Posts Tagged With: cloudy

Hiking Cheam Peak

One of my favourite local hikes to date is Cheam Peak – which is interesting because the first time I hiked it was in 2018 and in much less than ideal conditions. Cheam Peak is a well known hike in the Fraser Valley, whose sharp peak dominates the skyline as you drive out Highway 1 past Chilliwack. Though you can easily see the mountain from the Highway, you have to enter the trail from the South on Chilliwack Lake Road. I wasn’t expecting it to be a busy hike because you need 4WD to access to the trail head, and it was a pretty smoky day when we hiked it in 2018, so I was shocked when we arrived at the trailhead to find the parking lot packed with trucks and SUVs. As far as 4WD hikes go – I can also assume this is one of the more popular since the mountain peak is so iconic.

5 of us piled into Brandon’s 4Runner to get to the trailhead – a drive that was a lot more fun for Brandon than the rest of us. The higher we drove along the road, the worse the visibility got. 2018 was one of the worst summers for forest fires and the city was filled with smoke for weeks on end, making it hard to do much of anything outdoors without coughing up a lung. The smoke hadn’t peaked yet, but it was also an overcast day and we were high enough to be up in the clouds – so the smoke and fog together made for some really terrible visibility.

The conditions didn’t impact my enjoyment of Mount Cheam though and even with the poor visibility, between the alpine meadows and cute little Spoon Lake, I was in hiking heaven. The meadows start pretty much at the trailhead and are gorgeous and green, with this tiny little swimming hole that looks like it’s been punched out of the landscape. Plus there’s lots of wildflowers if you go at the right time of year. From the meadow, I think you can see up most of the mountain, but unfortunately for us, the meadow was the only part of the trail not shrouded in fog. As we started to ascend, we immediately entered the clouds and lost all sight of anything around us. I’ve hiked a few times in the fog, but this was definitely the worst. The closer we got to the top, the worse it got. It’s not the longest trail, only 9km round trip, but you tackle a lot of elevation gain in that hike, approximately 650m. So it’s pretty steep for most of the hike, with lots of switchbacks and at times I literally couldn’t see my friends if they were more than 6 feet away.

We weaved our way up the mountain until we reached the ridgeline along the top. It was super creepy in the conditions because the fog was getting caught up on the other side of the ridge (towards the highway), so we could see down the ridge a little bit, but the highway side was just a bank of milky white fog. It’s made weirder by the fact that when you reach the top, you get over the mountain sound barrier, so all of sudden you can hear all the traffic from down on the highway. From the peak, Mount Cheam looks down on the highway, but since we were hiking it from the back, we were totally surrounded by the backcountry. Since you can’t see any of the traffic on the way up, you feel like you’re in the middle of the wilderness, it makes for a really weird experience.

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We hung out at the bottom of the ridgeline for a bit and had our lunch. We figured there was no use racing to the top when we couldn’t see anything anyways, so we took our time. The fog did eventually start to thin, so we continued on to the very top, but we never did get a view down into the Fraser Valley. We hung out for a long time taking funny pictures of the fog and messing around, but we eventually gave up on our hope of catching the view and started to head back down again. Despite all the fog and not being able to see the view, I still had a great time on the hike, which I attribute to my companions, who had just as much fun taking photos in the fog as we would have with an amazing view!

The fog continued to thin as we made our way back down again. We could see more of the mountain around us and eventually the fog got high enough that we could see all the way down to the meadow. This was my favourite part of the hike and it made for a nice, scenic walk back. Me and Lien are a bit obsessed with swimming, so we had big plans to take a dip in the little hobbit pond, formally known as Spoon Lake, at the bottom. We didn’t waste any time and both dove right into the water as soon as we got there. It’s a small waterbody and it was the middle of the summer, so it was actually really warm and we had a great time swimming around. From Spoon Lake, it’s just a short walk back out of the meadow and about a kilometre along a gravel road back to the parking lot. So even though the weather conditions weren’t the best, we still had a great time on the hike and will have to keep in on our bucket lists to return on a clearer day!

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Fast forward to 2020. 2 years after our first hike to Mount Cheam, we decided to return and see if we could actually catch the view. It was Sunday morning back in mid July and it was one of the hottest days of the summer. Me and Emily spent all Saturday trying to get into any of the lakes in the lower mainland and were rejected from Buntzen and Sasamat, so we figured cute little Spoon Lake would make for a great end of hike swim the next day.

Even though I never saw the view the first time, I’d loved everything about Mount Cheam, particularly swimming in Spoon Lake, which looks like its been carved out of the hillside. So I was excited to return, this time with Emily, Seth, and Sadie in tow. We drove separately and then all piled into Brandon’s 4×4 for the 9km ride up to the trailhead. I remembered there being some pretty bad waterbars along the forestry road the first time, but I also remembered us driving up it pretty fast. I don’t know if I mis-remembered or if the road has gotten worse, but it seemed in much poorer condition then the last time. It ended up taking us over an hour just to go the 9km! I wasn’t sure how well Sadie would do on the drive. As a puppy she had really bad car sickness, but has mostly grown out of it. Fortunately she seemed to love the 4×4 road! She was running back and forth across me, Seth, and Lien in the back seat to look out the windows as we drove up.

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It was a slow year for the snowpack melting, so there was still quite a bit of snow on the trail when we visited in mid-July. Fortunately we had microspikes, but since the snow was so sporadic, it’s a pain constantly taking them on and off, so we mostly went without. Sunglasses are a must with so much snow though – Emily sunburned her eyes crossing the snow fields. Walking into the meadow from the parking lot we could see there was a fair amount of snow left and we were concerned the lake might still be frozen. You can’t see it until you’re pretty much on top of it, so we were anxious as we approached, praying we’d be able to swim in it. Unfortunately, the lake was a real mess. The whole area coming down to the lake looked more or less in shambles. Since our last visit, it looked like there’d been an avalanche in the area. There’s several trees knocked down and a ton of debris coming down into the lake. It looked like there was a bunch of debris from the slide that had been knocked into the lake and was now covered with snow and dirt. We were convinced it would never be swimable again, but I’ve since seen photos of the lake on Instagram later in the summer, and it looks totally fine now, so most of it must have been snow, or the debris suck to the bottom. So we were quite sad at the time, but thrilled to see it more or less seems to have recovered.

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The hike ended up being more challenging than I remembered. Like I said above, it’s a short hike, but has a lot of elevation gain. I’m not sure if I was having a bad day or if I’m just out of shape from the pandemic, but it was a challenging hike, even after completing the NCT. I’m inclined to blame it on the heat though because it was well over 30 degrees. From the lake it’s a steady climb for the rest of the hike, the main difference being that this time we got to enjoy the views! A lot of the hike is going back and forth across exposed boulder fields, some of which were still under snow, so caution is definitely advised. On our way down we saw a few people trying to take shortcuts up the boulder field, don’t do this, it’s deceivingly hard, it’s dangerous (loose rock and steeper) and it damages the landscape.

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It was a slog, but we reached the top to gorgeous blue sky views of the surrounding area. Looking north you can see Highway 1 all the way out to Harrison Lake, and south is a cacophony of snowy peaked mountains all the way to the States. We sat at the very peak to enjoy our lunch before heading back down again. This was Sadie’s first major hike, so we weren’t sure what to expect, but she LOVED it. She’s definitely an outdoor dog and has a ton of energy. She thrives on steep difficult trails, so she was right in her element on Cheam. Also, she’s obsessed with the snow and loves playing it. I’m not sure if it’s just because it was so hot, but she couldn’t get enough of running around throughout the snow fields. She was totally pooped by the end of the hike though. She was all wet and muddy from running around and we didn’t want her sitting in our laps, so we made her sit on the floor in the back seat and she immediately lay down and fell asleep for most of the car ride back (a feat for Sadie who rarely settles down).

So despite the setbacks with the lake, it was still a great day! It’s a challenge to get to, but well worth the visit, my only recommendation is to leave early to avoid the crowds and go prepared for any condition because you will be a long way from help! Happy hiking everyone!

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Happy New Year Fox Glacier

Our plan was to heli hike Fox Glacier on New Years Eve. There’s two glaciers open for tourism along the West Coast of the South Island: Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier. Both are only accessible by helicopter and offer a wide range of tourist activities on the glacier. So we signed up for a half day hike on Fox Glacier. We had pretty mixed weather throughout the trip, but we got a few really nice warm days in Queenstown and the forecast indicated that would continue into the New Year, so we were optimistic about the hike. But the closer we got to Fox Glacier, the less sure we were that the hike would go ahead. It was quite nice looking out towards the ocean, but the clouds were all clinging to the mountains and you couldn’t see any of the peaks.

There was nothing we could do, so we settled into our hostel and crossed our fingers for the next day. Our flight was scheduled for 8am and it was really cloudy when we got up. We walked over to the tour center and they started explaining their refund policy, which really wasn’t a good sign. So we changed our tour to 1pm, hoping the clouds would clear our by then.

In the meantime, we decided to go for a little hike around Lake Matheson, which originally was our plan for the afternoon. The lake is famous because on a sunny day, you get great views of Mount Cook reflected in the lake. We couldn’t see any part of Mount Cook, but we anxiously kept checking the clouds, which didn’t seem to be lifting at all. When we returned for our afternoon flight, we were told that one was cancelled too. It was a huge disappointment because I’d really been looking forward to both the helicopter ride and the hike. We had to drive 6 hours the following day, so we didn’t really have time to spare, but we decided to make one more attempt for the 7am flight the next morning.

There’s not really anything else to do in Fox Glacier on a cloudy, drizzle day, so we drove a half hour to Franz Josef to go to the hot pools. Before we found them though, we stumbled upon a kiwi park and decided to visit. We ended up having a great time! Since kiwi’s are so endangered, there’s tons of eco-sanctuaries around the country and a lot of organizations seem to breed kiwi to boost the populations. Overall there are 5 different species of kiwi, the rarest of which is the Rowi. It’s a small kiwi that’s only found in one sanctuary in the nearby area, so the kiwi park was breeding the Rowi and had young kiwi in their enclosure.

Because kiwi’s are nocturnal, they have the whole enclosure reversed so that it’s night during the day so that visitors can see the kiwi. The enclosure is lit by red lights so you can see them snuffling around. Only one was out while we were visiting, but he was very active, feeding all over the enclosure, so we got a good look at him and watched him for ages. To boost up their attraction a bit, the kiwi park also has an exhibit about glaciers and a tuatara enclosure.

We moved on to the Franz Josef hot pools after that and had a relaxing afternoon lounging in the pools. I have to say, it was definitely one of my more boring New Year’s though. We didn’t want to stay up too late since we potentially had a 7am flight, so we played a game of giant chess at the hostel and went to bed pretty much right after midnight. We were really only interested in spending time together though, so it didn’t really matter.

And our first day of 2020 ended up being a real day to remember. We packed up the car at 6:30am and were dismayed to see a lot of clouds still hanging over the mountains. We knew the flight would be cancelled, but we still had to show up to get our money back. To our shock though, in the next 20 minutes the clouds totally moved out of the valley and we were told that the 6am flight hadn’t gone, but our 7am flight would be!

Things got a little hectic after that – staff gave us all the equipment we’d need for the hike, weighed us for the helicopter, and blasted through all wild risks associated with an activity like hiking a glacier. Then they gave us a tiny pack for the rest of our things and rushed us onto the bus to the chopper. It was a little overwhelming and I had to leave a bunch of my things behind because they wouldn’t fit in the helicopter bag. Our group had 3 tours of 11, so overall it took 6 helicopter rides to get us all on the glacier. It’s only a 5 minute ride and they cycle 2 helicopters through, so it does go pretty fast.

It may not be a long flight, but it is really cool to fly up the valley to the base of the glacier and then actually land on the ice. We ended up being in the first group, so we took off with our tour guide pretty quickly. Fox Glacier is a pretty rugged place. I’ve hiked to some other glaciers in BC, but I’ve never really been on them and the topography of Fox Glacier was really interesting. Up close all the ice looks a bright blue colour, but it never really translated that well to my photos. There’s a lot of interesting ice features, like mountains, caves, and waterfalls. We were all given crampons to wear and our guide had an ice axe to navigate a track for us. It was all pretty interesting to look at and though it was cold out, we were mostly moving around, so it wasn’t too bad. Admittedly it’s pretty slow going, but that’s because there’s no set path and you have to create a trail wherever you go.

We explored around the area for the better part of two hours and then things really started to go downhill. All of a sudden, we looked back at the path the chopper had flown up the valley and all we can see is this mountain of fog rolling up the valley. Everyone else was like, “Oh wow, look at that fog roll, that’s amazing”.

But I am a Newfoundlander, so when I saw the fog rolling, I was like, “we need to get the F out of here.”

New Zealanders are some of the nicest people and you have to admire their laid back approach to life, but during my time in New Zealand I learned that they also have a bit of a laid back approach to safety that I could never really get on board with. I’ll admit I started to lose my cool a bit when I saw the fog rolling in. I think I would have been a lot more chill if it had been a day earlier, but I’d watched that fog hang around the mountain the entire previous day and I had 6 hours of driving to do if we wanted to make our 3 day kayak trip the following day. So I wasn’t really in a patient, easy going place. Plus I’d left half of my warm gear back at the base camp in all the confusion of packing the helicopter bag.

Our guide started joking about us maybe having to spend the night on the ice, which apparently happens to tour groups on average ONCE A MONTH. I was like, “okay, so are the helicopters on their way to come get us?”, and he laughed and said, “no, they’re out on scenic flights, but they’re sending them down.” Apparently the fog had moved back into the valley while we’d been up on the glacier and while the scenic flights all landed, when we got back to the helicopter landing area, we were told they couldn’t come back for us right now.

And this horrible feeling of dread just settled right over me. It was only 11am, but I was convinced we were going to have to spend the rest of the day and the night on the glacier. There’s nothing you can do about it. I was worried and disappointed about the potential for us to miss the kayak trip, but I think mostly I was frustrated by my own lack of preparedness for such a situation. I pride myself on always having my 10 essentials and being prepared for scenarios like this. But I hadn’t brought a lunch that day and so much of my warm gear was sitting back in the lodge. It’s a really horrible feeling. The tour company does have a bunch of lock boxes up on the ice that are apparently filled with tents, sleeping bags, and dried food; but it wasn’t really a comfort to me as someone who has snow camped before because I knew it would only be survival gear.

Admittedly, I was one of the more concerned tourists. It seemed to be everyone else’s first day in Fox Glacier and I don’t think any of them thought we’d be there for long. This was probably a healthier attitude to adopt as I can be a bit of a worry wart. Although I won’t berate myself for it because I really don’t think the tour company communicated the risks to us adequately. They’d had cancelled flights for days and I think they made a poor decision to send a group up in questionable conditions. It’s the darker side of their laid back philosophy to life. Although our tour guide didn’t really help. In that moment I needed reassurance and distraction, not a 24 year old cracking jokes about sleeping on the ice.

Once you stop moving, it does start to get quite cold, so they had us all huddle under a tarp to trap our body heat. It was actually a lot warmer at first, but as the hours stretched on, people started getting bored and were coming and going from the tarp shelter a lot, which really reduced its effectiveness. I was getting pretty cold, but at least I had lots of food in my pack. It was discouraging though because the clouds kept moving in and totally filling the valley, leaving no visibility, then they’d start to clear again and give us some hope, only to cloud back in. I was convinced it was going to do that the whole day.

Eventually though, we got word that they had a “window” to come up the valley and they were sending the choppers. It’s all pre-numbered, so you have no control over what helicopter you’re on, but fortunately we were on the second one. I was afraid to hope, but eventually we heard the first helicopter coming up the valley. They loaded the first chopper and sent it off and when we saw ours coming up the valley and it was such a relief! I’ve never been so excited to get in a helicopter, but also so excited to get out of it.

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It didn’t actually look too bad coming down the valley, but as soon as you land on the ground it’s a lot easier to understand why the choppers couldn’t come and get us. The valley was totally filled with cloud and a literal window in the clouds had opened that looked up towards the glacier. They wanted to get everyone off the glacier as soon as possible, so they hurried us off and sent the helicopter back up immediately. While we were relieved to be back on the ground, the window was getting noticeably smaller and we really wanted the rest of our group to get out as well. I think they did get our whole group out, but the window did close up again and there was a second group up there that I don’t actually know if they were still stuck or not. We had a lot of driving to do, so we couldn’t stick around to find out.

If I hadn’t had the opportunity to do the hike, I would have been super disappointed about it, but the hike was really marred by the experience. At the end of it all, we only spent an extra 3 hours on the ice, but it really was the longest 3 hours of my life. It totally makes for a great story to tell now and I’m definitely able to laugh about it. But I also don’t think I could recommend it to other people. It’s a lot of driving to get there and the glacier is really the only attraction. So it sucks if you go all the way there and then miss it. And after my own experience, I’d say not to hedge your bets. Don’t go if the weather is at all questionable. The problem is, if the flight goes, they won’t reimburse you, so they are kind of forcing you to go in a way, which I don’t like in this kind of adventure activity. If it really is true that one group a month gets stuck up there, then I really think they need to rethink some of their policies, or at least how they communicate the risk.

So it was a rough start to the new year, but I’ll also take it as a sign that 2020 is going to be full of adventure – and I do love a good adventure!

Categories: Exploring New Zealand | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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