.

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Similarly, somehow I heard about The Chief soon after moving here and decided it was a great trail on which to start my west coast hiking adventures. So one sunny day in early June 2014 when my Dad was visiting, we drove out to Squamish to tackle the beast. Looking back on the experience now, it’s a bit comical. We left Vancouver late in the morning and were amazed that we couldn’t find anywhere to park (not a problem in Newfoundland). We ended up finding a place at Shannon Falls (this was before the Sea-to-Sky gondola) and decided to hike up to the First Peak from there. It’s easy to judge people that head blindly into the backcountry with no experience, but that was also how I first started adventuring when I moved here, so I can relate. There’s a very different culture on the East Coast, and while I think East Coaster’s could be a little more prepared, the level of risk associated with hiking in the mountains is a great deal higher on the West Coast.

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So I don’t think tackling The Chief as my very first hike was a great idea, but fortunately we didn’t get into any trouble on this hike, or any future hikes, while I was building up my safety and adventure smart knowledge. I remember the hike being very strenuous and it taking us a long time to hike up all the stairs to the top. I remember the rope and chain sections, but I don’t remember ever feeling unsafe on the trail. I bring this up because I recently re-visited this trail in May (8 years after my first visit) to hike to the Second Peak and it brought back a lot of memories that caused me to reflect on this trail and my journey since that very first hike.

The Chief is a hard trail. As my knowledge has grown and I’ve had experiences that required better trip preparedness and wilderness first aid, I’ve become both more safety conscious and risk adverse. It’s easy to walk blindly into situations that we are unprepared for in the wilderness and I’m not surprised to find that The Chief is one of the most visited places by BC Search and Rescue. I can’t quite trust my memory, so perhaps the First Peak is easier than the Second Peak, but returning there this year I felt quite astounded at how challenging The Chief is for how many visitors it receives.

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There are many rope climbs, narrow sections with steep drops, a ladder, and steep scrambles over slippery rock. The challenges are exacerbated by the crowds, which create bottlenecks at critical junctions. I’m sure this creates a sense of impatience among hikers that could result in mistakes at challenging locations if people are trying to hurry. I felt like it would be hard to lose the trail (though this does happen), but easy to get an injury. We were able to mostly avoid this with a very early hiking start, but it did make for a slower hike back down on the way out.

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So I definitely don’t recommend this hike for everyone. I’d like to return some day for the Third Peak, but after my last visit I can’t say I’m in a huge rush to do it again. Like I said, I’m reluctant to trust my memory, but given my recent experience with the Second Peak, I’m inclined to say that it’s a bit easier going up the First Peak (which I have done twice in the past). All 3 trails start at the same trailhead and it’s an easy flat walk through the walk-in campsites before you hit the stairs. Once you hit the stairs, it’s all uphill for the rest of the hike. It starts with constructed wooden staircase (which on its own is even challenging because the steps are very shallow and steep), but it quickly transitions to stone steps for the rest of the hike.

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Approximately 1.1km into the trail, there is a right branch that you can take to get onto the Sea to Sky trail or the branch to Third Peak. I’ve also done the Sea to Sky trail which climbs up to the gondola (you take the gondola down). It’s a very steep trail, but doesn’t feel as perilous as The Chief. I haven’t taken the branch to the Third Peak, but you can access it either through here or continuing on from the Second Peak. The topography looks a bit gentler than the trails to First and Second Peak, so if I do return for this peak, I’ll take that trail instead.

If you continue on past this branch, you’ll hit the second branch to the First and Second Peaks around 1.8km. It’s a shorter hike up to the First Peak – some apps show a trail connected the First Peak to the Second Peak trail, but it’s a climbing route, so do not attempt! In terms of views, both the First and Second Peaks have incredible views. The First Peak is the closest to Howe Sound, so if you want to snag some photos of the vibrant blue water, I’d pick this one. The Second Peak is higher and looks down on the First Peak and provides more of a bird’s eye view of Squamish.

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My visit to the Second Peak was a little sentimental because I hiked with Karen and Grant. Karen is my oldest friend (27 years and counting) and they recently moved back to Newfoundland after also spending the last 8 years in Vancouver. The Chief was my first ever hike here and also the last one that I did with Karen and Grant. We’ve all grown a lot since then and even though the climb is still strenuous, the stairs didn’t have us as breathless and panting as they did when we first moved here.

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The Second Peak is quite exposed for the last section – there’s no marked trail, you just scramble up the rock until there’s no where higher to go. We had the summit mostly to ourselves due to our early start and we stayed up there for a while snacking and taking some photos before hiking back down to get beers and pizza at Backcountry Brewing. The climb is tiring, but I always find the hike down worse. Take your time and do the rope and ladder sections backwards. There’s one particularly challenging part before the ladder that me and Karen both struggled on because we are shorter. There were more people on the trail on the way back, which slowed us down, but we made sure not to rush on the top section and talked each other through it on the way back. My biggest word of advice would definitely be not to do this hike if it’s rainy as the rock will become a big slip’n’slide.

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So that is my assessment of The Chief. I feel really different about it now than I did 8 years ago and I think that comes from better understanding the risks. Sometimes a little knowledge is almost worse than no knowledge because you don’t understand the depth of your unknowns. If you’re new to hiking, I’d recommend taking the Sea-to-Sky gondola instead of hiking The Chief. It has just as incredible (if not better) views as The Chief, but has much easier and well-maintained trails. There’s no shame in doing the easier hike. I just want to present a bit of a different perspective on The Chief because I don’t want people to blindly walk into it the way that I did when I first moved here. I still think it’s a great hike, but something to work your way up to.

Hiking Johnston Canyon

Johnston Canyon is a quintessential hike if you’re visiting Banff National Park, and the great news is you can hike it all year round! I thought I’d been there once before in the summer, but after visiting on this trip, I think this was actually the first time. It’s located about halfway between Sunshine Village and Lake Louise, but it can be a bit tricky to get to.

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It’s not off the main highway, but instead located on the Bow Valley Parkway, which runs parallel to Highway 1. It’s just a one-lane highway and it’s not in the best shape, so assume a much slower pace than driving on the main highway. You can enter the Parkway from just past Banff, or at the turn for Highway 93 that runs down towards the Kootneys. I’m not sure what the deal with the road is, but the exit outside of Banff isn’t always open, so even though you have to do a bit a backtracking, sometimes you have to go all the way to the second turn off to get on the Parkway (as was the case when we visited). It was disappointing because it results in a longer journey, though with the speed you can try on Highway 1 I’m not convinced it’s shorter on the Parkway. But I’ve heard the Parkway is incredibly scenic, so I’m sad we didn’t get to drive the whole thing.

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In any case, Johnston Canyon is a pretty popular place to visit and it’s nice that you can hike it all year round. There will be snow in the winter, and though it’s all packed down from the frequent traffic, microspikes or cleats are definitely required, especially on some of the uphill and downhill sections. We brought our own spikes with us, but if you’re just visiting, you can rent them from any of the outdoor equipment stores in Banff. There were a few people without them, but actually most people had some kind of traction and they were all very similar, so I assume most people were using the rented cleats.

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In the summer, I think you may need to get there early to secure parking, but it wasn’t a problem in the winter. Since it’s a shorter trail, there should also be a lot of turnover in the lot. The trail hikes through the forest and then along the side of the steep walls of the canyon. In many cases you go right through the canyon on grated walkways that are bolted to the side of the canyon wall. It’s a little scary in winter because the snow elevates the trail, meaning the rails only come up to about mid-thigh, so use caution when navigating some of the narrower parts of the canyon. A few times we waited for people to pass coming in the opposite direction so as not to crowd the trail.

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There’s lots to see along the way and we really enjoyed all the frozen waterfalls and ice structures that form along the side of the canyon. The first big attraction is the lower falls, which you descend down to and cross a bridge before walking through a short tunnel to get an even better view of the river and the lower falls. It’s quite unique, which is how I knew I hadn’t been there before. The tunnel is cool and we hung around for a bit watching the falls. The surface of the falls looks frozen, but the river is still running underneath, so it creates this cool, half frozen pool at the base.

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Some people just go as far as the lower falls and then turn back, but we decided to continue on to the upper falls. You go past several more waterfalls along the way and before you get to the upper falls, there is a path through the woods to go down to the river. At the right time of year, you can walk on the river to the upper falls. We opted not to because we could see a lot of dicey sections from the moving water along the river, but lots of people were walking on the ice, so I assume it was relatively safe. It’s a gentle uphill most of the walk to the falls and then when you finally reach the upper falls, there’s a big viewpoint looking down on them.

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The upper falls were completely frozen this time of year, but we had the added benefit of getting to watch ice climbers! Turns out it’s a popular location for ice climbing and there were several groups climbing along different sides of the multiple ice faces. Ice climbing is definitely a sport that is too intense for me, but it’s really interesting to watch other people do it, so we settled down for our lunch and enjoyed watching the climbers while we ate. The trail was relatively busy, but manageable. We were able to see what we wanted to see and while there was a good number of people, it wasn’t crazy crowded. It was a weekday though, so it might be worse on the weekends and I’m sure it’s a lot busier in the summer.

All in all, the hike was approximately 5km to the upper falls and back, with about 130m in elevation. So it’s definitely a great hike for beginners and had a really interesting topography. But as always, exercise caution when going on any hike, especially in the cold season. We had a good time and I’m glad I got to cross this popular hike off my list.

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Let’s Talk: First Aid

First aid is one of those things I always knew was important, but it took me a while to really learn just how useful it is. Being able to swim was something that was always really important to my Mom, so she put me in swimming lessons as a kid and later signed me up for lifeguarding courses when I turned 14. I did junior lifeguarding until I was 16, when I completed my National Lifeguard course and was certified for 4 years. First aid is a major component of this course and it is something that has served me well ever since. I’ve done several variations of first aid courses for work and guiding ever since and I think it is so worthwhile to invest time in learning basic first aid. Even if you don’t have a formal certification, being able to recognize symptoms and treat simple emergencies is a huge asset in the outdoors.

I was employed for 2 summers as a lifeguard at age 18, other than that I’ve never had any formal capacity as a first aider. Yet, since then I’ve treated a seizure, heat exhaustion, heat stroke, a broken arm, injured knees, and any number of cuts, scrapes, and blisters. I never leave my first aid kit at home, and I’ve been surprised by how often I’ve needed it. You can be resourceful in the wilderness, but I’ve never regretted carrying along a few extra first aid items (and you will definitely regret if you need them and don’t have it). I think the most important thing is knowing what to bring and how to recognize symptoms.

First Aid Training

Let’s start with training. The easiest way to learn is to do a formal course. There are 3 basic first aid courses: Emergency, Standard, and Wilderness First Aid. Having done them all at least once, I think Standard First Aid is the best bang for your buck. I don’t like Emergency First Aid, it’s only a 1 day course and it covers very little outside of CPR and AED. While these are good skills to have, I don’t think they are the most practical. I’m much less likely to need CPR and much more likely to need to bandage a broken wrist, so I find Standard First Aid more practical (plus you learn CPR/AED in all 3 courses).

Standard First Aid is generally a 2 day course and covers diagnosing and treating all different kinds of ailments, which is why I think it’s more useful. Treating heat stroke was the most life threatening thing I’ve ever done and I was able to diagnose it incredibly quickly, to the benefit of the individual (read about that experience here). Even for simple things, diagnosis can make a big difference. I was once 3 days into the wilderness and had a frightened hiker approach me with heartburn, I gave him pepto-bismal and it resolved in no time (somehow he’d never heard of heartburn – he described his symptoms and Emily immediately diagnosed it as heartburn since she gets it a lot, while I sang the pepto-bismal rhyme and he looked at us like we had 3 heads). So in my opinion, Standard First Aid is more practical than Emergency.

Wilderness First Aid sounds like it would be the most applicable for outdoor adventure (and it is), but it’s also the most expensive and has the biggest time commitment (2 long days or 3 shorter days). In my opinion, Wilderness First Aid is glorified Standard First Aid. It covers the same material, but from the perspective of someone in the wilderness with limited resources. So you practice splinting with sticks, homemade stretchers, and hypothermia wraps, but it’s not substantially different. Though once you have Wilderness First Aid, it’s half the work to re-certify it every 3 years (just a day), so I try and keep mine up to date. So if financial is a concern, I’d recommend Standard First Aid as the best course.

An idea of what “technical” means

Understanding Your Abilities

The second part of first aid is knowing what to bring with you and keeping a cool head in an emergency. If you panic, your patient will panic, so my approach has always been to be reassuring while asking lots of questions. Honestly, the presence of a first aid kit and care from someone who seems like they might be able to help is often reassurance enough for the patient. The other important thing is knowing when to call for help and doing so immediately. For example, you can probably handle small cuts and scrapes yourself, as well as mild dehydration. When my friend broke her wrist on a hike, I was able to wrap it for her to make her comfortable enough to walk back to the car on her own.

Dehydration is one of the more dangerous problems you can encounter, so being able to recognize it is important so that you can self treat. When I did the North Coast Trail, on the third day, me and Emily were both feeling really low and when Emily started to complain of an upset stomach, I immediately made the whole group stop hiking and we took a break while we both chugged a litre of electrolytes. While Emily’s energy remained low, our quick action prevented it from getting worse and we were able to finish the day in good spirits, with no injuries. In contrast, when my friend got heat stroke on the trail to Assiniboine, I didn’t know she was feeling bad until it was really too late. Her muscles started cramping, she couldn’t stand, and she even started losing feeling in her legs – all of these symptoms occurred within 15 minutes of her stopping to say she felt sick. In this case, I immediately made an SOS to emergency services on my inreach and spent 3 hours rehydrating her while waiting for help. Don’t try and be a hero; sometimes professionals and a quick extraction are needed and you are much wiser to make the call in those scenarios. Read my post on personal safety for more about communication devices and preparedness.

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What to Bring

And the last thing I want to highlight is the more practical side of what to bring with you. Lots of places sell small first aid kits and most people opt for a tiny one to throw in their backpack. I wouldn’t say my first aid kit is large, but it is more sizable than what most people bring. Sometimes I lament the extra weight, but I always bring it. REI has a pretty comprehensive list of what to bring, which you can view here. Personally, I like to bring band-aids in varying sizes, a blister kit, sutures, antibacterial wipes, dressings, compression gauze, a tensile bandage, surgical scissors, triangle bandage, tweezers, safety pins, medical tape, polysporin, and latex gloves. I also bring electrolytes, advil or tylenol, pepto-bismal, and an emergency blanket and bivvy sack. Depending where I’m going, sometimes I throw in a small bottle of aloe and in the winter I will add hand warmers. One thing I don’t have is a sam splint, which I’ve been considering adding because it’s on a lot of first aid kit lists, but I’m not convinced I couldn’t just use a stick or a hiking pole in an emergency.

Your first aid kit is only meant to complement your 10 essentials, so make sure you also have extra clothes, food and water, as these can also help in a first aid emergency. If someone in your party is injured and it takes you longer to hike back – you don’t want to further endanger yourselves by not having other essentials, like a headlamp. I always remind myself to pack for the hike that goes wrong rather than the hike that goes right. I bring my insulated seat cushion on most hikes as well, because it can make a big difference to your comfort if you’re stuck sitting on the cold ground for hours waiting for help.

To conclude, my biggest recommendation is to get a first aid kit and learn what to do with it. Learning how to diagnose symptoms and how to treat them can make someone feel a lot more comfortable in an emergency, and may even save your life or the life of a friend. Stay safe out there!

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