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A short trip to the headwaters of the Toba River

From the upper Elaho valley, four days were spent hiking across Clendinning Provincial Park and back through wild forest, mountains and glaciers

Document created 15 October 2006, last updated 28 October 2006

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The Author   Nicolas Chappaz
Hot! This is a glorious morning and, past eleven o’clock already, the sun is hot. But little more than twenty minutes after leaving the car at the Elaho bridge I am finally at the top of the clearcut and, with some relief, I enter the shade of the forest. Behind me the noise of a logging operation a short distance away fills the Elaho valley. In this empty and wild environment I feel how this noise carries with it the reassuring presence of other people nearby. But I am now walking away from it into solitude and an overgrown wilderness. As if to drive this point home the battle with the undergrowth starts straight away and, after only a few minutes, feeling a mounting sense of apprehension, I stop.

Hiking, backcountry skiing and even mountaineering alone, this is routine to me. To do so in grizzly country is more exotic, even though I have done it a few times before. But here, heading into Clendinning Provincial Park, that’s another matter. Between me and the alpine the untracked old growth forest stretches over 6 km as the crow flies, plus 1000 m of altitude gain. I do not expect to meet anyone. Once inside the forest I will be on my own, hoping for no mishap and, especially, no encounter with aggressive wildlife. These thoughts generate a sense of vulnerability that is holding me down now. Should I review my plans, go somewhere else? I do not have a great deal of trust in my deterrents, spray and bangers, to help deal with a really serious situation. On the other hand I know that the risk associated with bear, indeed the chance of seeing one, is minute. I have read extensively on the question and even discussed it with people with first hand experience of this kind of country. By far the greatest risk is terrain-related, but this is a fact I am used to disregard.

In the forest   Some big trees are seen, 1.5m (5 ft) in diameter perhaps, but no real giant. On the whole in this part of the forest the undergrowth is not too thick and does not make progress unpleasant. Photo NC.
After a few more moments of hesitation I am able to muster enough resolve finally to get to grips with the business that attracted me here in the first place: go deep into some of the best preserved wilderness and one of the remotest areas of the Coast Mountains in Vancouver’s Lower Mainland. In the forest route finding is “easy”: once the direction has been worked out with topo map and compass, that’s straight ahead! The compass is checked regularly to make sure the right azimuth is kept. The going is soon quite steep. Now and then rocky outcrops or bluffs have to be bypassed or overcome directly. Gullies cut deeply into the mountain side and require additional detours, ups and downs. Later the general grade eases but the terrain remains rough. Some big trees are seen, 1.5m (5 ft) in diameter perhaps, but no real giant.
The lake on the forested plateau.   There are several little lakes in an area where the mountainside forms a wide plateau, near 1000-1100 m.
My plans today are to go camp fairly high into the alpine below “summit 7820”, the apparently unnamed 7820 ft Clendinning summit closest the to Elaho Valley. For the following days plans are not so definite since I know the terrain only from maps and Google Earth. It should be possible to keep to the ridges and, in the four days I have to spare in total, I might be able to go as far as Elaho Mountain.

On the whole in this part of the forest the undergrowth is not too thick and does not make progress unpleasant. This changes markedly, although luckily not for too long, when reaching the first and largest of several little lakes in an area where the mountainside forms a wide plateau, near 1000-1100 m.
Tarns near the alpine   Nearing the alpine, the forest cover opens up perhaps more gradually than I would have expected, and a number of beautiful tarns make this “sub-alpine” area very attractive.
Three hours of continuous hiking were needed to reach this point. The plateau’s topography is quite complex and a fair amount of altitude loss is required, through streams and more lakes, before the ascent can resume. Many fresh moose tracks are visible in the area close to the lakes, obviously from a resident moose which I will see on the way down. No bear so far, although there were fresh tracks in a mud flat near the start of the hike.

Beyond the plateau the undergrowth is often quite thick but progression is steady. A couple of streams provide scenic diversity as well as the welcome opportunity to re-hydrate. Higher up the forest cover opens up perhaps more gradually than I would have expected, and a number of beautiful tarns make this “sub-alpine” area very attractive.
The Elaho valley seen from camp   Looking down towards the valley, the plateau and its little lakes, midway up mountain, stretch in full view and the river beyond looks very far indeed. Photo NC.
I am soon fully into the alpine, over five hours after start, surrounded only by isolated trees, some stunted yet many still quite tall. While I am nearing the snow a feeling of exhilaration gains me: the joy of being high in the mountain in such beautiful scenery, no doubt combined with some degree of relief after the hours spent battling the undergrowth.

A lake, near 1800m, is still largely frozen. After gaining a little more altitude I pitch my tent on a little snowy saddle, between two rocky outcrops which will provide excellent lookout spots. Looking down towards the valley, the plateau and its little lakes, midway up mountain, stretch in full view and the river beyond looks very far indeed. No wonder it took me about six and a half hours of almost continuous hiking to reach camp.
Elaho-Meager junction   The heads of the Elaho and Meager valleys merge into a broad basin looking almost like a lowland plain
Further left (almost due north) the heads of the Elaho and Meager valleys merge into a broad basin looking almost like a lowland plain. The dense old growth forest stretches uninterrupted from one side of the basin to the other, from alpine down to lowland bogs and back up to alpine. On its eastern side the numerous outcrops of the 100-lakes Plateau just manage to rise above the trees. This area is the largest tract of old growth forest remaining in the lower mainland, especially now that development is underway in the Callahan. It bears witness to the beauty of this region’s original natural landscapes and maintains a sizeable area of ancient habitat where nature can keep on following its course without interference. It is hard to accept that the fate of such a now rare and precious environment is still in the balance and that it may one day, soon perhaps, be disfigured by clearcuts and deeply altered by roads and other development.
The true summit 7820   The main, north, summit is about 500m away across a wide gentle snow saddle. Photo NC.
The following morning I resume progression by heading towards summit 7820. As much as possible I keep to the rocks and avoid snow in order to keep my shoes dry, although it is also slower. A small problem is precluding me from wearing hiking boots, and I have to use a pair of low-cut hiking shoes instead. They are light and comfortable but hardly ideal for glacier travel. Typical of this area and the Coast Mountains in general, the high ground is largely made of vast and fairly rounded outcrops of granite or visually similar metamorphic rock forming summits and ridges. Not only is this scenically attractive, it also makes for generally easy progress. Here, however, some scrambling is required to reach the south summit, also above 7800’. The main, north, summit is about 500m away across a wide gentle snow saddle but I prefer to spare the time required by the trip there and back.
Clendinning Creek   For the first time I get a good view of Clendinning Creek’s valley, a deep and steep-sided glacial trough stretching far into the north-west. Photo NC.
From the summit the ridges appear gentle and should be easy to follow, at least for a good distance. For the first time I get a good view of Clendinning Creek’s valley, a deep and steep-sided glacial trough stretching far into the north-west. The creek itself meanders six thousand feet below, through forest or bordered by patches of avalanche alder. I wonder how many people have ever been into that valley, let lone traveled its whole length. Progress along the ridges is uneventful but slow as I still insist in sticking to the rock instead of the more direct snow. The ridge becomes steep and narrow in places but not actually difficult.
Icefield   Once up on the other side a wide expanse of snow, almost an ice field, opens up. I make my way just above a series of thin crevasses to a small summit, about 7400’, crowned by a flat rocky area. Photo NC.
Further on it widens again to a wide snowfield, then dives steeply to a saddle hundreds of feet lower. Once up on the other side a wide expanse of snow, almost an ice field, opens up. I make my way just above a series of thin crevasses marking the steepening of the mountain side, where a broad tongue of ice flows towards the Clendinning. The far end of the ice field rises slightly to a small summit, about 7400’, crowned by a flat rocky area. At this point the mountain is deeply cut all the way across by a broad glacier which flows north into the upper Elaho. Beyond the summit opposite me, across the glacier, the ridges cannot be seen. However the altitude there is higher and travel would be mostly on glacier. The high pyramid of snow which for some time, correctly or not, I have associated with Elaho Mountain, still appears remote. It is only 4 pm and I could keep going for another 2 or 3 hours, but because of the uncertainty I decide to set camp for the night and review my options.
Elaho Glacier   From camp the Elaho Glacier is visible, with the Manatee Group in th background. Photo NC.
Only the upper basin of the glacier below is visible, as beyond that the slope is too steep. However, part of the Elaho Glacier is visible with, at its upstream end, what appears to be a broad saddle dotted with a few tarns. Study of my topo map shows that this col forms the junction of the Elaho and Toba valleys, and that the Toba River begins there, apparently from one of these tarns. It soon occurs to me that this would be an interesting, even quite exciting target for this trip. Short of unforeseen difficulties I should be able to make it there tomorrow and come back camp here, or even further on.
Elaho River heads   The Elaho River flows between ice cliffs as out of a canyon.
When I set out the following morning the snow is quite hard, but a pair of these light crampons used by runners and hikers on icy suburban trails works fine to help me get down to the glacier below my camp. About two hours on snow then steep boulder and debris-covered slopes are needed to reach the Elaho Glacier, on which I step with some measure of excitement at having already crossed a good part of Clendinning Park and reached such a remote area. At this point, not far from its end, the glacier is perhaps two kilometers wide, mostly horizontal or gently sloping. Looking downstream I see the Elaho River starting its course right at the glacier’s snout, between two high ice cliffs, as if flowing out of a canyon. It is not difficult to find a route through the crevasses to the moraine on the other side. In places strange features can be seen: series of small but sharp mounds rising from an otherwise flat glacier surface, coated with a thin layer of sand when the surrounding ice is bare.
Saddle lake   One of several small lakes on the saddle, here on the Elaho side with the upper glacier's tongue and side summits in the background.
Near the middle of the glacier a strong cold wind picks up and will remain all the way up, decreasing somewhat only when approaching the col. Walking up glacier is easy, either on the moraine or on the ice depending on the topography. Numerous hoof prints, of goats probably, form a trail in the soft ground but no animal will be seen. The usual glacial features are all there: crevasses, some filled with water, small streams running on the ice, and a few awe-inspiring moulins (vertical shafts several feet wide and tens of feet deep created by running water). From the glacier it is only a short scramble to reach the col, a flattish area several hundred metres wide on the glacier’s lateral moraine. Several small lakes can be seen and at first their outlets flow towards the Elaho.
Toba valley   View of the valley from the saddle's high point. In contrast with the Elaho side, here the valley is completely forested up to the saddle.
Then, just before reaching a small butte overlooking the entire saddle, the direction reverses: the divide has been crossed, I have reached the headwaters of the Toba River. The altitude is only about 1500m (5000’) and there is a stark contrast between the Elaho side, a mineral desert of snow, ice and rock and the dark green, thickly forested Toba Valley. Looking down that side it is easy to imagine a primeval world of untouched nature stretching away almost to infinity, as indeed would have been the case only a few decades ago. Nowadays of course only the valley’s upper part remains unlogged. But here in the Clendinning, it is still wild and remote. At no time since setting out have I seen the slightest sign of previous human passage. Not the vaguest trail, no footmark, no cairn, no litter, no traces of old camp, nothing. Why do I enjoy it so much being here? It is more than the mere beauty of untouched nature. More even than the sense of achievement for making it here entirely by my own means. I feel, indeed I share the harmony of this natural environment, and I realize that only by taking the time to make slow progress across the mountain, step by step, day after day, was I able to earn such a rare and precious prize.
Sunrise on the ridges   Clendinning-Sims Creek divide mountains (Clendinning Creek's right side) in the rising sun.
Sooner than I would like, and with much regrets, I start on my way back. Approximately four hours are needed to reach camp and, once there, I decide to go no further for the day as I won’t find such a nice site later. With an early start tomorrow it should be no problem making it back all the way to the car. After all this time it will be downhill in the forest, I should be able to charge my way through the undergrowth. In the morning, while retracing my steps of two days before, I observe the rising sun coloring pink the glaciated summits on my west, then setting ablaze the rocks around me. Later I can see thick bright sunrays creeping down the mountainside and progressively fill the Clendinning valley with light, as a waterfall with a giant trough. Keeping to the hard snow I make good progress. High on "summit 7820" I meet the track of two goats, small hooves next to big ones, mother and young. As usual with animal tracks they show the best possible route and I follow it for a while before losing it in a wide rocky area.
Forest bridges   Fallen trees help cross gullies and streams.
Lower down the forest is finally reached and, once again, I make good use of topo map, compass and the sun to stay on course. When, breaking through a particularly thick undergrowth, I finally reach the shore of the largest lake down on the plateau, the resident moose has already heard me and makes its way slowly out of the water and into the forest. Fresh bear tracks break the smooth surface of a mud flat close to the lake shore. In the forest below the lake I enjoy using fallen trees as bridges over gullies or mudflats, or just to get more quickly out of one thicket and into another. This time I find it somewhat more difficult to keep on the proper course but luckily the clearcut finally reached is only about two hundred metres north of the one I started from and which I was aiming for. The logging road back is fairly long but I was preparing for worse. In fact I am enjoying these last moments in nature, and even more so that feeling of elation which follows successful outdoor ventures.

I had long been keen to visit Clendinning Provincial Park, discover its landscapes, immerse in its wilderness: this trip fully met my expectations. Thanks now to first-hand knowledge of the terrain new perspectives for more open-up, and my motivation is intact.

The car is reached at 3pm, nine and a half hours after start.


MAPS USED
Elaho to Meager Hiking Trail. Published by the Western Canada Wilderness Committee, May 2002 edition.

Clendenning Creek (92 J/5) and Mount Dalgleish (92 J/12). 1: 50,000. Produced by the Surveys and Mapping Branch, Department of Energy, Mines and Resources, Government of Canada, from aerial photographs taken in 1970.

Links to external websites:

[wb1]  BC Parks website - British Columbia government website of all provincial parks, including Clendinning.

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The Author Nicolas Chappaz

In the forest Some big trees are seen, 1.5m (5 ft) in diameter perhaps, but no real giant. On the whole in this part of the forest the undergrowth is not too thick and does not make progress unpleasant. Photo NC.

The lake on the forested plateau. There are several little lakes in an area where the mountainside forms a wide plateau, near 1000-1100 m.

Tarns near the alpine Nearing the alpine, the forest cover opens up perhaps more gradually than I would have expected, and a number of beautiful tarns make this “sub-alpine” area very attractive.

The Elaho valley seen from camp Looking down towards the valley, the plateau and its little lakes, midway up mountain, stretch in full view and the river beyond looks very far indeed. Photo NC.

Elaho-Meager junction The heads of the Elaho and Meager valleys merge into a broad basin looking almost like a lowland plain

Summit 7820 (western) In the morning I resume progression by heading towards summit 7820. Photo NC.

The true summit 7820 The main, north, summit is about 500m away across a wide gentle snow saddle. Photo NC.

View of Elaho Mountain From the summit the ridges appear gentle and should be easy to follow, at least for a good distance. Elaho Mt the high summit on the right. Photo NC.

Clendinning Creek For the first time I get a good view of Clendinning Creek’s valley, a deep and steep-sided glacial trough stretching far into the north-west. Photo NC.

Icefield Once up on the other side a wide expanse of snow, almost an ice field, opens up. I make my way just above a series of thin crevasses to a small summit, about 7400’, crowned by a flat rocky area. Photo NC.

Elaho Glacier From camp the Elaho Glacier is visible, with the Manatee Group in th background. Photo NC.

Mystery Summit Could this be Waddington? It is very far, in exactly the right direction, and stands out abover everything else. Photo NC.

Balanced rock Walking down towards Elaho Glacier, beautifully balanced huge granite blocks. Photo NC.

Walking down to the Elaho Galcier On the Elaho Glacier's right bank the slopes are very steep and mostly made of scree and boulders. The forest colonises every more level or sheltered area.

Indian paintbrush Indian paintbrush flowers in the debris slopes above the glacier.

Elaho Glacier tongue General view of the glacier's tongue, with Manatee summits in the background. Toba headwaters just behind the saddle in the shade.

Glacier flats This level area provides fairly safe and easy access to the moraine on the other side (left bank). Some ice mound features are visible in the foreground.

Ice mounds Sharp mounds of ice, up to 1 metre high approximately, covered with a thin layer of sand. Note how the glacier's surface around is bare.

Elaho River heads The Elaho River flows between ice cliffs as out of a canyon.

Saddle close-up Looking south-west across the saddle towards the upper Elaho Glacier and the Clendinning summits on its right bank.

Saddle lake One of several small lakes on the saddle, here on the Elaho side with the upper glacier's tongue and side summits in the background.

Toba headwaters On the saddle's north side, the small lakes are the uppermost headwaters of the Toba River.

Toba valley View of the valley from the saddle's high point. In contrast with the Elaho side, here the valley is completely forested up to the saddle.

Moraine flowers Many flowers add a variety of colours to the side moraine's bleaker colours.

Glacial streams Later, in the heat of the day, melting surface ice forms a maze of little streams often ending up in holes (moulins) that go right through the glacier's thickness and down to the sub-glacier's stream.

Glacier retreat Near the Elaho Glacier's snout, a side glacier has retreated up-slope, leaving bare rocks in its former bed. The side moraine is clearly visible on the right. As a result the Elaho Glacier's right side is no longer fed with ice and may in time disappear.

The way back to camp Back across the Elaho Glacier, a 3000 vertical feet gain up debis slopes then on snow leads back to camp.

Camp This gentle 7400' summit overlooking both Elaho and Clendinning valleys provides a sheltered area for camp. Icefield behind to the south-east with the Pemberton Icefield in the distance.

Hanging lake Hundreds of metres below camp, this lake at the end of a glacial tongue hangs precipitously above the Clendinning valley.

Sunrise on the ridges Clendinning-Sims Creek divide mountains (Clendinning Creek's right side) in the rising sun.

Morning light in the Clendinning Valley Sunlight makes a bright cover to the valley's remaing darkness.

Icy lake Passing by the icy lake, about 1800m (6000'), on the way back down to the Elaho Valley.

Forest bridges Fallen trees help cross gullies and streams.

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