A group of European hikers have made history after successfully traversing the route of the proposed Third Crossing from Squamish to Powell River. However, it was religion, not lobbying for a highway, that motivated them to make the trek.
Led by George Elsbett, a Catholic priest with family ties to Powell River, the party of students and young professionals, 14 from Austria and one from Switzerland, set off from Brackendale on Sunday, July 2. The group arrived at the head of Goat Lake on Saturday, July 8, and were greeted by a small contingent of Third Crossing Society members and outdoor enthusiasts.
Previous attempts to navigate the route, made in 1970 and 2008, were left either interrupted or incomplete.
“It was a fascinating idea, especially for these young people,” said Elsbett. “Austrians are mountain people but the idea of Canada, for them, is the last frontier.”
The initiative was one of several recent expeditions organized by the Zentrum Johannes Paul II in downtown Vienna, where Elsbett is based. Born in London and raised throughout parts of BC and Alberta, he received ordination in 2003. Elsbett’s parents, Max and Gerlinde, now live in Wildwood.
For much of the past decade, Elsbett has been using outdoor adventure as a way to analogize the teachings of faith and lessons of life.
The group completed a five-day trip in the Swiss Alps last fall and were hungry for more. At the suggestion of a friend, Elsbett watched a documentary of two ski expeditioners crossing the Homathko Icefield near Bute Inlet. By the time the credits were rolling, he had ideas for a similar international trip.
“We wanted to do Canada and do something on the coast in British Columbia, but we weren’t exactly sure what, and that gave us the inspiration,” said Elsbett. “I kind of bounced the idea off of mom and dad and asked if they could maybe help us with some logistics.”
At first, his parents tried to talk him out of it.
“I agreed, in a certain sense, that a three-week tour would be too dangerous or too expensive,” said Elsbett, “but why not do a lighter variance of that? Why not hike across the Coast Mountains?”
Elsbett’s parents were aware of the Third Crossing Society and ongoing discussions regarding the creation of a fixed-link highway from Squamish to Powell River. They suggested that route as one that might be feasible with the right equipment.
“I didn’t want to get involved in something political because I didn’t know how the community saw this whole idea.” said Elsbett. “I mean, who are we as foreigners, so to speak, to come here and promote things? But the idea of taking that route looked pretty interesting.”
After reaching out to Third Crossing Society and viewing the area’s topography on Google Earth, Elsbett had a plan.
The group would begin their trek in Brackendale, head up the Squamish River and follow its daisy-chain of tributaries: Elaho River, Sims Creek and Casement Creek. After scaling most of Casement Mountain, they would descend into the Hunaechin Valley and along the Hunaechin River toward the head of Jervis Inlet. Continuing along the Lausman River toward Lausman Pass, they would hike up to Ice Lake, past Mount Alfred glacier and onward toward Eldred River and Goat Lake.
Powell River resident Sean Percy, along with local surveyor Caleb Allen, attempted a similar expedition in September 2008.
"It’s not an easy route because there’s no trail,” said Percy. “You’re pushing through bush, literally, much of the time, sliding on roots and slippery, rocky creek crossings.”
Midway through their descent into Hunaechin Valley, Percy and Allen reached an impasse and were forced to turn around. GPS coordinates from that attempt served as the benchmark for Elsbett’s own expedition, along with the legend of 27 adventure-hungry adolescents who attempted a similar route, then known as the Dogwood Trek, in 1970.
“It’s such beautiful country, it’s a shame more people don’t get to see it,” said Percy. “I’d put the Casement Valley up against anything in Banff or Jasper, but it’s really rugged.”
The Austrians’ expedition nearly came to its own premature end on two occasions. Only with the aid of a helicopter did things get back on track.
The first incident took place early in the trip where remnants of a 2015 forest fire in Elaho Valley had left a landscape riddled with erosion, landslides and burned bridges.
“We ended up taking a helicopter from Brackendale up to Sims Creek and then we bushwhacked our way up Casement Mountain,” said Elsbett.
The other incident happened two days later after the group encountered 100 metres of treacherous snowpack over a creek. Knowing another chopper would be needed, whether the mission continued or not, they radioed in with a request to be dropped off on a sandbank near Hunaechin River.
As soon as they landed, Elsbett said it looked as though their troubles had literally melted away.
“All of a sudden, it was warm. We walked from there to Jervis Inlet, and we swam,” he said.
This brief respite did not last long, however, as the hikers were up early the following day to bushwhack toward Lausman Pass and Ice Lake.
“Supposedly, nobody had ever been there before,” said Elsbett. “I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it seemed like a pretty good idea to us.”
The variety of terrain was impressive and challenging for the group, who trekked for up to 12 hours per day and used just about every piece of equipment they had packed.
“My concern was that they might not think it was such a great deal, because they’re fairly experienced mountaineers,” said Third Crossing Society president Gary Fribance. “Well, they didn’t find it disappointing at all. They were just raving about it.”
For hiker Sascha Ungar, a 22-year-old student and member of Elsbett’s parish, the striking countryside stood out.
“I was really struck by how beautiful the country is and how the landscape changed,” said Ungar. “The difference was so interesting.”
When Elsbett first pitched the idea back in February, Ungar was among the first to sign up. Fellow parishioner Alina Bachmann, a 28-year-old medical doctor, was another. The group spent six months preparing for the trip, including a weekend in Austria, where they tested equipment and simulated a variety of emergency scenarios.
“We’ve really grown together,” said Bachmann. “It really feels like a family, and everyone has their place. We can cover each other’s weaknesses.”
Much in the way the hikers learned to accept and adapt to the terrain in front of them, they learned to do the same with one another.
“There’s a lot of stuff we can take back for our lives,” said Elsbett, “like perseverance and the confidence that there’s always a way forward.”
However, the group did have one complaint.
“They really wanted to see a bear,” said Elsbett, adding that animal sightings were limited to mosquitos and the occasional squirrel. “I told them, ‘Be careful what you pray for.’”