Columnar Peak

November 11, 2018


Squamish / Garibaldi Provincial Park, BC

After a couple weeks’ absence from the mountains I was looking at this Remembrance Day long weekend – three days in a roll of sunshine but unfortunately I had work commitment for the entire period. At the last minute I managed to clean Sunday out of the way but then it was too late to make any thoughtful plan. I made a spontaneous decision at 8 am in the morning and the plan was to check off some minor summits by Elfin Lakes trail in the southern Garibaldi Provincial Park. Over nine years ago in my high school days I paid my first visit to this area with ascents of Opal Cone and The Gargoyles and then in the spring of 2016 I successfully climbed Atwell Peak and traversed over Diamond Head on skis. This two trips combined had left Columnar Peak and Round Mountain behind. I was in no rush returning for the two small peaks but I figured a late-season hike would make sense given the expansive vistas. In terms of how much snow had accumulated in the alpine I had little idea. I debated but decided to not bring snowshoes.

Columnar Peak via Saddle Trail. GPX DL

In less than two hours I had driven my Tacoma up the increasingly steep Ring Creek FSR and I have to say that the last two kilometers were quite rough for a “park’s road” status. I would not want to drive a small car up this access road even though half of the vehicles parked there were “cars”. I quickly geared up and stated the plod at around 10 am, as non-alpine as it sounds. The trail was much drier than expected and I did not touch snow/ice until very much close to Red Heather Shelter. I sped my pace up and increased my ambition to tag the farther Columnar Peak instead of the uninspiring Round Mountain. The hike upwards into the alpine traversing the north flanks of Round Mtn. was very scenic with Atwell Peak and Mt. Tantalus stealing the show. The sky was cloudier than forecasted though.

As typical as the initial 5 km slog to Red Heather Meadows

The first unobstructed view of Mt. Tantalus

Upwards ascending into the alpine.

The view completely opens up now. This is looking at Atwell Peak

Catching up two hikers near the highpoint on Paul Ridge

From the highpoint on Paul Ridge the trail then drops ~200 vertical meters down to the Insta-famed Elfin Lakes and the shelter. The lakes were entirely frozen but not snow-covered yet making some decent photography opportunities. Unfortunately I’m not much of a photographer so after snapping a few obligatory shots I resumed my way descending into the low point, at about 50 vertical meters lower than the lakes. This was where “Saddle Trail” splits off from the main route into the Garibaldi Neve. I turned left and in about 20 minutes I was back into the alpine looking at the distant Columnar/Gargoyles saddle. The view was very foreshortened and I knew from GPS technology that I still had a couple hundred meters’ to go. The previous hikers had done their jobs packing down the trail so all I needed was putting one food in front of another. I could see a lot of boot traffics but I also spotted several sets of tracks made by snowshoeers and skiers. As I gradually ascended into elevation of 1600-1700 m the snow depth increased drastically.

This is just a very small frozen tarn on Paul Ridge

Two hikers on their return hike.

A typical early-November view.

Arriving at the famous Elfin Lakes that everybody knows

Elfin Lakes are fully frozen already making some cool colours

Two bikers showed up.. This trail is busy with all forms of traffic

Down to the lakeshore of the upper Elfin Lake

Pyramid Peak and “Trick Peak” behind the lower Elfin Lake

Fast forward. Ascending the “Saddle Trail” back into the alpine now

More about Saddle Trail. The Gargoyles behind

The summit of Columnar Peak looms above.

Looking back towards Mamquam Mtn. and Icefields

Further up into the alpine bowl east of Columnar/Gargoyles

It was apparent that all of the foot traffics had stopped at the saddle or gone up The Gargoyles. A lone set of snowshoe path continued over the saddle towards Diamond Head, while nobody opted to ascend Columnar Peak. This meant I got to practice my trail-breaking game in the fresh snow. Turning left I immediately encountered knee-deep post-holing and this would last pretty much all the way to the summit. The progress was tiring but satisfying. The ridge wasn’t a cake walk neither with several narrow and bushy spots involving careful bypasses on the climber’s right (west) side. There’s a major false summit to traverse over and the true summit required a bit of snow climbing.

Almost arriving at Columnar/Gargoyles saddle. Note the overcast sky

From the false summit, looking at Sky Pilot Mtn. Group

This is looking at the lowly islands in Howe Sound

Almost arriving at the true summit, looking over a sub-summit

Tantalus Range with the main summit – Mt. Tantalus in show

This is looking straight at Alpha Mountain with Serratus Mtn. behind

The ascent was more involved than anticipated and that was great, but I was very disappointed about the weather. Instead of what’s forecasted to be “sunny” the entire day was pretty much under a layer of high clouds. The clouds was pretty thick at the moment making some flat lighting hence very poor photos. I decided to take a long break first and see whether or not the weather would improve. It sure paid off. I started noticing a band of blue colour far towards the north-western horizon and then gradually the far peaks started to get baked under sunshine. My motivation suddenly got boosted and despite the coldness I managed to linger on the summit for almost an hour.

Summit Panorama from Columnar Peak. Click to view large size.

The north face of Dreadnought Peak by Watersprite Lake

That rugged massif is Mt. Cayley and Pyroclastic Peak

This is looking at Tricouni Peak

A zoomed-in view of Pelion Mountain

Mt. Sedgewick on left; Mt. Pelops/Mt. Niobe on right

A group descending The Gargoyles with Isosceles/Parapet behind

The southern slopes of Diamond Head

A zoomed-in view of SE Face of Atwell Peak

This is a wider view, looking over the false summit

The unofficially named “Trick Peak” with Mamquam Glacier

Mamquam Mountain

The undulating south ridge leading to another sub-summit

A self-timed shot of me heading for the true summit

Me on the summit of Columnar Peak

Panorama looking south from the summit of Columnar Peak. Click to view large size.

Panorama looking north from the summit of Columnar Peak. Click to view large size.

The longer I stayed the better the lights were, but eventually I had to start descending. I also noticed a pair of hikers following my tracks up the ridge so I waited there for another 10 minutes before able to snap some photos of them ascending the true summit’s snow arete. I then jogged down the north ridge into Columnar/Gargoyles saddle and then all the way down to Elfin Lake’s shelter. I took the last lengthy energy before starting the gradual, but long ascent onto Paul Ridge’s highpoint. It was too late to tag Round Mountain and instead I had to turn the head-lamps on. The final 8 or so kilometers slog back to the parking lot was boring as fuck…

The two hikers descending from the false summit

The two hikers now ascending the snow arete to the true summit

Almost arriving back at the false summit

The true summit from the false summit

Another look at Atwell Peak

Pyramid Peak and “Trick Peak” on the northern end of Mamquam Icefield

Looking towards Howe Sound from the false summit of Columnar Peak

One last look at Atwell Peak and Diamond Head

Back to Columnar/Gargoyles saddle, looking back

One last shot of Tantalus Range

Descending into the east side bowl now

Back to the lowest point by Elfin Lakes Shelter

Rejoining the main trail

The lower Elfin Lake

Reflection of Mamquam Mountains on the upper Elfin Lake

Elfin Lakes and Atwell Peak

Hiking back onto the undulating Paul Ridge now. It’s sunset time…

Within 10 minutes I started the drive back home. My round trip time was 8.5 hours and that included the lengthy summit lingering. The round trip distance was around 25-26 km and the cumulative elevation gain was around 1100 m. As always, a small peak always turns out more involved than you might expect, and this is a perfect example. I would highly recommend this objective even for just the views, despite the physical effort required.