Brunswick Mountain (NE Couloir)

March 17, 2018


Lions Bay / North Shore Mountains, BC

Brunswick Mountain is a bulk massif towering more than one vertical mile above Lions Bay and itself is more well-known as the highest peak along Howe Sound Crest Trail of our local North Shore Mountains. The peak can be easily ascended in summer conditions with much of the ascent done on a trail. The traverse to the true summit requires some scrambling with moderate exposure but nothing worth noting for a seasoned mountaineer. The route that caught my attention is NE Couloir – aesthetic, not overly difficult but somewhat “secret” at least on the internet. The only beta comes from a couple old trip reports on ClubTread. I’ve seen this couloir when I did a winter ascent of Mt. Hanover a year or two ago and since then I’ve determined to save Brunswick Mtn. for the NE Couloir route.

There are reasons why the NE Couloir of Brunswick Mountain is not, and will never be as popular as the nearby North Ramp of Mt. Harvey. Apart from being shorter and easier, this route is much less direct that after finishing the climb one would have to traverse the entire summit ridge that’s often heavily corniced. This route is better known as a secret local ski classic but I don’t consider myself as a skier so I’m not commenting from that point of view. This past Saturday saw the avalanche condition dropping down to L/L/L that I felt comfortable charging up any steep slope I wanted. The weather wasn’t 100% stable but reasonable enough… Lily Q. and Gloria L. expressed their interest in climbing the NE Couloir and I figured it’s indeed a great route to introduce them into winter mountaineering.

Brunswick Mtn. via NE Couloir/Traverse. GPX DL

Not knowing exactly how long the day would be we opted to start very early. I woke up at around 4 am, picked up Lily and then Gloria from different places and eventually started the plod by 5:30 am. The initial few kilometers felt very familiar as this was my 4th time hiking the logging roads above Lions Bay. The only thing I needed to pay attention was not missing the Brunswick’s turn-off but such thing was impossible with a handheld GPS unit and a pre-drawn track. The spur road after Brunswick’s turn-off was a little bit overgrown. The only feature worth noting is the narrow-and-slippery foot bridge crossing Magnesia Creek. Patchy snow started around 700 m elevation and soon became continuous. Thank to the cloudy skies the snow hadn’t undergone any overnight freeze so we soon don snowshoes. The rest of the plod to the end of this spur road was uneventful where we took the first break of this day.

Snowshoeing up the upper spur road. Note the morning horizon behind.

Morning view looking down at Bowen Island

The second stage of this trip was grunting up the steep Brunswick’s trail. This trail is well marked and maintained but not very easy to follow in winter. We followed a set of boot tracks for a while but they soon disappeared in deep snow. Perhaps the previous party turned around for not bringing snowshoes but we never knew. Continuing uphill we encountered some very steep forested terrain and too lazy to stay on the “trail” I just led the way straight up. Finding the path with the least resistance/bushwhack wasn’t too difficult and we did make progress quickly. A solo skier/paraglider passed us at this stage and oddly enough he’s also going for the NE Couloir.

This is the steep and bushy section. We went straight up ignoring the trails

At places we had to hands-down and crawling

At least the weather’s clearing up with blue skies above.

After what seemed like a long while the grade eased off and then we came to the point that the previous skier had bailed the Brunswick’s trail into the bowl below Hat Pass. The place he bailed the ridge seemed too early but at least it’s “proved”. The initial stretch looked very steep so we spent some time switching gears from snowshoes to ice axe and crampons. On hindsight we could have ditched the snowshoes here but not knowing the exact conditions we opted to carry them. Not the best decision. This meant we would have to haul the snowshoes all the way up the NE Couloir, over the summit and down the west ridge.. Did we end up using the snowshoes along this stage? Not even for one minute… The ascent to Hat Pass involved some moderate post-holing on top of the skier’s track and then down the other side we got to see some impressive ice waterfalls cascading down the north face of Brunswick Mtn.

The grade eased off eventually.

Through thinning forest we could see Howe Sound

This is the spot that skier took off towards Hat Pass. We followed.

Traversing down from Brunswick’s ridge into the bowl under Hat Pass

Up and over Hat Pass we were on the north side of Brunswick Mtn.

Traversing steep north-facing slopes following the ski tracks

These waterfalls look fat. Ice climbers?

More traversing while losing elevation

There’s about 100-150 m elevation loss into the north side bowl before we could finally do a rising traverse line up into the “upper bowl” leading towards the NE Couloir. The couloir itself wasn’t very obvious but first of all we were following the skin tracks and secondly we could see the skier bootpacking into the lower entrance. Getting to the base of that couloir took us quite a while and then we did another lengthy break at the same place that skier transitioned to boot-packing. The snow was still in the powdery winter form so our decision was to solo the entire couloir using one ice axe and one pole. The grade went at about 50 degrees at the steepest and the climb was fairly sustained. Above the couloir we also had another short, less steep but more exposed pitch to get onto the east summit.

A look at Hat Mountain from the north side of Brunswick

Finally starting to gain height again. Me ascending into the upper bowl.

In the upper bowl now but the view is very foreshortening

Approaching the base of NE Couloir. Slowly but steadily…

The view’s getting more and more alpine..

This is the classic view of Mt. Hanover with its south face couloirs.

Can you spot a skier coming down the NE Couloir?

The solo skier (John) finishing his line.

It’s time to start our own climb. The grade’s getting steeper finally

Entering the couloir proper

Me and Gloria charging up.

Looking down at Gloria and Lily in the middle of NE Couloir

I topped out of the couloir and took this shot towards the true summit

Gloria and Lily finishing the NE Couloir

Panorama from the east summit. Click to view large size.

Mt. Harvey and its north face looking small from here.

The highlight of this trip was actually the summit ridge traverse – aesthetic position, great lighting and some alpine feel thank to the massive cornices. The snow condition was deteriorating quickly under the strong March sun that we had to constantly deal with weak spots and deep post-holes. There’s one 10-meter pitch about halfway over to the true summit that appeared challenging. The snow was isothermal slush that I couldn’t get any grip but I did manage to struggle up using rocks and vege belays. At this point it seemed foolish to rush and I did see a small tree as a top anchor so belayed Lily and Gloria up. And then we continued another pitch using tree stations before switching back to soloing mode. The rest of the ascent to the true summit wasn’t difficult but still required caution.

Descending off the east peak and starting the ridge traverse

As typical as the first section goes. Lots of cornices to avoid

Me starting the crux section along ridge traverse. Photo by Gloria L.

Lily coming up the steep pitch. This is the only spot we used a rope.

Gloria and Lily continuing the traverse with the east summit behind

The true summit ahead.

The view looking south into the rest of Howe Sound Group was amazing

Upwards and onward

Me climbing up the last few steps to true summit. Photo by Lily Q.

Summit Panorama from Brunswick Mountain. Click to view large size.

The east summit under sunshine with dark clouds behind

Crown Mountain massif rises behind Enchantment Peak

The Lions are the icon of Vancouver’s North Shore Mountains

A wider view looking at the lower west summits

The other party on the west summit looking at us.

Me on the summit of Brunswick Mountain

Another party that later recognized me out on Instagram had just made back to the west summit so there’s some good news for us. The traverse from true to west summit already had a set of tracks and that further meant the descent down west ridge would also have a set of broken tracks. With that in mind we did a lengthy stay on the summit soaking in the views. We did nothing but relaxing for at least half an hour. Eventually we realized the time’s slowly getting on… The traverse to the west summit involved a couple narrow spots with huge cornices that’s hard to tell the boundary, but with the previous party’s tracks we had no route-finding challenge to deal with.

Traversing towards the west peak now

As corniced as it looked here…

Lily carefully negotiating a narrow and exposed spot..

For some reason I really like this picture.

Me posing on one of the west summits. Photo by Lily Q.

From the west summit we had to face about 200 m of steep descent off the upper west ridge. None of us was looking forward to this stretch given the slushy conditions but it was actually not too bad. The previous party had eliminated our route-finding plus they also made tracks for us. There’s one spot that we had to down-climb a rock step that felt a bit challenging with crampons on but elsewhere the going was pretty easy. Lower down we plunged in the forest following again, the previous parties’ tracks that the snowshoes stayed strapped on our backpacks until hitting the upper logging roads. Descending the logging roads was definitely easier with snowshoes on but at the end we had to do another transition to take them off. The last few kilometers was a mind-numbing slog. We caught up the other party and had some discussion about today’s adventure.

This is looking north down into Deek Lakes valley

Lots of post-holing coming off the steep slopes on upper west ridge

Howe Sound as glorious as it sounds

Another look into Howe Sound.

I don’t know why but we had to down-climb a rock step with crampons on….

Hat Mountain under sunshine

Plunging down the steep forest. It went on and on and on…

Snowshoeing down the spur road.

Afternoon sun beams through the woods.

This is that slippery foot bridge I mentioned earlier.

In the end our round trip time was about 12 hours which seems standard for this route. The climbing quality is great except for the actual couloir itself seems a bit too short for a “classic route”, but overall I would definitely say this route deserves more attention than what it seems. The only downside is the 1400 m steep ascent just to get there but that’s the standard for you climbing in the west coast of British Columbia.