Elevation Gain: 1,497m
Total Time: 6 hours 32 minutes
Date: April 16th, 2022
A full year had passed since I last made a winter ascent attempt up Brunswick Mountain. On my first attempt I was a total beginner in the winter climbing scene and wandered naively towards the summit never knowing what to expect around each roll or slope. At times I was truly scared, not 100% sure how to interpret the snow conditions or the safeness of a given route. Still I was keen to push myself and somehow found my way to the false summit perhaps just 100m in horizontal distance from the true high point. It was at this spot I had to concede my attempt as the next section was a trial and test for a skill level above mine.
Now a year and a bit later, I still wasn’t a skilled alpinist or mountaineer, but I had enough experience on other winter peaks that I felt Brunswick was in my wheel house. It wasn’t the highest priority for the year, but my friend Jacob was really interested in doing Brunswick and we both agreed a winter ascent offered the most engaging option. We had just completed Cayoosh Mountain the day prior and, although tired, committed the previous evening to heading up Brunswick. Conditions were initially really good the few days prior, but in the last day a strong easterly wind had heightened avalanche conditions in the alpine. Most of Brunswick’s alpine route (if taking the standard summer approach) is West facing so I knew we’d have to be extra mindful of wind loading on the slopes. We agreed to a later start to catch up on sleep and that meant we didn’t get going on the trail head until just before 11am.
As usual in the Lions Bay area, a late start is an automatic sentence to a distant parking spot; adding an extra 750m to the trail head. Jacob and I both had plans later in the evening so we set a solid pace to ensure we’d be back in time. Thankfully, the lower Brunswick approach is all moderately inclined service road, but it certainly dulls the mind. At around 750m we reached continuous snow and followed some existing tracks past the service road terminus and up into the trees.
At about 1390m we ran into the lead trail breaker who had been turned back by a rock wall laminated in ice. I had a good idea of which feature they were referring to and knew we’d have a way around it. Shortly after that a final person came down who had also been turned back. We reached that notorious feature at about 1420m after a few more minutes trudging through the snow. From the starting vantage it appears as an incredibly steep snow slope that’s exposed to a major terrain trap below. The alternative is a 5th class climb up ice covered rock. I had done the steep snow variation last time and wanted to explore the cliff section more.
Jacob and I traversed climber’s right under the base of the rock band in search of a weakness. I found one spot that I could climb up, but I knew down climbing would be problematic so made the decision that we should just go for the steep snow slope instead. We donned our crampons and ice axes and I lead the way up first. This time, I had no reservations about going up and felt infinitely more comfortable in the terrain than on my previous attempt. Despite how steep the slope looks initially, it mellows out after just a few meters and appears much tamer once you’re on it. Jacob followed suit and then we broke trail up towards the ridge.
The snow here was quite variable with a mix of firm crust and 30+ cm deep wind blown snow over top of the same crust. Either way, I didn’t notice any slabs forming and the snow was mostly unconsolidated, so we pushed on. We reached the ridge and then traversed towards the false summit I had stopped at over a year ago. Instead of ascending up the false summit, we continued around it and towards a gully that I had deemed the best option to gaining the true summit ridge.
Looking at the gully I could see immediately there was potential for wind loading, but committed to an exploratory traverse first. I made it about half way across before I was wallowing through 60+ cm of snow on top of a hard crust. This seemed like a recipe for a slide, so I bailed off. Next we tried climbing just climber’s right of the false summit where the rock was more exposed than in January of last year. Upon reaching the ridge, we were confronted with a massive cornice and a gully crossing that was identical in nature to the section lower down. I had one last idea though. On the first crossing I had spotted a low flat section that would mean more down climbing and a steeper section of a rib to ascend to the summit ridge. However, it was less likely to be wind loaded, so we gave it a shot.
Jacob lead the way across this time and my prediction proved correct. We gained the rib feature and ascended up towards the ridge on a mix of rock hard neve and boot deep snow. As we rose up the weather started to close in and just before gaining the ridge things took an eerie turn. Suddenly we were both observing a strange buzzing sound in our ears. My mind was struggling to place it and it wandered initially to a benign source. Surely, it was just the air escaping from our water bottles? Satisfied with the answer, we pushed forward and started on the “mixed scramble” across the summit ridge. But still, the sound continued, taking slightly different shapes as we went. No longer trusting the water bottle theory, we now hypothesized it must be the pellet-like snowfall bouncing off our snow shoes. Again we moved forward a bit, but with an increasing level of mistrust. I stopped a few meters later to root out the cause once and for all. I took off my back pack expecting to see the source of the strange buzzing, but to my confusion, the sound continued behind my ears. Even with the backpack now before my feet! A more sinister theory began to cross my mind. I turned to Jacob on the ridge, lifted my hat off and asked: “Is the hair on my head standing straight up?”. Jacob’s face said it all, but the nervous follow up of “yeah dude” sealed the deal. His confirmation revealed the source of the now malevolent tune singing through the aluminum rails of our snow shoes and the shafts of our ice axes… static electricity. We had a simultaneous “oh shit moment” as we realized we were now lightning beacons on the highest point in the north shore.
Immediately we rushed back over the ridge scramble and down the steep terrain we had so gingerly ascended, eschewing safe climbing in the name of speed. We descended the rib feature in fast fashion, but by the time we reached the gully, the malicious sound had dissipated. Still we pushed hard until we arrived on safer terrain under the shelter of trees. Now we had a moment to reflect and began to laugh while replaying the scenario out loud. After the brief pause continued our descent and were thankful when we finally arrived back in the tamer sections of the sub alpine.
The route back down through the forest was easy with the adequate snow coverage. We soon reached the service road again and shut our minds off for the boring descent back to the car. I was a touch disappointed since we were within 20-30m of the summit. Now I’ll have to make a third attempt on Brunswick to get the summit, but this outcome made for a much better adventure. Next time, I’ll make sure the stars truly align as I guarantee I won’t be up for a 4th attempt.