Elkhorn Mountain

July 1-2, 2021


Vancouver Island, BC

Elkhorn Mountain is the second highest peak on Vancouver Island towered by Golden Hinde by probably only 1 meter, and boasts a very iconic profile that almost makes it super attractive to peak-baggers like myself. This peak also presents on the “Island Qualifiers” as well as the “SWBC Ribus/P1000m”, two of the lists that I’m currently working on. There’s no “walk up” route on Elkhorn Mtn. with the least technical route (West Gullies) having a grade of 4th to low 5th class with challenging route-finding, although after extensive research I determined that the second easiest (NW Ridge) is actually the route that provides the highest chance of success, providing that the party will not have a problem to climb a short pitch of 5.4 layback corner. The NW Ridge is also the most classic one on this peak because of its superb position and the more direct attack.

I had a few partners in mind to knock off Elkhorn Mtn. with and in the end Winnie M. decided to join me. Winnie had more ambitious ideas that involved more climbing and less walking but the lack of partner(s) made her committing to my trip. Ideally I would want to team up with her for an ascent of Mt. Colonel Foster, the hardest of the “Island Qualifiers” but the combined factors of the lack of snow in the Great Western Couloir and the lack of time to thoroughly research made me deciding on this easier option. To climb Elkhorn Mtn. via the NW Ridge would be a very chill trip for the two of us over two days, from both technical and physical perspectives and I was pretty happy with the pick. I did, however, have concerns about the ferries and the traffic of the long weekend and I thought the crux was to actually hop onto the ferry. I had been watching closely for the ferry’s status and all the sudden at 10 am Wednesday they decided to add an additional sail at 7:20 pm. I instantly booked it so we were set. However, the travel from White Rock to Vancouver was such a horror show that took me 1 hour 40 minutes. Thankfully we had planned about 2 hours of time contingency so we eventually did manage to hop onto that ride.

The ferry did not manage to sail until well after 8 pm making a late arrival on the island. The drive from Nanaimo to Elk River Trail-head would take roughly 3 hours. I thought about to car-camp somewhere near Campbell River but in the end I managed to drive us all the way to the trail-head. That was a busy spots with at least 10 vehicles parked so we didn’t bother to set up the tent and just slept in the truck. The next morning we woke up at 6 am with at least 10 additional vehicles arriving (including a park ranger). I have no damn idea about the rules in Strathcona Park but in the Rockies, car-camping at trail-heads isn’t allowed and bivying without a permit can also be easily caught and ticketed. That ranger parked right beside our vehicle but didn’t bother to fuss with us as we geared up, so maybe those aren’t problems here on the island. The morning did take us a while as we had to decide on a number of things.

Elkhorn Mountain via NW Ridge. GPX DL

The start of this approach was the first few kilometers on the well-engineered Elk River Trail. The quality of this trail did not let us down but there’s one major up-and-down that sure would prove to be frustrating on the return. The turn-off for Elkhorn’s NW approach was well marked with a sign, and then we were at the crossing of Elk River. I was aware that the easiest option was to find some logs to walk across but upon arriving I decided to just wade it for some refreshment. The crossing turned out harder than it looked and a few spots were pushing onto my thighs. I had my phone in the pant’s pocket and the pocket got soaked. Thankfully it wasn’t soaked for too long and the phone itself only got damped. Winnie picked a line that had slower current speed but deeper water and that was pushing the limit a little bit. About halfway across I had to drop back into the water to help her and even for me that water was waist deep and all of our clothing got wet from that. We spent the next 40 minutes or so to dry things off and to recollect.

The start of Elk River Trail.
The turn-off for Elkhorn’s climber’s route was hard to miss.
Winnie started the first channel of Elk River. Easy peasy….
Halfway across. It’s deep and fast…
Elk River and the obvious log bridge that we could have just walked on

The start of the climber’s trail was not very well-marked but we had come prepared with two sets of GPX tracks, so we did manage to follow the trail. Once the trail ascended above the immediate vicinity of Elk River the following became easy, although the grade picked up significantly. The next few hours were spent grunting up this relentlessly steep trail with numerous zones of dead-falls that required either short or long detours. Once the trail finally made a turn to shoot straight up towards “North Col” at 1300 m the going became insanely steep. Two batman ropes to start it off and then some mandatory tree-root scrambling. Eventually we arrived at that infamous water slab pitch where the only possible method was to batman up the rope. Before doing that we spent some minutes to load up the water bottles as this was also the only water source from Elk River all the way to where we hit patches of snow on the ridge.

The start of Elkhorn’s climber’s trail. As you can see, it was not good..
Lots of blow downs but at least trail was easy to follow higher up
It was unrelenting steep for hours
Believe it or not we were still following the trail. Right on it…
First batman action in this trip…
Checking out that massive wet slab with a juicy batman rope
Winnie batmaning up the slab. This would have been class 5 otherwise

From the “North Col” the trail traversed on the south side of the ridge for a short bits before ascending steeply for another 200 m or so to get onto the ridge, where we finally got some views. However, the weather was mostly overcast on this day so our moods didn’t really get a boost. The trail was also undefined and difficult to follow wherever it’s right on the ridge crest and we also had to deal with boulders and snow. Upon reaching the next bump/rise we followed the trail traversing climber’s right again before picking a steep line to get back onto the crest. We had passed several prime camping spots in this stage but the plan was to push all the way to the base of the route to set up camp. We pressed on, up and over a major bump on the ridge and camped between 1700 and 1750 m elevation. In retrospect we should have camped one bump earlier as that one had the most unobstructed vistas. The one we camped on wasn’t bad, but a bit too close to Elkhorn Mtn. such that the view of this peak itself wasn’t as impressive. We got here after almost 7 hours on the go, so decided to just set up camp and chill for the sunset. I thought we did have enough time to grab the peak in the evening but the weather was questionable and we were tired. After napping for an hour I woke up under clearing skies and in the next two hours we got some incredible views.

The higher stretches of this trail above “North Col”
Finally ascended onto the ridge crest but then we had to hop on boulders
Passing this partially-thawed tarn. Ahead’s yet another bump
Bypassing that bump on climber’s right as always
Steep grunt back onto the ridge crest. Volcano Peak behind
We walked passed this massive piece of slabs that Winnie was interested in
We carried up and over several bumps before calling it for the day
Time to set up the camp. It’ll take a while..
Rambler Peak an hour later now with clearing sky
Kings Peak from camp. This is one of the easier 2000m peaks on the island.
Elkhorn Mountain from our camp.
Our tent with Mt. Colonel Foster behind
Our tent now with Volcano Peak and Puzzle Mountain behind
Winnie taking a look at Rambler Peak’s north buttress
Our group shot at camp with Mt. Colonel Foster behind
Another photo of the tent with Puzzle Mountain behind
It’s almost sunset time now. Puzzle Mtn. and Volcano Peak behind
Mt. Colonel Foster on evening alpenglow
Rambler Peak on evening glow. This is another “Island Qualifier”
A closer-up shot of Elkhorn Mtn. and its NW Ridge facing us
The sunset and the tent. Life doesn’t get better than this…
Panorama shot from our camp at sunset. Click to view large size.
Rugged Mtn. center shot and Haihte Range at dusk
The last sun rays on the north tower of Mt. Colonel Foster
Victoria Peak and Warden Peak, both are “Island Qualifiers”

The next day we decided to wake up at 5 am when it’s just bright enough to see but we were too tired for that. We ended up sleeping in till sunrise but that’s still okay. I had worried about having to share this route with multiple parties but nobody ended up showing up. From the camp we traversed on some undulating terrain and slogged another 200 m or so to the start of the route where we each ditched one trekking pole. I carried one pole higher because that’s useful for the easier, 3rd class terrain on the upper route. The start of this NW Ridge had a series of 3rd to 4th class gullies and ledges and to link them up required route-finding skills in Rockies-like terrain. Other than one minor mistake I did think we nail the route-finding here. We also passed one long and juicy batman rope on 3rd class terrain but we didn’t use it. Upon reaching the base of that 5.4 layback corner Winnie decided to just solo it. After watching her trying a few techniques to make those moves and struggling to even just get it started myself I decided to ask for a belay. There were only a few tricky moves but to climb them on mountaineering boots was not easy and I also didn’t find the exposure that easy to deal with. With a belay, I then climbed it without a problem.

The morning alpenglow on Puzzle Mountain
Alpenglow on the east face of Mt. Colonel Foster
Kings Peak and the morning Winnie getting ready for the day
Winnie chilling at camp looking at Elkhorn Mountain
My Instagram practices with the bag and the tent…
Started the day with sunshine already on our faces
Approaching the base of the route. As you can see, it’s not easy…
Me starting the lower gullies and ledges.
Winnie on an airy move on the lower 4th class ledges
This move ahead of her was class 4 on questionable rocks
Winnie soloing the 5.4 corner pitch

Now we were at the base of the gendarme. We had brought ice axe, crampons and worn mountaineering boots because we had to climb steep snow to bypass the gendarme on climber’s left side. The steep snow route however, did not look steep enough to be exciting/challenging so Winnie’s pick was to traverse the late-season ledge option on climber’s right. I knew that option and thought that was definitely harder than the snow route, but then I also knew that I would not have a problem on that route neither, so reluctantly agreed. It turned out to be actually quite fun except for a few spots that required significant care. The ledge was one feet wide, down-sloping with loose pebbles and exposure to death. However, as a mountaineer from the Canadian Rockies this had been the exact terrain I had dealt with for years, so not a problem. Winnie, being a rock climber, traversed it across with ease using some very different techniques.

Above the corner pitch, plodding on easy ground to the gendarme
Starting the gendarme ledge traverse
Rounded the next corner, things became increasingly exposed now
Me partway across the gendarme traverse on a chill spot.
Looking back at Winnie negotiating the trickiest stretch.

Beyond that gendarme section we ascended more 3rd class terrain with exposure along a rising traverse line out climber’s right into that’s so called the “upper amphitheatre”. There we also faced route options. After some discussion we decided to veer climber’s left back towards the NW Ridge proper and the sole reason was to challenge ourselves. We climbed a few 4th class chimneys but then one difficult wall forced us to traverse climber’s right along a ledge back into that amphitheatre, just much higher up. Once rounding the corner to the south side of the summit area the rest of the ascent was easy, albeit on very loose blocks. The views were as expected, awesome, but I preferred the views from Golden Hinde over this one.

Finished the gendarme traverse, looking back at it…
We picked this 4th class gully to climb mostly for fun.
But then we were forced to traverse onto the regular route anyway…
Plodding the very loose rubble blocks to gain the summit
Partial Summit Panorama from Elkhorn Mountain. Click to view large size.
Partial Summit Panorama from Elkhorn Mountain. Click to view large size.
Mt. Colonel Foster and Landslide Lake
Kings Peak now looks much smaller
Summit view looking towards the Pacific Ocean.
Looking back towards Campbell Lake where we drove in from
Victoria Peak and Warden Peak dominating the northern skyline
Mt. Waddington makes its appearance behind Prince of Wales Range
Mt. Filberg is a remote summit, with Straight of Georgia behind
Behind Mt. McBride on the left skyline is Mt. Regan and Mt. Albert Edward
Mariner Mountain to the south into the glaciated zones of Strathcona
Golden Hinde close-up shot. It’s the highest on the island
The north towers of Mt. Colonel Foster close-up shot
Winnie in front of Rambler Peak
Winnie on the summit of Elkhorn Mtn. looking at Kings Peak
Me on the summit of Elkhorn Mountain

We lingered for almost an hour on the summit as we also got cell services to reconnect back into the world. For the upper route I led us down taking the line of the least resistance so we didn’t have to down-climb those upper 4th class stretches. We then reversed the ledge traverse back around the gendarme because we felt that wasn’t a big deal and nobody wanted to make a gear transition to strap crampons on. We then made one short rappel off the crux pitch, down-climbed a series of class 3 and 4 chimneys and made a long rappel off that juicy batman rope. I thought about to down-climb beside it but with that rope dangling there it’s difficult to not use it. The rest of the descent back to camp was rather uneventful and we earned ourselves another long ass break at camp to pack things up. While packing we also melted more snow for water.

Descending the upper slopes into the “amphitheatre”
Traversing this lower snow-covered ledge was the easiest option
Back to that gendarme area
The never-ending down-climbing
This is some serious Rockies shit. Loose and deadly exposed…
The worst part of the gendarme traverse. Loose, down-sloping and exposed
Passed the worst part already but still loose, down-sloping and exposed
Another exposed move on an otherwise, easy section of the traverse
Winnie leading the rappel off the crux
Then more and more down-climbing down the 3rd/4th class ledges
Flower shot Number 1. Too lazy to know their names
Flower shot Number 2…
Hiking back to camp now with Elkhorn Mtn. in the bag

We knew the descent from camp to Elk River would not be enjoyable so our solution was to take numerous breaks and to not rush it. I felt the upper part before “North Col” was actually enjoyable because we had views that we missed on the approach day. From “North Col” to Elk River was indeed a soul-crushing slog but at least we were constantly doing different things so it wasn’t that mind-numbing. We tied our two 30 m ropes together to make one long rappel off that water slab pitch and used all other batman ropes to assist our descent. We also met one group-of-three from Victoria on their way up and that was it for the traffic on this peak over a bluebird long weekend window. That was surprising to say the least. To cross Elk River I said to walk across that massive log upstream but in the end we decided to take dip. This time I was smart enough to put the phone in the pack (no photo then) but then the crossing again, turned out harder than I thought. The water again, waist deep for me. Winnie managed to cross it with the assist of that massive log. After the crossing I walked back and forth on that log on sandals just to illustrate that’s the easiest option (for parties that do not want to get wet). For us, getting wet was cool because we were tired and wanted some refreshment. We spent at least another 40 minutes drying things off at this spot, then leisurely plodded out back to the truck.

Volcano Peak looks cool
Rugged terrain that’s typical to the Island
The trail that descended the upper section above the North Col
Descending from the North Col now. Lots and lots of dead-falls
We rappelled the water slab
The lower batman rope that came handy on the descent
Trail next to Elk River was difficult to find or follow…
This is already after wading the river. No photo of the crossing

We had numerous discussions about the next objective and the general idea was to head back onto the mainland because none of us wanted to deal with the Sunday’s ferry line-ups. We managed to get back to Nanaimo by 9 pm and caught the 10:40 pm ride back onto the mainland. I eventually got back to White Rock at 1:30 am, exhausted but happy to have my own bed to sleep on. And the next day we would drive to Chilliwack for an ascent of Crossover Peak.