When Sisyphus met Zeno: Tantalus Digressions

Tantalus Quadtych

I have a bit of an obsession with the Tantalus Range of Mountains. Most Mountaineers who live near Mountains will let you know that their local peaks that are visible from their work or home can offer more allure than even the high ranges of the Himalayas.

For myself, the Tantalus Range has been visible from every place that I’ve lived in the little town of Squamish. It’s peaks are striking, its lakes are pristine and even though it is located close to large population areas you can feel completely isolated when exploring there.

What adds to this allure is that it is not easily accessed. A wide and fast river with no legal bridges cuts off most of the central and southern area of the range. If you have the wallet you can fly in via helicopter or float plane or hire a boat to get you across. If you have the stomach you can walk the cables for a locked cable car. I’ve never done the latter myself but heard it is spicy and most people recommend finding another way to cross after they’ve tried it. Alternatively, you can walk in from the North, starting at pretty much sea level.

On Canada Day Weekend 2013, myself and Spring planned to walk in from the North and try and access the crown of the Tantalus Range, Mount Tantalus herself. If you’ve driven Highway 99 from Vancouver to Whistler, BC under blue skies your jaw has likely dropped at the sight of Mount Tantalus. An impressive vista opens up and you get to look right into the heart of the Tantalus Range with all it’s most impressive peaks laid out before you. On a clear crisp day the pullout for this viewpoint is usually chock full, from dawn till dusk, with tourists snapping pictures of themselves against the backdrop.

After some research about ways to reach this summit I decided to take the road less traveled to try and reach it on foot, accessing the summit via the North Ridge. The consensus online appeared to be to save your energy and fly in to the base of the North Ridge, but I wanted to at least see what the approach would be like. We’d hike in from the North via the Sigurd Creek trail, hike up and over the shoulder of Pelion Mountain (we’d been here before) then follow a ridge that drops a ways down to the South of Pelion and ascend to a col. between Zenith Peak and Mount Tantalus. To reach this col. is no great distance, it’s only about a 15km hike. What puts a huge sting in the tail of this audacious approach is that you gain over 2800m’s of cumulative elevation just to get to the base of the route. Then comes the hard part, the climb of the North Ridge itself. Total, if you were to do this route return you’ll be covering a distance of ~37km’s and gaining close to a whopping 4600m’s of cumulative elevation.

It’s recommended that you do this ascent over 4 days. With a two day approach, a day to summit and then a day to hike back out. If you’re smart you’d probably give yourself 5 days, with a 2 day window for the summit with one of those being a rest day. We didn’t have this luxury so we squeezed it down to a planned 3.5 days.

So, on Friday afternoon on the 28th of June, at around 4:30pm, while most of the rest of Canada was stocking up on Bacon and Beer and preparing for the Canada Day weekend celebrations, myself and Spring shouldered our 45lb packs in the rain (we tried our hardest to keep the weight down, but bringing all our mountaineering gear and enough calories to fuel 4600m’s of elevation gain over 3.5 days adds up) and set out on the trail.

It starts out hard and steep and stays that way. Thankfully we didn’t feel the rain as much in the trees but it was extremely humid and muggy. We pressed on, stopping only briefly to eat some leftover pizza at around 6:30pm for dinner. By 8:30pm we made the Sigurd Creek crossing, our heavy packs and the humidity had slowed us down.

Once across the creek we decided to stop and camp here rather than trying to push on into darkness to camp out of the trees. We set up our tent quickly, drank some water and tea to try and re-hydrate and turned in for the night. We both actually slept really well. It’s a novelty for us to camp in the trees as we are usually high up in the Alpine when we pitch our tent. The loamy forest floor was nice under our tent and the sound of the creek gushing just within earshot lulled us to sleep.

Cup of Joe in the Forest

We awoke with the dawn and our stoke rose with the sight of blue skies above and cooler temps (at least in the trees by the creek). We had coffee with cream cheese bagels, quickly broke camp and started moving. The bugs got really intense at a boulder field shortly before you break out of the trees but once we pushed through it they left us alone.

From here we planned to follow our previous ascent route of Pelion but break off from it a few hundred meters below the summit and cross over the shoulder of Pelion to gain it’s South side.

Out of the trees we may have been away from the bugs but we now had to contend with the oppressive heat of the Sun beating down on us. With the reflection on the snow and the humidity it felt like it was at least above 35’c. We pressed on upwards moving mostly on quickly softening, suncupped snow. With each step we’d sink in a few inches.

As I trudged upwards, away from any reprieve from the sun, with rivulets of sweat running down my face and back like a faucet, I started to picture people sitting in beer gardens, sipping on ice chilled ciders and snacking on samosas on this balmy Saturday. I then started to think about what I’d be doing if I wasn’t doing this.

Lately, myself and Spring have been spending more and more of our free time in and around Squamish, rock climbing, trail running and mountain biking, and less time hiking in the mountains. These other activities are fun but also rewarding. They don’t require much planning either, you just grab your gear and go. At times it has amazed me that I can find as much satisfaction in being able to pinch a little crystal of granite and hold onto it or feel the sudden acceleration when you get spit out the other side of a perfect loamy berm as I did when I reached the summit of Mount Rainier last year. The latter requires a lot more planning and time however.

We eventually crested over the shoulder of Pelion Mountain and the spectacle of Mount Tantalus lay in front of us. We collapsed on a flat slab of rock jutting out of the snow. It was clear that others had also done this in the past as it was lined with rocks, obviously to stop you from rolling off and down the terminal slope on the other side when you inevitably fall asleep.

We lay there trying to cool down, hydrate and motivate ourselves to now lose a load of the elevation we’d just gained to get to the Zenith/Pelion pass and then gain it all back again on the other side before we could build our camp for the night, hopefully early enough that we could get to sleep in time to be up for an alpine start on the North Ridge. By this point we’d already gained ~2300m’s of elevation. A 10 minute break turned to 20, which turned into an hour.

Choices, choices, choices

“Well, should we do this?”. From afar we started to rationalize that the route wasn’t “in”. An exit gully we’d need to take to gain the West Glacier had melted out near the top which might mean we’d have to cross a randkluft. We also knew there was a heinously steep 100m downclimb required on moss and slick rock to get through the pass below. But really I think these were all just excuses, the heat and humidity coupled with the elevation gain and heavy packs had just taken it out of us. The lure of cool granite and loamy forests back home wasn’t helping either.

Making our beds

We hung around humming and hawing and eventually time made the decision for us. This was as far as we’d be going. Once we pitched our tent on the crest of the shoulder and began to brew up some tea I started to feel good about our decision. As a photographer this location was amazing and I now actually had time to do some shooting. We’d be able to egress out quickly the next day and do some biking and climbing in Squamish over the Sunday afternoon and Holiday Monday. I wouldn’t get to summit Mount Tantalus this weekend but I was ok with that. I know I will at some point. I’d be ok with flying in to access the North Ridge now. I won’t say I’ll never try this approach again but if I do, it will be when the snow is firmer, the temperatures are lower and perhaps I’ll plan to split the gear weight over a larger group.

We had a lazy evening, watching the clouds dance around the flanks of Mount Tantalus and Alpha Mountain before dissipating entirely. We ate dinner, a veritable smorgasbord, now that we wouldn’t have to ration our food out for another night and then, with oddly full bellies, turned in around dusk. I promised myself that if the moon came out that I’d get up to take a photo. Sure enough, around 3am, moonlight streamed through one of the air vents on our tent and woke me up. The idea of going out into the cold was not appealing but I eventually talked myself into unzipping my sleeping bag. I was glad I did as I captured one of my favorite shots to date.

Lights of Vancouver behind Tantalus

The next morning was another beautiful bluebird day. We packed up after a lazy breakfast and headed out. The heat did not abate so we drank from every creek we crossed and soaked our heads and hats in the cold water. We stopped at a waterfall on the way back to bask in the cooling mist of ice cold water being churned up before finally making it back to our vehicle.

Sigurd Creek Crossing

On the Monday, Canada Day, we climbed some beautiful splitter crack climbs in the morning and then when it got too warm we went to a nearby lake for a swim to cool down. While doing the backstroke I could see Atwell which I’d turned around on also earlier in the year and thought about some other recent trips that had ended in a failed summit attempt. I wondered if this was becoming a trend. Funnily enough I was ok with that realization even if it likely isn’t the case. I remembered a line from “Walden” by Henry David Thoreau and realized the only value the summit of a mountain contains is that which I choose to assign it.

“But man’s capacities have never been measured; nor are we to judge of what he can do by any precedents, so little has been tried. Whatever have been thy failures hitherto, ‘be not afflicted, my child, for who shall assign to thee what thou hast left undone?’” – Walden


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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  1. These photos are unreal!

    Post a Reply
    • Thanks Jordan! We appreciate it. The light of the moon can make for some pretty amazing night time long exposures.

      Post a Reply

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