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November 2021

Pitt River Packraft Traverse

Written by David Wilson & Chris Kimmel

Communication and decision making are two critical skills to safely adventure in the backcountry. It's hard to know when to push through challenging situations, or if plans and goals should be adapted, changed, or even canceled. This trip had a little bit of all of that. Before our adventure even began, we had to make the very hard decision to cancel our original plans all together. We had planned to complete the Tantalus Traverse, but due to deteriorating route conditions, coupled with an incoming low pressure system, we begrudgingly decided to cancel our plans we had been looking forward to for a long time. A high alpine traverse was no place for us to be with the almost certain, high winds, rain, and lack of a view. The prospect of not doing anything at all was devastating, so we dug into the archives to come up with a trip we had dreamed up and scouted a previous year.

Our new plan was a multi-sport traverse that we thought we would be able to better manage the risk on despite the incoming storm. Starting up some logging roads from Squamish we planned to hike through old growth forest to access the alpine where we could scramble to the summit of Mt. Gillespie and follow the ridge north around Pinecone Lake. Coming off the ridge we planned to bushwhack down towards the Pitt River hot springs, and, after a good soak, we would finish the trip off by paddling our packrafts down the Pitt River. We knew there was a fair amount of uncertainty with this trip, especially since there was no established route. There were many obstacles, turn arounds, head scratches and discussions along the way. Deciding not to do the Tantalus traverse was the first of many group decisions where our plans would be challenged.

Day 1

After the uncertainty of changing plans, it felt good to finally be moving along with the clouds and mist, through the ancient living pillars of the old growth forest. It didn’t seem long until we left the trees behind and broke out into the subalpine where the views would have been spectacular if it wasn't for the clouds and sporadic rain. As we continued under the grey sky we were thrilled when some gloriously blue sky would break through the clouds for a moment, framing a piece of a distant peak just long enough to keep some wonder alive.

Once we reached the col below Mt. Gillispie, the allure of going to the top had decreased due to the almost certain lack of a view. After discussing our options we decided to attempt to tag the summit anyway since we were relatively close. The route seemed pretty straight forward and we thought we would try our luck and see if the clouds would decide to release themselves from Gillispie’s summit. Unfortunately, the clouds had no such intention, but we did still enjoy the scramble. At the summit we looked across to the cloud-covered ridge where we had planned to head next. The ridge to the north of Gillispie was long, rough, and full of clouds with no established route. This too was not very enticing. The joys of alpine ridges for our group are the views and route finding. With no chance of views on a long unknown ridge we collectively decided to let this plan go, and changed our route to follow the large descending ridge on the south side of Pinecone Lake. This ridge continued from high above the lake, all the way down towards the Pitt River. Although this route was still fairly steep, we all agreed that was the path of least resistance for us.

This significant route change was disappointing, we all were hoping to get more time in the alpine, and to camp on the ridge for sunset. I think this was especially disappointing since our original plan would have put us on the breathtaking knife-edge ridge of Mt. Tantalus at about the same time. As hard as it was, I knew these decisions were made for good reasons, and we needed to make the best of it.

As we descended off the col of Gillispie, it didn't take us long to forget about that previous disappointment as the glacier and the smooth, polished, granite cliffs and slabs that surrounded it were astounding. With the addition of packrafts, paddles, and PFDs to our pack, and little chance of needing crampons or an ice axe on our original route, we had decided to leave that gear at home to lighten our load. Now our change in plans had us on a glacier and we needed to navigate this terrain with care. Following the glacier, we enjoyed a few hours of solving the terrain maze of rocks, cliffs, and ledges that eventually led us to a spot where we set up camp for the rainy night that was ahead of us.

We were thankful for the light weight, comfortable and very secure feeling Mammut Taiss Gtx Light boots we all were wearing. The Taisse was light enough and flexible enough that they were a joy to hike in on the way up. None of us had any foot problems yet (which is a miracle with one member's blister track record), and despite not having crampons the Taisse was stiff enough to easily kick steps and grip the ice, providing confidence along our way. Off the glacier these boots continued to shine as their edging capability was excellent. They allowed us to confidently maneuver our way through various rock bands and boulders, where many down climbs and “goat steps” were encountered in this more technical terrain.

Day 2

After a night of heavy rain we were thankful for even the smallest blue patches of sky that were fighting to make an appearance. At least it wasn’t raining! With the trail long behind us, we were planning to descend out of the alpine and begin our long bushwhack down to the hot springs.

Despite our legs wanting nothing to do with more uphill, in an effort to stay on this ridge, we sometimes had to climb up over 100-200m features. At the top one of the first seemingly, necessary “bumps” we found that our topo lines on our maps were a little deceiving as they did not provide the detail we would have liked. We were now cliffed out, on top of one of these “micro summits” with no way to continue except by descending a very steep chute of unstable dirt and rock.

From the top, there was no way to be certain if the rocks and dirt continued their steep, but consistent slope to the old glacier bed below, or if this slope cliffed out beyond where we could see. We decided to check it out, with our large backpacks mounted we carefully made our way down the first 50m. Even with a handline for an extra bit of security the loose rock and dirt was more sketchy than it looked from the top, and we decided it was not safe to continue. We cautiously climbed back up out of the chute to reassess and discuss changing plans, again.

Our decisions from here now felt like a bit of a gamble knowing that our imagery and topo maps were not showing the detail we may need to avoid these sort of situations again. With only a couple possible options available to us, none of which we had confidence in, we decided to backtrack and descend more than 300m down steep boulder fields. From this point we hoped we could wrap around the side of the mountain to regain the ridge.

Back in motion we were feeling good, a little uneasy about the uncertainty ahead, but optimistic. After our long descent, we began the wrap-around where we pushed through thick bands of alders and old gnarled trees, enjoyed easier travel over glorious heather filled benches, and navigated our way across unstable and sharp talus fields. Eventually the ridge we aimed to access came into view. It was a gentle ridge, full of soft green grass that had a mystical allure as it appeared to be softly embraced with low lying clouds while at the same time warmed by the streams of sunshine that danced across its surface. This ridge seemed so welcoming, and very out of place compared to the terrain we were on, and the terrain that surrounded it. Even though this ridge was an interim goal, at that moment it seemed like the only place we wanted to be. We affectionately started to refer to it as “Ireland”, due to its soft, green, rolling appearance.

Unfortunately, even though we had a clear view of Ireland there was a much larger, and steeper gully that needed to be navigated than we had anticipated. Once again, the detail of our topo maps was misleading. Very long, steep cliffs with lots of overhanging hazards would have made it a treacherous descent, even with a rope. We figured our best bet, even though our legs were more than ready to descend, would be to follow the cliffs edge up towards the ridge in hopes of finding a better access point. Unfortunately, we never had such luck. Many times we thought we saw a spot where we could gain access to the gully and consequently, the ridge, but each time we were thwarted, grumbled, then, with the lack of alternative options we would decide to keep searching and move higher. We searched as far as we could along the gully to gain access to the ridge, and we searched back down again, and then up again. I lost count of the circles we did looking for some magical path to access the gully and the mirage-like ridge that was just out of reach, but it was not happening. Without having lugged climbing gear along with us we couldn't go any further. We were pinched out by the cliffs above us and the cliffs of the steep gully below us.

This was a low point, we were not sure if we would be able to complete this trip at all. We had used most of our daylight up, and there was still a lot of unknown terrain beyond the ridge even if we were to find a way to access it. Again, we were faced with the challenge to adapt, change, or cancel our plans to make it down to the river. Through much discussion we managed to filter through some bad ideas. Moving downhill from our current location was attractive and had the deceptive appearance of ease, but we eventually determined that this would likely lead us into much more difficult terrain. Instead, we came up with a different idea, not a good one, not a bad one, just an idea. This one unfortunately involved a lot more elevation gain. We were already depleted physically and mentally but we thought it was the only, and last option that gave us even a small chance of success.

We pushed on, backtracking on many of our footsteps on our way to a col high above where we had travelled earlier. We hoped that the col would provide some way to work our way down to the fading dream of Ireland. This was a bit of a Hail Mary as the topo lines looked worse than where we had turned back from earlier. However, once we reached the top we had found a small, 2m wide chute that seemed to work its way through the rough terrain at a steep, but reasonable angle. This chute had many trees and shrubs that had given way to gravity and erosion over time, and began to collapse and lean into this chute. This was to our benefit as they would provide many potential hand holds if we were to descend. Still in a “low” place mentally and physically we debated checking it out. We couldn't see far down this potential route, and with a lack of hope we thought it could very easily drop off into oblivion further down.

Although the potential of a route down didn't spark life into all of us, the old guy in the group found some source of supernatural energy and optimism. He decided to explore it so we all didn't have to fumble our way down. We listened as his excited calls of “it's still good” became more distant and elated as he traveled onward, until we heard “I think this is going to work guys!”. We couldn't believe it! We mounted our large packs back onto our backs, and began the descent. After the call to follow, it was like a small hole had formed in a dam, and hope and energy began to pour through with greater force as we made it further down this route. This “hole” continued to widen as we made our way down the steep but strangely consistently graded chute, flooding us with the joy of a hopeful vision coming to fruition as we reached the mystical ridge we called “Ireland”. We had found our magical path and we were exhausted! Relieved that the dream of accessing the hotsprings was still alive, we got our Jetboil boiling water and we set up camp so we could refuel and crash.

In moments like this it's hard not to appreciate certain pieces of gear, like our NEMO Kayu 15 sleeping bag and their warm comfy loft luring us down for a much needed rest or the speed and ease of the Jetboil Stash that had the water ready faster than we could inflate our Therm-A-Rests!

Day 3

After another rainy night we woke up to our alarm to help get us going early. Despite the late victory of gaining the ridge the night before we didn’t have much confidence that today was going to go well. We always thought today, the bushwhack day, would be the most difficult. We didn't know what challenging terrain features we would encounter, or how many times we would get re-routed, and how substantial these re-routes would be. We needed as much time as possible to determine if we were going all in or if we would have to turn back and travel the long depressing route back to where this adventure had begun.

Under the light of our Petzl IKO Core headlamps we prepped breakfast, and packed our gear for the day ahead of us. I had only used this headlamp a couple times before but have really come to like it. Not only is it a mere 79g, but it packs a punch in the darkness with 500 lumens. I was a little skeptical about its non-traditional headband as I wasn't sure that it was something that needed to be reinvented. Now I see why Petzl did. The IKO-Core is extremely comfortable and stable. Due to its lightweight design and contoured headband it holds its position, whether it’s on my head, toque, or helmet. It sat securely, had the settings to easily light up what I needed to see, whether it was my sleeping bag in front of me or a distant destination I was moving towards. It was a perfect tool when I needed it, but forgotten when I didn't, as it easily folded up and disappeared in my bag with its lightweight compact design.

As we set out through heavy fog, the travel was relatively smooth for the first hour. On our descent, we encountered small bands of trees that broke up the large open and rolling heather meadows. We were cautiously optimistic with our progress but we knew there would be challenges ahead. As the terrain began to steepen it also became a lot thicker. We were constantly checking our map and our In-Reach for our position to make sure we were staying on the ridge that would continue to descend to a very distant cutblock over 1000m further down from our current elevation.

Deceptive routes of ease, and gravity continually tempted us off-course. However, with three sets of eyes to continuously ensure we were on route and with open communication we were able to successfully navigate our way down the ridge, or back onto the ridge when we were forced to take a detour. The bushwhack was definitely a grunt. The vegetation was soaked from the night's rain and very slippery. Countless times we would find the weight of our bodies and packs being slammed down into the ground as a result of a slight misstep on very slippery vegetation. It was frustrating, and exhausting, but there was some delicious consolation for this grief. The vegetation was predominantly blueberries! There were many times I found myself lying awkwardly in a soggy heap with blueberries dangling all around me. Before I would muster the energy to grunt myself back to my feet, my teeth would be stained and my mouth overfilled with this delicious, blue, mountain snack!

Even as we continued down the mountain, the previous day's frustrations did not allow me to fully believe we were going to make it until the final moments when we saw the cutblock. The extreme effort it took and challenges we overcame to get to where we were, made it that much more amazing when we finally set foot on the cutblock we had been aiming for! With hoots and hollers of joy, mixed with sighs of relief, we all stumbled out through the cutblock and onto the road. We quickly relieved ourselves of our bags, stripped off wet layers, and lay down, letting the first substantial rays of sunshine on this trip release steam from our sweaty bodies and wet gear as we re-fueled and soaked up the moment.

Although the bushwhack was taxing, we felt like it went very well. There were no major hiccups and there always seemed to be an alternative route that we were able to find fairly quickly when we were faced with an obstacle. With an early start and efficient movement we found ourselves at the cutblock and its adjoining logging road in the early afternoon. We were now only a couple easy kilometres away from the hot springs. So, off we went.

The hot springs were incredible! Deep in a canyon of the Upper Pitt River, bright icy blue water flowed right beside the hot springs that were being filled by a trickle of lava-like water coming from a cliff of the canyon. They were so hot that we had to cool the pools off with buckets of the cold river water before we could soak in the relaxing warmth of the springs.

Relaxed and rejuvenated after a couple hours at the hotsprings we decided to pack up and start paddling down the river in search of a better place to camp. It felt amazing to have the water carry the weight of our gear and bodies effortlessly downstream. The views from the river were spectacular! Predominantly class 1-2, the river gave lots of time between small rapids to soak up the views of the high above mountains we came from, the salmon scooting underneath our boats, and groups of eagles feasting on these tasty river snacks! The safari had begun and we were loving it!

We ended up finding an outstanding campsite on a big sand bar with a small freshwater spring for drinking water. Upstream there were expansive views of mountains, river, and blue sky; directly downstream there was a large mysterious mouth of a canyon that gaped open towards us. From the canyon tops hung the remains of an old prospectors bridge. It was hard not to wonder who those people were, and what adventures found them on this river.

Feeling the satisfaction of success and the joy of being in such a spectacular place we set in for the night. I elected to sleep outside under the stars, and in the shadows of the canyon that awaited us in the morning.

Something I really appreciated about the Nemo sleeping bag was its unique zippered Thermo GillsTM.These “gills” made it easy to regulate my temperature without leaving my sleeping bag. I could have them open when the night was young and the air still held some warmth of the day and zip them up as the night cooled. Sleeping outside, I really appreciated the warmth of the loft that the 800 FP down provided as well as the DWR coating that protected the bag and me from the heavy dew that fell that night.

Day 4

After a great night's rest we woke to the sun slowly slipping its way down the mountainside until it finally reached us just as we pushed off from shore. As we slipped into the mouth of the canyon we marvelled at the towering rocky walls and impossibly blue water as we played in some of the eddies formed by the canyon walls.

The safari continued as we headed down stream. As we had heard, before we took on this adventure, the Upper Pitt River can be very braided and there is lots of dangerous woody debris. Although we were relaxed, we also needed to be alert on blind corners or when the river split. The wrong decision could lead us to a shallow gravel bar forcing us to portage or worse, into a log jam, stainers or sweepers. Thankfully working together, scouting when we needed to we were able to make good decisions that got us safely down to Pitt Lake without any major incident. From the lake we had arranged a boat pick up to save us from the very long paddle into an extremely strong headwind.

Warmed by the sunshine as we sped away on a ski boat we could see the river, the valley, and the peaks that we had come from, I was filled with the joy of adventure. This trip will not soon be forgotten. The struggle made the success so much sweeter. Looking back at all of the decisions we had made when faced with the challenge to adapt, change, or cancel our plans, I was thankful and proud of how we worked together and made the decisions we did to make it a safe and successful trip!

Google Earth Route

Christopher Kimmel

Christopher Kimmel is an outdoor adventure and lifestyle photographer who lives with his wife and two children just outside of Vancouver, Canada. When not hard at work planning for the local Regional Parks Department, you can find Christopher photographing and exploring the forests, canyons and mountains of southwest British Columbia and beyond with his family and friends.

Through his unique visual storytelling style, Christopher aims to share the wild-and-free feelings of exploring nature to his audience. His work draws attention to the interconnectedness of humans and their natural environment, and conveys the importance of experiencing and protecting the outdoors for generations to come. Always seeking out the remote and untouched destinations around him, Christopher continues to push the limits of outdoor adventure photography with his creative eye and compositions. His photography is regularly published by National Geographic, Backpacker Magazine, and Lonely Planet, among many others. You can see more of his work on his website ( or find him on Instagram (@alpineedge).

David Wilson

David Wilson is a firefighter and a Search and Rescue Volunteer and loves sharing his passion for the outdoors, adventure, and the environment with others. Exploring wild outdoor places, in terrain much bigger than himself and everyday life, allows him to push his body and mind as he builds stories and memories with others.

David grew up in Alberta with the Rocky Mountains as his playground and throughout the last decade has made the Coast Mountains his local stomping grounds. Now living in Squamish, BC, it is not uncommon to find him backcountry skiing, mountain biking, rock climbing, mountaineering, canyoning, or immersed in some other outdoor adventure. David and his wife now have a 2 year old, which has been the start of another grand adventure! They have loved introducing him to their world, taking their little man cub on many of these same adventures, or maybe just throwing rocks in a stream…

Follow David on Instagram @_dawilson_ to see what adventure he is on next!