November 15-16, 2014
Big Bend Highway / Revelstoke, BC
The town of Revelstoke locates on the western edge of Selkirks, about 1 hour’s drive further than Rogers Pass, and certainly among the few “long drives” for a weekend trip from Edmonton… But being right on the Trans-Canada Highway this area does draw some attention to climbers. The most famous mountaineering objective is of course Mt. Begbie but just like some other BC communities, winter recreation, especially snowmobiling, is much more popular. I do not own snowmobiles but I can take advantage of the snowmobile trails for a bush-free access to the alpine for many of the nearby mountains. Keystone Peak is one of them. To get there one has to drive 50 km up Big Bend Highway (Highway 23) northwards from Revelstoke before taking a steep 4×4 forestry service road for an additional 16 km which also brings you almost 1000 vertical meters high above the valley floor.
This’s a new area for Ben, Eric and I so we all felt excited about it. However, it was mid-November so we’d expect lots of post-holing, and for the most important, we had no clue how far we could drive up that logging road. The trail-head has elevation of 1600 m and based on our previous weekend’s experience we knew there’s no way to drive all the way up. Solution? Let’s bivy somewhere up the mountain and make it a 2-day trip. This turned out to be an awesome plan. Given the stable weather pattern we got treated with awesome sunset and sunrise views.
After driving more than 750 km from Edmonton we came to the experimental part. Eric did an absolutely fantastic job negotiating the steep, narrow and snow covered road in his Volvo, and by the time we figured we’d pushed enough there’s already a foot of snow coverage. Checking odometer we already cut more than 13 km (one-way) out of the way. That was much farther than my expectation but it wasn’t without intense moment though. At one point the Volvo started slipping towards the side and we got stuck in the deep snow (thankfully we managed to free it by pushing). We parked shortly after but we could also smell the engine being overheated. Thankfully again it didn’t cause any major damage. It was midnight and nobody was looking forward to sleep outside given the coldness and the snow, so we were “forced” to find a creative car-camping method so all three of us were fit inside.
On Saturday morning we started just after it’s bright enough. Snow was already deep enough for us to strap snowshoes on right from the start. Previous snowmobiles had packed down the trail and assisted us significantly. At this point we were hoping for a packed-down trail all the way to “the Standard Cabin” but we were wrong. The rest of the logging road led us switchbacking two times and in less than an hour we made to the official trail-head. To our surprise November 15 was still in the legal closure of this trail for motorized vehicles, so the snowmobiles turned around. That meant we’d be on our own. On the other hand we could already see some of the giant mountains in the central Monashees including Frenchman Cap and we were all psyched for the views once hitting the alpine.
Keystone-Standard Basin trail is among the few relatively popular trails in this area and we managed to download a GPS track before the trip. The snow coverage made trail difficult to follow but the GPS track helped us staying more-or-less on track. In short time we made to treeline zone and got some nice view of the Selkirks. From here on we’d travel at or below treeline for the next few hours, aiming relatively straight towards the distant Keystone Peak. We abandoned the trail a few times and did some brief bushwhacking. The post-holing was not as bad as we thought thank to a hard crust at about 30-40 cm down.
Terrain started to become complex as we slowly approaching Standard Basin. Following the trail we had to cross a few large open slopes that could certainly slide in right conditions. Up and around a corner we were in the Standard Basin, but looking ahead we had to ascend another steep slope. To our left was the official summit of Keystone Peak and to our right was a higher, but unnamed peak. We agreed to ascend the official one first so attacked the steep slope head-on, climber’s left. After a long haul putting one foot in front of another post-holing straight-up we crested the ridge. The views were already incredible towards each direction, but trust me, this was just the start!
The U-shaped ridge crest would eventually lead us to the summit of Keystone. Checking our watches we made the decision to ditch our packs at a low saddle, bagging Keystone Peak first and watch sunset on the summit of the higher unnamed peak. Slogging up Keystone Peak was as easy as it appeared but took us quite a while. What actually took us longer was picturing the mountains!! It was hard to resist taking pictures of everything even though we knew an hour or two later would be way more epic. Another instant decision we made at this point was our bivy location. Our initial plan was bivying near Keystone/unnamed col but after seeing the natural windscoop beside the “mythic summit green tower” I asked, why not just sleep here?! Eric and Ben agreed.
To get sunset views from the nearby unnamed peak (we named it “Voussoir Peak” due to its proximity to Keystone) we had to move quickly. Since we now decided to bivy on the summit of Keystone we no longer had to carry backpacks down to the col. After quickly hydrating ourselves we set off with minimal supply. Ascending this peak was nothing rocket science but the slope was a wee bit steeper than appeared. Thankfully the snowpack was stable. We made to the top at about half an hour before sunset time, and needless to say, the next 40 minutes or so was among some of my highlights in this year in terms of views!
We eventually got enough of the views (and the coldness) so leisurely went back to Keystone’s shoulder. Backpacks on, we slowly re-ascended to the summit of Keystone. Unfortunately wind picked up but it wasn’t crazily strong so we still decided to bivy there. This was my first time winter-camping above treeline so it’s an excellent opportunity to learn. We spent an hour or so building some snow wall and digging out a sleeping area. The wall didn’t do a good job blocking the wind though, but still better than having nothing. Melting snow and cooking also took forever (I should have dug out a snow cave for my stove, but oh well).. Nonetheless after some basic “camp stuffs” I wend to bed early, at about 8 pm ish. We were all hoping for the best alpenglow 12 hours later.
And we were right. We woke up with crystal clear sky and low valley clouds hanging above Lake Revelstoke. It’s going to be an awesome morning! On the other hand, as usual for overnight snowshoe trip our boots were more-or-less soaked and frozen. But here’s one of the biggest advantages of bivying on summit. We could wake up, wondering around and taking pictures with our booties on! Great…
After watching the sky changing colour from purple to orange and finally to blue, we realized there’s still a long journey back home. On this day (Sunday) we had to descend, drive down that snow covered road (crux) and then another 750 km all the way back to Edmonton… Oh well. Let’s do these steps one by one. Firstly we had to pack up. I somehow ripped apart the compression sack for my bulky sleeping bag… Well, part of it had to dangle outside but that’s still okay, at least for a shorter period of time. Then came the descent. Snowshoeing downhill on soft powder (steeper rolls) or using our tracks (flat sections) was effortless and scenic and our progress was fast. Near the end my compression sack completely failed and I had to hand-carry my sleeping bag. That was awkward but by this point we only had 4-5 km to go so wasn’t too terrible.
Eventually came the crux – driving down that logging road. Since we pushed too much on the way up we now had to face a more challenging situation. Driving down felt even more difficult with the lack of control but Eric again, did a fantastic job getting us down safely. Driving from Big Bend Highway to Revelstoke, Rogers Pass and finally Golden was also nice and scenic. We stopped many times for road-side photos. Mt. Sir Donald looked ridiculously huge and I couldn’t believe I’d already climbed it.
The rest of the drive back home wasn’t nearly as fun though. Good thing we had three guys and we could take turn driving. Overall, this was an awesome trip for our first time visiting Revelstoke area and I’m sure we’ll be back. There’re plenty of winter opportunities even when the snowpack is less than ideal, and Mt. Begbie itself will obviously be my primary objective for summer mountaineering in this area.