There are 4 different weather websites that I frequent to obtain the most accurate prediction of the skies before heading out on a journey. Not that one has proven to be more accurate than the others, but somehow I seem to favor the one showing signs of clearer skies. As if 3 of the 4 predictions are wrong and there really is a glimpse of sunlight to be had for Colossal 2016. It’s something I can irrationally average in my head to make it seem like it’s going to be better than I know it is. The mind is funny that way, always trying to outsmart itself and I’m just along for the ride. Regardless, the forecast wasn’t looking too(very) dry and I was worried that Colossal 2016 would be an epic, wet, soggy bust.
All mental averaging aside, this year’s destination resided in the West Kootenay region of British Columbia around some of the most remote mining territory of(from the) late 18th Century. A region quite familiar to me having grown up in the stunning Kootenay valley of Nelson, BC. It’s an area I often encourage my Alberta counterparts to explore on their own time, knowing what a gem it truly is – the natural beauty, the culture, and the peacefulness. Colossal has been happening for 6 years now, although officially dubbed last year, and it felt right to bring it home. It’s the last camping trip of the year. The last weekend to fold out the RTT’s and sleep in the fresh air. The last glimpse of fall before we are forced into hibernation (or ski season!) for the year. But, most of all, I think of it as the last escape – leaving work stress and deadlines behind it’s an excuse to get as deep into the backcountry as possible, disconnecting from our modern world using our trusty Toy’s.
Departure day had arrived. This year would be slightly different – full travel disclosure and locations would not be granted prior to departure. Not sure why I chose to do this and realistically it’s something I still would like feedback on. I guess in my eyes; I see the unknown as the necessity of adventure. Not actually knowing where we would be travelling to in the weeks of anticipation prior to this day seemed like a novelty I was willing to enforce.
Emails, phone calls, face-to-face meetings, and text messages had been exchanged for weeks pertaining to vehicle preparation but no details were given on the primary location. Included(mandatory) vehicle and camping requirements had us all bustling to prepare our trucks in time for the trip. (Ask me how much sleep Jeff and I got the night before departure…) Wipers on full, I headed for the rendezvous point just outside of Calgary to gather with the group. Greetings exchanged and the clock ticking we hit HWY 1 Westbound for Revelstoke, BC.
The drive flew buy as chatter on the radio kept boredom at bay and the od(d) hooning stint kept us alert. 10pm passes the Rogers Pass avalanche tunnels with 14 Toyotas sure brings a sense of calm, or was it abruptly loud RPM bouncing acoustics? One of the two. A pit-stop in Revy for fuel and a few choice words with(from) an enthusiastic member of the local Tinder population and we were bound for camp.
We rolled in late with the rain still trickling over our windshields. It looked like my optimistic forecasting method wasn’t working out so well. Regardless, the group was all smiles as we rolled into our large campsite around 11:30pm. Nothing but turning birch trees, the scent of wet pine, and a backdrop of darkness to set our eyes on. Camp quickly deployed and out came the awnings and beverages to help keep us dry/warm. We had an early start to get to our final destination within a reasonable hour the next day, but without a warm dry bed this night, we figured a night-cap was the least we could do.
Waking up the next morning was easy – simply rely on your fellow travel companions to alert you of sunrise via the gentle and rhythmic panging of camp cookware as they prepare a breakfast feast for sunrise. All sarcasm aside, the view from our campsite made an early morning justifiable. What was a blanket of darkness the night before appeared to be an epic view of Upper Arrow lake from our campsite. A pebble beach and large moss covered rock bluffs sank into the clear waters of the lake.
Low lying clouds wrapped our company as we took in the mysterious views and prepared for departure. We shook the water off our tents as best we could, folded up camp, and raced towards Galena Bay to catch the 9am ferry crossing. Cutting it close for time we made forward progress at speeds suited for smooth pavement; not bumpy, rutted, narrow, gravel logging access roads! Our group eagerly drove up to the ferry gate as the first cars in line were already boarding. Arriving a moment later and we would have (been a moment too late)missed the ferry!
Our group made form and rolled onto the D.E.V Galena as onlookers pointed at the posse of modified Toyotas. The stern deck raised and we started our journey east across Upper Arrow Lake.
The calm waters and peaceful 20min ferry ride allowed us all to stretch our legs and finish our morning coffee. As we sailed East, the sun’s rays began to burn off the blanket of cloud, illuminating the basin with dramatic visuals. Anticipation was growing in the group, as they still did not know where we were going. Soon I would reveal the area of interest, but first I pulled out the map and reviewed our route once on the opposite shore, towards one of the area’s great mining boom towns of the late 1800’s.
The ferry bumped the dock on the opposite shore as the convoy of Toyota’s turned over. The journey quickly turned North once off the ferry onto the desolate highway. Not a single car in either direction as we made the 30 min journey along the mountain’s base to the silver boomtown. Asphalt quickly turned to gravel, leaving us some good tack for more hooning with the still-damp road winding in front of us. It was if God himself had preserved this road specifically for our travel – the smoothest, non-rutted, assortment of earth particulates that I have yet to travel.
After enjoying a combination of scenery and pure driving pleasure, we pulled over for a brief driver’s meeting before dropping into the small village. Relics of the long past mining era were visible in all directions: small log huts from the turn of the century and rusted mechanical equipment resided in the awkward mix of more modern amenities. The old western-style hotel looked like it belonged on a movie set for Hollywood’s next great western. Raised home foundations, tin roofs, and the scent of wood burning stoves made the remote location and (an inevitably) abundant winter snowfall evident.
The jewel of the town though was the functioning gravity-fed glass gas pump. Our crew rolled up to the pump as the owner looked in surprise down the line of heavily modified Toyotas. I believe he may have met his monthly fuel quota after topping up all of the thirsty rigs. We took turns watching the owner hand pump the fuel from the main tank and up into the glass holding cylinder, before gravity feeding back down to the truck. Now topped up with fuel, we hit the road and headed up to the proposed trail location.
The road was supposed to wind high up into one of the neighboring mountain ranges, giving us some exceptional views of the surrounding granite peaks. This area is known for not only it’s rich mineral resources, but also its massive granite spires. Unfortunately, the area is known particularly for its ATV trails, not necessarily 4×4 trails. Something that would pose as a challenge for the entire trip ahead.
The optimism we felt with the sun shining on us during our earlier ferry ride began to fade. Rain clouds had embraced the landscape and it was now raining heavily as we navigated up the road. Many branches of trail headed off in all directions. Even though I had a map in front of me, I had the group led into several dead ends before stumbling on to what looked like a promising lead. It was a fairly tight and rocky trail that appeared to lead up in the direction of our final destination.
About 5 minutes after entering the track, I pulled around a corner and was confronted by a Ford F350 with a camper over the box. A man stood outside of the cab, looking into the interior. It was pouring rain and as we approached, the man’s line of sight did not falter. I looked at my co-pilot with a “WTF” look on my face. After about 10 seconds of us sitting there awkwardly in the truck, the man turned and saw us, looking startled. I rolled my window down and said hello with a smile to help initiate friendly conversation and break the ice. I asked if he’d been up the trail before and he responded “Ya…..” Again, more awkwardness. I then asked, “Is this the [xxxxx] trail?” The man answered “No….” before starting to walk towards the cab of my truck. He obviously wasn’t too keen on sharing any information with us which made the situation feel rather uncomfortable as he approached. With no filter, the man came right up to the truck and asked what we were doing up here. A little on the defensive, I responded politely (like a Canadian would) hoping to ease the situation but almost ready to make an evasive maneuver if it became necessary. Somewhere in the awkward dialogue that came next he glanced back and saw the line of Toyotas behind #Doug. He instantly came around and smiled, asking “Are you guys a Toyota club?!?!” “Sort of” I said “we are just up here doing some 4×4 exploration in the area and looking for a specific trail.” He was suddenly relieved and excited all at the same time. “I have a gold claim up here” he said “I thought you guys were trying to poach my claim.” My co-pilot and I laughed to ease the tension and we chatted shop with him for a few moments before he turned us around to what he thought was the trail we were after. He asked if he could grab a photo of the group as we left and we obliged. We started to scale the trail in the new direction. As I looked out the window the man was flying down the bumpy logging road that we had just departed, his camper barely hanging onto the truck. He stopped and ran up the bank, nearly slipping several times, to reach a bluff where he pulled out (the very first cell phone with a built in camera) his 1990’s cell phone and began snapping photos of our posse. No harm done, but I still wonder what he was up to and am not really confident in the legitimacy of his story. I can honestly say I’ve never met a man who was able to use the F-bomb with such enthusiasm. Maybe he was afraid of us stumbling onto something he didn’t want us to find? Like Canada’s largest maple syrup conglomerate or the super-secret Canadian bacon factory, or our Prime Minister taking selfies? I’ll let you decide.
We carried on for a while, again finding out we were on the wrong trail. Getting slightly frustrated as it was well past noon, we put some of the puzzle pieces together and started to make progress again on a new track. The trail was progressively tight and overgrown. It became an exercise of self-control as to not let the sounds of branches clawing at the paint bother us. Having a white truck, it’s not so bad, but I truly felt sorry for some of the members with darker colored paint, and newer rigs. Everyone took it well though, hoping that a good power polish would take care of the mangled clearcoat.
The trail continued to rise in elevation but we were eventually pinched off – again reminding me that this area was known for ATV trails not 4×4. Luckily, we were stopped in an area that was easy for us to turn around and the low lying opening we sat in showed spectacular views of the surrounding mountain peaks. Larch trees provided beautiful orange contrast to the familiar green pines. The rock peaks had been lightly dusted with snow, providing even more contrast to the scene.
It was truly beautiful and made it easy for us to justify a flight with the drone while we ate a late lunch. We captured some unbelievable footage while flying our drone, “Goose”. A small mishap led to a 3rd Gen T4R with a smashed rear window and a dented tailgate and somewhere in the mix another 4Runner with a flat tire. The day was truly becoming a test of our patience and perseverance. With full stomachs we thought it best to make for camp and attempt a good fire to turn our spirits.
The descent was uneventful; everyone just wanted to get back through the gauntlet of branches as quickly as possible. The rain had subsided but the clouds still congested us so we just pushed hard for camp. Once back into town, we had a half hour jog along the lake’s edge. More high speed gravel and we hit the primary destination for the night.
The crew crossed the short wooden bridge before spotting our campsite: a large clearing both on the shore of the lake and tributary. The rain was now coming down hard and camp was deployed in record time. The campsite was great other than the lack of thick coniferous to keep us sheltered. Fortunately for us though, there was one old growth cedar which had a firm grasp on one corner of the campsite. It must have been 4’ across at the trunk. Its branches dominated the airspace and also provided us with a 15’ canopy of shelter that kept the rain almost at bay. A large fire was ignited under the natural shelter. Laughter, craft beer, and the flame’s warmth began to bring us all back from the dead. One by one we retired as the long day took it’s hold and we climbed to our elevated shelters.
The weather was out of my control, and I had accepted that… but it’s still hard not to feel responsible for what, in my opinion, were shortcomings of the journey so far. Weeks of planning, coordination, and genuine commitment from all the attendees; there is always a slight amount of pressure to deliver on the promise of epic views and adventure. Despite the group being some of the (most) positive and happy individuals I could ask for, I still lay in bed praying for clearer skies and wider trails.
I slept like a rock. A rock that woke up feeling like it had fallen from the top of the mountain and broken into a million pieces. I had a headache and some serious brainfog, although I’m not specifically sure which beverage caused it. Too much sugar from all that Tropicana we were passing around most likely.
I crawled down the ladder of my RTT to find the ground still wet under my feet. After rubbing my eyes to rid the sleep that still plagued them, I was surprised to find the campsite engulfed in a blanket of fog. Although not the dry and warm campsite I dreamt of, this was definitely an improvement. I hustled to Doug’s tailgate and began prepping breakfast and a much needed press of Stumptown’s finest roast. Within the hour, the veil of fog had begun to dissipate revealing nothing but the pure blue sky above. As we packed up camp, Chase and Peter of the Tamarack crew, grabbed the drone for a few rounds of the lake and campsite. Our damp tents and accommodations stayed out until the end to let the natural warmth of the sun do its work and dry our gear. While it magically worked, we walked to the bridge near the camps entrance to check out some of the freshwater salmon who were spawning below. Looking onward, the lake was like glass, displaying duplicates of the surrounding natural contours in its reflection.
After a few more rounds of photos and a sketchy flight of the drone under the low hanging bridge, we scurried back to camp to clean up our now dry tents. The day was looking promising indeed.
Several members were forced to depart at this time. Due to it being a Sunday and not able to sneak an extra day away from the office, they had to head home to be back for the Monday morning grind. Regretfully we said goodbye, feeling truly bummed they would miss this sunny day in the ‘Koots’. The remainder turned focus to the task at hand: more high elevation exploration. We were within 5kms of another local trail that has been documented to climb to some of the most amazing glacial till and ice in the region. The variable again was if our trucks were too fat for the challenge.
We quickly found the trailhead and climbed what was definitely the right trail – a small sense of affirmation after the multiple turn-arounds the day before. We carried on at a good pace, following the river’s edge while gaining elevation only slightly. The clouds remained at bay as we progressed further into the valley. A couple tight sections left for some interesting maneuvers to avoid falling into the river, but it was nothing to keep us discouraged.
We hit our first obstacle about 30 mins up the trail where it had narrowed and then a portion of the perpendicular bank had sluffed across the trail with a few accompanying stumps. I made a quick effort with the rear locker engaged but found the passing too narrow with the Tundra’s wide girth. The good news with me upfront, is that if my truck can make it, then anyone can behind me. Instead of risking the narrow crossing, we opted for the smart choice of a little manual labor to clear the washout and widen the path. We made quick work of the dirt and only struggled slightly with the haggard roots against our axes. With a quick spot to ensure I didn’t take a tree root through the passenger door, I was through and carrying on up the trail with the rest of the group following closely behind.
We pushed onward, soon discovering the next washout in our path. This one significantly larger, steeper, and less stable. We scouted the area for a bypass but to no avail.
We were on the right trail but even after attempting a little dirt work, we made the wise group decision to bow down in favor of well… not dying. This was a difficult decision; we were getting shut down again to what would surely be some of the most amazing views imaginable. It gnawed at me to walk away without a clear victory but it was the right decision.
We quickly back-tracked down to the trailhead as I tried to clear my head and come up with an alternate plan to salvage the rest of the day. As the last truck rolled back onto the smooth gravel connector, we stuffed our faces with some grub and aired up. I knew the area better than most, but thought this time I was going to play the odds.
There was a trail I had done before within a 45 min drive. It had proven views and a couple challenges on the way up, but I had only attempted the trail in the summer. At an elevation over 10,000 ft and it being the first weekend in October, we were definitely pushing our luck in terms of weather and snow. Regardless, it was our best shot and I knew it could be completed, given good conditions, in about 4 hours round-trip. It was about 2:30 as we headed for the trailhead.
With the hammer down, our crew reached the base of the mountain and turned the tires upward. The ascent was slow and tedious with constant washouts eliminating any constant forward momentum. It was late afternoon and the sun was still shining. I felt refreshed and positive that we would reach the top – I was even thinking we might be able to catch the sunset from the lookout. Switch back after switchback we climbed in tight formation. The views increasing in beauty with each bend.
The trail narrowed and got more technical but our progress didn’t falter. This particular climb seems to never end. The dank forest grew more fluorescent as the green moss covered an increasing amount of surface area. Temps were dropping quickly and suddenly I had a nervous feeling in my gut.
Still running lead, I was the first to round one of the switchbacks and be confronted with our first dose of the white stuff. It quickly stopped me in my tracks with my tire pressure still at ~23psi. Out came the deflators and another 13 psi from each corner. The ARB compressor breathed some life into my rear differential and Doug clawed up the snowy switchback. Everyone else followed suite and we continued to climb against the resistance of a growing volume of snow. Somewhere along the line, the switchbacks became so steep and tight that it was hard to make the corners in a single pass. This effort combined with the need for momentum in the deep snow meant we needed to tackle each rise one truck at a time. Sliding backwards down each section of climb were possible so we needed to keep our spacing should something, unfortunately, go wrong. I made a few switchbacks before radioing down for the next member to start climbing before continuing onward.
The next climb rose steeply infront of me but this climb was also longer than the rest. I kept the rear end locked and encouraged more speed. The Toyo’s fought their way up the slope and by the time I had reached the switchback (which luckily had enough space for 3 or 4 trucks to fit and stage for the next ascent) I had lost almost all traction and momentum. I rolled over the lip of the hill with a deep exhale as my co-pilot expressed his concern for his life (lol). Sliding backwards would be devastating, but any lateral movement would have us skidding right off the side of the mountain. I quickly turned around in the space at the switchback to hear David’s 80-series winding-out as it clawed up the incline. I hand-gestured “more speed, more speed…” until he had rolled over the safety net and into the parking space. We quickly got on the radio and advised the next member to also keep his speed up and not to let off until he had crested the top. Dave and I then stepped aside for a brief discussion regarding the next plan of action.
After our pulses slowed enough to normalize, we looked north to see the view we had been searching for. The sun was just setting and we could see the peaks of dozens of the Purcell’s finest mountains glowing against the sun’s setting rays. It was literally magical.
The sky began to turn shades of orange and pink with the contrasting Larch trees and snowy peaks. We admittedly got lost in the view until we heard the hum of my father’s Tacoma coming up next. We quickly realized we were about to run out of room on this incline to park more rigs and that stopping mid-hill would only result in disaster. One of us grabbed the radio while the other encouraged my father up safely to the top of this rise. We were nearly pinned now. The sun was setting and temperatures were about to quickly drop off, leaving the wet snow that we had just fought to come up, turning into a sheet of ice for the ride back down. Continuing up the next switchback was possible but it really wouldn’t help us get back down safely. By the time we had confirmed radio communication back down to the rest of the group, we had one more 4Runner squeezed at the top.
Even though only half of us had made it to the viewpoint, we had to share this victory with the whole group. The rest of the group below was encouraged to find a safe place to park on the trail and quickly hike up to see the last remnants of the sun before it set. Within 10 minutes the whole group panted on the ledge looking out over the spectacular view. The fare was worth the price. Quickly reality set in and now we really had to get back down. And get back down quickly before the tracks froze.
The walkers departed in a group to work through the challenge of turning all the rigs around that they had left parked below, while the rest of us planned the best course of action for our descent. We busted out the shovels and broke notches into the snow that revealed the dirt surface below. This would allow some braking traction as we started the steepest initial part of the descent, in an effort to maintain control and not lock up the brakes. A mix of anticipation and nervousness filled the air. The consequences were quite dire if the vehicle were to lose control and slide down the track – trees on driver’s left, and mountain’s edge to the right.
There are usually a small handful of moments on these outings that define the trip. Moments that become memories and stories to tell our friends as we grow older and cherish our life’s experiences. This was definitely one of those moments and even the most experienced drivers could not deny the magnitude of this obstacle. Mark was the first to descend in his low and wide 3rd Gen 4Runner. I observed him scrubbing speed just enough to not lock up the brakes. He did it with great finesse but every few feet we witnessed the tail of his rig getting excited and stepping to the side. Like a real pro he jabbed the gas pedal to catch the wheel speed up to that of gravity’s request, which would allow him to again gain control. Within a couple dozen seconds (seconds that felt like minutes) he was out of sight, around the next switchback. His example only proved that it was quickly getting sketchy. We shovelled a bit more as my old man expressed his nervousness and lack of experience with these kind of maneuvers. We engaged in a technical discussion and I urged him to remain calm at all costs. “Your better to go too fast down the hill and let your gearing do the work, than to panic and hold the brakes. It’s just like sledding when you were a kid”, I said as a jest. My brother hiked up at that very moment. Chase is a nurse who works with an outreach association who deals with addicts and the homeless population on the streets of Calgary. His experience and leadership in tense and critical situations was welcomed at that moment and he quickly volunteered to coach my father down. Chase sat on the edge of the trail out of harm’s way as he walked alongside my father in his 02’ Tacoma. Not being able to hear their conversation, I could only imagine the tension that was there. With only a few ‘butt-pucker moments’ they had successfully made it through the hardest part and were continuing on. I was up next. Seeing my Dad slip around a little did not help my confidence but I still had a good handle on the driving dynamics in this type of situation. Not to mention, this is where the lower gearing really shines! I kept the truck in Low and modulated the brakes. After doing a bite-test, I quickly found the limits of my traction. Luckily for me, the 4.56 Nitro gears allowed for the perfect wheel speed to enable traction without going rogue. I was able to make the descent with very minimal braking effort and Doug tracked down the mountain perfectly. Back on the radio behind me, I could hear things getting a little dicey as one of the factory geared 4Runner slipped its way down. Adam, on his first Colossal trip this year, handled the adversity like a pro and kept his cool. He managed to navigate his near-new 5th Gen down the slope without incident. Now in pitch darkness we radioed down to chat with the group who had hiked up the trail. They were all turned around after some tricky trail maneuvers. We urged them to head down to the trailhead and then proceed into the location I had designated for tonight’s camp. They obliged and headed down at their own pace as our second group stayed within radio range and slowly picked our way back down the mountainside. My brother Chase, who had helped coach my father down had now stood on the side of the trail and jumped in with me. We both looked at each other with a smile, happy that the tension in the previous hour had blown over without issue. These critical situations often teach us something valuable and worth remembering, but it had been a long day and we were ready for social hour.
I rolled into camp with Adam (5th Gen t4r) and Dave (80-series). We were the last guys off the mountain. As I pulled into the large group spot my Baja Designs LED’s lit up the night and provided a good perspective of the camp site. I knew the site well, as my wife and I had stayed here previous in our own travels, but the rest of the group had only just seen it tonight for the first time. In the darkness it almost didn’t look like much but a clearing with some trees scattered around. I knew the best camp spots and gave some general direction to people on where to park for the optimum morning vista. We stacked our rigs up alongside one another and began to unfold camp one last time.
That evening we sat back and put our feet up, it was like we could finally exhale. The day had built up to some tension in our objectives and what we had conquered. The rains had fled and left us with nothing but this gorgeous night under the stars with not a reminder of the chaos of the daily grind in sight. The evening was still as we ate like the last supper and the sounds of our laughter emitted from the fire as a bottle (or two) or Bourbon was passed around.
I realized, as much as I/we love to hit epic terrain, scale massive mountains, and see some of the most remote wilderness that Canada can offer, the fellowship is paramount. This trip, and the many before, have proven to be stomping grounds for excellent conversation, perspective, laughter, and wisdom. I have built some of my greatest friendships through this “hobby” and the nights spent around a campfire. This night was no different and we drifted late into the night with joyful remorse that tomorrow, we would pack up and head for home.
I continue to learn that the uncontrollable is, in reality, the essence of adventure. The shortcomings are not shortcomings at all, but unique identifiers of the experience and memories that the journey will forever have imprinted in our minds. The unpredictability, the unknown, and the discovery are the sole reason why we’re out there. Another lesson learned and another adventure on the books, my mind is already wandering to Colossal 2017.