July 6, 2016

Tales from the Tantalus

Mountain range tantalizes with jagged peaks but teaches hard lessons

— Discover Squamish
Canoeing on Lake Lovely Water. — Leigh McClurg

It would be hard to live in Squamish for very long without seeing or hearing the word “Tantalus.” Roads are named after it here, as well as businesses. On any given clear Sunday, it is normal to see a traffic jam of vehicles parked at the Tantalus Viewpoint along Highway 99 to Whistler.

But while many people know of the word Tantalus, the provincial park that bears the same name that runs alongside our home of Squamish to the west remains largely a mystery. 

This range has long been notoriously difficult to get into for a number of reasons, the first and most obvious being the wide and fast Squamish River, which needs to be crossed to access trails into the middle and southern areas of the park.

After this, the next obstacle to overcome is ascending the unrelentingly steep trails through dense coastal rainforest for thousands of vertical feet. Usually, once these trails have been surpassed, most will likely end up at either Lake Lovely Water or Echo Lake to the South. From here, the next obstacle to go further and higher will be the lack of distinct trails requiring the skills to navigate by compass or GPS coupled with experience followed by tackling the steepening terrain, broken glaciers, deep moats and technical ground. 

It has become common for individuals to charter helicopters into this range precisely due to the difficulties of trying to access it on foot with the weight of the technical equipment needed to explore there enjoyably. 

It wasn’t long after I arrived in Squamish that I became enthralled with this mountain range. On my first drive to Whistler from Squamish in 2010, when I pulled over at the Tantalus Viewpoint, I became fixated with those jagged, glistening summits, surrounded by immense glaciers of broken ice. If you were to task any child to draw mountains they would draw something similar to the Tantalus skyline, with pyramid peaks coated in white and reaching into the sky, dense forests scaling as high as they can reach along their flanks.

In 2010 I had never climbed to a single summit, nor did I know how, but it is surprising how powerful and motivating the pull of mountains can be. 

Over the past few years I have explored into the Tantalus Range several times. I have yet to visit Mount Tantalus itself but I will in the near future. 

True to its name, the Tantalus has always tantalized, and on more than a few occasions I’ve come away with more hard lessons learned than summits reached. 

In the summer of 2011 I reached my first summit in this park, Ossa Mountain to the north. The northern area of this range can be reached without needing to cross the Squamish River, so it is under-standably popular, but the terrain is no less steep or rugged. This was to be my first experience with getting benighted out in the wild. Even though I had plenty of daylight and I started hiking before dawn, the return trip took me close to 15 hours. I guess I lingered longer than necessary on the ascent. I swam in small lakes that I passed and napped on the summit for close to an hour to relish being there. Even though my body was weary by the time I finally peeled the boots off my feet at my car, I didn’t regret the moments I had idled.

Less than a year later, I returned to the northern area of the park to visit Mount Pelion with some friends. We hiked in the first night and dug snow pits at the base of the mountain, slept for a handful of hours and then started climbing while it was still dark out. The route we took follows a knife edge ridge which leads to a pinpoint summit that barely one person could stand on. Our group of four each took it in turns to touch the summit for ourselves before retreating. 

These early successes in the northern reaches of the park belied the difficulties I would subsequently encounter as I continued to venture further south into the range. 

In the summer of 2012, after looking at maps, I came up with the interesting plan to navigate in from Echo Lake to the south up and over some mountains and then exit via Lake Lovely Water. This required crossing the Squamish River, so I chartered a jet boat to drop us off and then pick us up at the other end of our traverse.

While I had done as much research as possible regarding the terrain, what I couldn’t account for was the weather. At the end of the first day, our group had hiked to Echo Lake, up and over Mount Lapworth and made it to Mount Conybeare, where we decided to camp for the night. The weather was clear and warm so I slept out in a bivy sack among some krummholz. 

The following morning I woke up inside dense clouds, the consistency of pea soup. The route forward was unknown and the low visibility stymied our ability to navigate. As we kicked steps down a steep section of hard snow, we heard a loud boom above us. Fearing an avalanche had released, we quickly traversed below some cliffs to shelter from it. Then we heard another boom, but this time it was below us, then another but right beside us. We realized that we were inside a thunderstorm. 

We regrouped and agreed to retreat, which required re-climbing up Conybeare and reversing our route from the previous day. As we reached the summit, regular thunder clashes and flashes of lightning were going off all around us, and our hiking poles and ice axes began to “sing” from the static in the air, making fizzing and crackling sounds. This phenomenon can usually signify an imminent lightning strike. We took our packs off, pushing them in front of us, and crawled and shuffled our way forward until we could drop down lower. 

Eventually we dropped below the storm, and then it finally broke. After another long day on our feet, we met our jet boat at the edge of the Squamish River. 

Over the past couple of years I’ve had a number of other adventures in the Tantalus Range that have gone awry, but what I have learned through those experiences is to never take those mountains for granted. Even though I have been able to still hear the trains passing through Squamish from the peaks I have visited there, I always have the keen sense that where I am is very wild and isolated.

So next time storms roll in to Squamish or you hear the periodic air horns from trains passing by, take a moment and look west toward the Tantalus Range and imagine the adventurers who are out there, deep in those mountains, tantalizing close to us yet still so far away.

Camping on the summit of Mount Conybeare. - Leigh McClurg

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