Tantalized by the Tantalus

King Tantalus, for various atrocities, was banished to the underworld where he spent his days up to his neck in water with delicious fruits hanging over his head which were wafted away whenever he tried to grasp them, or that whenever he bent down to get a drink, the water receded before he could get any, hence the word “tantalize”.

Apart from a few trips into the northern reaches of the Tantalus Range, I’ve had a run of bad luck just trying to get into the central and southern area of this range. Things have just never lined up properly.

Poor weather putting the kibosh on a heli ride the morning of departure about a year ago, last Fall at late notice our landlords needed our apartment for family, causing us to have to move out the weekend of a planned trip. A few weeks back another trip was cancelled due to worsening weather.

There have been countless other trips in the pipeline that have just gotten postponed or cancelled for one reason or another. I was beginning to wonder if I was being subject to the same punishment as King Tantalus.

Which brings me to a trip I planned  in the middle of July in 2012. I live in the small coastal/mountain town of Squamish and pretty much since the day I set foot here I’ve been looking over at a cirque that towers over downtown Squamish with impressive looking waterfalls cascading down through bluffs and ending in the Squamish river. It wasn’t until a trip up another local peak, Mt. Mulligan, last year that I realized there was a lake up there, Echo Lake to be exact. 

My ice ax was also crackling as well as my helmet. Realizing that this possibly signifies an imminent lightning strike I dropped low to the ground

Over the past year it’s been an interest of mine to collect information about this area and its surrounding peaks. I emailed a few people who have all been in this area of the Tantalus and got some responses.

To say that information is sparse though is an understatement. For an area close enough to Squamish that you can still hear the horns of trains passing through downtown it’s crazy that there is so little information about it. This adds to its allure though so forgive me if this report describes the trip more than the route. I’d hate to deprive others of the same experience.

My rough plan was probably ambitious:
Friday: Hike to Echo Lake
Saturday: Hike to either Niobe/Pelops or Lydia/Niobe col
Sunday: Exit via Lake Lovely Water

Tantalus Tracks

Anyway, ominously on Friday the 13th, 6 of us met in the parking lot across from the Watershed Grill in Squamish, this fellowship comprised of:

Myself, Spring, Dean, Ben, Jeremy and Scott.

I wasn’t taking any chances. I’d been shooting off emails a mile a minute the week before to all the guys to make sure everyone was still in. I arranged with Jay of Squamish Riverjet to take us across the Squamish river at 6:30pm on Friday (It costs $50pp return btw). But I’d told everyone else that we needed to be ready to go in Squamish by 5:30pm. As expected, delays racked up and everyone was a little late getting to Squamish, but thankfully, still managed to be here before 6:30pm.

Literally as the last person pulled up I (L) rang Jay (J) to get an eta. The conversation went something like this:

L:“Hey Jay, we’re all here and ready to go”
J:“I’ve got some bad news”
L:“…”
J:”The boats not running, I can’t take you guys”
L:”Okay?…”
J:”I can try and canoe you guys across?”
L:”…”
J:”Do you want to talk it over with your friends?”
L:”Sure… I guess… I’ll call you back”

I hung up the phone. I couldn’t believe it. I could see the Tantalus Range from where I was standing. It’s right. freakin. there. “Not again” I muttered to myself.

I made everyone aware of the situation. We agreed to try the canoe option. We met up with Jay on the spit in Squamish and realized that canoeing just wasn’t an option. The river was swollen and moving way too fast.

Jay said he’d be working through the night to fix the boat and that he’d be able to get us to the Echo Lake Trailhead for daybreak.

Done. It would have to do. I was reminded of the saying: “Life is what happens when you’re busy making plans”. It would put us a few hours behind schedule with an extra 900m’s of elevation to gain on an already big day as it was, but c’est la vie.

Everyone crashed at myself and Springs apartment for the night. It allowed for some of the guys to go through their gear and lower their pack weight. Myself, Spring and Dean had sub-30lb overnight packs, but the rest had 40lb+ packs.

We all got to bed relatively early and were up again at 4:30am, and back at the Watershed Grill by 5:30am. Everyone held their breath. But, true to his word, Jay showed up exactly on time. We all hopped in and enjoyed a speedy transit to the Echo Lake Trailhead. Most Tantalus Range trips are quintessential Coast Mountain Epics. We’d be starting from sea level, meaning we’d earn every meter in this mountain range.

I enjoy climbing the classics but I’ve found more personal satisfaction in the seldom visited peaks

Shortly before 6am we were off. The trail to Echo Lake is very, very similar to another local trail into the Tantalus Range, the Sigurd Creek trail, with branches leading to waterfalls and other trails that, if you aren’t paying attention, can put you off course. I had way-points from bivouac.com and instructions from Murray at Valhalla Pure in Squamish on which way to go at the intersections.

Sunrise on the Squamish River Our group

 

 

The trail bed was easy enough to follow. When it isn’t there was sufficient amounts of flagging to keep us on the right track. Taking a direct route that would not take us close to the waterfalls we made it to Echo Lake in about 2.2hrs. We filtered water, swatted a plethora of mosquitoes then continued on a roughly flagged route to the summit of Lapworth.

Getting to the summit of Lapworth is a heinous bushwhack. It was hot enough that most of us were wearing shorts and t-shirts and by the time we finally pushed our way through the bush to the summit our appendages were newly decorated with alder pinstriping.

Filtering Water at the mouth of Echo Lake Heading to the summit of Lapworth

From the summit of Lapworth we could now see our next objective ahead of us, Conybeare. It looked almost too close. From emails with others who had been to these peaks I knew, however, to not underestimate the traverse along this ridge.

Shortly after leaving the summit of Lapworth the first obstacle is encountered. We had to downclimb a section, I’d say it was class 4, it reminded me of the crux on another mountain nearby, Sky Pilot, which has a “pink slab” section of Class 4 climbing. We used a handline, not out of necessity, more to speed up getting everyone down.

Handlining down Another handline section

There are a series of fairly sizable bumps along this ridge. I’d call them summits in their own right if they weren’t so close to each other. Some can be bypassed to the south but others are easier to just climb over. Mostly they ascend gradually when approaching from the East and then cliff out on their West aspect. There is plenty of krummholz and cassiope on the west aspects so you can usually just “veggie belay” your way down. A few of them have multiple possible routes depending on an individual’s comfort level so, for us at least, we’d split up to descend down to speed up the process.

This ridge traverse is really a scramblers dream. Loads of class 3 and class 4 options if you want to make it a little spicier. It’s mostly good rock with solid holds and low exposure, with some moderate exposure in places.

There are lots of water sources along the ridge, at least at the time of year that we did it, so you need not carry more than a liter at a time. We also had a few wildlife sightings. We seen a bear making it’s way curiously towards the summit of Murchison, and then a family of mountain goats ahead of us whose tracks we’d been following and beds we’d been walking through along the ridge.

Really though for us, the crux of the day was the heat. By around 4pm we were all feeling weary from being in the sun all day. There was very little wind and by now we’d gained around 2000m’s cumulative elevation over 10hrs with overnight packs on our backs.

We stopped for a longer break in a shaded area at about the second to last bump in the ridge before you finally make it to the final climb up Conybeare. We waited for the sun to set a bit and gorged on fresh water pouring out of a crack in a nearby crag. We weren’t really concerned with filtering now.

After a few more spicy downclimbs we finally stood below Conybeare. We chose an obvious weakness in the east face between ledges and snow ramps and in no time we were standing on the summit. Around 13hrs after setting out, 2500m’s of elevation gained with between 30 to 40lb packs on our backs we’d made the summit.

Jeremy at the summit of Conybeare At the summit of Conybeare

Everyone appeared to be bonking. There was discussion as to whether we should try and push for the Lydia/Niobe col before sunset. The descent off of Conybeare to the North or West was the biggest question mark on the route. I had no information on it and didn’t even know if it was possible. I wanted to try it, but with fresher heads and without daylight dictating how fast we’d have to move. We elected to wait until the next morning.

I’m glad we did. Myself, Spring, Dean and Scott were bivying and found some excellent little nooks for our bivy sacks. Jeremy and Ben found a decent platform for their tent also just below the summit. There was also a stream near to their tent that meant we didn’t have to melt snow for water. We enjoyed a warm sunset beside the summit cairn as we had dinner and then we all turned in for the night.

Black Tusk on the horizon between Iota and Omega Dinner and laughs on the summit of Conybeare

This was my first ever bivy and I couldn’t have asked for better conditions. A friend in Squamish, Chris, lent me his bivy sack as I wanted to try it out before investing in my own. The weather was calm, the temperatures comfortable, no bugs and the sky was clear. I spent most of the night with the bivy half open and my hands in the cassiope beside me as I stared up at the crystal clear milky way moving above me. It’s an experience I won’t soon forget and a way of sleeping in the mountains I’ll try to repeat as often as possible.

Our bivy spot The happiness one feels in the mountains

Anyway, as the night rolled on and I woke up periodically, I could see an ominous blanket of cloud coming in from the east. The stars above me started to be extinguished 1 by 1. By the time our alarm went off to get up at 5:30am it was a full on whiteout. Jeremy had joked about the idea of waking up in a whiteout during dinner the evening before but we’d laughed it off. That morning it was now our reality.

We had breakfast and seen a few promising breaks in the clouds. We made the decision to attempt to descend to the west of Conybeare. We’d spotted a possible route from above the evening before and I knew that if we could make it to the Sedgwick/Conybeare col that we could traverse over and gain the Niobe/Pelops col from there.

Visibility was touch and go. Ranging from a few feet to about 25.

Whiteout

We started to descend.

We’d all geared up in harnesses and crampons as we didn’t know what to expect. It was like feeling around in the dark. As we called out each others names in the whiteout it was like playing a really unfunny game of Marco Polo. We were descending snow slopes that we couldn’t see the bottom of and trying to navigate by GPS alone. After about an hour or more of making really slow progress, scrambling down wet slick rock, and kicking steps down steep slopes we had to make a decision. We were at a standstill, we were traversing too far south and could not find a route in the whiteout the led us north, the direction we needed to be going.

As the saying goes “adventure begins when everything goes wrong”.

We heard a loud crack from above. Myself, Dean and Spring where near a bluff so we moved quickly below it imagining it might be from an avalanche releasing above us. Another crack, we now identified it as thunder. But it was close. It was beside us rather than above us. More thunderous clashes followed.

I called it. I said we needed to regain the summit and that reversing our route under these conditions was the safest option. We’d at least have GPS tracks to follow.

As we regained the summit, Jeremy, who’d already made it back up with Ben, made me aware that the hiking pole in my pack was making a noise. I turned my head and could hear it making a loud crackling and buzzing noise. My ice ax was also crackling as well as my helmet. Realizing that this possibly signifies an imminent lightning strike I dropped low to the ground and quickly took my pack off. Moving up even a few inches would start the crackling again. The thunder and lightning in the clouds around us was almost continuous at this point, like fireworks going off. We needed to get out of here.

We all quickly regrouped and started our descent back the way we came.

Ascending a stiff section of scrambling Short calorie break

Within about another hour or so the show was over. We’d already dropped off the summit and were quickly progressing back over the bumps and could see the clouds start to break. I regretted slightly the decision to retreat but we had no way of knowing at the time if the weather was going to improve. I also think if we’d waited out the storm we would not have had enough time to make the pickup time with Jay at the Squamish River had we continued on to Lake Lovely Water.

Anyway, we were now under the gun to make the Echo Lake Trailhead for our rendezvous time with Jay. I’d call him from the summit of Lapworth to confirm as I knew we had reception there. It had taken 13hrs to get to Conybeare the day before. With the delays in the morning we were now left with only around ~9hrs to reverse our route back. Thankfully, the sections of downclimbing where a lot easier to climb up and we made good time back along the ridge. The cloud ceiling had lifted and our visibility was mostly fine. I was thankful for the clouds now as they kept the temperature comfortable for moving faster.

We made the summit of Lapworth in about 4hrs from Conybeare. I called Jay and he was cool to change the plan and pick us up at the Echo Lake Trailhead. We now had the heinous bushwhack down to the lake. We fooled ourselves into believing it would be easier as Alder tends to point downhill. We were wrong. It had rained during the thunderstorm and the underbrush had swollen up like a sponge. Everything was wet and tangled. We slipped and slid our way down in the general direction of the lake. Sun burn on a few of our limbs making the alder whipping even more enjoyable. Once at the lake we realized we’d successfully made up enough time now to make it down the rest of the good trail from the lake to the river.

The clouds low over Squamish

The rest is a typical coast mountain egress. It took us about the same time to get down as it did to get up. Loads of wet roots and swollen creek crossings. The tacky detritus that made heading up the trail so quick was now sodden and loose. We made the rendezvous point with only a few minutes to spare and spent those minutes swatting through the clouds of mosquitos at the river bank. Jay was once again prompt with picking us up and after an enjoyable Jetboat ride up the Squamish river we where back at the Watershed Grill pickup point.

Swollen creeks on the egress Waiting at the pickup point

As we passed the Watershed Grill, a Bar that sits on the banks of the Squamish river, some people on the deck shouted at us to find out what we’d climbed. I imagine they see many climbers and hikers getting dropped off and passing by and expected replies like Alpha, Serratus or Pelops, the more popular peaks in the Tantalus Range. When I said “Conybeare” and their faces became puzzled I appreciated that. I enjoy climbing the classics but I’ve found more personal satisfaction in the seldom visited peaks, the underdogs that are full of surprises due to the lack of information about them.

Even though our original goal could not be completed I really enjoyed the endeavour. As the saying goes “adventure begins when everything goes wrong”. I feel the 6 of us got caught up in an a typical BC adventure. I’m not done with the Tantalus Range by a long shot. This trip has only served to fuel ideas for other excursions into the area.

Author: Leigh McClurg

I grew up in County Dublin, Ireland and moved to British Columbia, Canada with my wife in 2010. I fell in love with being in the Backcountry and Mountains that are all around me here and try to spend all of my free time exploring those wild places. My main goals are to chase happiness, see as much of this planet and its cultures as possible and grow every day through knowledge and experiences.

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2 Comments

    • Hey Amanda, we’ve never been up Mt. Murchison, but it’s high on our objectives for this year. We’ve been up Mount Mulligan and from it you can see Echo Lake across the valley.

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