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The Misthorn to Mount Septimus:
Peaks Around the "Heart of Strathcona"

by Lindsay Elms

In the early 1900's, climbing on Vancouver Island was still in its infancy. A handful of peaks had been climbed, but these ascents were not by mountaineers per se, but by prospectors and botanists. The Alpine Club of Canada was founded in Winnepeg with the goal of exploring the Rockies in March 1906, and six years later the Victoria section (later the Vancouver Island section) was established. Vancouver Island was soon to provide an important addition to the world of mountaineering, with its alpine attractions.

In 1912, one year after Strathcona Park was established as the first Provincial Park in British Columbia, the Alpine Club of Canada decided to visit the area. A party of nine climbers under the leadership of Brigadier Sir Edward Wheeler (who had been active 6 years earlier in founding the national club in Winnepeg), scaled the 'Strathcona Matterhorn' which they christened Elkhorn.

After the successful ascent, a party of seven continued to explore the mountains to the southeast of Buttle Lake following part of the route first established by the Honourable Price Ellison in 1910 on his examination of the proposed park. Arthur Wheeler led this part of the trip and was accompanied by Albert MacCarthy and his wife, Herbert Frind (the expedition photographer), John Corry Wood who was the M.P.P. for Alberni, Ben Lewis who acted as the guide, and a packer by the name of Paul. Arthur Wheeler wrote:

I cannot now describe this route in detail. We carried everything on our backs and slept under the trees for five nights, through one of which it poured rain. At its best Robert's trail, made for Price Ellison, was not an easy one. Two years of growth in this moist region had obliterated all except the blazes on the trees, and it was difficult to follow. It traversed the steep slopes of the valley of Price Creek to its head, and on the third day at noon we reached the summit on the pass. On the north side the snow came right down to our path, and high ragged peaks lined with hanging glaciers bordered it on the west. A rocky col studded with tiny pools formed the divide, and the view would have been a glorious one had it not been blotted out by a belt of clouds. From the ridge to our right one sharp tooth rose clear above encircling mists and upon it we conferred the name "Misthorn."

The name 'Misthorn' was never adopted until 1994 when it was officially recognized as a place name in British Columbia for the series of peaks directly above the pass at the head of Price Creek. As for the general area, Wheeler later wrote that this area would be a valuable addition to the park and that it would be possible to build a pony trail from Buttle Lake to the pass: "…and such a trail would give access to some splendid alpine climbing on the ridge of high, snow-clad peaks…" Because of Wheeler's report this area was later added to Strathcona Park.

This ridge of "…high, snow clad peaks" has become a popular climbing destination and nowadays includes the summits of Mount Septimus (1,941m), Mount Rosseau (1,958m) and the Misthorn (1,917m). Most mountaineers access this ridge via the Bedwell Lake Trail to Cream Lake where a climbing base camp can be set-up in an idyllic alpine meadow. Cream Lake is one of the most beautiful lakes on Vancouver Island and is nestled in a glacial hollow at the bottom of the Septimus Glacier. In the late 1980's, the environmental group "The Friends of Strathcona" called this area 'The Heart of Strathcona' due to the fact that it is almost the geographical centre of the island. The melted snow that runs-off from the glacier infuses the fridged waters of the lake with a silt that gives it its unique emerald green colour and makes it a stunning photographic destination.

In the early to mid 1900's prospectors searched the surrounding valleys as high as the alpine lakes in search of valuable minerals. Claims were staked around Della Lake, Love Lake (Sherwood Group) and Cream Lake (Cream Silver) which appeared to contain sizeable reserves of silver. After the prospectors built pack-horse trails into their claims via the Drinkwater Creek, mountaineers began utilizing the trails in the late 1940's and 1950's, including locals from Port Alberni and the Vancouver Island Section of the Alpine Club of Canada, to reach the summits. In July/August 1947 Ralph Rosseau crossed and re-crossed the Septimus Massif several times on his solo journey from Great Central Lake to Rees Ridge return via Della Falls, Love Lake, Flower Ridge and both the Cliffe and Comox Glaciers.

Unfortunately, the beauty of the mountains of this area has taken its toll on human life. On July 3, 1954, a climbing party that included Port Alberni mountaineers Lillah and Ralph Rosseau, Alma Currie and recent immigrant Ulf Bitterlich were crossing a snow bridge above Margaret Lake at the east end of the Septimus Massif when suddenly there was a loud crack and Ralph and Alma were hurled to the bottom of a crevasse with a large slab of ice coming to rest on top of them. Ulf was on the other side of the bridge while Lillah was thrown aside. Ulf managed to help Alma out but he found Ralph already dead. At the time, he told the others that Ralph was unconscious and there was nothing they could do for him. Besides, it was too dangerous to return to the site. Ulf quickly headed back down to Margaret Lake and out Margaret Creek to the trail in the Drinkwater Valley and then up to Della Falls where he came upon the rest of the group they had separated from earlier in the morning. A rescue was organized while Ulf returned to the scene of the accident to help the two women through the night. At noon the next day a plane flew by and dropped a message saying that a rescue party was on its way, and at dusk a helicopter arrived and plucked them off the mountain. Ralph Rosseau's body was later evacuated and the highest peak, located in the middle of the ridge, was subsequently named after him.

Towering above Cream Lake at the northwestern end of the mountain ridge is Mount Septimus. This mountain is reportedly named after Septimus Evans who was at one time a surgeon on the Hudson's Bay Company Steamship Beaver. Why it was named after Evans and who named it is unknown and no information is available on Septimus Evans, even from the ships logs.

Mount Septimus consists of two distinct summits. The first is climbed from the col at the head of the Septimus Glacier and then up 5th class rock of the West Ridge to the lower summit. Unfortunately, a route to the main summit has not yet been found, because of the steep and overhanging nature of the rock. The main summit has three climbing routes. The first route trends left off the Septimus Glacier about two thirds of the way to the col and up to a narrow notch in the Northwest Ridge. As with most routes on Mount Septimus, the rock is loose and friable, although some solid rock can be found on the South Face. However, climbing helmets are advised. The route most often climbed is known as the X Gully because the two gullies make a large X when seen from across Cream Lake. From the notch, an upward traverse is made across the North Glacier to a small rock rib that leads to the main summit.

The second route is directly up the glacier from near Green Lake at the head of Price Creek. The objective dangers of this route are crevasses and ice-falls. This route is rarely climbed as parties need to carry more ice climbing gear and be proficient in crevasse rescue. However, in ideal snow conditions, it avoids the exposed rock climbing of the other routes Mount Septimus offers. The mountain was most likely first climbed by Ralph Rosseau in 1947.

The last route is also accessed from the diminutive Septimus Glacier that sweeps up from Cream Lake. After climbing the glacier to the col, a traverse is made across the talus slopes under the South Face of Mount Septimus and above Love Lake, towards a narrow reddish gully that ascends to the ridge east of the summit.

The summit of neighbouring Mount Rosseau is also accessed via the scree slopes and a gully system full of loose rocks further to the right of the routes on Mount Septimus. This route leads directly to the summit. Although there are several other gullies up this side of the mountain none of them led directly to the summit and an ethereal ridge has to be followed to gain the top. Mount Rosseau can also be climbed up the North Glacier from Green Lake or Price Pass.

A few hundred metres to the east of Mount Rosseau are the cluster of peaks called the Misthorn. They consist of four summits all within a few metres in height and fifty horizontal metres of each other. The easiest route to their summits is from the pass at the head of Price Creek. This pass can be reached via the classic hike up Flower Ridge or by a bushwhack up to Green Lake from the end of the defunct Price Creek Trail. From Green Lake a snow ramp up the side of the glacier ascends to the tarn-studded pass. It is then a relatively easy scramble up rocky ridges and snow to all the summits.

In September 1999, Paul Rydeen, Darren Wilman and Jim Tansky made the first complete traverse of the range. Beginning at Price Pass they climbed the Misthorn then headed north keeping to the exposed ridge crest, in places on rotten rock. Most difficulties were by-passed on the west side and there was one rappel north of Mount Rosseau's summit. From Mount Septimus they descended the North Glacier to Green Lake. Rydeen, from Campbell River, has been on the island climbing scene for many years and has an impressive resume that includes many new routes and bold summit traverses.

Further to the east at the end of the ridge is a lower peak referred to (unofficially) as Margaret Peak (1,870m.) This peak is an easy scramble from the small pocket glacier northeast of Love Lake and is named after Margaret McBride, the wife of Sir Richard McBride, the premier of British Columbia when Strathcona Park was established in 1911.

Since its addition to Strathcona Provincial Park, this ridge of snow-clad mountains has proven to be a popular climbing destination and become a valuable asset to the alpine attractions of Vancouver Island. In addition, Cream Lake makes for an unforgettable hike and the dazzling reflections of Mount Septimus and Nine Peaks make it difficult to drag one-self away. However, with the trails accessing this area there is no reason for not returning to experience the beauty of 'The Heart of Strathcona.'

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Copyright © Lindsay Elms 2001. All Rights Reserved.