Zoa Peak Snow Camping

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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!

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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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