The Ellison Expedition of 1910 chose Crown as their principle objective and it was from the summit of this lovely peak that the glory of the high peaks of Strathcona Park to the south became apparent to all and sundry for the first time. The fact that Price Ellison, the expedition’s leader, was also Minister for Lands in the provincial government of the day meant that official incorporation of the Park followed not long after the group’s return to civilization. The first ascent of Crown, therefore, was pivotal in the creation of an incomparable resource that generations of visitors continue to enjoy almost a century later.
Given the foregoing, it might come as a surprise to some that Crown Mountain receives very few ascents. The latest information I could find came from our Alpine Club of Canada, local section trip report annual, “The Island Bushwhacker”, in which a July 2004 trip noted just seven entries in a summit register which dated from 1986.
The equation: history + seldom visited summit = must-do, meant that Crown had been on my and a few chums minds for a few years and when a perfect late season weather window presented itself, Peter, Tony and I were packed and off to the mountain in short order.
September 29. Approach
Foremost amongst Peter’s considerable knowledge of the climbing scene on Vancouver Island is a large database of pre- and post-trip eateries. The pre-trip entry for Campbell River – the closest town to Crown Mountain – is the “Ideal Café” and it was there that we started the trip with several thousand calories worth of fuel and sufficient caffeine to last the next three days. Tales that the Ideal offered a “loggers breakfast special” that consisted of 6 pancakes and a beer proved (thankfully) to be apocryphal and we were soon on our sober way to the logging roads that gave access to our objective.
The Menzies and South Fork main lines were well signed, as was our approach spur, SF 900. The nice sign, however, belied the state of the road, which was heavily choked with alder in quite a few spots. However, we ploughed it down and arrived at the abrupt road-end in an impenetrable alder thicket at about 10 am. Gear up and away we went 15 minutes later on the de-built remains of SF900.
There wasn’t much in the way of the advertised path but we soon reached the old, partly collapsed helipad that marks the point at which you leave the old road and head west up to the long north ridge of the Crown massif.
There’s no hiding the fact that the next bit was ugly. With a half-digested, high-fat breakfast still very much in evidence, a full climbing/camping pack and only half warmed up muscles, launching directly up a 45° slope choked by immature second growth nicely concealing treacherous old logging slash, now counts amongst my least effective ways to get the day off to a happy start. The fact that there’s only 15-20 minutes worth of this torture provided scant mitigation.
And if we thought that reaching the old growth spelled relief, we were left in no doubt that it didn’t. Even steeper ground presented itself ahead but at least in open forest and with the prospect of being able to use animal trails to go the way we needed to. In fact the ground was so steep that the animals had even left us with contoured tracks to help lessen the angle. There was also a little flagging evident at this point to confirm that we were going the right way.
Rather surprisingly, the open terrain we were heading for turned out not to be the crest of the north ridge but rather another old clearcut. Either roads come up from the west side to reach this, or it was the site of a heli-logging operation. In any event, it was a flat, easy 50 metres travel to the south through the slash in order to get back into the old growth right under a set of bluffs that was the last obstacle to getting onto the north ridge proper. We soon found a steep but reasonable route on the left of the bluffs and were on the ridge 10 minutes later. All told, reaching this point took us just over an hour from the truck with a couple of rests along the way.
From now on we would be almost exclusively in open old growth with hardly any of the usual in-your-face bush so common on the Island. There was no trail but we didn’t really need one. We just kept heading up and south checking the GPS every so often whenever a “sucker” option tempted us the wrong way.
During our lunch break we made an interesting observation. Everywhere in the forest looked pretty much like everywhere else and so we chose to drop the packs by a convenient log on a reasonably flat, open spot pretty well at random. Lunch was almost over when we noticed that we’d serendipitously chosen our spot right where a blaze had been cut in a tree directly in front of us. It was clearly very old, in that trees grow slowly up here and this one had had time to put on a lot of bark since the blaze was cut. At least on the way up, we saw no more such cuts and wondered what had induced a party from yesteryear to make such an isolated mark.
Following lunch, we simply plodded on up the ridge – with one detour for water at the only source before the alpine – before arriving at an open bluff at about 4 pm. From here we could see open, heather clad slopes above marking the beginning of the sub-alpine. Getting there involved a significant initial descent of 60-70 vertical metres to a boggy saddle before resuming upward progress once more. By 4.45 we were in open terrain with tarns everywhere and it was time to call it a day.
Considering it was so late in the season the weather was superb. A warm wind sprang up from the west just as the sun was going down making unnecessary anything heavier than a light fleece.
September 30. Summit day
We got up at 6 the next day to a balmy and clear morning. By 7.30 we were off, following the ridgeline southwest and then due south up the alpine. The twin summits of our objective came into view no more than 15 minutes after leaving camp and we were also treated to lovely early morning views of Victoria and Warden Peaks to the northwest. The last trees fell behind as we approached the unnamed “Peak 5412”.
We hiked right up and over Peak 5412, traversed the next bump on the ridge on the left (east) and then dropped down over scree and boulders to the a point about 100 metres above the base of the north glacier of Crown.
The snow was hard and compact, as we had expected it would be, and we were happy that we hadn’t lugged axes and crampons all the way up here for nothing. It was an easy but steady climb up to the narrow col between the main and west summits.
We’d already gathered from reading descriptions of the climb, that a Class 3 gully off the col leads to the summit ridge. However, the guidebook shows a route sketch that goes up a gully a few metres below the col. There was certainly such a gully in evidence but it looked steep and loose and decidedly un-Class 3. Peter and Tony headed that way but I was having none of it and went right into the col where, lo and behold, there was the easy gully. I yelled to the others to head over to me. They didn’t need much urging, having got themselves onto some nice exposed ice that their crampon points were barely sticking to. Looking at this gully on the way down and from further back shows that it dead-ends anyway.
After regrouping on the col we were soon off up the gully. It was loose at the bottom but otherwise straightforward. Once on the ridge we strolled up to the heathery summit in 10 minutes with just one minor detour around the top of a steep gully known as “The Cleft”.
Now we could finally see what Price Ellison, his daughter Myra and the rest of the 1910 party saw. The light wasn’t the best but the high peaks of northern Strathcona were there in all their splendour to the south. The western horizon included Victoria, Warden, the Haihte Range, the Alava-Bate Sanctuary, Conuma Peak and much, much more. And, of course, to the east were Georgia Strait and the coast mountains of the mainland. We soaked it all in over a leisurely lunch and, at least on my part, with a distinct sense of privilege just being in such a place.
Readers may note that the hydrographic tripod on the summit of Crown has one leg broken. This is because it was struck be a helicopter that was attempting to land there in 1988. The aircraft crash-landed but, happily, without injury to the pilot. The authorities certainly did a good job on the cleanup. All that I could find were a few shards of plexiglass in rock crevices just south of the summit.
Our visits to summits are all too brief but it was time, finally, to add our names to the new waterproof book that Peter added to the summit register and, with regret, to take our leave of this wonderful and historic place.
There were 8 entries in addition to the 7 noted in 2004. Business on Crown is clearly better than it was but this is still not what you’d call a frequented mountain.
Our return journey to camp was a leisurely affair. We had decided that there was no point in packing up and walking part way out that night. We would enjoy the afternoon soaking in the views from the ridge and savouring the trip to the utmost degree. The only variation we made on the descent was to avoid going right over the top of 5412. Instead we found a bypass route to the west just below the ring of krumholtz that guards the summit.
We were back in camp by 3.45 where Tony and Pete promptly fell asleep while I spent time pottering about constantly losing and then re-finding stuff as is my wont. (If anyone finds a pair of reading glasses on the summit of Crown – they’re mine!)
October 01. OutAn unprecedented 3rd clear morning followed another warm and pleasant night. We were again up at 6, packed and off in record time (for me) at 7.15.
With the benefit of the outbound GPS track we were able to avoid a few “bumplets” on the ridge on the way down. The few pockets of bush we had met 2 days before were likewise easily bypassed. We did find an area of blazes on trees similar to our find on the way up but quite some distance away and only because we had wandered off our outbound route a bit.
The descent from the higher clearcut was as steep as I remembered and that through the slash even more painful but we were soon on SF900 and 10 minutes later at the truck. Just over four and a half hours to come down. It makes quite a difference when you have a known route to follow.
Less than 2 hours later we were back in Campbell River where Peter’s database produced the “Royal Coachman”. No loggers breakfast here. A lovely patio garden, fish pond etc. Quite bijou. It was a climbers lunch though. I can’t remember what we ate; only what we drank. No prizes for the guess.
At home the next day, I woke up to heavy cloud and rain. That was enough to make me feel particularly smug. As they say, the sun shines on the righteous.