July 6, 2016

A gateway to the wild

Garibaldi Park provides place to escape

— Discover Squamish
Leigh and Spring McClurg on a trail run to the summit of Mount Price. — Submitted

Squamish is situated in an interesting location, sandwiched between the two large provincial parks of the Tantalus Range and Garibaldi. 

While Tantalus is notoriously difficult to access due to its steep, rugged trails and the requirement to cross the wide, fast-flowing Squamish River if not accessing this park from the north, Garibaldi is, in comparison, quite easy to get into via the four main trails that lead to Elfin Lakes, Garibaldi Lake, Singing Pass and Wedgemount Lake.

When I first moved to Squamish from Ireland in 2010, the glistening summits of the Garibaldi Massif immediately drew my attention, as I’m sure they do for most who set eyes on this town for the first time. Back then, I had not yet developed an interest in climbing mountains, but I was curious about the name of this peak that I was looking at. 

I eventually learned that the sharp-pointed summit that is most prominent in Squamish is called Atwell Peak, with the true summit of Garibaldi lying behind it. Later I would see the iconic Black Tusk on one of my first trips to Whistler. 

I began to research how to get to these mountains to see them up close and was excited to learn that there were quite a few well established trails to get into the area.

Despite being very enthusiastic, my first experience with Garibaldi was not successful. In June 2010, I attempted to get to Garibaldi Lake, a 19-kilometre return trip. About seven kilometres into the hike, though, I encountered snow. At the time I couldn’t wrap my head around this. People were sunbathing at Nexen Beach back in Squamish, so why was I having to deal with snow? For most, understanding this might seem like common sense, but for me, coming from a life spent in cities at sea level, understanding how environments change with elevation required some experience.

I kept pushing forward to Garibaldi Lake, postholing in the snow up to my waist, my boots filling up and getting soaked. It would be a while before I’d learn about snow gaiters. Eventually, I turned around exhausted and defeated. This failure, however, didn’t deter me; it simply motivated me to better understand what I was doing wrong. 

A few months later my wife, Spring, and I were teaching ourselves how to backpack with tents for the first time, so we decided to head back into Garibaldi Park for four days. Weighed down with 50-lb. packs, we slowly made our way to Garibaldi Lake for the first time and our eyes popped at the sheer beauty of it. That trip proved to be more successful; over those four days, we climbed Mount Price, the Black Tusk and Castle Towers, eventually exiting the park on the Cheakamus Lake side after arranging with a friend to pick us up.

Gaining experience and momentum, over the coming years I would keep returning to Garibaldi Provincial Park and gain a better understanding of the mountains and how to move there safely and deliberately. I quickly came to understand why snow persisted at higher elevations into the summer and why trees would not grow in the alpine tundra.

While learning about the ecology of these environments I also pushed myself in my abilities, trying to go further, faster and ascend harder mountains.

I eventually came to ascend the highest peak in Garibaldi Provincial Park, Wedge Mountain, in 2011 and in 2012, I finally reached the summit of Mount Garibaldi and looked back on Squamish from a vantage point that I’d been dreaming about for two years. 

My first snowshoe trips were in this park, as well as my first experiences with camping. When I progressed from snowshoeing to backcountry skiing, my first trip out on my touring skis was to Elfin Lakes in the south of Garibaldi.

It’s only now that I realize how lucky I was to be learning to explore the mountains from my new home in Squamish. Garibaldi Provincial Park is not only a true natural gem in the world, it is also an exceptional training ground to learn how to navigate, hike, snowshoe, scramble, camp, ski or mountaineer.

At close to 2,000 square kilometres in size, it’s a park one could spend a lifetime exploring and still find something new to do there every day.

For most, the park is hidden behind the rolling, forested hills northeast of Squamish. But Mount Garibaldi offers a glimpse of what lies beyond for those who venture back there. If you want to see this place for yourself, the easiest way to access the park from Squamish is via the Elfin Lakes trail. 

Through the summer, this trail can be hiked, biked or – as I’ve come to enjoy it – run. The views past Red Heather meadows are expansive as you hike along Paul’s Ridge to Elfin Lakes and the cabin there. Through the winter, when there is snow down to the parking lot, you can ski or snowshoe to Elfin Lakes. During winter evenings, I’ve sometimes used this trail to ski up to the Red Heather meadows for dinner. There is a wood-burning stove there I use to heat up food to eat before enjoying the fast ski back down to the parking lot.

After returning from any trip into Garibaldi Provincial Park, be it merely an evening ski in the winter, an afternoon run in the summer or a multi-day camping excursion, I am always left with a sense of gratitude to be able to live in the amazing town of Squamish with access to such a jaw-droppingly beautiful wilderness area right next to us. Check it out for yourself; this year, the trails into the park have less snow than usual. My advice would be to bring traction devices for your shoes or boots for the icy sections. Have fun, be safe and I’m sure I’ll see you out there.

Leigh and Spring McClurg on a trail run to the summit of Mount Price. - Submitted

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