A Solo Hike of Phillips Ridge at Strathcona Park
During the summer of 2015 I became mildly obsessed with the idea of a solo backpacking trip. I saw it as a rite of passage. My friends saw it as a symptom of impending insanity.
I chose Phillips Ridge in the farthest reaches of the Strathcona wilderness, an area where I had no knowledge of the trails or terrain.
I thought about all the people who hike solo, focussing on those who didn’t die. Besides, I was convinced that this small adventure was going to be good for me: the solitude, the peace, the serenity – and being alone without any electronic distraction.
When I told Julie I was hiking solo, she asked if I thought that was a good idea. I said, “Sure.” Paul offered to lend me his Spot, an SOS system that would send in the troops complete with helicopters if and when I tumbled down a gully and fractured my leg, ribs or, more likely, my thick skull. “No thanks,” I said.
So what I’m really saying is, “Don’t try this at home.”
On Thursday, September 11, I began my preparations. After an hour of packing and ticking off items on my list, I felt ready. I had food, water, warm clothing, my tent, sleeping bag, air mattress and a rudimentary first aid kit. I was reluctant to “overpack”, meaning that I likely didn’t include items that other backpackers counted as essential – like a map and compass and extra food “just in case.” I was willing to give up added security for less weight.
Again – let me stress – “Don’t try this at home!”
The parking area is the trailhead for Mount Myra as well as Phillips Ridge and the Golden Hinde, the highest peak on Vancouver Island. I pulled up and eased myself into the straps of my pack. As always, I was surprised at how much thirty plus pounds weighs, especially when you only weight 100 pounds yourself. I was even more amazed that I was about to ascend at least a couple of thousand metres and not just stagger across the parking lot.
My peace and joy increased in equal measure with each step.
My trepidation about this expedition disappeared seconds after setting foot on the trail. Hiking with a full backpack up a thousand metres or more of switchbacks requires simply putting your head down and getting the job done. It was a beautiful early fall day. The light of the sun filtered faintly through the ancient trees in the lower switchbacks and more strongly through the sparser undergrowth as the trail gained altitude. My peace and joy increased in equal measure with each step.
So did my discomfort.
My bag began to put pressure on various bones, tendons, and muscles in my back and shoulders. But all it took was time – and stubbornness – for the aches and pains to drop away as I continued to climb. My thoughts dissipated in the clear mountain air. All I had was the next step and the one after that. This is my meditation. It may not look like bliss, but it is.
About three hours after setting out, I arrived at Arnica Lake: an official campsite where I stopped to devour a monster sandwich, thereby lightening my pack and stuffing my stomach with the best meal I’d have for the next few days. It was also the real beginning of my trek: from here the well-marked trail ended and the route began.
If you love the alpine, it quickly becomes evident that Phillips Ridge is going to serve it up in gigantic portions.
I worked my way around the left side of the lake. That was a mistake: the proper trail winds around the opposite shoreline. I crashed through the brush, scaring away real or imaginary bears, and eventually found myself on the fairly well marked route, moving out of old forest into subalpine meadows. Long views of surrounding peaks opened up. Tarns littered themselves along the trail. If you love the alpine, it quickly becomes evident that Phillips Ridge is going to serve it up in gigantic portions.
The trail continued up and then the first distant view of the Golden Hinde! I caught my breath, and not just because it was the tallest peak on the island, but because it has that certain magic about it that all such peaks do. I had no wish to conquer her. It’s not for me to conquer a peak, rather to move toward one, embrace it, walk up its majestic slopes and reach the top, sharing its beauty and the far reaches of its vision.
I plodded on, lost in purple poetic prose until I arrived at a set of tarns in the late afternoon. I slid the pack off my back (ahhh!) and set up camp. I brought my little jetboil stove to the plateau’s edge where I heated up my rice and beans and ate slowly while I watched the sun slip behind the peaks, turning my world to molten gold, orange, red, purple and finally, indigo. And then to bed. Okay, I said to myself, now it’s time to get scared. There could be bears out there. I checked – my bear spray and knife were close at hand. Right. So – where was the fear? Come on, I said, I’m ready for you.
My eyes closed. I listened to the wind in the trees that occasionally flapped the thin material of my little vestibule – and fell asleep.
I woke early and hiked to the crest of the plateau and there it was – the first red ray, and then another – then a burst of colour, transforming the surrounding mountains into giant gold nuggets. By seven-thirty I had eaten my oatmeal and strapped on my now light and manageable pack.
It was tough going and challenging route-finding.
The first test of the day was climbing the high ridge: a scramble that involved rocks, roots, and gnarled tree branches for handholds. At the top I encountered a sea of crags, scree, and sparsely scattered tarns. It was tough going and challenging route-finding. Without a GPS, I had to depend on spotting cairns along the way. In a sea of white rock, the route blazers had built small rock mounds out of white (!) rocks, which they had judiciously placed far apart so that you would not be able to see one until you had already left the last one behind. There are those who say this is the proper way of marking trails. You mustn’t spoil the scenery with lots of trail markers. There is another school of thought that says, “ Where’s Waldo?”
I spent the day distinctly attached to the latter group.
I hiked slowly, not just because I had to play hide and seek with trail markers but also because I had to embed the route in my mind. Important information: the way back looks vastly different from the way you came.
Unlike fairly level ridges, Phillips Ridge has significant elevation gain and loss through its entire length. I trudged on until I arrived at what appeared to be an impasse: a high cliff where the route ended. I edged along the face until I found a handhold and then a foothold, then another handhold – and then it was too late to turn back. I scrambled diagonally up. Three steps, four, five – a few more – and with one big heave I pulled myself to the top.
In the rarefied air, I felt that I could almost reach out and touch her.
I could now see the Golden Hinde clearly. In the rarefied air, I felt that I could almost reach out and touch her. But I knew it would take an additional two days to reach the summit. My aim was the top of the mountain just before the Hinde. Twenty minutes later I stopped. Had I done more research, I might have known how the ridge ended. But I hadn’t and here I was on the high edge. Below me was the valley where a blue lake sparkled in the sun. Further on, was a string of postcard-perfect tarns, and beyond them, the peak I’d decided was my picnic spot for the day – still four hours off.
This was my turnaround. After a lunch of cheese and crackers, I arrived back at my tent at about four p.m. There, I rewarded myself with the most important of my food rations – organic, rich dark chocolate. Never had chocolate tasted so good.
The next morning I woke to find that a cool mist had descended during the night, bringing heavy dew and a chill to the air. I bundled up and cooked my oatmeal, at the same time taking down my tent and spreading it, the fly and groundsheet over bushes to dry. As the morning warmed, I shook the last of the dew droplets from my tent, packed up and headed downhill.
By the time I got to the car I was tired, a bit sore, and supremely happy. I heaved my backpack into the trunk and started to drive. At lunch time I devoured my final piece of chocolate and I do believe it tasted even better than the chunk I’d devoured the day before.
Follow your bliss and don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone. Solo hiking is good for the soul.
Favorite Gear Used:
Love my Big Agnes tent: lightweight and so easy to put up and take down.
Gear They Wished They Brought:
Without the warmth of down, I was just a touch chilly at night.
Favorite Meal or Snack:
Well (duh) dark chocolate of course. And I have also found over many backpacking trips that those packaged dinners get boring and tasteless pretty quickly, Dehydrate your own meals if you can – or bring along hard boiled eggs, crackers, hard cheeses, carrots – anything that’s fresh.
Maps, Routes and GPS Information
Route Statistics: 17.15 miles (27.60km), 5410′ (1649m) vertical elevation
Caltopo Map: https://caltopo.com/m/51H0