Phyllis’ Engine

July 24-25, 2021


Garibaldi Provincial Park, BC

Phyllis’ Engine is a cluster of impressive rock towers on the SE Ridge of Castle Towers with the highest tower resembling the “smokestack” of an engine. The official name is Phyllis’s Engine but the Alpine Select guidebook took out the “s” in the name to correct the grammar. It’s debatable whether this can be considered as a separate summit as it doesn’t really boast over 100 m prominence but the climb is about 100 m long and at a sustained grade of 5.8 even to speak of the easiest route. This tower is also extremely eye-catching for those who had scrambled Castle Towers. I consider Phyllis’ Engine as one of the most technical summits by the easiest possible route in the Sea to Sky region. I had wanted to climb it for a few years but I needed the right team because it’s beyond my league for leading.

A few of my rock climbing friends had happened to have the last weekend of July available so at the last minute I assembled a team for the Engine – Ellie H., Lily Q. and Brayden W. All three of them are much stronger climbers than me and two of them have extensive experience in the rope work associated with multi-pitch climbing in the alpine. With these climbers in the team I had no doubt we would pull the Engine off and in the end we even opted to climb a harder variation line that really put my rock climbing skills in test. The approach to Phyllis’ Engine is a long and contrived one so our plan was to break it down into two days. Part of me was also looking forward to the scenic camp on Polemonium Ridge because when I did Castle Towers 6 years ago or the closer Gentian Peak/Panorama Ridge last year I did not camp. The objective for Day 1 was just the approach so we did not leave Vancouver until almost 8 am. We picked up Ellie from Squamish an hour later and made the Cheakamus Lake trail-head in another hour. We spent almost an hour at the trail-head to make some last minute decisions about the rope system as it’s not a very obvious thing in a team-of-four. In the end we agreed to bring two rock racks up to size 4 and that proved to be a correct call in retrospect.

Phyllis’ Engine via Helm Creek. GPX DL

There’s not a lot worth noting about the boring approach to Helm Creek campground as this was already my 3rd time hiking this trail. It’s my first time here in summer though so there was some change in scenery once we marched beyond the campground. We veered off the trail a little bit later than planned, traversing into the broad valley between Helm Peak and Cinder Cone. I had done this approach last year to Gentian Peak so I knew roughly where to aim at. We stayed on the climber’s left side of the valley, ascended a broad moraine and traversed the glacial lake on the climber’s left (north) side before hopping onto Helm Glacier. I did my first swap of footwear from trail shoes to mountaineering boots before the descent onto the glacier. The glacier was mostly dry but the steeper upper section did have a strip of snow on the far climber’s left side. This meant we could just walk up the glacier without having to don crampons and after that we were looking at that annoying 250-m descent into Gentian Pass.

The steel bridge crossing Cheakamus River
Ellie marching up the typical approach trail in the forest
Arriving at the crowded Helm Creek campground in 2 hours
Lily plodding up beyond the campground for another couple km
A view of The Black Tusk once we left the trail
Into the Cinder Cone area. The rocks are pure volcanic
Brayden arriving at the shore of a glacial lake
Brayden and that lake again under Helm Glacier
We accessed Helm Glacier on the north side
There were some crevasses to avoid on this dry glacier
Brayden at the high pass with Castle Towers behind
Lily arriving at the top of Helm Glacier with The Black Tusk behind

I was surprised to find a “path” on this section of the descent because 6 years ago there was none. We did not stop at the bottom of the pass and instead, we resumed the going by grunting the exact same elevation (250 m) partway up Polemonium Ridge before settling on a reasonably flat camp site. Brayden had extra energy and went ahead to tag Castle Towers in the evening. The rest of us all had done Castle Towers so enjoyed a relaxed afternoon/evening. The downside of this camp was the lack of running water so we had to melt snow, but that’s okay. By around 9 pm Ellie and I went for a short walk up the ridge to look for Brayden as it seemed a bit late for his return. We found him shortly and it turned out that he did not take the most efficient route. The bonus for our short walk was some incredible scenery looking at Mt. Garibaldi and Garibaldi Lake.

Started the steep descent into Gentian Pass
A cool tarn at Gentian Pass. Guard Mtn. and Mt. Garibaldi behind
Lily on the steep and slippery grass slopes
Ellie descending the same slippery and wet slopes
Grunting up Polemonium Ridge for 250 m gain
This is camping life when you have several hours to kill before sunset
Lily’s tent at our site
Ellie and Castle Towers
My tent with part of Castle Towers behind
Lily in front of Corrie Peak
Ellie posing in front of the sunset.
Evening alpenglow on Mt. Garibaldi and Guard Mountain
Ellie on our highpoint on Polemonium Ridge’s walk
Ellie posing in front of Garibaldi Lake at dusk

The next morning we agreed to wake up at 5 am and started the day in less than an hour. I led the team bypassing the summit of Polemonium Ridge by following my own Castle Towers’ GPS track. We did save 50 m of extra elevation but the downside was several hundred meters’ side-hilling on choss. This was the most unpleasant section of the approach. Beyond the choss traverse we crossed a few streams of running water then stayed more-or-less on the edge of the glacier wrapping around the south-west flanks of Castle Towers. There were lots of micro-terrain in this zone but nothing troublesome nor worth-noting. We did have to hop back and forth between snow and rock. Near the end of the approach we resisted the temptation to gain elevation onto the glacier and kept the traversing mode and found a thin strip of snow to completely avoid stepping onto dry ice. We did have to cross the glacier after all but only for a short stretch and nobody felt the need to take the rope out. Brayden and I eventually had to strap crampons on as the ascent to the base of the Engine was quite steep.

Morning glow on Mt. Tantalus behind Garibaldi Lake
Our tents and Corrie Peak at dawn
Gentian Peak in the foreground with The Black Tusk poking behind
Traversing very loose slopes under Polemonium Ridge
Mt. Price and the morning glass on Garibaldi Lake
Mt. Garibaldi rises behind Deception Peak
The Sphinx. The others wanted to climb the north ridge but I wasn’t keen
Ellie and Brayden marching up towards the base of Phyllis’ Engine
Another view looking back down towards Garibaldi Lake
Lily with the vast glaciers of Garibaldi Park behind
The north face of Castle Towers
Ellie approaching the base of our route, right of center on that obvious crack

Throughout the approach we had agreed to climb the variation line published by Duncan P. many years ago, rated 5.9 but we weren’t sure how to manage this 4-person-team. Once at the base we decided to have only one leader (Ellie) as the pitch appeared to be stiff. It’s safer for her to have the double rack and that turned out to be crucial. The first pitch turned out to be the hardest with a few tough moves on the lower parallel cracks as well as an off-width chimney on the climber’s right side of the wall. Both Ellie and Lily thought it’s more of a 5.10a pitch. I had no idea because most of my alpine climbs were 5.6 at the hardest even though I have completed a lot of peaks at that grade. I did have climbed some 5.9s in Squamish’s Smoke Bluffs and I felt this pitch was harder than those. I ended up requiring a few takes but did manage to climb it in the end without having to pull on the rope, but my forearms were seriously pumped out at the end. The belay station was extremely awkward but Ellie had put in 4 cams to make it bomber. While Lily belaying Ellie up the second pitch my job was to belay Brayden up the first pitch onto this overloaded station.

Lily belaying pitch 1 in some very cold temperatures
The few moves above Ellie were the hardest for me of the whole climb
Ellie moving into the off-width chimney.
Lily climbing the off-width section on pitch 1
Brayden arriving at the top station of Pitch 1

The second pitch turned out completely easier but there were a few tricky slab moves near the end. I had no idea how to friction-up a 5.9 slab but then I found a rock arete to my right and lay-backed it up. The end of this second pitch brought us to a comfortable ledge where we traversed out rightward merging towards the standard route. The 3rd pitch had a stiff overhanging step to start with and after that I believed we were officially on the 5.8 standard route. There were a few loose rocks to be aware of but for the most part I felt this was the most enjoyable pitch, likely because this was more of a grade I could follow up. The climbing was mostly on cracks on lower-angled terrain and that’s definitely something I had a bit more experience on comparing to slabs or off-width.

Lily starting the second pitch while Brayden was chilling
Lily starting the hard step at the beginning of Pitch 3
The top station of Pitch 3
Looking down the 3rd pitch and the fun 5.8 cracks
Lily and I at the last belay station under P4

The last pitch had some amazing position. Ellie led it out to the top and while following I realized there’s one committing traverse move onto some huge exposure followed by some 5.8 moves to pull up a vertical step. I was scared here because if I fell, the rope stretch would drop me into the huge exposure with no way to climb back up. I had been following so far on my 7.5 mm half rope and the rope stretching was shocking huge had I really needed a take. My arms were also very pumped out but in the end I figured out the sequence of those moves and made it up without incidence. There’s one more difficult mantle move to get onto the true summit from the uppermost station but that was not problematic for any of us.

Ellie starting the lead of Pitch 4 around to the east side of the “Smokestack”
Lily pulling up the exposed 5.8 moves on the last pitch
Me climbing up the last pitch while Ellie belaying
Ellie mantling up onto the true summit of Phyllis’ Engine
Brayden climbed to the other summit boulder, in front of Castle Towers
Me on the true summit of Phyllis’ Engine
Ellie and Lily preparing for the rappel
Partial Summit Panorama from Phyllis’ Engine. Click to view large size.
Partial Summit Panorama from Phyllis’ Engine. Click to view large size.
Mt. Davidson in the foreground with Cheakamus Mountain behind on left
Mt. Price and Garibaldi Lake
The lower towers on the Engine massif
Ellie posing on Phyllis’ Engine
Our group shot on the summit of Phyllis’ Engine

On the descent Ellie led the first rappel and that was a long one with two sections of overhangs. And not to our surprise the rope got completely stuck. After some discussions Brayden volunteered to prussik back up the rope for half the distance. From there it was some massive team work effort to eventually free the rope. Brayden then used my 60 m half rope to rappel back down, while Lily and I went ahead to set up the next (shorter) rappel using Ellie’s 48 m single rope. This rope got us just down to the gear stash and that marked the completion of the climb of Phyllis’ Engine. Later at home we checked beta with Duncan’s trip report and realized that he climbed it in May with at least 5 extra meters of snow to completely wipe out the lower parts of the climb. It’s possible that our route was indeed harder because for me, the hardest moves were actually at the very bottom.

Ellie tossing the rope down from the summit
Ellie leading down the first rappel
Me starting down the first rappel
Brayden on the first rappel
Lily dropping in the first rappel. It’s a long one
Brayden had to climb back up the rope to free it…
Ellie on the second rappel

It was almost 2 pm at this point so we took our time eating the delayed lunch. On the descent we more-or-less retraced our own footprints around the SW slopes of Castle Towers. While traversing the last section I led us staying higher to stay more on snow. While traversing back across that choss zone under Polemonium Ridge we split up with me and Ellie taking a higher route towards the top of that ridge and Brayden/Lily staying low. The route Ellie and I took positioned us only 20 m under the top of the ridge so I made a quick dash to tag that summit. I do not consider Polenomium Ridge as a separate summit but it’s a “red dot” on my peakbagger app so I needed to mark it green (even though I do not count it). The four of us then regrouped at the camp. Brayden and I started the descent 20 minutes later than Ellie and Lily, and eventually caught up with them near the top of that 250-m grunt to the top of Helm Glacier.

Down-climbing steep snow under the engine
A review shot of Phyllis’ Engine
The traverse around Castle Towers was a bit tricky at places
Ellie climbing some ridges and gullies towards the top of Polemonium Ridge
Garibaldi Lake from the summit of Polemonium Ridge
Brayden started the long descent from camp
There’s some bushwhacking (on-trail) to re-ascend above Gentian Pass
Almost arriving at the high pass
Brayden at the top of Helm Glacier in front of The Black Tusk

The walk on Helm Glacier was as scenic as on the approach. We all loved walking on dry ice. In the Rockies the tourists had to pay to hop onto a bus to just see this type of scenery and here we could just walk on the for free. There wasn’t much worth noting for the rest of the descent as we basically just reversed what exactly we did a day earlier. Ellie did lead us down the grassy meadows zone above Helm Creek campground taking a more efficient route. Once onto the trail the rest was just a 2-hour death march. We eventually turned on the head-lamps at about 1.5 km from the bridge crossing Cheakamus River and made back to the truck in pitch dark.

Ellie following me kayaking down the snow slopes….
Walking down the scenic dry ice
Lily and Brayden descending Helm Glacier’s dry sections
Me playing with the crevasses on Helm Glacier
Crevasses were all easily avoided
The late afternoon view of that glacial lake
Brayden checking out an ice cave at the bottom of Helm Glacier
The lake and Helm Glacier
That iceberg was still there
This is looking towards Panorama Ridge
Ellie descending the moraine under Cinder Cone
Brayden plodding down that crest of the moraine
Back to Helm Campground in the evening. Long and boring slog ahead…

The drive home was exhausting but I somehow managed to stay awake probably because this climb was very satisfying. After dropping Ellie off in Squamish I went to the McDonalds and gas station, bought one burger, ten pieces of McNugguts and 1 L of coke and those kept me awake all the way back to White Rock, at 2 am.