Sunday, May 10, 2020

Wedgemount Lake

Wedgemount Lake
13 km round trip, 1200 meters elevation gain
Difficulty: Strenuous, steep and rocky trail with many roots
Access: Good paved road to trailhead, no pass required

British Columbia's Coast Mountains hold many massive glaciers and gem-like glacial lakes but most are inaccessible, buried far away from roads and trails that would allow visitors to reach them. Wedgemount Lake, nestled at the foot of Wedge Mountain and its eponymous glacier in Garibaldi Provincial Park, is a rare lake in the range that is accessible to day hikers, just miles north of Whistler and two hours from Vancouver. This hike delivers visitors to a spectacular alpine landscape and then follows it up by providing an intimate approach to the massive Wedgemount Glacier. But the payment to visit this dazzling glacial landscape with hauntingly blue ice and commanding peaks is a punishing uphill climb on one of the most difficult trails in the Pacific Northwest. Visitors looking for a more reasonable hike to an alpine lake in the Whistler area should consider Garibaldi Lake or Joffre Lakes instead.

I hiked Wedgemount Lake during a Labor Day trip to Vancouver and Whistler. The weather was cloudy the morning of the hike but forecasted to get better, so I decided to take a chance and subject myself to a taxing ascent and hope for the best with the weather. The trailhead is just north of Whistler; from Whistler, I took the Sea to Sky Highway (Highway 99) north past Green Lake. Just past the lake, I made a right turn onto the Wedge Creek Forest Service Road, which was marked with a BC Parks sign for Wedgemount (Garibaldi) as well as another sign advertising paintball on the road. I followed the Forest Service Road to its end at the trailhead parking lot.

What can be said about the first 4 km of this hike? In 4 km (2.5 miles), the trail ascends a brutal 1150 meters (3800 feet). The ascent passes through varying types of forest- old growth and recently logged- and passes a talus slope after about 750 meters of climbing, a rare flat stretch that marks the 2/3 point of the climb. The grade is punishingly steep and direct on a trail built by people who must not have understood the concept of a switchback. Roots and rocks only make the trail more difficult and more treacherous.

Old growth forest and steep trail
The lower parts of the trail stick to forest and offer no views, but after about 950 meters of uphill, the forest finally started thinning out about and I caught views of the great dark cliffs of Rethel Mountain towering over Wedgemount Falls, a cascade hundreds of meters tall fed by the waters of Wedgemount Lake.

Wedgemount Falls
The trail climbed into a subalpine bowl for the final ascent, the forest thinning around the ever-steeper trail. The last stretch shoved about 200 meters of elevation gain into a half kilometer distance, the trail devolving into rock scrambling at some points.

Steep scramble approaching the lake
The trail flattened out as it crested the lip of the Wedgemount Lake Basin. Incredible views to the west showcased Rainbow Mountain with its glacier across the Green River Valley.

View to Rainbow Mountain and the Coast Mountains
As I entered the basin, Mount Weart rose ahead, nestling the Armchair Glacier in a high cirque. Wedge Mountain- the tallest peak in Garibaldi Provincial Park- rose ahead, above a BC Mountaineering Club Hut and the turquoise waters of Wedgemount Lake. The trail wandered through the alpine terrain of rock and meadows for a bit before arriving at the hut.

Mount Weart and the Armchair Glacier
Soon, I reached the BCMC hut, a small shelter that can sleep about 6-8 people. The hut provided a beautiful view over Wedgemount Lake: Wedge and Parkhurst Mountains towered over the teal waters of the lake and the Wedgemount Glacier snaked down the slopes of Wedge Mountain, terminating just above the lake. The lake first became known to the broader outdoor public in Vancouver in the 1970s, when the Wedgemount Glacier used to reach down to the lake itself. There are established campsites scattered along the shoreline of Wedgemount Lake; camping at Wedgemount Lake requires reservations through BC parks beforehand and campsites are extremely popular during the summer.

Wedge Mountain rising over Wedgemount Lake
The trail continued onward from the hut along the lake's north shore. As I followed the trail, I reveled in the great mountain cathedral surrounding me, stunned by the beauty around me. As I hiked around the north side of the lake, I got a view up the length of the Wedgemount Glacier to the high peak of Wedge Mountain. The overcast conditions that morning had luckily dissipated, giving me blue skies above this landscape of mountains and glaciers.

Wedgemount Glacier
I passed a few more campsites at the far end of the lake and began to wrap around the lake's east end. From here, there were great views back to the west along the length of the lake. Rethel Mountain's black cliffs rose imposingly over the lake.

Wedgemount Lake
The trail began to climb after passing the lake as it headed towards the snout of the Wedgemount Glacier. The views back over the lake improved with a bit of elevation, bringing out the snowcapped peaks of the Coast Mountains in the distance.

Wedgemount Lake
After a short climb, the trail leveld out at a new glacial lake, with the terminus of the Wedgemount Glacier just across this lake. This lake has been formed in the past decade with the constant retreat of the Wedgemount Glacier; by the time you visit, the glacier will most likely have receded further up the valley and it will eventually leave the shores of this lake, as well.

Wedgemount Glacier terminus
The trail followed the east side of the lake and petered out as it approached the nose of the glacier. The terminus of the glacier was a steep ice wall that calved chunks into the lake below to make icebergs. The terrain here allowed me and many of the other day hikers that day to walk to the very edge of the glacier.

Wedgemount Glacier
Icebergs from the Wedgemount Glacier
From close quarters, it was easier to appreciate the intense blue color of glacial ice. I peeked into the entrance of a glacial cave carved out by a stream flowing underneath the glacier and saw a glowing azure subglacial tunnel. A gaze into the cracks between pieces of ice at the nose also revealed a mesmerizing, surreal blue. It's important to note that glaciers are dynamic landscapes that can collapse and calve at any moment, so it's important to exercise caution when approaching a glacier and not to enter glacial caves or to climb onto glacial ice if you don't have proper experience or equipment.

Blue ice of the Wedgemount Glacier
Blue glacial ice
While many hikers ended their journey at the toe of the glacier, I scrambled a little ways uphill on the scree moraine to the east of the glacier, stopping about a hundred feet up after coming to a view of the crevasses higher up on the glacier. Climbers on their way to Mount Weart continued past me, but I relaxed here for a while to enjoy views of the massive glacier and of faraway peaks of the Coast Mountains rising above Wedgemount Lake in the other direction.

Crevasses of the Wedgemount Glacier
Wedgemount Lake and Pacific Ranges
Clouds started to build on Wedge Mountain in the afternoon, so I descended back to the trail and returned down the knee-shattering steep route to the trailhead. Bring poles if you want to have functional legs after your hike!

This was a tough but beautiful hike, providing a rare chance to get up close and personal with the Wedgemount Glacier and to enjoy views of the delicate waters of Wedgemount Lake. Garibaldi Provincial Park and the Coast Mountains just north of Vancouver are an embarassment of riches and this hike is a bright gem among that treasure. The rough terrain of the ascent makes me hesitant to recommend this hike broadly, but this is an excellent hike for those who are prepared for its demands.

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