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Climbers claim bragging rights

Walking in the footsteps of greats adventurers tackle North Powell Divide

At 60 years old, Bob Perry is pondering his bucket list. Last month Perry and fellow mountaineering friends Rob Southcott, Murray Jones and his son Kevin Jones trekked from just south of Toba Inlet along the mountain ridgelines to D-Branch in the Eldred River Valley.

After a helicopter dropped them off at the head of Daniel Lake, around 1,830 metres (6,000 feet) elevation, it took them eight days of hiking to reach the end of their trek. When they climbed into the truck that would take them home to Powell River, Perry and friends could claim bragging rights. They believe they are the only local team to have tackled the climb, the fourth recorded climbing party to make the trek and the oldest group of climbers to surmount the challenge. Perry can now cross conquering the North Powell Divide off his list.

Mountaineering legend John Clarke first found the route as he explored up and down the Coastal Mountains in 1984. He filed reports with BC mountaineering journals, but it was more than 20 years later before another climbing party set out to retrace his path. In 2005 John Baldwin, noted BC mountaineer, nature photographer and friend of Clarke, trekked the route with a small climbing party. Clarke had just died of brain cancer two years earlier. The next year another party, also from the Lower Mainland, made the trip.

Perry and his friends discovered a cairn, a pile of stones used as a landmark, along Clarke’s route. A film canister containing a waterproof bag was under the stones. In it was a note from John Clarke. The 28-year-old note said, “Hiking from Toba Inlet to Eldred River. Sept. 21 ’84 Left Toba Sept. 2nd. Many Storms. Please get in touch. I’d like to hear about your trip. My current address is always in the membership list book at Mountain Equipment Co-op in Vancouver BC. Good luck on your trip. Cheers! John Clarke.”

Scrawled beneath Clarke’s note was a note from Lisa Bailie, who was part of Baldwin’s group, reporting that they missed him. Perry and Southcott added a note to the bag and piled up the cairn as they had found it. Their note said, “Aug. 22 2012 Bob Perry, Murray Jones, Kevin Jones, Rob Southcott From Daniel’s Lake. White out. Travelling by GPS today in the footsteps of Greats!”

“I don’t think I’ve ever been to a place ever before that was as pristine, had that untouched feeling. It’s palpable,” said Southcott. “I think it’s why a lot of mountaineers go up into the mountains. There’s something cosmic about it.”

Southcott said Powell River’s proximity to the mountains makes it an incredible place and while the mountains near town are spectacular, these mountains were “one more quantum step than amazing.”

Perry, Southcott, Murray and Kevin chartered a helicopter to drop them where they would get underway. While the flight took only 40 minutes, taking the helicopter saved them two days of travelling time. Getting there was the easy part. Although the men had done some training day hikes, the strain of their 55-pound backpacks made the first day of the trip slow and arduous.

“We were still a little out of shape, plus we’re old,” said Southcott. “Those two things together made it slow.”

Perry added that he thought they could do six kilometres per day or maybe even eight if they moved quickly, but the very first day they did two kilometres “that beat them up a little bit.” The helicopter had dropped them at over 1,830 metres and from there they had to pick their route as there were no trails to follow.

Although they started their climb in the heat of mid-August, they didn’t anticipate the level of snowpack above the treeline. The climbers originally planned to take the trip in July and, as Southcott said, it was a good thing that they postponed the trip because dealing with the snow made their route-finding more difficult.

On the second day the climbers found themselves across from a snow-covered slope they would have to climb. Although they had relied on Perry’s experience to guide them through the safest routes, this time they discovered mountains punish climbers who try to take the easy route.

“Bob was suggesting we should go up there,” said Southcott, pointing at a picture of the most vertical segment of the slope. “So we all got closer to it and had a look and we decided that the other part looked a whole lot flatter. Well, what we didn’t know is that there were huge, monster crevasses there, so we ended up going up where Bob suggested the first time. After that we just listened to Bob.”

“We had the idea that this was going to be a team approach,” said Perry, “so when we encountered a difficulty we’d get together and have a caucus meeting. We’d make a game plan.”

Southcott added, “But we respected the leader.”

The climbers worked as a unit. Everyone had his prescribed role. Perry helped the team plot their way through icy slopes. Southcott, with his rock-climbing experience, often was the one to spider-monkey himself up the side of granite walls to get a better view at the terrain. Murray kept track of the GPS location points. He noted difficult parts of the route to help future climbers, who would follow in their footsteps, anticipate the terrain better. In some cases he was able to take Clarke and Baldwin’s route reports and accurately update the location of difficulties. Kevin documented the trek with photos and video.

They roped up to traverse crevasses, clamped crampons to the bottom of their boots to give them traction and better balance and fused their collective mountaineering experience to make the trip safe and a success.

Both Perry and Southcott caution that this kind of trip is not something that inexperienced mountaineers should undertake.

“You need to have significant experience in mountains before you try to do something like this,” said Southcott. Perry added the information mountain journals provided was invaluable.

The total cost for each climber was just over $600, which included the cost of a celebratory dinner at the Shinglemill Pub and Bistro, said Southcott.

“I’d pay that any day,” said Perry. “This is way better than a week in Mexico.”

The hikers will be guest speakers at Malaspina Naturalists Club’s meeting at 7:30 pm on Thursday, October 25 at Trinity Hall, Powell River United Church. Everyone is welcome to attend.