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Comox Range Traverse Attempt: Strathcona Provincial Park, Raven Lodge to Ralph Ridge

Last week my wife Meaghan and I attempted to hike the Comox Range in Strathcona Park, from Raven Lodge to Flower Ridge via Mt Harmston. Trip reports gave the impression of a tough yet doable mountaineering trek. Things did not go according plan...

We dropped one car at the Flower Ridge parking lot Sunday Morning and drove back to Raven Lodge. The first day it started to rain and we spent the first day at Circlet Lake. 

On the way we met our friend Brianna at Battleship Lake, who was excited for our trek, but warned us that she had attempted it and turned back, and had heard of friends of hers who had to get evac'ed from Icerberg Peak on Reese Ridge. At Circlet Lake we met a nice and experienced lady named Susan (and a couple friends), who warned us that you need to be 'tough' for the Comox Range Traverse, and that she (too) knew people who recently got evac'ed from Reese Ridge, as well as people who decided to turn back. So, we knew it was going to be challenging.

(Thank Meaghan for the excellent GPS tracks from Strava, though their time values were off by a full half because of slow alpine movement and breaks. I didn't keep a complete GPS to save batteries.)

The next day started clear and sunny, and we headed up towards Mt Frink via the Mt Albert-Edward trail. Cutting off of the tail to Frink the trail changed to a route with the occasional rock cairn, but it was straight forward and slabby to get to the top. We had lunch at the top with excellent views.

The climb down Mt Frink towards Mt George V presented the trek's first challenges. There is tricky route finding among mostly loose rocks. There is a 4th class step that's about 12' high that we took our packs off for.

About 2/3 of the way down we took a wrong turn and ended up going down a very bushy gully that seemed like other people had tried, but we got cliffed out. After deciding that this trek was COMPLETELY out of our league, defeated, dejected and frustrated, we turned back up the gully. We decided to look a bit to the NW and quickly found the REAL route (wooooo!) down a well flagged and cairned (see map above) route. After some more route finding along some somewhat tricky and bushy sections we got to the pass/saddle between Frink and George V.

Not wanting to burn out (especially after the drama of the bushy gully), we set up camp early, among the tarns. We enjoyed a nice but very windy and occasionally rainy evening. 

The next morning was again clear, but we were a little worried about the ascent to get up to the W ridge of Mt George V. Turns out it was very straight forward on mostly slab, skirting some talus. Once on the ridge its a straight forward ascent. There are two options to get past George V - going over the top (the technically easy, more physical effort way), or following an occasionally exposed talus slope along the south face of George V (the scarier and lazier way we went. Buuut: we didn't know going over George V would be so straight forward and the talus way is easily seen).

After this talus we crossed the saddle between George V and Peak 1920 (actually 1931m high). 1920 looks imposing at first, but from the saddle there is a nice route at the mountain's west end which goes up to the mostly slabby upper portion of that mountain. We saw a couple of people heading up the slab nearing the top of 1920, we yelled Hello, but we were too far away to communicate beyond this. 

At the top we took some pics and appreciated the views. We headed down a scree gully just W of the peak, which heads S onto a wide and steep scree slope going down to the flatter area about 100m+ below. There is an alternate route if you head E along the narrow ridge from the peak of Peak 1920 to a long ledge which ends up half way down the scree. Half-way down the scree slope we saw the other pair of mountaineers who took the narrow ridge and were on the ledge. The pair met us at the bottom of the scree. They were Tom and Doug, a couple of good dudes and seasoned hikers attempting the Traverse as a 30-year bucket list item. We also discovered that one of Meaghan's trusty 17-year old boots had its it tread starting to delaminate from the boot itself at the toe. Not a good sign.

We left Tom and Doug and continued S along the ridge between peaks 1920 and 1909, a straight forward affair. 

From the top of Peak 1909, we heard that you have to find your way down the SW slope to a small lake at the head of the Siokum Creek. From the top of 1909 we followed cairns along the ridge. Being enticed by even the remote possibility of a short-cut to the saddle, we decided to follow the ridge (past the cairns) as far as we could, which ends at a 50m+ bluff just above the saddle between Siokum Mtn and Peak 1909. So no luck: DEAD END at the end of the ridge. 

We headed back, keeping as far down along the ridge as we could on the SW side. We found cairns again, but ended up at a dead end except for a deep, wet, narrow, 200m+ long gully full of big, loose boulders, heading down perpendicular to the ridge (NW), ending at a wide talus slope about 1/2 of the way down the valley. Sections in it would require down climbing. With nerves fraying, I dropped my pack and looked around for alternatives. We decided the gully was the best option short of hiking back up the ridge and starting the route finding from scratch - other trip reports indicated that the route followed a long, narrow, horizontal scree line (about 3/4 up the way up the ridge) to a long, steep gully heading to the valley bottom. Looking at this other route from our vantage point, it didn't look very promising. 

Thankfully I brought a 2000lb rated Dyneema kite line for emergencies, so I doubled it up and hip-friction-belayed Meaghan and the packs, and self-cowboy-belayed-climbed myself, down the two short sections of the gully that required it (low 5th-class wet down climbs. tip: Bring some climbing gear for these parts, at least a short rap-line, slings and small trad gear). There were tears and frustration. We found a carabiner at the bottom of the gully (score!), indicating that other folks had gone through similar trials. Later we heard this gully has snow in it well into the summer, and there was snow at the bottom when we did it.

At the bottom of the deep gully we found ourselves on the large (and stable) talus slope. Meaghan's boot had come apart considerably more in the trial of the gully (we repaired it - mostly - it with a bit of the kite line), but we were otherwise relieved to be past the worst of it. We headed down, following flagging at the SE end of the talus (THANK YOU to the people flagging this part, the way is otherwise unclear among the trees and small cliff-bands). About 30 minutes of mild bush-whacking later, we found ourselves at the tarn at the head of Siokum Creek. Like the day before, we set up camp a bit earlier than we expected, our nerves and legs being fairly 'cooked' from the day's exertions.

After we set up camp we took a walk along the gravel stream bed to the small turquoise lake a bit downstream. We saw a large bear on the way, though it was definitely more scared of us (Meaghan later remarked to a friend that encountering a big bear, deep in the wild, > 100m away, without bear-spray, was the least stressful part of the day). 

After some quick pics we went back to camp. At this point we saw Tom and Doug at the top of the 50m bluff above the tarn (at the bottom of the large talus slope), so we had to yell to communicate. They took a higher route down from 1909, and it took them a couple of tries to find a way. They didn't find the flagging at the bottom of the slope, and ended up NW of it. We pointed to the approximate way we went down to the valley bottom (300-400m to the SE), but they were 'cooked' too and decided to set up camp on the bluff.

Back at camp we considered our options. We weren't too tired, but the last two days were trying on the nerves and more challenging than expected. We knew that more (and potentially worse) was in store if we continued towards Mt Harmston via Reese Ridge - in the last 3 days we had heard of several groups turning back or getting evac'ed. Also Meaghan's boots were in bad shape: one tread was 2/3 delaminated, and the other one had started delaminating too. Her knee was also hurting a bit. So we made the decision to cut the trip short and take Ralph Ridge out. 

The decision to cut the trip short relieved tensions, and we enjoyed the rest of the evening in the beautiful valley between peaks 1909 and Siokum Mtn (and set up a proper bear hang ;).

The next day started partly enveloped in cloud. We ate, packed up and headed up to Ralph Ridge, following the cairns. The way up is fairly straight-forward. 

As we were going to be heading W along Ralph Ridge, we decided to go to the west of a prominent subpeak. We scoped out the eastern side, and looking at it there (and to a picture I took the previous day of the ridge), it appeared that the E side of the subpeak, as well as the W side, was potentially impassible due to the bluffs and narrow looking gullies - the same things that the previous day gave us so much trouble. So we double backed and went to the W side of the subpeak. After navigating some small 3rd/4th class gullies and talus, we got to a spot where the only way around the top of a deep, steep, long and dangerous gully required climbing about 10m of low 5th class with some exposure, leading to a treed ledge. We decided to climb it, which was equally terrifying and exhilarating. The ledge led to the top of Ralph Ridge. Upon making the ridge, we realized that going over the subpeak was (likely) much easier and safer, and there was (likely) even a way to make Ralph Ridge from the S side of it, going part way down the valley on the other side (Delight Lake is in the valley on the other side).

For the next couple of hours we hiked W along Ralph Ridge. Its was very scenic up there, and uneventful. Tip: at the last km or so of the high part of Ralph Ridge, there is an almost flat meadow on a shelf/ledge along that whole part, about 100-200m S of the actual top of the ridge. It proved the easiest walking on the trek since Battleship Lake. It was a reprieve for what we knew would come next...

After a nice big lunch (we had 4-5 extra days of food...) at the W end of the high part of Ralph Ridge, we started the great bushwhack of the trek. The idea is to keep to the highest part of land as the ridge drops down steeply to Buttle Lake. You will be dodging cliffs and bluffs quite a bit, but we found it not bad to navigate around. At first, follow a SW-W-NW dog-leg for about 1km that stays above a big gully which flows NNW. Then head WNW, staying on/near the highest portion of Ralph Ridge as you descend towards the Ralph River Interpretive Trail. The bushwacking was B3/B4, easing to B3/B2/B1 as the subalpine brush dissipated to more open, dry forest, though still steep and bluffy. About half way down we found a very well flagged route, which made travel considerably faster and easier through the lower elevation brush (but still B3), and led us straight to the interpretive trail after 4 hours of descending. FYI there was no water on the descent.

Thus concluded a very challenging and cut short, yet also quite satisfying, trip. We went for a dip in Buttle, had refreshments waiting in the car, and life was good. Until next time!


Anonymous said…
Rees Ridge, not Reese!
Anonymous said…
There is an easier gully down to the Siokum Valley and there are cairns leading to it. I don't know how you missed them. My partner and I did that route in July and had no trouble at all finding the cairns and the easy green gully. No ropes needed. As for descending Ralph, there are cairns near where you drop down into the bush and then there are flags. I think you should work on your route finding.

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