Jeff and I had been looking for possible canyons to descend in the Southwest BC area for a while. One watercourse, Gonzales Creek, had caught his eye as potentially containing a combination of steep descents with an entrenched creek – equaling possible rappels, and if we were very lucky, some interesting narrows.
Unfortunately, on the first day of September, Jeff had an unpleasant jumping experience in a pool in Cypress Creek, and broke his ankle – taking him out of action for the balance of the BC canyon season. However, he did encourage us to go in and have a look at what Gonzales Creek was hiding. On September 24, Artem, Dmitri and I went to see.
The day was kind of gloomy, with rainshowers threatening. Dmitri was slowed by traffic, coming from the east. I needed to make a stop for coffee and lunch supplies on the way. It wasn’t until almost 8:30 that we left West Vancouver and turned the corner near Horseshoe Bay, heading up Howe Sound.
We started off by dropping a vehicle at the exit point from Gonzales Creek at Highway 99, and walked up the lower part of the creek for a bit. We reached the bottom of a waterfall, and looked at how much water was coming down. Then we thought long and hard about actually entering the creek.
For a while, we thought about the possibilities: The days are short. The canyon could get skinny. There could be very long drops. There could be long sections without escape. Just that amount of flow was disconcerting… At one point, while we were pretty ambivalent, I almost called it: No. But then Artem said that it was in his nature to go for it, to go until he reached something that actually made him stop, rather than call something off preemptively. This reminded me of something I’ve heard a friend say before: If you’re afraid to do something, viewing it from a distance (a climb, a descent, whatever it may be…) then go right up to it and touch it. If at that point, you decide not to do it, fine. But you may find that it isn’t as scary up close as you thought it was at a distance.
It was now almost 9:30. I said, “Well, let’s hurry up and go for it!” We headed back up to Murrin Park, got all our gear ready, and started up the Petgill Lake trail at 10:10.
The trail is about 6km long, and gains 645m (plus a bit more, as there are a few gullies that one traverses up and down on the way in.) With all the wetsuits, ropes, and other equipment we were carrying, it was a fairly grueling ascent. Added to that, the rain that came and went during the hike did not help us enjoy the trip.
We reached the lake at 12:15, after over two hours of hiking. We suited up, and walked around the lake to its outlet. (Except for Artem – he got right into the lake in his wetsuit, and waded/swam to the outlet!) The time was now 12:45, and only a little over 6 hours of daylight remained… GPS said we had 1.6km to the highway (as the crow flies), and a descent of about 670m to go.
The outlet from the lake was quite bushy, and only had a little water running in it.
After about 150 meters or so, we joined the main creek, where a LOT more water was running. It was now a few minutes after 1:00. There followed some blocky downclimbing, and a bunch of boulder walking. Some of the downclimbing was kind of interesting, and it was pleasant enough – but nothing special. Had the flow been lower, it would have been downright boring.
Just after 2:00 I pulled out the GPS, to check our progress. We seemed to be travelling forward OK, but hadn’t dropped particularly far. The GPS showed the highway to be 1.02km away, and still 550m down. We had covered 1/3 of the distance, but only 1/5 of the elevation. The lines on the GPS looked like the bottom would drop out very soon. It did!
At 2:15, we reached the first rappel. The flow of the creek split in two, half down one side of a boulder, half down the other side. The rap was only about 6 meters high, but was almost immediately followed by another, about 15 meters along. It looked like there was no escape route from the bottom of this rappel, but there might be from the next.
I dropped down the first rappel. Even with only half the flow of the creek, it was a brutal trip down through the full brunt of the cascade, and into a small alcove behind it. I was equipped to ascend the rope if required, and scouted the next rappel while the others waited above. It looked like the rappel would be doable, but was followed immediately by another. It did look like it would be possible to exit the canyon on the right if necessary. I signaled to Dmitri and Artem to follow me down the first rappel.
Once they reached the next stance, we discussed our options. By now it was about 2:45, and there was still a lot of canyon to cover. Because there was an exit visible into the trees after the next rappel (number two), we decided that we would look at rappel number three, but likely escape the canyon to the right.
Rappel two was to the left of a boulder, where all the water was going right. At the bottom however, the water came in from the side, and was just about impossible to avoid. The rappel ended in a pool, with the full force of the cascade joining there. Artem went first.
Dmitri followed Artem down, but had a little slip into the full flow at the bottom of the rappel. In a moment, though, he was out of the cascade, and moving across the pool.
A few minutes later, I joined them at the top of rappel number three. At this point, both Dmitri and I were starting to feel pretty chilly. We were tempted by the thought of exiting and walking down through the trees for a while. Artem had a proposal for us, though. We could see that there were at least a couple of drops in short succession ahead. We would set up a rappel, using the 60m rope, and he would head down to the next drop. Looking down, if it looked reasonable to get down that drop, and there appeared to be an exit or reasonable anchor after that (we could see that the canyon opened a bit shortly afterwards) then he would continue down the next stage. Otherwise, he would ascend the rope, and we would exit.
This sounded fair enough to Dmitri and I, and we watched Artem head down rappel three. He stood for a long time at the brink of the next drop, weighing the options. After a few minutes, I decided that if Artem was uncertain about it, then it was probably a better idea to just escape. I blew my whistle, and he looked up. I beckoned at him to come back up. Artem nodded and started back towards us.
While Artem started up the rope, Dmitri and I started exploring our escape route. The first section was very steep, with loose soil and very exposed to the canyon below. I put Dmitri on a belay, and he headed up to the first large tree away from the precipice, and anchored the rope there.
When Artem got back, he described how at the next drop, the full current appeared unavoidable – it all dropped onto an angled slab, then channeled down a narrow groove on the left. We handlined up into the forest. The time was now about 4:00.
The treed slope was very steep, and began to bluff out, forcing us back into the canyon itself. The route down was incredibly precarious, and we made full use of all the small trees, embedded rocks, and roots that we could find. Finally we were back in the canyon, at the bottom of the skinny slot waterfall that Artem had seen from above.
Just below this, we were able to rappel down beside the next waterfall, staying right out of the flow until we got to the pool at the bottom.
We were able to scramble down canyon for another twenty minutes or so, then came to another waterfall. By keeping to canyon right, we were able to take a dry fork that rejoined the main channel.
After this rappel, the time was about 5:45, and we were starting to get concerned about daylight. We scrambled down the canyon a bit more, then exited to the left. For a while, there was some good progress made through the trees, descending steeply, but not too steeply.
It began to get steeper, but there were also tantalizing views to the right of a couple of nice waterfalls in the creek.
The slope got steeper and steeper.
At this point, it was also beginning to get quite dim. We tried a few different routes (Over the saddle? Nope, doesn’t help. Follow this bench? Nope, it peters out. Along this ledge? Yep, it seems to go…) and finally reached a steep slope back to the creek. Artem and Dmitri got down, but I was really sketched out, and it was getting hard for me to evaluate the footing in the twilight. I sat by a big ol’ tree about 15 meters above the creek, and set up a rappel. Down I went and met the others. As I pulled the rope, it snagged on a small dead tree, and brought that down toward me. Artem saw it happening, and called “Tree! Tree!” to me. I ducked in close to the slope, and a 10cm thick log sailed over my head into the pool beside me.
This part of the canyon consisted of lots of smaller, blocky cascades. There was too much water, and the drops were a little too large to make them downclimbable. It would have been one “nuisance rappel” after another, for a while.
We escaped into the trees on the right side of the canyon, and after a few minutes descending the easier slopes, we stopped to don our headlamps and have a quick bite to eat. We could hear vehicles on the highway below us now, and knew we were getting close.
After about a half an hour descending by headlamp, we came to an open, brushy area. Turning off our headlamps, we could make out a rocky slope off to our left – a slope we had ascended earlier to view the lower part of the creek. Rather than beat our way through the grasping, snaggy brush, we headed back up into the trees, then trended back toward the creek. In a couple of more minutes, we were back to where we had been almost eleven hours earlier.
A careful, headlamp-lit descent down the bouldery, rocky ramp, and we were at the highway, two minutes from the car.
We reached the parking area right at 8:00, and there were high fives all around! The canyon had a few rappels and waterfalls that might have been rather nice in lower flow, but there was a lot of boulder walking and work involved to visit something that, frankly, was nothing to write home about. The main thing was, we were able to go in, see what was there, and escape again unscathed.
The trip may not have been productive, but we had a big day out, had some great experiences, learned something about canyon exploration and ourselves, and did so without any injuries or an unplanned bivouac. I’d have to say that makes it a successful trip!