Cirque de Lune
September 30, 2003 and it was part of the most sunny, high pressure, windless and warm days we had seen here in years. Sitting at the computer looking out the window I could see that high ridge of the Telkwa Range beckoning. The glossy white of the glacier looked so inviting and so smooth. I had tried at various times to reach it but always something happened such as a blizzard. But I was working, honest. I had reports to finish. Looking at the sodden photos of Prince Rupert – a field trip of the week before – then a quick glance out the window I started to whine. Ted, the retired, laughed at my anguish. To tease me further he was talking about the Nanika Kidprice Canoe Route and a quick trip there. But I could see where I wanted to be.
By 3:00 pm, the packs were in the back of the truck, and we were headed towards the Telkwa Range. There is a voluntary ban regarding any kind of access into the mountains at this time of year to protect the fledging herd of caribou but we promised if we saw any we would hit the dirt and wait until they passed. It was warm and sunny how could we not go?
We started hiking at around 3.45 pm at the Hankin Plateau trailhead leading to the Telkwa Range. The first part of the hike up to the plateau is through forest and rises in steps. There are a few steep portions (short but steep) and with the heat and loads it took a total of an hour and half to make it to timberline. The sun was already starting to lower in the sky towards the peaks and the thought of finding a campsite in the dark was not appealing. We filled bottles and pots in the first little pond near timberline and started up the edge of the plateau. The plateau is very dry in the fall. The walls of the plateau plummet into Webster Creek sharply and are carved by mountain goat trails but it is a long, steep trip down.
Just ahead of us on one of the goat trails were three goats ambling along. They were beautiful to watch and we did not want to disturb them. But soon they were hidden and we could begin the trudge up the grassy hillside. We stopped just below one of the first of many false summits to camp in a nest of grass and shrubs. The plateau wall swept away near the tent and we were gazing at Webster Lake ridge across from us, Hudson Bay Mountain beyond, the beautiful Bulkley Valley where Smithers is nestled and just starting to twinkle as the lights were coming on below to the north and the Babine Range to the east.
The next morning we reluctantly rose from our down sleeping bags and started coffee in the pearly morning light. The glacier that has been beckoning us seemed further away then from my desk at home. There were some very large crevasses I could see. We would have to swing around to the south to the edge of the plateau, across a knife edged ridge and then see what would happen from there. That would be our best vantage point.
By the time we got the camp disassembled and to the ridge it was already 11:00 am. There were grizzly tracks in some of the relic snowfields but no sign of caribou. The ridge was awkward with the heavy packs. Again we followed goat trails and made one error of crossing a snowpatch where a goat had led. We postholed and it was tenuous as it was one of those “fall you die” areas. The views on the ridge were tremendous but we could not quite see yet where we could approach the ridge to get to the highest point of the Telkwa Range. (The peak is unnamed but we call it Ned’s Peak named after Ned who had reopened the trail many years ago). Once over the ridge, the vista opened up before us.
Hiking the ridge – the right peak is the highest point
There was great debate over the best route to the highest point. To the left the route would be down a long talus slope to a small lake and then across the moraines, creeks and more small lakes to a relic glacier that led up a col to the ridge. We were not sure if this ridge could be traversed to the highest peak. Straight ahead – west – there was a larger glacier with a big icefall in the middle. It was the most direct route. We would still have to drop down the talus slope to the small lake then make our way back up to the pillars and then over the terminal moraine. It looked like we could do it if we had time and brought more equipment. To the right, the route would be up over the ridge (we were in a col and we had done this ridge before – just scrambling required) and then along another ridge that looked very exposed and then onto the north-facing glacier (Ned’s favourite route). This glacier also had some big crevasses but it probably was better than the one straight ahead.
The routes to the west and north to reach the peak
Looking at the route – col in the center
We decided that the first route seemed the best for the time we had left and the equipment we had with us – an emergency rope, some ice screws, ice axes and crampons and other bits of stuff.
By the time we got down the talus slope, set up camp and then had lunch it was 1:30 pm. Where was the time going? We had hoped that we could have an early start so that the snow would be firm as well as being able to make the summit. At this rate, we would be lucky if we gained the ridge at all. But on the other hand the day was so superb with the most beautiful scenery anywhere we felt so glad to just be in the area that making the summit was not important.
Camp ½ way up furthest ridge
After battles with the moraines we arrived on the first snow patch. There was some odd looking crevasses suggesting a creek was undercutting the snow. So just to be safe, we roped up. It was a short stretch and we were finally on the glacier itself leading to the col. With crampons on, the route was easy. The ice was old, firm and blue and the sharp metal fangs of the crampons bit into it crisply. Soon we were at the top of the pass and looking into the next valley belonging to Houston Tommy Creek. The valleys and mountains stretched away in all directions promising all sorts of new and interesting forays in the years ahead. Eight goats were grazing in a pasture far away.
The ridge leading to the summit was covered in loose boulders. We scrambled quickly knob after knob. They kept leading us up. Soon the ridge crest was broached and the views of ridge and summit opened up. It was definitely achievable but we had run out of time. In less than two hours it would be dark. We could see the tent nestled at the base of the steep hillside beside the lake and wished we could just click our heels twice and be back there.
Later once back in camp, with a hot cup of crystal light and gin, huddled together to stay warm, the moon rose. At this time of year the moon only rises for a brief time. During its ascent and apex it hung as a crescent in the notch of the pass where we had just explored. In less then 10 minutes it was gone. We now know this area as “Cirque de Lune”.
Although we still haven’t reached the summit (but we will) the trip was one of those magical events that will be forever in my memory. There are a myriad of reasons but the main ones were that it was spontaneous instead of one of my over agonized planned trips, an exploration of a new place and wild. There were signs that people had been that way before (the mineral claim post said 1974) but it wasn’t a well-trodden place with trails and cairns. There were enough difficulties to just make it seem like a big adventure. But the best reason was the chance of the moon, the col and us aligning together.
Note: The Telkwa Range supports an isolated caribou herd that has been identified for rehabilitation. From a minimum of 271 caribou in 1965, the Telkwa Mountain caribou herd declined to about 13 in March 1996, despite a complete closure on hunting after 1973. Causes of the decline are subjective and include over-hunting in the 1960s, chronic poor recruitment of calves due to predation, and range abandonment due to human-caused disturbances, particularly snow machines in winter. The Ministry of Sustainable Resource Management, BC Government, Morice District Land and Resource Use Plan - draft
Thirty-two caribou were relocated to the Telkwa Mountains during 1997 - 1999, to help recover the Telkwa Caribou Herd. The animals captured from the Sustut herd, about 150 km north of Smithers; immobilized, fitted with radiocollars and transported by helicopter to the Telkwa Mountains. Four were bulls, one was an immature cow and the rest were adult cows. Telemetry locations of Telkwa caribou have been used to determine habitat characteristics selected by Telkwa caribou from November 1997 - April 2000. Village of Telkwa, website
For further information read: From Trails to Timberline, Einar Blix: Hankin Plateau trail – route descriptions, directions and comments.
Map of the Hankin Plateau and Cirque de Lune – 93L.11 and 93L 6