Hiking Flatiron

For mine and Brandon’s third annual Thanksgiving weekend hike, we did Flatiron for the first time in 2018. Now while I think Elfin Lakes and Watersprite were a bit of a stretch to be considered “Fall hikes”, I thought that Flatiron was a great Fall hike, but not in the traditional sense.

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We’d intended to do the Needle Peak trail, which shares the same trailhead as Flatiron, but once we got up to the branch and saw the layer of snow sitting atop this steep climb, we decided to leave it for another day and do the Flatiron trail instead. Flatiron continues on past the Needle Peak branch and hikes down through a pass and back up again to a small glacial lake. I’ve since learned this a popular location for camping in the summer, but in October it was pretty empty.

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The lake is what I think makes this a great non-traditional Fall hike. The trail continues over a steep slope to the top, which is a giant flat plateau (hence the name Flatiron). At just the right time of year, all the shrubbery against the slope turns this beautiful shade of deep red. Pair it with a fresh coat of snow, which is how it looked when we visited, and it really gives you lots of changing season vibes. I think your timing probably does have to be just right, but even if you missed it, it’s still a great hike.

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There were very people on the trail when we visited and most of them seemed to be attempting Needle Peak. There were just two other guys going the same way as us. We passed them on the way up because they had big backpacks on. We asked if they were planning to camp and they informed us they were actually hoping to fly down!

This was my first experience with paragliding and I have to say it’s a hard pass from me. Even Brandon, who is much more adventurous than me said you’d never get him paragliding. We were pretty much the only two groups on top of the Flatiron, so we watched them setting up their flight suits as we ate our lunch. I admit we definitely lingered over our lunch because we really wanted to watch them fly off.

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From the start, it was clear one guy was more experienced than the other and they chatted a lot as they got set up. Eventually, after much checking, they finally got ready to take a run. The more experienced guy had no problem and the wind caught him and took him right off the side and up. We watched as he sailed off and circled up and up in the wind currents for about 20 minutes before finally landing back at the car park.

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Unfortunately the second guy didn’t have quite as much luck. He took off just after the first guy, but he terrified me and Brandon with a fall right at the start. It almost looked like he was going to get up, but the wind took his chute funny and he ended up crashing to the ground. It wasn’t a far fall, but it didn’t look comfy and it made us really nervous to watch him. I can see why Flatiron is a great place to practice though, there’s lot of wide open space in which to run from and relative safety from which to fall until you head out over the edge.

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We watched him make 2 more unsuccessful attempts and then Brandon decided it was time to get out of there or we were going to be watching this guy fall to his death. After that he decided to give up and ended up packing up and hiking back down to meet his friend at the car. So fortunately no one was injured, though I’m sure he was disappointed.

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As usual, it was freezing at the top of the trail for October, but this time we’d come prepared with warm jackets so that we could stay out and watch the view. Unlike our other two trips though, this year we got clear blue skies and lots of sun, so it made for an incredibly scenic trip! It’s a steep trail, with 800m of elevation gain spread over 11km round trip, but so worth it for the 360 degree views at the top!

If you’d like to hear more about Flatiron or see more photos, I have published another blog post on an overnight trip I took in July 2020.

Flatiron and Needle Peak Backpacking Trip

My scheduled post for this week was supposed to be about Frosty Mountain, a popular Fall hike I did at the end of September. However, the top of the mountain is now under several feet of snow and hiker Jordan Naterer went missing on this trail on October 10, 2020. If you were hiking on the trail on Thanksgiving weekend and saw Jordan, please contact police. If you’re thinking about doing Frosty Mountain yourself, I’d recommend waiting until next year as the season for doing this hike has now passed. In light of this tragedy I’ve decided to postpone that post for another time and write instead about a backpacking trip I went on back in July.

There’s so much exploring to do in the summer, I’m always behind on writing about my adventures, but this summer I had an amazing experience stargazing at Flatiron. I’ve been getting into star photography over the past few years, but Brandon is the real night sky enthusiast of the group. He tries to catch the Perseid meteor shower every year and this year he was really stoked about the Neowise Comet. We decided to make an attempt at stargazing and spent forever trying to come up with a good place to go looking for it. You can’t be too close to the city because there’s so much ambient light, and we wanted to be sure we’d have a good view from our campsite, meaning we needed an unobstructed view looking Northwest. We floated around a few campsites we’d been to before, but nothing was really quite right. Then I remembered Flatiron, which me and Brandon had day hiked in the fall of 2018, and we thought we had a good chance of clear views from the top.

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Since we were camping overnight, we didn’t have the earliest start. Flatiron is located in the Coquihalla Summit Rec Area, so it’s a little over 2 hours from my house with no traffic. It was around 1pm when we pulled into the parking lot – we figured we were going to have a hard time parking, but because we arrived later in the day, lots of people were finishing their day hikes, so we managed to snag a spot no problem. We ate lunch in the parking lot and then started hiking sometime around 1:30pm. Our group consisted of our North Coast Trail crew since we’re all in the same bubble and have gotten pretty good at camping together.

Flatiron isn’t the longest trail, only 11km round trip, but it is definitely a steep one. We’d day hiked Mount Cheam the previous week and I’d had a really hard go of it for some reason (just a bad day I guess), but I was feeling pretty good on Flatiron. Lien was having a hard time with all the elevation gain, but we plugged along, taking short, frequent breaks. The more challenging part was the heat. The summer started off slow, but overall, it ended up being a really hot one. I find it’s usually hot in Vancouver throughout the summer, but then I always end up going to the mountains where it’s a lot cooler. This year I found the mountains felt just as hot, so we were really sweating buckets as we climbed up.

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After about an hour you come out of the woods and start hiking up over the rocks towards Needle Peak. Flatiron and Needle Peak are two separate hikes, but they share much of the same trail. Eventually you reach the junction and you can either start the steep ascent up to Needle Peak, or you can continue on to Flatiron. I would say Flatiron is slightly less impressive than Needle Peak, but a much nicer hike, so I’d recommend Flatiron, but many people do both in the same trip. We wanted to do Needle Peak as well since Brandon and I had already done Flatiron once, so we decided we’d make an attempt at it the next day on our way down. There were a lot of people on the trail and we heard that someone had actually gotten married at Needle Peak that day, so it was super crowded at the summit. There were also a lot of backpackers, most of whom were ahead of us on the trail. I usually like to make an earlier start for this reason, but there’s tons of camping space up at Flatiron, so we weren’t worried about it.

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From the junction, the trail continues down and back up to a glacial lake at the foot of Flatiron. Flatiron is so named because it’s basically a mountain with a huge flat top. The lake is located just under the Flatiron and it’s where all of the backpackers were camping. It makes sense seeing as that’s where the water source is, but because we wanted an unimpeded view, we’d decided to camp on top of the Flatiron. From the lake it’s another 20-30 min climb up to the top. It’s not too challenging, but it is steep. When we got to the top, there were lots of day hikers around, but no other campers.

Despite all the space, we did have to walk around for a while to find a good spot for the tent. A lot of the top is just rock, which we could set up on, but obviously isn’t super comfortable, and we were going out of our way to avoid trampling any sensitive areas. There’s a lot of wildflowers up there and we didn’t want to destroy anything. Eventually Brandon found a nice little flat spot that was mostly free of vegetation, so we set the tents up there. We had a perfect view looking west and knew we’d be able to catch both the comet and the sunset from that location.

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After setting up the tents and having a snack, we decided to head down to the lake again to get drinking water and have dinner. It was somewhere around 4:30-5ish and me and Emily wanted to go for a swim while the sun was still up above the mountains. We hiked back down and set up on a little peninsula in the middle of the lake. It feels somewhat like two lakes with rivers flowing between them. It’s not the biggest lake, so we were cognizant to make sure we same in the downstream section. Our effort was wasted really as we later saw people swimming upstream as well, so something to keep in mind when you’re in the wilderness. Sometimes, depending on the source, it’s best not to swim at all (if it’s a really small source or there’s no river), in this case we got our water upstream where it was flowing heavier. Overall it’s probably not the end of the world where people were swimming because there were several flowing sections to get your water, but be as considerate as possible.

As expected, the water was absolutely freezing. There was still snow all up along the slope melting into the lake, so we knew it was pretty much all snow melt. We ran into the water as fast as we could and then ran out again, but it felt really good on the muscles! After our quick dip we set into our normal routines, with Brandon and Emily getting drinking water and me and Lien making dinner. Our North Coast Trail trip had been cut short by one evening, so me and Lien both had meals already prepared, so I made a rice dish for me and Emily and Lien made ramen for him and Brandon. The rice dish was a new one for me and it wasn’t my favourite, but it was definitely filling! Then we all had tarts for dessert, which Lien has surprised us with, lugging them all the way up to the top!

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After we’d had our fill, we made our way back up to the top for one of my favourite evenings in the backcountry. Brandon and I get a bit giddy sometimes when we hike together, and we were each making good progress on our flask of fireball, so we decided to have a little dance party up on the mountain. First Emily led us in yoga stretches, and then brandon played music from his speaker while we all danced around waiting for the sun to set. Since the trip was all about stargazing, Brandon and I both lugged up our tripods and set them up for later, with Brandon doing a timelapse on his.

Eventually all the campers from the lake made their way up to the top for sunset as well, but save for one other group of 2, we were the only ones camping at the top. I’m still a bit amazed at how lucky we got with the weather. I feel like it’s easy to plan these idyllic trips, picturing cloudless skies and millions of stars, but they so rarely work out like you intended. But this trip actually did. There were absolutely no clouds and we had a perfect 360 degree from which to watch the sun go down over the mountain and the stars come out.

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The challenging part about stargazing of course is staying up late enough for it. We’d read the best time to see the comet was just after sunset, but we didn’t see any sign of it. However, as it got darker, the milky way became more and more impressive. Brandon and Emily were working on tracking down the comet, but in the meantime, I had a nice little photoshoot with the milky way and got some pictures that I’m pretty proud of. I don’t really know what I’m doing, but the conditions were good for messing around. No ambient light, so the stars were showing up really well. Eventually Emily spotted something moving that she thought might be the comet and her and Brandon spent ages debating whether it was or not. Eventually I came over and was like, ‘well why don’t you shoot it and see how it comes out in the photo…’ to which they were like, ‘oh right, that’s what we came to do lol’. We’re no astrophotographers, but it was obvious from the photo that it was indeed the comet. Photo credit to Brandon for this one:

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The comet is one of those things where skilled photographers have made it look a lot different than it does to the naked eye. We thought we’d be able to see somewhat of a trail behind it with the naked eye, but this is not the case, the trail only shows up on photos, at least from where we were watching anyways. It was still cool to see and Lien and Brandon spent a lot of time photographing the comet. It was definitely harder because it was in the Northwest and so because the sun sets west, it look a lot longer to get dark in that direction. Plus the moon was up and pretty bright, so that made it more challenging to shoot as well. I look a few photos and I’m glad I got to see it, but if I’m being honest, I was a lot more enthralled with the milky way. Saturn and Jupiter were both visible on the evening we were out and I managed to capture both in my photo with the milky way!

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Sometime before midnight we gave up and went to bed. Despite how hot it had been in the day, it was pretty cool overnight. Not surprising as we were very exposed and in the mountains. We’d hoped to sleep with the fly off, but it was too dewy, so we popped it back on for the night. Emily had a hard time sleeping and ended up being pretty cold overnight, but I think the rest of us slept okay. Fortunately the sun came up again pretty early and warmed us up. I got to take down a dry tent, which is pretty much one of the best things ever.

We took down camp and set off again, but the day was far from over. Usually we don’t linger too long on the last day, but I was determined to do Needle Peak. The first time I’d hiked Flatiron, we’d actually intended to do Needle Peak, but it was October and there was ice on Needle Peak, so we’d done Flatiron instead. I couldn’t come back twice and not do it, so we planned to drop our bags near the junction and hike up to the top.┬áLien was feeling pretty tired and decided not to join us, so we did our best to find a shady spot for him and left him with our fly dope. Fortunately it hadn’t been buggy at the top of Flatiron, but it was extremely buggy along the rest of the trail, so I didn’t really envy him hanging out with the mosquitoes.

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Needle Peak is a challenging hike. It starts off with a steep climb up to the ridgeline. Climb is definitely the best word to describe it and there’s one bottleneck rope section that is particularly challenging. While we were doing that part I was kind of wondering if it was really worth it, but it ended up being one of the most challenging parts and it did get easier after that. I believe it’s only about a kilometre, to the top, so we made pretty good time, but it is somewhat slow going. The ridge has beautiful views looking down both sides and the hike ends with one last scramble up the “needle” part of Needle Peak. We decided not to push all the way to the very top. There were a lot of people and you basically have to climb up this rock seam, so we knew it would take a while because of people bottlenecking at tricky locations. Instead we found a nice rock to sit on while we had lunch and we still had an amazing view looking out over the Coquihalla. One hiker, who we’d been passing back and forth was surprised that we weren’t going to finish the hike, “but you’re so close, you can do it!”, to which I wanted to respond that I knew I can do it, but that I am already satisfied with what I have accomplished this weekend. Sometimes I have a bit of an obsessive personality with wanting to see things through and push farther, but I think this year I’ve been getting better at setting limits. I don’t know if that’s good or bad, it kind of sounds like I’m saying it’s okay not to push myself, but that’s never really been my challenge, so I think learning to set boundaries sometimes is just as important.

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Anyways, we had a good hike and I’m glad I can finally say I did it, but I don’t think I’ll be in a rush to go back to Needle Peak. It’s a tougher hike than I think a lot of people realize and I didn’t feel that safe with so many people on the trail. So we hiked back down, getting bottlenecked again at the rope section. As tough as that section had been on the way up, it was soooo much worse on the way down. We took our time and eventually we were reunited with Lien again.

As usual, the downhill back to the car was a real B for me and Emily. We don’t have the best knees and the last section through the trees is super steep. Plus it was even hotter than the previous day, so again we were all a sweaty mess. Finally we reached the car and I gave my feet and face a nice wash in the river before we headed back into town. So overall it was a really successful trip and probably one of my favourite overnights of the whole summer. The only disclaimer I’ll leave if you’re thinking of doing this trip is that there are no facilities at the top, so come prepared for no outhouse or bear cache facilities. Otherwise, this makes for a great trek!

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First Time Snow Camping

The weather in Vancouver is pretty mild most of the year, but the weather in the mountains is a completely different story. Spring hits Vancouver in March and April, but it’s often late June or even early July by the time the snow finally melts in the mountains, only to come back again in October. So the backpacking season isn’t that long. There are lots of trails you can do at lower elevations, but some of the more scenic mountain trails have a short window in which to hike them.

For this reason, me and my friend Carolyn got it into our heads that we wanted to try snow camping to get in some more backpacking trips in the off season. I only started backcountry camping in the summer of 2016, so it was definitely a bit of stretch for me to take up snow camping so quickly, but we did a bit of research and built up some of our gear and decided to give it a try last winter.

Camping gear is expensive, so we tried to be as thrifty as possible in acquiring winter gear. We both bought Teton synthetic sleeping bags on Amazon that are rated to -15 degrees celsius. I wouldn’t normally recommend Amazon for camping gear, but good winter sleeping bags cost hundreds of dollars and as newbies, we weren’t ready to sink that kind of cash into a sleeping bag. But the Teton bags are actually really compact and come at a great price, so neither of us have regrets about this purchase. We’re both cold sleepers, so for a bit of extra warmth, we also purchased the Sea to Summit Reactor Extreme bag liner, which claims to add another 14 degrees celsius to your bag rating. I don’t believe it actually adds that much, but it certainly warmed up our bags. Finally, we each bought cheap “closed cell” foamy sleeping pads to put under the 3-season pads we already owned. A sleeping pad with a R-value higher than 5 is recommended for winter camping, but these pads run in the neighborhood of $200-300, so doubling up our sleeping pads with a $20 foamy worked better for us.

These were the main items we bought to prepare for the trip. Fortunately I had an old 4-season tent that had been handed down to me from my parents, so we decided to use that, despite the fact that it’s old and weighs 10 pounds. I doubt many people have that option available to them, but I wouldn’t recommend it. The tent is from the 80’s and it didn’t really work for snow camping, but hey, live and learn, we still survived. The only other items that really differed from our normal gear is that we brought a small shovel with us, a thermos, and some extra layers of clothing.

For our first adventure, we decided to try Manning Park. Manning is one of my favourite parks near Vancouver and they have a snow camping site located just off the main road. We thought this was the safest plan because then we wouldn’t be too far from our car if we got really cold in the middle of the night. Unfortunately, nothing about our trip went according to plan and we ended up having to do a fair bit of improvising, but we still ended up having a really good time.

One thing you should know (or probably already know) about me is that I’m a big talker. Throw me and Carolyn together in a car and we’ll have a great time, chatting and laughing the whole trip. I’m usually a pretty decent navigator (and I maintain that I do have a good sense of direction, mostly because I love maps), but put me in a car with Carolyn and I will forget everything I know about navigating because I always get caught up talking and telling stories. We’re pretty good at getting lost because I tend to think as the driver Carolyn know’s what she’s doing and she tends to think as the passenger (and more often then not, trip planner), I’ll tell her what to do. So we tend to get lost a lot.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On this particular trip we got re-routed because an accident closed one of the highways, so we were a bit out of sorts (read, hungry) and when we left Hope, I thought it was just a straight shot to Manning and settled in for the 45 minute drive. 40 minutes later, just when I think we should be hitting the Manning Park lodge, I see this tunnel ahead that I know is actually on the Coquihalla highway (not the Manning highway) and realize the depth of my mistake. Hearing one “uh-oh” from me was all Carolyn needed to hear to know we’d made a mistake along the way (I will take full credit for it in this instance). We were pretty hangry from being re-routed once already and not into the idea of driving another hour and half in the opposite direction, so Carolyn quickly pulled us over and started making lunch, telling me I had until we finished eating to come up with a plan B.

Fortunately, we had landed ourselves in the Coquihalla Summit Rec Area, an area I hadn’t previously explored, and I had just enough cell coverage to check the avalanche risks for the area and work out a quick back-up plan. Instead of going back to Manning, we decided to commit to snowshoeing about 1.5km to camp at the trailhead to Falls Lake. The 1.5km is actually a forestry road that’s just not plowed in the winter and the “trailhead” is really just a parking lot, but hey, we’re adaptable. Plus, at the end of the trip, we both agreed that missing Manning was one of the best mistakes we could have made, because we ended up having a great time at Falls Lake and it forced us to camp further away from the car and to really commit to snow camping.

There wasn’t too many people around because we were about 2.5 hours away from Vancouver, but Falls Lake seems to be a popular hangout for snowshoers who want to check out the lake and backcountry skiers who want to hike up towards Zoa Peak and ski down. We did neither of these things, but we did have a nice flat area (parking lot) to try out our snow camping skills! Plus, we were the only people who stayed overnight.

We ended up having a blast! It was about -10 degrees celsius overnight, so it was pretty cold, but we worked up a nice sweat hiking in and then spent a fair bit of time digging down in the snow to set up our shelter, so the cold never really kicked in until later in the evening when we didn’t have anything to do anymore. We dug down about a metre and then stamped the snow as flat as we could with our snowshoes. We set up the tent and our bags just like any other trip and then started building ourselves a little snow kitchen. This mostly consisted of a kind of counter area where we could sit and put our stove.

After we finished setting up, we threw on some more layers to stay warm. I think one of the biggest things about snow camping is to avoid sweating in multiple layers of clothes, but to layer up as soon as you start moving to trap your body heat from exercising and to prevent yourself from ever getting cold. We didn’t find cooking in the winter to be any different than summer, we just made sure to use Carolyn’s white gas stove instead of my propane one because propane is prone to freezing in cold temperatures.

One of the biggest challenges actually proved to be melting snow for drinking water and cooking. As you can imagine, it takes a while to melt snow and a full pot of snow doesn’t translate into very much water. We kept filling up the pot and boiling a tiny amount of water, just to have to add more snow to do the whole thing again. One tip that we learned is that it’s best if you add a bit of your drinking water as a base and then add snow slowly as it starts to heat up. Don’t bother boiling the water until the end, just keep it hot enough so that any snow you add melts and then wait for it to heat up again before adding more.

Our second lesson learned was that you need to give yourself lots of time to set up camp, ideally about 3 hours. Fortunately we did have enough time, but digging a hole (with a single small shovel) takes a long time and so does melting snow, so give yourself enough time to set up camp because doing all those things in the dark wouldn’t be fun. The hardest part about snow camping was that it gets dark so early in the winter and there’s really nothing to do once it gets dark and you’ve finished eating supper. We’d been planning to maybe play cards in the tent, but it’s too cold once you stop moving that all you really want to do is climb into your sleeping bags. So prepare for an early night. I read to Carolyn on my kindle for a bit, but I think an audiobook might work well in the future.

Keeping warm at night is really the most important and challenging part about snow camping. We survived the night, but we definitely learned some trips to keep in mind for our next trip. I thought my sleeping bag and liner together would be enough to keep me warm, but you definitely need to wear the right clothes to bed. We initially didn’t wear enough layers and we were quite cold when we got into our bags. After about an hour, we got up again to put some additional layers on and that definitely helped. You want to have enough clothes on to keep you warm, but not too tight or too many layers that don’t allow you to trap some heat in your bag. It’s also important to stay away from the edges of your tent because your body heat will cause condensation on the inside of the tent that will then freeze and be really cold if it’s touching you. We’re both side sleepers, so our butts were getting cold from touching the side of the tent. It’s also better to sleep on your back because you get more warmth reflected back at you from your sleeping pad (easier said then done though if you never sleep on your back).

But we made it through the night! We had some lessons learned, but the tough bits weren’t enough to deter us from trying it again. We witnessed a beautiful purple sunset over the mountains and did a little hike in the morning up a nearby hill to get the cutest photos of our little tent down below. It’s not the easiest experience, but I had a lot fun trying something new with Carolyn and it makes you feel like a real bad-ass to sleep outside in the winter! We never did make it to Manning for snow camping and this was the only snow camping trip we tried in 2018, but stay tuned because we recently went on our second snow camping trip, which I’m working on a follow-up post for!