In Praise of Bushwhacking

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In Praise of Bushwhacking
Created On: Dec 28, 2008
Last Edited On: Apr 9, 2013

In Praise of Bushwhacking

Huckleberry HeavenDense huckleberry bush approaching Warden Peak, Vancouver Island. Look carefully, there are four climbers in this shot.

From the perspective of the true outdoor enthusiast, “wilderness development” is an oxymoron. Development implies progress and how exactly can encroaching urbanisation, mechanisation, bijou wilderness lodges and the like and even signed trails properly be regarded as development when applied to real wilderness? Nothing truly belongs in the alpine environment except the mountain and its natural bastions of forest, river, cliff and glacier. Can anyone claim to have truly climbed a mountain who has used a gondola or an aircraft as a significant part of his or her approach strategy?

Much has been written on SP and elsewhere about the need to protect the planet’s ever diminishing wilderness resources from the evils of civilisation. And yet many of the same authors who advocate protection of the wilderness seem to have no problems about the inclusion of man-made trails in their own wilderness experiences. Let’s be honest. Once that first trace of the presence of man appears it’s thin-end-of-the-wedge time. A use-trail becomes an engineered trail and leads to the accelerated presence of more and more human visitors. Soon alternate routes appear and, in no time at all, the appellation “wilderness” becomes moot.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m no holier-than-thou hypocrite. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” as the old biblical saying goes and I’m as guilty at the next man when it comes to using decommissioned logging roads to drive as high as I can on my chosen objective before hefting that damned 50 lb pack full of food, camping gear, and, of course, climbing paraphernalia. 

Driving SF900
On Vancouver Island even a mechanised approach requires bushwhacking.

Our need for wilderness is as well documented as the need to protect it. Who does not feel the need to get as far away as possible from modern society with its jaded and trivial values? It only takes a couple of weeks of self-serving politicians, newscasts from Afghanistan/Zimbabwe/Iran or wherever else yet another thug is busy brutalising millions for the sake of personal enrichment, or just simply a single trip to the mall, before I need to pack my gear and get the hell out of Dodge.

In his recent article In Defense of the Wild SP member magicdufflepud informs us eloquently that if “Civilization ….. is the presence of noise and light…….wilderness is the absence of both”. Well put indeed. But where do we go to find those places where noise and light are absent and which are so essential to the spiritual nourishment we crave? Trails might mean the presence of others. Gondolas, airplanes, huts and the like most certainly do. I urge you to dispense with all such artificiality. Eschew trails. Refuse mechanised assistance. Scoff at gondola access.

Take to the bush.
This is what a very large...Devil’s Club, oplopanax horridus, an essential component of any B3 and above bush thrash. Photo by Andy Dewey.
Inspiration Peak - ApproachSlide alder, alnus viridis, this time providing a helping hand on the approach to Inspiration Peak, Washington State. Photo by rpc.

The dictionary definitions of the verb “Bushwhack” are twofold. Webster’s and the Oxford are, for once, in agreement on this. You’re either ambushing someone or you’re hacking your way through dense undergrowth. The origins of the word are less clear. The term has long been in use since the colonisation of Australia and the westward spread of Europeans from the east coast of North America. I rather think that the original meaning in the US was to ambush someone whereas the other usage applied in Oz but am happy to be corrected by those more knowledgeable than me. Whatever the origin, we’re obviously dealing with the second definition of the term. This is important to all of you SP-ers out there who include such expressions as “we couldn’t find the trail so we bushwhacked directly across open slopes” in your TRs. If there’s no greenery involved, by definition, it ain’t bushwhacking. However, such a mode of travel is a worthy start to true bushwhacking. As a British High Court judge once so famously said of a case in the 1960's in which a gay (not the term used in those days of course) man was accused of molesting a woman, (and I kid you not here), it’s “A step in the right direction”. 

Old Slash and Second Growth
Immature second growth hiding the dangerous industrial cousin of bush, logging slash. Vancouver Island, BC.

My home turf is Vancouver Island where tangled and dangerous logging slash leading into dense west coast bush is a simple fact of everyday alpine life. In fact it’s so commonplace that, rather as Inuit have many names for snow, we have “bush grades”. For the dedicated Island aficionado there’s bush and then there’s bush. The grades were originally proposed in a tongue-in-cheek manner by Phillip Stone in his excellent guide Island Alpine. Nowadays they serve as a useful scale when providing approach beta to someone contemplating a new Island objective. So, before you rush out there, imbued with the new spirit of purity that this article is bound to instill in you, consider what you’re in for.

Bush Grade B0

Climbing Harston
Open going on Mt Harston, Saunders Island, Falkland Islands. B0 bushwhacking. No trail, no problem.

This is for all those folks referred to above who consider simple off-trail travel as bushwhacking. Good on yer mates. It’s a great start. Hopefully you’ve left the hoi polloi behind on the trail and you’re already improving your navigational skills as well as your ability to recognize and profit from advantageous features of the terrain around you. You’re on open ground, can see your feet at all times and, except for the need to stop and take a GPS/compass reading every so often, you’re moving at trail speed. The only plant life around having influence on the outcome of the day is the lettuce on your sandwiches.

Bush Grade B1

Open Old Growth
Beautiful open B1 bush on the approach to Crown Mountain, Vancouver Island.

Travel in B1 bush is an absolute delight. On the Island this means open old growth forest and the definition can, I’m sure, be readily extrapolated elsewhere on the planet. Any vegetation is knee height or less. There are no meaningful impediments such as deadfall and certainly no noxious species (see below) to deal with. You can see your feet almost all of the time. Travel remains at trail speed or only slightly below it.

Bush Grade B2

Let s look cheerful about it
Chest high B2 bush en route to Warden Peak, Vancouver Island. No real problem. The climber's grin says it all!

Vegetation is still light but is now chest high. There is significant deadfall but, in the main, it can simply be stepped over. On occasion you can’t see your foot placements and do so by feel. Travel is not impeded but now definitely slower. The first noxious plants begin to appear: slide-alder, huckleberry bush and thorned species such as Devils Club. However, at B2, they are easily avoided or passages through are short and problem free. Early in the day expect a heavy dew bath.

Bush Grade B3

Pinder Peak; Bushwhack descent
B3 bush descending Pinder Peak, Vancouver Island. The climber can just be seen in the centre of the shot.

You are now in dense, head height vegetation meaning that the feet cannot be seen a lot of the time. Deadfall is now very significant and frequently you find yourself climbing over or crawling under it. Travel is definitely impeded and constant route finding becomes essential. Frequent entanglements in huckleberry, regular discoveries that slide-alder always points downhill as your feet shoot out from under you for the umpteenth time and occasional scratches and skewerings from hidden thorns are now the order of the day. However, on occasion, you find that hauling on the vegetation has actually become necessary in order to make forward progress.

Bush grade B4

Climbing a tree chimney
Serious B4 bush approaching Elkhorn, Vancouver Island. Struggling up in the half-light by climbing deadfall directly.

Just when you think it can’t get any worse you run into thick, entangled vegetation such that the feet can't be seen most of the time. In fact, you’re wondering if you still have feet. You’re now “thrashing” (and being thrashed) in the truest sense of the word. You’re fighting for every inch of forward progress, hauling yourself over the almost contant succession of fallen logs etc using the very vegetation that’s trying to resist your passage. You don’t care (or even notice) that you’re wrapped up in huckleberry, whether the alder has you on your arse or your elbow and, boy, are those Devil’s Club impalements going to get infected later on. And did I mention that you’re doing all this on a 50° slope?

Islanders also tend to include negotiation of the industrial cousin of bush, namely logging slash, in categories 3 and 4.

Bush grade B5

Bushwhacking ROCKS!
SP-ette MountaingirlBC in the beginning stages of becoming one with the biomass.

This is it! A higher plane of existence. Negotiation of B5 bush requires you to actually meld with the biomass. And I don’t mean just mind-meld à la Spock. You must become one with the plant world in order to communicate and negotiate passage. Bio-supremacy between plant and animal is not at issue here. You must concede supremacy in order to progress. Be proud in recording the first co-species ascent of your objective. Don’t forget to pollinate the summit register.

Becoming One with the Bush
Transmogrification complete! You may now pass through B5 bush.

So that’s it. You’ve read all the arguments and you must agree. No more trails, no more helicopter assists and especially no more gondolas.

Revel in the solitude. Discover complete self-reliance. Hone those navigational skills to new heights. Above all, see the mountains in the way that First Nations and early explorers saw them. Virgin, unsullied, pristine, unspeakably lovely.

This is how we will succeed in protecting our last wild places. By going there on their terms.

Enjoy also the attached "Bushwacks" album and do feel free to add your own images. The uglier the bush, the better I'll score your photos!

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Viewing: 21-40 of 64

ibndalight - Jan 4, 2009 8:14 pm - Voted 10/10



vancouver islander

vancouver islander - Jan 5, 2009 1:45 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Awesome

Thanks mate. Glad you enjoyed the article.


shknbke - Jan 5, 2009 12:59 am - Voted 10/10

nice article

I would say the majority of the peaks I climb here in CO involve some form of bushwacking, but they don't get any worse than B3 on your scale. CO is pretty wide open compared to the Pacific Northwest, but we do have our fair share of deadfall and scrub oak to deal with. So would this go as a B3?

vancouver islander

vancouver islander - Jan 5, 2009 1:29 am - Hasn't voted

Re: nice article

Many thanks for reading my article. Glad you enjoyed it.

Nice video. B2 I'd say. Shoulder/chest height and it looks reasonably open. Your friends seem to be having fun.

Cheers, Martin


ktiffany22 - Jan 5, 2009 11:16 am - Voted 10/10

Re: nice article

I'm the girl in the video... yeah, in a sick kinda way there were tiny scarce crazy moments when I was glad to be hiking regardless of the nasty scrub oak. HOWEVER, I'd take a TRAIL anyday over bushwhacking!!! This section of the hike was B2 (open enough for a video), however, most of the hike was different... you had to use your whole body (esp hands) to "clear" a way through the brush that was above your head, and keep your distance from the person in front of you or you'd get smacked when they let go... you also could'nt really see the person in front of you! And poor Brian who was with us had on shorts and short-sleeved shirt... he was scratched all to heck!

Dmitry Pruss

Dmitry Pruss - Jan 5, 2009 1:16 pm - Voted 10/10

Winter snows

is the one proper way to handle bushwhack problems, as well as problems with human travel impact off trail. Helps with wetland crossings and with boulderfields, too ;)

vancouver islander

vancouver islander - Jan 5, 2009 1:45 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Winter snows

Excellent comment. Many Island bushwhacks can be avoided by going in early season - when the snow in the forest is consolidated and the weather is generally pleasant.

Of course, there is a certain cadre of folk out there who like beating themselves up in the bush. For them, and at least as far as Vancouver Island is concerned, human impact isn't really at issue. Only the dedicated few choose to take on such challenges and, even then, may do a chosen objective once or twice in a lifetime. The bush grows so well here that the passage of the (very) occasional bushwacker is of no consequence. That said, we're still careful to leave no trace of our passage.


seanpeckham - Jan 5, 2009 6:16 pm - Voted 10/10

I wonder

how cryptobiotic soil ought to fit into the B0-B5 spectrum of travel on/through organic terrain. Easy as B0, unless you have any interest in avoiding environmental damage, in which case technique can range from some kind of hopping dance connecting the dots of rocks and sticks, to merely cringing with every step if there's nothing else to step on.

vancouver islander

vancouver islander - Jan 6, 2009 3:16 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: I wonder

I think we'd have to give this one an honorary B4-B5 grading in that, in order to respect the delicacy of the terrain, the climbing party would have to carry up lumber and tools to construct an elevated platform above such a fragile area and take it all down again on the descent :)

Thanks for reading my article.

Cheers, Martin


rpc - Jan 5, 2009 7:09 pm - Voted 10/10

very nice

for some reason makes me nostalgic for summertime :)
thanks for the write-up Martin.

vancouver islander

vancouver islander - Jan 6, 2009 7:08 pm - Hasn't voted

nostalgic for summertime

Me too? You must be getting the same sh***y weather down there as we're getting on the Island at the moment.

All the best, Martin

Sierra Ledge Rat

Sierra Ledge Rat - Jan 7, 2009 7:57 am - Hasn't voted

Grade B6????

You are missing Grade B6 - bushwhacking in vegetation so thick that you never touch the ground. I remember once the bush was so thick that we spent most of the time about 10-15 feet above the ground. We had to get a firm stance in the brush to throw our packs a few feet ahead of us. Then we'd thrash forward in the bush tops to get to our packs. The process was repeated over and over, moving forward 2-3 feet at a time.

vancouver islander

vancouver islander - Jan 7, 2009 11:10 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Grade B6????


Nice one. Reminds me of a trip up an Island peak several years ago. Vancouver Island is as well known for its weather as it is for its bush. On this particular trip we left the car in heavy rain and were into thick cloud with absolutely zero vis in no time. There was nothing for it but to keep on pushing gamely upwards following the compass.

We did this for hour upon hour and just when we thought we couldn't take another step the summit cairn appeared - 30 feet below us.


suddendescent - Jan 7, 2009 11:29 am - Hasn't voted

Bush wacking

I tend to do some amateur prospection in search of mineral outcrops once trecking in the woods and let me tell you that apart from the fear of getting lost in some thickets just off the main road, a swarm of bugs are murder ! Occasionally a cloud of them just decides to adopt you as the main attraction, and there you are just hoping to find a lake (hopefully not full of leaches) to get away from them (if the kerosene doesn't work well enough to act as the dissausive perfume smell ! )... I means sometimes the biggest, meanest woodland critters (some as big as bubble bees)arrive in swarms in search of food... And then there is the occasional teddy which strangely enough wants to get friendly (or fiendly depending on how you judge the situation) . To be honest I personally was amazed by the curiosity of certain bears which may follow you for miles culminating the experience with a close encounter that is best tackled with that parting mooooooo !

And yes, I did end up in a pond full of leaches once exploring a cave in the Outaouais region of Quebec in relative proximity to the "La Flèche" caves which are a public attraction...

But anyways, no matter how you look at it, thank god mankind invented the GPS and the cell phone to really help ease the fear once something does happen even if the immediacy of the situation may render such devices somewhat useless for the task at hand !


silversummit - Jan 7, 2009 10:21 pm - Voted 10/10

Re: Bush wacking

suddendescent - I burst out laughing with your "cloud" of "biggest, meanest woodland critters" "arrive in swarms in search of food" and then you hope for a lake without leeches! So funny, but so true! I found exactly this 'perfect storm' in Maine, in Canada and in Minnesota so I know what you mean! They really make bushwhacking even more fun, don't they!

Thanks for a good laugh.....

Larry V

Larry V - Jan 7, 2009 10:46 pm - Voted 10/10

Nice article

One of the more enjoyable readings I've encountered on SP. Good sense of humor, thanks.

vancouver islander

vancouver islander - Jan 7, 2009 11:18 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Nice article

Thanks Larry. My sense of humour isn't to some peoples' taste but, if you're one of the (rare) exceptions, you might enjoy this TR or even this one - but not if you're of a religious persuasion.


Hydronium - Jan 8, 2009 6:59 am - Voted 10/10

nice one...

...probably I got as far as B3/B4 at best. I suspect most people never reach B5, unless you count ... the dream in the night following a day at B4!


SpiderSavage - Jan 12, 2009 10:13 pm - Hasn't voted

Rating System Seconded

I hearby second the motion on your rating system for bushwhacking. I would like to add a "W" to the description so as not to confuse it with older bouldering ratings. BW0-5 is highly acceptable as a useful description. I've a lifetime of bushwhacking, including much BW5 (where you no longer touch the earth). Furthermore I propose we get sponsorship and start a glossy magazine, "Bushwhacker" and a book entitled "Top 50 North American Bushwhacks".

vancouver islander

vancouver islander - Jan 12, 2009 10:54 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Rating System Seconded

Too late Spider. Our local Alpine Club of Canada section publishes a newsletter called "The Bushwhacker" as well as an annual glossy compilation of section members' TR's of the same name. Guess what activity features prominently?

Visit this link.

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In Praise of Bushwhacking

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