A mountaineering adventure on Vancouver Island to summit this popular mountain by climbing Main Arrowsmith Gully route. Exciting and stunning scenery make this a popular alpine objective. Located between Nanaimo and Port Alberni, easy access and great views await.

Deciding on a Vancouver Island Mountain to Climb

As a child many of us will remember the story from Looney Tunes cartoons about Pepe Le’Pew and his obsession with trying to win the affection of Penelope the cat. Nothing he seemed to do would win her over but he never stopped trying and remained determined.  It may seem an odd comparison but the Vancouver Island Mountains were playing hard to get and I was determined to spend some time with them on the upcoming weekend.

Two weeks earlier I had just completed a successful and exhilarating climb of a beautiful Alberta mountain top which followed by a week on the Saskatchewan Prairies. To say the least I was left longing for some elevation after that climb and then transition to the flat farmland. While I was away I chatted with a few fellow alpine enthusiasts on what plans we could formulate. The typical back and forth texts and social media conversations took place and we finalized our plans on three peaks in three days in Strathcona Park upon my return home. Well, so we thought they were finalized.

The winter has been extremely mild on Vancouver Island this year and the ability to access and climb otherwise difficult zones remained an attainable feat. That was until the weather took a huge turn the Monday prior to the weekend we were to set out. Strathcona Park region was forecasted to get 300 mm rain at lower elevations and anywhere from two to four feet of snow at the summits. The drenched hikes and avalanche risks at higher elevations immediately killed all those plans.

I think I refreshed mountain-forecast.com every 30 minutes for the next 4 days and checking island weather systems constantly to find a window of bearable and safe climbing conditions. I found our peak on Thursday afternoon and it would be a Saturday adventure on Mount Arrowsmith.

Climbing Main Arrowsmith Gully Route

Along the Climbers Trail looking up at the Arrowsmith Bumps (photo credit Ian W Duncan)

Climbing Main Arrowsmith Gully Route

Mount Arrowsmith is by far the most popular and tallest peak on South Vancouver Island standing at 1817m. With easy trailhead access off highway #4 just east of Port Alberni it boasts multiple climbing routes of all types and skill levels from scrambles to technical climbing. I shared my choice of peak with the crew consisting of Patrick and Pearce whom I had climbed with prior on Triple Peak and Ian whom I had completed Mt Landale with, it would be his first time to this mountain. They were in agreement and together we picked our way to the summit, climbing main Arrowsmith Gully Route.

Our plan was to start on the Climbers Trail which gives us access to the NW side of the Mountain and the upper cirque. Here we would climb the main snow gully to just below the Main Summit and achieve our goal. We would descend via Judges Route to our vehicles and conclude the day. The plan was set and then I told them we would need to be on the road by 4 am (3 for Ian) so that we could be hiking by 6am to beat the weather system that would hit after lunch. As Patrick chuckled in our discussion, “the things we do for fun”.

Friday night was the usual laying out of all the gear, going over the checklist and making sure all was all in place. Stuff, jam, stomp and cinch everything into my pack then gathering everything by the door for the early morning departure. Ian arrived at the house at 4am Saturday morning and off we went, stopping at the first available coffee spot as every good journey starts with the goodness of caffeine. We were on the road to rendezvous with Patrick and Pearce just before Cathedral Grove and drive the logging roads to the trailhead together.

Trailhead for Climbing Main Arrowsmith Gully Route

The drive up was positive as the skies remained clear and only a small bit of rain was encountered keeping our hopes high. We met with the other half of our group and arrived at the trailhead at 530am. The trailhead is reached via Cameron main and the pass main logging road driving up past the switchbacks and hiking in to the gully via the Arrowsmith climber’s trail.

We readied ourselves with our gear and then pulled out our headlamps for the pre sunrise start in the dark at 6am, right on schedule. The start of the trail descends immediately down to the creek allowing us to cross its path. After that it is onwards and upwards through the forest with the Arrowsmith peaks to our right and the cascading waterfalls of the creek to our left. After about 1km we arrived at a steep rock slab that marks the entrance out of the treeline into the lower cirque. A nice permanent hand line is left here to aid passing this obstacle, I went first followed by Pearce and then Ian.

Not Every Trip Goes Perfect – Be Prepared for Setbacks

Patrick was to come last but unfortunately it was at this point that his knee injury from a previous climb let him know he wasn’t ready for a summit quit yet. I feel the most admirable quality to be had in the mountains is knowing when to proceed or not, common sense and sound judgement as there is no room for poor decisions in the alpine. Patrick would turn around and descend back down Climbers Trail to the vehicles and wait for our completion of the day. I commend him for this tough decision as I imagine he wanted the summit as badly as we did.

Lower Cirque Mount Arrowsmith

Our now threesome continued out of the trees and emerged into the first clearing that would be the last push to the lower cirque. It was at this point we saw our only glimmer of the sun through the clouds which last but a brief moment to only be quickly swallowed by the low hanging clouds. That would be the onset of the socked in cloud cover of the day and the start of the cool wind as we put on our next layer of coats without the protection afforded to us by the treeline below. Pearce commented on how the spot we were at should have been completely engulfed in snow, it was barren and a sign of the changing weather patterns of the island.

We steadily gained elevation and completed the climb past the Lower Cirque and paused at a tarn covered in broken ice. Nestled into the trees on the tarns edge we put on another coat, had a quick snack and prepared for the last leg of the approach.

Climbing Main Arrowsmith Gully Route

Pearce and Ian searching for our summit in the Lower Cirque

Climbing Main Arrowsmith Gully Route

Ian, Chris and Pearce at the Upper Cirque below the Gully

Climbing Main Arrowsmith Gully Route

Start of the ascent in the Main Snow Gully (photo credit Ian W Duncan)

Upper Cirque Start of Climbing Main Arrowsmith Gully Route

As we continued up to the Upper Cirque below the high walls of the main summit block is where the start of climbing Arrowsmith main gully route begins. The gully rises roughly 160m vertically at a 45 degree angle and provides a superb winter route which is rated as a PD+ 4th Class – A1 2 climb. The wind was really starting to gust strongly at this point, we found the shelter of a tree where we fixed our crampons to our boots and put on our climbing harnesses with ice axes roped securely.

Pearce led us up into the lower section of the gully kicking steps into the firm yet manageable snow with myself and then Ian in tow. We made a bit of distance when I offered to lead the route, mostly as I was eager with excitement to attack the route. Our first obstacle was a rock that in other years would be buried by the snow but with current conditions was left exposed and required a tricky step but manageable.

A good handhold and digging in my axe I easily made it past and then Pearce followed by Ian right after. It was now a steady and straight shot to the top of the gully. I enjoyed this part of the climb and am certain it will be visited many times more in the future as well as to see what was most likely a beautiful view obscured by the clouds and fog that had chosen to be our climbing partners for the day.

Successfully Climbing Main Arrowsmith Gully Route

I emerged at the top of the gully over a tiny cornice to a scene nearly barren of snow just below the main summit. I had climbed the SE side of the mountain back in January and it was blanketed in deep snow as compared to the current ice and frost layer. Pearce and then Ian took their final steps out of the gully for celebratory high fives on the satisfaction of a successful gully climb. We then joined onto Judges Route which would take us the final 80 or so meters to the main summit via easy rock with 3rd class scrambling.

As we crested onto the top of the summit we were greeted with a blast of wind full of fury which just added to the experience. I found the summit register and broke it free from the mountains ice covered clutches with my axe and took shelter behind one of the weather towers that sits atop the summit. Here we wrote our piece in the register and then secured it back in its resting place.

With a socked in white blur of cloud and fog aided by gale force gusts layered with snow and mist, enough time had been spent on the summit at this point. When climbing a mountain the view isn’t always important when the journey itself can be as fulfilling. Satisfied with our fun effort climbing main Arrowsmith gully route it was time to head down.

Climbing Main Arrowsmith Gully Route

Looking back down the Gully as Pearce and Ian follow me

Climbing Main Arrowsmith Gully Route

Pearce makes the last step out of the Gully with Ian close behind

Climbing Main Arrowsmith Gully Route

The summit register frozen in place

Climbing Main Arrowsmith Gully Route

Adding my name to the Mt Arrowsmith summit register

Climbing Main Arrowsmith Gully Route

The descent from the summit wind begins

Climbing Main Arrowsmith Gully Route

Now following Judges Route we enter the treeline

Climbing Main Arrowsmith Gully Route

Mountainside Cookout – the food always tastes better

Judges Route Descent option when climbing main Arrowsmith gully route

Our path down would follow Judges Route all the way back to the logging road on the opposite side of the summit that we had ascended. when climbing main Arrowsmith gully route it doesn’t always require going back down the same route you climbed.

It was only about 100m off the peak when the wind was completely gone as well as the snow and ice. We quickly found ourselves in calm relaxing surroundings with a rapidly rising temperature to our enjoyment spurring the removal of our winter layers and removing our crampons, packing away our ice axes in favour of our walking poles. Our downward trek continued for about 30 minutes when we heard a grumbling.

No it wasn’t a bear or cougar, it was our stomachs. After 5 hours of steady physical exertion it was time for a mountain side cookout. Off with the packs and out with the stoves busy as we each prepared our favourite meals and some tea and coffee, modern day cooking and food while in the woods has never been easier. With our bellies full and our spirits high after reliving what only a short time ago we just completed, it was time to pack up and carry on.

We made short work of the switch backing trail that descends back to the Trailhead for Judges Route through nice old forest typical of Vancouver Island. At the trailhead we are greeted with a 2.5km hike back down to the logging road via a decommissioned spur and to the mainline under a light mist of rain.

We were greeted by Patrick who successfully made his own solo return after parting ways with him earlier in the day. He had a smile on his face and a fire started around which we could recount the tales of the day and the summit conditions we experienced. As we were chatting the skies opened up to a heavy rain, my scheduling to climb within the weather window worked out perfectly. Our day saw us achieve 5.7km total distance with 951m of ascent and 1115m of descent in a timeframe of 6 hours 36 minutes.

Another great day on Mount Arrowsmith

If you were to wait for perfect conditions I don’t think a person would find themselves outdoors often. Embrace our wild and open places we call home here in Canada, it truly is an amazing diverse place. If you have the skillset the Climbing Main Arrowsmith Gully Route is a fun and exciting alpine day hike to discover.

Climbing Main Arrowsmith Gully Route

The Lower Cirque below Mt Arrowsmith – photo Ian Dunan

Climbing Main Arrowsmith Gully Route

Check out the other time we successfully climbed the gully in bright sunny conditions ; Climbing the Snow Gully Route of Mount Arrowsmith . My personal favourite resource for climbing is the book by local Vancouver Island resident Phillip Stone titled Island Alpine Select.



Join the discussion 4 Comments

  • aGoodLifeMD says:

    I don’t climb, but I do hike and trail run. Reading your post I felt like I was there, and since I live in North Dakota and Spring hasn’t come yet, I felt the wind and cold too, sadly….

    • Chris Istace says:

      I used to live in SE Saskatchewan and raced the NDMA in my spendy years. I spent almost every weekend with a motorhome, cargo trailer and 4 MX racebikes traveling from Bismarck to Mandan, Ruthville, Minot and Williston. Luckily I dropped that as part of my MMM pursuit and changed that to the much more affordable backpacking and climbing life with MTB to keep the two wheel addiction met.

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