Hiking the Elsay Lake Trail – A bridge too far?28th Jul 2020
How had it come to this? Standing on the bank of a raging, rain-swollen river and the only route to the other side and the path home was via a fallen log. A log which was no wider than your average telegraph pole and suitably slippy due to the incessant rain. We took a collective intake of breath as the first person of our group inched onto the 50ft walkway to safety.
“Hey Tim, a few friends and I are headed out to do the Lake Elsay Trail this weekend. Fancy coming? It should be an easy 4 or 5 hour hike then we’ll chill by the lake and camp overnight. We’ll hike the same route back in the morning and be home in time for a roast dinner. Fancy it?”
It sounded great and because of the simplicity of the plan, perceived expertise of the participants and a lack of time I did precisely zero preparations. I didn’t research the route. I didn’t check weather forecasts. I didn’t do anything apart from pack my bag and show up. Do we have bear spray? I’m sure someone will.
Tunnocks Table of Contents
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Getting to the Elsay Lake Trailhead
It was an hour drive from Vancouver, BC up to Mount Seymour Resort via stops for coffee, breakfast, and ominously a mistake in navigation. We met up with the other half of the gang and we were soon underway at around 11 am, what would turn out crucially to be, an hour after we had planned.
The route was 10kms in distance and was described as ‘difficult’ but our group of 9 all seemed very capable. Actually we were a group of 10 – 9 humans and one canine. Twig the dog would be our constant hiking companion.
Hiking the Elsay Lake Trail
Early kilometers were dispatched in high spirits as everyone was fresh, dry and full of energy. The forecast for rain was not ideal but it would likely be overnight or on the way home therefore not a huge issue.
We took in a couple of meteoric views across downtown Vancouver and were all smiles in the group photos. The going was fairly easy up to this point; we had to dodge the odd puddle to keep our feet dry, and the odd rock to avoid a twisted ankle, but otherwise, it was fine. No climb too steep or long and no decline too severe.
A change of plans?
It was around 3km into the hike that the idea of changing our route to include the Mount Elsay peak was first floated. I immediately, and without any forethought what-so-ever, backed the plan. I always want to climb to the top if possible.
However, there was little information from the hike leaders about how much this would increase the distance or difficulty of the task. There was plenty of discussion in little huddles and it seemed the narrow consensus was that we should go for it.
So, we took the Mount Elsay trail to the left instead of a right along the Lake Elsay trail.
Mount Elsay Trail
Initially, the going was good; the weather was overcast but dry. Ideal conditions for hiking and we were lucky enough to have great visibility so we soaked in the views to the distant Garibaldi mountains.
We stopped in a sheltered meadow to have lunch around 1 pm and questions were asked about how long the hike would now take? Would we be able to get to the peak and then continue down to the lake from there? What was our likely arrival time at camp?
It’s fair to say that no conclusive answers were forthcoming from the hike leaders so most of the group would continue without a clear idea of the plan. If indeed there was a plan?
The route, which up to this point had been enjoyably challenging now turned treacherous. The downhills were steep and the footing was anything but secure. Several perilous drops had to be navigated by using tree roots like rungs of a ladder. The uphill sections were just as exacting as we scrambled up tiny trails.
During this part of the trail, there were no flat surfaces, we were either going straight uphill or viciously down. This was tough going. With packs on our backs and therefore centres of gravity altered, legs and hearts tiring, it was a group effort to keep everyone moving forward.
Had we bitten off more than we could chew?
Those of us towards the back of the group found the lack of knowledge about the plan increasingly difficult. We stopped to talk to anyone that was coming the other way about what the trail was like up ahead, how long they thought it would take us and any other information that would be useful.
Most people seemed a little surprised that we were planning on going to the peak and then back down to the lake in the time we had left in the day. They described the trail as ‘very difficult’ and that we should take caution.
The gang at the front ploughed on regardless and seemed to be getting evermore impatient with those further back. Those further back struggled onwards in spite of the ever-increasing fatigue and lack of information.
At the top of a particularly strenuous section, we gathered for a pit stop of water and energy bars. At this point, a lovely couple of Canadian ladies walked down the path from the opposite direction holding a map. We asked if we could have a quick look and see where it was we were heading.
The ladies were very helpful and told us that it was a tough hike up to the top, but you could turn off before the summit and head round to the lake. It was still a long way and there would be some devilishly tough sections, but at least we knew roughly what was ahead of us.
The other option was to drop bags at the turn off point, get up to the peak for photos and then return back down to continue with the trail round to the lake. The ‘rear-gunners’ were very much of the opinion that we should just get to camp whereas the ‘front-runners’ really wanted to chalk off the peak.
A clear plan
For the first time in the day, we had a full discussion about who wanted to do what, made sure everyone had maps and a clear understanding and then split into two groups. The ‘front-runners’ (which I joined as I can’t resist summiting anything) would head off at a pace, drop our bags at the turn off point and then head up to the peak. The ‘rear-gunners’ would follow along at a pace which would be sustainable and safe. They would find our packs at the turn off point and know to hook a right turn. Then the ‘front-runners’, having reached the summit, would come back down and catch up with the ‘rear-gunners’ before getting to camp.
I think most people were happy with that plan – at least there was a plan and a rough idea of what was ahead of us. This provided a psychological boost and improved morale.
So, I joined the ‘front-runners’; three lads roughly 10 years my junior and at least 30 kilos a man lighter. It was hard going up the treacherous slopes but I just about managed to stay in touch. The trail was sometimes indistinguishable so we often had to stop and check we were still heading in the correct direction.
We reached the turn-off point, marked with a tiny yellow sign that the Canadian ladies had usefully told us about, and dropped our bags. A quick gulp of water and then we were headed for the summit.
Mount Elsay summit
We immediately took the wrong track so had to stomp through some undergrowth to get back on the right path. It was steep and monotonous but worthwhile as with burning thighs we got out of the trees and witnessed the magnificent sights across Garibaldi Provincial Park.
Our sweating brows, heaving hearts and wobbly knees were quickly forgotten as the views down to Lake Elsay came into view. It was like looking down into a far-flung flooded volcano. With snow-peaked caps in the distance, it was a truly breathtaking sight. Time stood still as we soaked it up and took our photos.
It was from here that we could see the daunting task ahead of us as we had to backtrack our steps and then traverse all the way around the mountain to get down to the lake-side camp. We briefly considered taking the direct route straight down, but even if we did have our packs with us, I’m not sure we’d have gone for it.
So, without wasting too much time we started the descent. We wanted to go fast and catch up with the others as soon as possible but it wasn’t that easy. There was always an insane drop or slippy surfaces, rocks or trees to climb over. We made good progress, but it wasn’t as fast as we’d hoped.
Returning to our packs we noticed that a few items had been taken which meant that, as expected/hoped, the ‘rear-gunners’ had already passed. Again, we wasted no time, saddled up and got on after them.
Descending the boulder field
The descent was again disrupted by technically difficult sections and loose rocks. We thought it was tough until we reached the boulder field and then we really knew what tough was. It didn’t look that big. A few hundred metres of huge boulders that at some point had fallen from the mountain. They were large, angular and surrounded on all sides by treacherous gaps to fall down. One misplaced step and you might be tumbling into a crevasse.
We all found it tough, but none more so than poor Twig who actually turned around and started going back up the mountain. This was too much for a dog of her size and she was eventually carried down the gargantuan rocks.
This kind of terrain is normally my bread and butter, but it was a bit much for me too. After 5hrs of strenuous hiking, I didn’t really feel like my legs were my own so I took a cautious approach and made sure I got down safely.
We filled water bottles from the mountain stream and headed onwards across damp meadows and dark forests. We still hadn’t caught up with the ‘rear-gunners’ or passed the turning to the Lake Elsay Trail (the one we originally planned to hike) either.
It was around this point where I think it started to sink in that we had probably bitten off more than we wanted to chew. Chatter within the group grew very intermittent as we plodded onwards and onwards towards the oasis that was Lake Elsay at the end of the path.
Things didn’t get any easier. We had to climb down rocky waterfalls, scramble under huge fallen trees and climb up more root-ridden slopes. But then we saw them. The ‘rear-gunners’ were up ahead and it was great that everyone would be back together again soon. Spirits were raised as we called out to them across the forested valley like long lost tribes.
As we rejoined, it was clear that despite everyone being relieved, we were extremely fatigued. Light was fading fast as we embarked on a series of marshy meadows, treading along fallen tree trunks to avoid getting wet feet.
This would ordinarily be a fun thing to do, however, with sub-par light and legs which I seemed to have very little control over, it turned out to be a little stressful. No-one wanted to fill their footwear with water as there would be no chance of them drying out before the morning.
If only we’d started our hike on time. We’d still have enough time to get to Elsay Lake before dark.
At first, I thought it was delirium kicking in; my brain playing tricks on me. But as we walked I saw more and more of the craziest looking mushrooms. I know nothing about mushrooms, except for the fact that some of them are lethal. With that in mind, I observed, took photos and left them well alone.
Crossing Elsay Creek
Everyone was aware that there would be one major obstacle in our way before reaching camp. The river. We had to cross it and none of us really knew what would be in store. The ‘front-runners’ had by now also been made aware of what could have been a disastrous event further back up the trail. Dan had taken a tumble on the boulder fields, falling some 10ft, landing directly onto a sharp rock. Fortunately, he’d rotated in mid-air and landed on his back allowing his pack to take the full impact. A close call.
When the path reached the river bank it was time to cross and there was no really obvious best place. There were large rocks but they weren’t evenly spaced or particularly flat. One of the guys went first, across a high set of rocks. He made it safely across but suggested that another spot, slightly further down would be the better option.
I summoned all my best balance skills and stepped out across the rocks. My heavy pack continuing to cause balance issues but I steadied myself, engaged ’nimble-mode’ then took 3 or 4 quick steps across the rocks and onto the far side. I quickly dropped my pack then went back to help the others but most people made it look a cinch.
The final approach to Elsay Lake
Delighted that everyone made it across safely, we strode onwards, with the knowledge that the camp couldn’t be too far away. Theories were rife about how close we were and why. “I think the trees are thinning out, so we must be coming towards the lake” said one. I surmised that as we were now directly between the two peaks of Mount Elsay and Mount Bishop that we must be very close.
We were all correct and with exulted cheers, the eerie expanse of water appeared before us. We knew there was an emergency shelter which would provide a base for our camping and it was visible on the far side of the lake so we hiked on. We’d come this far, deciding to get round to the other side was a simple choice.
A watery ditch was navigated via a fallen tree to provide one last piece of terror-filled excitement in the near darkness before we were finally at the shelter. There were chairs. It was relatively warm and despite the dank smell was very welcoming. I sat down, drank the last of my water in one long gulp then dug into my bag for a celebratory beer.
Elsay Lake Emergency Shelter
The shelter was a steep-sided triangular building that had a loft space accessible by ladder. With the forecast rain, late hour and my complete exhaustion, I decided that I would sleep upstairs rather than attempt to pitch my tent in the darkness. I don’t sleep well on hard surfaces, but I wagered that I’d still be better off in the dry and relative warmth of the shelter.
Having drained my beer, I grabbed a few things and scaled the ladder. My head torch shone into the darkness to reveal a sleeping mat on one side of the void. Result. Looking the other way revealed a fully inflated lilo! I often have moments when I think that I was born lucky but this one truly took the biscuit.
Removing my wet socks and shoes, I slid into my sleeping bag. The lilo, although only just big enough for my body, felt like 5-star luxury. I had fully intended to go back down the ladder – there was half a box of wine with my name on it – but my complete exhaustion overtook me and amongst chatter and laughter from downstairs, I slipped into an unlikely deep slumber.
I did wake up several times during the night. Scratching noises here and there. Small scratching noises, rodents rather than bears. I cared not, I was too tired. I also woke around 4 am when 2 of the gang from the tented village came into the shelter as their tent had been in danger of floating off into the lake due to the rain.
The incessant rain; beating on the metal roof. At first, it was annoying but it soon became meditative. Better to be inside listening to the rain than outside feeling it. The lake would be up a few inches. The rivers would be running higher and the boggy ground would likely be underwater. The boulders would now be wet and slippy rather than dry and grippy and crossing rivers on wet tree trunks seemed too hazardous to consider.
A new dawn, a new day
Despite all of the above, the mood in camp was good over breakfast. Resilient bunch. People were universally sore and sleep-deprived but no one complained at length. We would be taking the Elsay Lake Trail all the way back to the car park (the route we had originally set out upon) and estimates varied between 4 and a half to 6 hours.
I took some time to absorb the surroundings. We had seen precious little of the lake the previous evening and now, although shrouded in cloud, it was a beautiful, peaceful sight. Steep sided mountains all around, thick with deciduous trees. The water was crystal clear and getting deeper all the time as the rain battered it from above. I took a few quick snaps and then we were away.
The return along the Elsay Lake Trail
First up was the fallen tree across the watery ditch. What seemed treacherous the night before was a simple task in the daylight and with rested legs. Even the wet wood didn’t make a difference. This was a very positive start as we all made it across with little fuss.
In fact, everything was easier this morning. We made good progress across the boggy meadows and through the forest, negotiating the tricky footings with much more dexterity than the previous evening. It was raining hard and my feet were already wet through but that didn’t concern me. We would be back at the car park in a few hours and it wasn’t cold.
The issue that concerned me most was the river crossing. The water level was likely to make our crossing point from the previous night too hazardous, so we’d have to search for something more manageable. I’m trained in Swift Water Rescue so I know how dangerous floodwaters can be.
And sure enough, when we got to the crossing, the rocks we’d used yesterday were completely submerged under fast-flowing water. This was completely impassable so we started searching upstream and down for a better spot to cross.
Crossing Elsay Creek
A call came from upstream that a suitable location had been found. It was the fallen log. 50ft of narrow, slippery wood where any mistake would result in a 6ft drop to the rapid, rock-filled water below. This may have been suitable for the nimble and light members of our party but it was not suitable for me.
As people psyched themselves up and started crossing I struggled to watch. It’s important to be positive in perilous situations. As the first person inched out onto the greasy pole someone helpfully shouted: “Don’t fall!”. In hindsight, this is somewhat funny, but at the time it prompted me to leave the scene to search for a better option.
Further upstream appeared to provide more like-li-hood of a passable crossing. Myself and one of the other lads who, like me, didn’t trust his balance hacked our way through some bush and headed higher. Just when we thought our search would be in vain, the noise of the river quietened and things felt calmer.
We popped out of the bush by a wider stretch of Elsay Creek where the water was shallower and more tranquil. With my feet already wet, I was happy to wade most of the way before jumping across a couple of rocks onto the far side bank. Pure relief.
I was even more relieved when, after another 10 minutes of hacking through bush, we caught up with the rest of the gang back downstream. Everyone had made it safely across. There had been nerves and small slips, but no-one had fallen. Joy!
Spirits were now truly soaring as the major obstacle had been passed. The trail up to this point had been mostly downhill so everyone was fresh and full of energy. The incessant rain wasn’t even a distraction as we happily made our way through the valley.
But now we started to climb upwards. Back up the waterfalls that were mere trickles yesterday. Today they were gushing downwards. It was hot work and the icy water flowing in and around my feet actually worked nicely as a coolant – plus my trainers had never looked cleaner.
This, I think, was the favourite part of the hike for most of us. Smiles covered faces and cameras were being clicked as we slowly made our way up the flowing water.
Crossing the Elsay Peak Trail
We reached the point where we joined the trail yesterday from the Elsay Peak Trail in what seemed like no time. Certainly, we made better time over this section than we had done yesterday. There was another boulder field to cross but this one was more manageable. The rocks were much smaller and the path was relatively flat – an overall much more enjoyable experience.
We continued to climb.
By now the group had become quite strung out. The constant climbing was taking its toll and we started to stop on a regular basis to allow our legs and lungs momentary respite. The ‘front-runners’ from yesterday seemed to be getting farther and farther ahead and it was no surprise when they announced they were going to push on for home. I wouldn’t be going with them.
The ‘rear-gunners’ kept a slow and steady pace as we continued to negotiate our way up the numbing climb. Most people agreed that if we had a clear idea of exactly how long we had left to go, it might have helped with our mood. However, we didn’t, so just kept on climbing as best we could. My thighs were now struggling with every step and it seemed most other people had some kind of ailment too.
The fatigue was kicking in
Over the course of the previous 24hrs, I’d seen most people slip or stumble at various points. Despite having a couple of tricky moments myself, I’d managed to stay upright. That, however, was about to change.
I sized up what by now was a standard obstacle. I had to take a step into a root-filled hill and launch myself upwards to get onto the next flat surface. I decided on where to place my foot and where my next step would be. I placed my left foot, drove upwards and forwards – using the weight of my pack to aid momentum – and lifted my right foot.
But my right foot didn’t seem to want to come with me. My toe had got stuck on a branch and was holding me back. No bother, this had happened a few times before – I just need to swing my leg harder and give it a bit of a flick to free it.
Not this time. The branch was either stronger, longer or both than any of the ones I’d previously, successfully out-witted. Instead of freeing my foot, it accelerated the forward momentum of my upper body and without my right foot to place in front of me, flipped me forwards at pace. I landed chest first, on the exact spot where I had planned to put my right foot – an exposed tree stump.
Landing with an almighty thump, air flew out of my lungs and I felt blood being forced into my neck and head. The people ahead turned with worried faces, I’d obviously created a bit of a commotion. I managed to blurt out “I’m fine, crack on”, and I was fine, I think – it bloody hurt though!
Spirits were now fairly low and we tried to keep ourselves upbeat with theories about how we can’t be too far away now, etc etc, but in truth, none of us really knew. That was until we saw a distinctive row of overhead flags used on the ski slopes. This meant that we were genuinely close to the point where we chose the Elsay Peak trail yesterday and therefore about half an hour from the car park. Joy!
The trail was much easier here and mostly downhill – both good things. What wasn’t good was that we’d reached the saddle of the mountain and were now exposed to icy westerly winds. A surge of adrenaline fuelled a higher pace as we marched down the track. The wind was doing it’s best to break our stride and on a couple of occasions was so cold and fierce that it actually brought us to a shuddering halt.
It seemed to take forever to cover those last few km’s, but when you know the finish line is close there is always an extra bit of energy that becomes available. Visibility was so poor that when we got to the car park, we had no idea whether it was the same one we started our journey from yesterday. Desperately trying to identify the buildings we had seen the day before we eventually found shelter in the Mount Seymour resort.
I learnt several important lessons during this hike. The most critical of which are as follows:
Do your own preparation – No matter how trivial the hike may seem it is important to plan based on your own abilities and expectations. Make sure you have your own map and a clear understanding of distances, elevations and conditions.
Stick to the plan – Unless there is a very good reason not to (injury, change of conditions, etc) you should stick to the plan. As fatigue kicks in your decision making can become impaired.
Hike with people that have the same goals/abilities – Otherwise some people are waiting at the front and getting frustrated and the people towards the back are feeling stressed and fatigued. It’s no fun for anyone.
Keep the group together – If you stick to the previous point, then it should be easy to keep the group together. There is strength in numbers.
Check out this video to get a feel for what this hike was like; including the log crossing:
Elsay Lake Trail Kit List
These Merrell Boots are the most comfortable, supportive and weatherproof boots I’ve ever owned. They have a stiff sole and a tread that grips well on all surfaces including wet rocks. Highly recommended.
I don’t go anywhere without my Bear Grylls trousers. They are stretchy, water repellent and incredibly comfy. They breathe well and dry very quickly. Get some.
It’s important to have plenty of clothing layers available when conditions can change in an instant. I like having a base layer, then one or more intermediate layers. Maintaining your core body temperature is key to staying safe.
The waterproof I took on this trip wasn’t really up to the job. I wish I had my Helly Hansen with me which always keeps me bone dry, whilst remaining breathable.
I like to wear this reflective running hat when hiking. It is warm around my ears but allows moisture to evaporate through the top. Being reflective is helpful if things go wrong and people are searching for you at night.
Keeping the extremities warm is essential. I like these gloves from Berghaus.
Staying hydrated is paramount. I like taking collapsible water bottles with me, as they can fold flat to save space after you’ve drunk the contents.
Along with water I always carry high-quality fuel and I just love these Grenade Carb Killa high-protein, low carbohydrate bars.
As a safety precaution, I always carry a head torch with me. The Energizer Advanced Pro is small and lightweight and has a powerful beam that reaches up to 70 meters and puts out up to 250 lumens.
Taking a backup power supply could be crucial. I always carry the Anker PowerCore when I go hiking to ensure I don’t run out of phone battery.
What else is around?
For a much safer, shorter hike you could attempt the Grouse Grind.
Elsay Lake weather
This trail is in mountainous back-country. The weather can be deceptive. Please check the weather regularly in the build-up to hiking the Elsay Lake Trail and especially on the evening before and the morning of your hike. Be prepared to turn back if the weather turns.