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Sunday, July 25, 2010

Mount Albert Edward

Mount Albert Edward is situated in Strathcona Provincial Park, east of Buttle Lake and west of Courtenay, on Vancouver Island. Since moving to the island in 2006, I had heard many stories about Mount Albert Edward, especially stories about ptarmigan. Though Justin Lynch and I got 12 of these elusive birds on Mount Cain, it didn’t dissuade me from wanting to travel to the hallowed breeding grounds on Albert Edward.
Having dipped my toes on some easier alpine excursions on Mount Coakley, Mount Arrowsmith, Victoria Peaks and Mount Cain, I felt ready for a much more challenging hike. I was wrong. I was, absolutely, not ready!
After a restless sleep, I crawled out of bed and cancelled the snooze button. It was 4:45 a.m. Before my morning fix of caffeine, I guzzled my second big glass of water of the day. Hydrating the night before and in the morning was another good tip I had learned from Justin. With all of my ablutions taken care of, I sat outside our house and waited. Being a smoker, a fact I have omitted throughout this blog, I enjoyed my second cup of coffee and a cigarette. Un-judged, I stared into space, running scenarios through my mind on how the day would play out. My thoughts were interrupted with the sight and sound of a Toyota 4 x 4 coming down our road; its headlights catching me stubbing out another cigarette butt in the dirt. I grabbed my backpack, pushed it through the open back window of the truck and jumped in the front.
We arrived at our start point, Raven Lodge, at 6:50 a.m. Raven Lodge is a cross-country facility located below the Mount Washington Alpine Resort. Ten-minutes later we were ready, though we pondered for a while on whether we should pack snowshoes. The notice in the parking lot clearly stated that there was a lot of snow. If it was hard-packed, we could easily walk across it in hiking boots, but we didn’t know. We erred on the side of caution and strapped a little more weight to our packs.
The first two hours flew by.  The initial easy boardwalk trail past Paradise Meadows, linked up with a wooded trail, which skirted Lake Helen Mackenzie, then to our first stop; the rangers cabin. Here we relaxed for a while and had our first snack of the day, boiled eggs and a protein bar. Within minutes, four Gray Jays arrived and kept us company until they’d had their fill of trail mix.
Rangers Cabin
We continued our westerly route past Whiskey Meadows and began the long slog to Circlet Lake. Snowshoes came in handy on one part of this trek, though they were used more out of interest than necessity. En-route, we made frequent stops and an hour-long respite just before Circlet Lake. Here we shared our shady nook with a family group of Gray Jays, including two juvenile birds. It was at this point; we made our decision to hide the snowshoes in a small wooded area, as they were more of a hindrance than help now. Re-hydrated and fed we continued on.
Gray Jay
The following hours were slow going and a real grind. Added to the gradual climb in elevation, my ankles began to give me some problems; initially an aggravation but soon turning into a very uncomfortable situation. I tried both loosening and tightening my boots and this seemed to work for a while. Once into the alpine, I began to focus more on looking for ptarmigan than staring at the ground and repeating the words to myself; one foot in front of the other Rich!
feeling my years
We reached the plateau below the main ridge at about 5:00 p.m. Here we rested for half an hour, replenishing our water from a run-off and eating some more protein foods before attempting the final ascent. Even before we set-off on the last push a little voice inside my head began whispering, give up, this is madness. This voice had been my travel companion on many excursions over the years. With a deep breath I soldiered on. To countermeasure this murmur of doubt and surrender, I forced myself to think of other challenges that I had experienced and conquered. While doing this I kept my head down, not looking up, not wanting to know how much further we had to go. Placing one foot in front of the other, neatly and precisely, I followed the footprints of the man in front of me. My old mantra returned: I love the army and the food is great. I love the army and the food is great.
Justin Lynch - the last push
At the end of the ridge and at the beginning of the main slope we stopped again. Exhausted and in pain I dropped my pack to the ground, sat on a rock and looked up the slope. The mountain was physically and emotionally breaking my spirit. I felt overwhelmed. All day long the mountain had played tricks on me. Seemingly, getting closer, only to be further away at every milestone. As I stared at this impossible slope I silently cursed the mountain. Justin’s voice brought me back to planet earth. I looked up at him and he looked as fresh as when we had started, eleven hours earlier. The bottom-line for me was I ready to quit, and I voiced this to Justin. He just smiled. “This is it. This is the final leg. You will never be back here to do it again and there is no way your not going to the summit.”
We stashed our backpacks on the slope; Justin pulled a small bundle out of his bag, smaller than a fist. This transformed into a mini daypack in which he carried some snacks and our drinks. I adjusted my boots again and began the final ascent. Approximately half way up the slope Justin pointed out a bird sitting on a rock. I raised my bins to see an American Pipit. It was preening on one of the alpine islands not covered in snow. Perfect breeding habitat for this bird, though we didn’t get any evidence to back this up, only that this individual was there.
            It probably took about twenty minutes from the pipit to reach the top. Once there, Justin ushered me to the highest point before handing out the high-fives. I was too knackered to be euphoric, I was just glad to stop. However, euphoria was on the cards! Not only had we made it to the summit, we also found a family group of Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch! There were two juveniles and two adults.
Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch
            After resting and enjoying these alpine specialties and the magnificent views, we began, for the first time in a while, to head down hill. I was relieved, proud and for the first time in a few hours, happy. At the bottom of the slope we followed the ridge back down towards where we had hidden our packs. We chatted about how cool it would be to finish our quest with a ptarmigan, but not really believing it could happen. I stopped for a washroom break, as did Justin, though his needed somewhat more privacy than mine. Justin disappeared over some boulders near the edge of the ridge, only to reappear seconds later. I quizzically watched him as he made frantic hand gestures, pointing below his position. I frowned and called, “Rosy-Finch?” He shook his head. This could only mean one thing! I hobbled at a good pace to where he was crouched. I followed the line of his pointed finger. On a rock, 18 ft in front of us was a White-tailed Ptarmigan with five young! We watched this family group for about twenty minutes, both female and young, pecking at the heather shoots, until finally all five young took refuge under her breast feathers. It was absolutely wonderful to witness this unique discovery and what better way to finish our day’s journey.
Summit of Albert Edward

White-tailed Ptarmigan
ptarmigan chick
            After locating our packs we made good headway in two hours, out of the core area. Sometime after 9:00 p.m. we decided to stop and set up camp, which was just as well, as I couldn’t have gone another step. We both had packed light, having a sleeping bag, bivi bag and roll mat each. After a disgusting boil in the bag curry meal and two cups of hot chocolate we both crashed out.
            The following morning we had apple and cinnamon instant oatmeal for breakfast, packed up, made a clean sweep of the area and headed out. It took about 6 ½ hours to make it to the truck. En-route, my ankles, particularly my left, gave me severe grief. We stopped at one point and Justin strapped it with surgical tape and padding, alleviating much of the pain. At Helen Mackenzie Lake we stopped once more, as we had reached the beginning of the boardwalk trail. Here, I exchanged my boots that had held me prisoner for the last 24 hours for a pair of flip-flops. Heaven! We arrived back at the truck at 1:30 p.m. We grabbed some food and drinks in Courtenay and headed home.

Not a bad place to crash out