Stein Wilderness Traverse
Updated: Nov 17, 2019
We were well into summer and the weekend after the 4th of July was slated to be a big 3-day training weekend for team Quest. A focus for Summer 2018 was getting lots of time on our feet in prep for Primal Quest. Typically I’m pretty involved in planning training adventures, but due to a busy work schedule and another trip I had been planning for the week before, I went into this one pretty much blind. Scarlett had found some pretty intriguing beta on an online blog (Into Cascadia) about a remote area up in the BC coast range called the Stein. After waffling around a bit on which route to do, she settled on the "Angels Traverse – 95km" - a route suggested by the blog author... It ended up being a bit more epic, painful, and in the end, rewarding, than any of us were prepared for.
Day 1: Angel’s Crest
Our initial plan was to do the full Stein Traverse from Lytton to Lake Lillooet (Lizzie Creek), but we made a last-minute decision to save ourselves 2 hours each way on the car shuttle, and also double the amount of time we’d have up in the alpine, by instead starting on the road up to Blowdown Pass.
Had we known how slow the travel would be on the ridge, we would have likely gotten up before dawn and eaten some snacks for breakfast during the car shuttle, but after getting in to camp on Lake Lillooet pretty late the night before, we chose to get a little more sleep before our epic adventure. We got up sometime between 5:30 and 6 and cooked up some eggs and hash browns while we read through route descriptions of some of the peaks in the area and decided what gear to bring. We decided to leave the rope, rock pro, and glacier gear in the car and only carry axes, light crampons, and helmets. It was a good choice in the end, because just completing the route itself would prove to be difficult and time-consuming enough that we wouldn’t have time to go after any nearby summits.
By the time we’d dropped the car at the Lizzie Creek trailhead, driven as far up Blowdown Pass road as we could (just over 10k up from the highway), and started actually hiking, it was about 11am. We took the wrong road initially, which headed toward the pass maybe a half mile or so before ending in a big clear cut. After looking at the map, we figured that the main road was likely above us, so we bushwhacked uphill and found it within 10-15 minutes. It was easy walking from there to the pass, with almost non-stop views that kept getting better and better.
From the pass, we left the road and headed west for Gotcha Peak. There was no trail, but travel was relatively easy…a mix of rocky meadows and snow. The view from the summit was amazing, although there was a wall of very dark clouds heading our way. We descended to the saddle between Gotcha and Notgot Peaks, and then descended south off the ridge, crossed the basin below Notgot, and ascended a steep snow finger to gain the ridge of Angel’s Crest.
The ridgeline was spectacular, but also slow. Travel wasn’t overly difficult, but we were constantly climbing over each knoll on the ridge and then dropping before climbing the next…over and over again. We had a few passing showers, but seemed to get pretty lucky avoiding the worst of the rain. There were some nasty looking clouds in almost every direction.
The ridge went on and on, the sun was getting low in the sky, and the clouds started to close in from all around. We debated about dropping down the east side of the ridge to the Silver Queen Mine to camp, and then take the Cottonwood Trail the next day, but we were already past the mine, and not wanting to backtrack, we pushed on. Headlamps came out near the end of the ridge. We could hear the Stein River roaring 4,500 feet below. As we started the steep bushwhack downward. It started to rain.
We had a compass bearing to follow, and generally needed to head straight down, but navigating patches of thick brush, steep gullies, and small cliffs was difficult in the dark. We were low on water, but were able to find a small stream about halfway down to fill up on. At that point, we were looking for anyplace to camp. The slope became an endless steep talus field. Finally, around 1:30am, and with 2,000 feet of descending still to go, we decided to build our own tent pad. It wasn’t too hard to build, but sucked to sleep on.
We found a couple dead trees laying on the ground and stacked them on the uphill side of a standing tree, to build a small wall. We threw a bunch of talus down from above to build a small tent pad on the uphill side of the wall we just built. Then, all 4 of us crammed into a single 2-person tent, because we didn’t want to take the time to build another tent pad. I don’t think I slept for more than 10 minutes at a time. I kept waking up with sore ribs or a sore hip, and then would shift so that another part of my body could take the brunt of laying on the pile of rocks…and then I’d wake up again 10 minutes later and shift again. After about 3 hours of lousy, interrupted “sleep”, it was light again and we were all ready to get moving. Perhaps a little closer to adventure racing reality than we’d planned to simulate!
Day 2: The Stein-K
One exciting thing that happened during this trip was our discovery of a new unit for measuring distance. We named it the “Stein-K”. More on that later.
After about 3 hours of extremely unpleasant rest (I’m not going to actually call it sleep), we were breaking camp around 5am. Navigating down the rocky slope and weaving around the thickest patches of brush was much easier in the daylight…and we were moving at least twice as fast as we had been in the dark. A good reminder for future adventures and races. The slope angle mellowed as we descended, and we reached the valley bottom after about 2 hours.
As soon as we hit flat ground, we pitched our tents next to a small stream, made dinner AND breakfast (we had skipped both since our “camp” the night before sucked so badly) and then took a short nap to give ourselves a little bit of actual pleasant sleep before the long slog up the valley bottom. The mosquitos in the valley were pretty awful, but we slept soundly inside our tents.
We were back moving around 9:30. We were now back on the main “trail” along the Stein River. We had about 25k to go until Stein Lake, where we would climb up into the alpine again. 25k up a gradual valley takes about 5 hours at a brisk walk, right? Not when they’re Stein-K’s!
We felt like we were flying compared to the previous day as we made our way up the valley. The trail had lots of blowdowns in areas and was brushy in places, but even when the tread was difficult to see, there were abundant trail markers in the form of orange blazers on trees or cairns. We felt like we were making pretty good time. After about 2 hours we arrived at a marker for a designated campsite. We pulled out the map and realized that we were only averaging about 2k an hour! That’s less than half the speed we thought we were moving! So, we came up with the term Stein-k to describe this new “Twilight Zone” unit of measurement.
The trail became rougher as we moved further up the valley. For portions of it we were climbing through boulder fields following cairns. We were frequently climbing steeply up the valley wall to bypass cliffs and then would steeply descend again. Each of us had our own personal swarm of blood-thirsty mosquitoes. The only highlights on this section were a couple pretty fun cable-car crossings. The cable had enough sag in it that once we hoisted the car to the tower and got in, we could let go and ride it like a roller coaster across to the other side.
The valley was beautiful and remote, but the difficult travel combined with the swarms of mosquitoes made for a very mentally challenging day. Near Stein Lake, we passed a couple who had attempted the full Stein Traverse from Lytton to Lizzie Creek, only to turn around due to snow conditions in the high-country above Stein Lake. We were confident that we would be able to get through, but the thought of backtracking all the way out was rather terrifying after the difficulties we’d been through…and the fact that we had nowhere near enough food remaining to backtrack.
We reached Stein Lake at 7:30 that evening, and decided to avoid more hiking in the darkness, and save the 4,000 foot climb out of the lake for first light the next day. We set up camp, soaked our feet in the lake, made dinner, were in bed before dark, and had one of the best nights of sleep any of us had ever had in the backcountry.
Day 3: Lizzie Creek High-Country
We were up just after 4, made breakfast, and were moving a little after 5. Right off the bat we had another cable car crossing. This one was maybe the coolest one because it was right above a rather significant looking rapid and had a nice view across Stein Lake. The climb out of the lake and into the alpine was long, steep, and relentless, but it actually went by pretty quick, and the trail was mostly clear of brush and blowdowns. We had been mentally preparing for much worse, and were pleasantly surprised.
I will let the pictures speak for themselves and not go into all the details of the route from Stein Lake to Lizzie Creek, but it was a spectacular day! The trail frequently completely disappeared, and we spent a lot of time scrambling across rocky terrain, or traversing snow, but the route was easy to follow, and the scenery seemed endless in every direction.
Other than a few brief breaks, we were on the move for roughly 18 hours and didn’t see anyone the entire day. The final descent to the car (roughly 5,000 feet of descending) seemed to go on forever. It began up high in the alpine with a view out to Lake Lillooet. We reached tree line as we passed Lizzie Cabin. We had expected the trail out from the cabin to be in pretty good shape. Not so much!
Shortly after passing the cabin we reached a huge boulder field we had to scramble up through to pick up the trail on the other side. After that, the trail dropped steeply though thick forest to Lizzie Lake. We down-climbed sections of the trail using roots as handholds. There were tons of huge blowdowns that we either had to climb up and over or crawl on the ground to get under. We reached Lizzie Lake and the old abandoned road that had washed out many years ago. Only about 7 miles to go!
Travel on the road was fast compared to the terrain we’d been on the rest of the trip. It was pretty brushy though. We had read that it was like walking through a tunnel of Alder…that was a pretty accurate description. There were a few washed out sections to climb through, and a long stretch where the road had turned into a stream, and we had to walk in the water for a while. We pulled out the headlamps with only a few miles to go, easily found the trail that bypasses the large washout that closed the road in the first place, and followed it to the trailhead and Mitch’s car. Nothing like a long, uninteresting slog of a descent to end a fantastic day! Out by 11:30pm. But it wasn’t over…
Day 3: Extended Edition
Our feet were sore and swollen from all the time spent on the move in rugged terrain the past few days and our legs ached, making it difficult to bend over to take shoes off and change into clean clothes. We were covered in mosquito bites and exhausted. I think we all would have been pretty happy just pitching tents on the side of the road and sleeping next to the car…but we had a long way to go. It was almost midnight, and we had a 90 minute drive to get the other car, and then a 4+ hour drive back to Bellingham, and we all had work or school the next day. Mitch had to be back by 5am to leave for Anacortes to catch a small private ferry out to a job site in the islands…making that cutoff looked doubtful. Emily had a quiz at 8 that she wasn’t allowed to make up if she missed. Scarlett and I had a bit more flexibility to our schedules, but were still expected to show up at work in the morning.
So, despite our exhaustion and soreness, we changed out of our nasty, damp clothes quickly, hopped into the Prius and headed off to get our other car. All was going well until we turned off the highway onto Blowdown Pass road. We made it maybe a quarter mile up the road before coming to one of the dozens of water bars that crossed the road. The fully loaded Prius didn’t have the power to creep up and over the water bar (and speeding over it would have done serious damage to the car). So at 1am, we unloaded the car on the side of the forest road, and Scarlett and Emily set up camp on the side of the road, and took a well-deserved nap while Mitch and I continued over 6 more miles up to get the Subaru.
The story gets better though…
After another mile or so, we hit the ground pretty hard rolling over one of the water bars. A few seconds later, the check engine light came on…uh oh! Mitch stopped the car, got out, and stuck his head under the car to see if he could see any obvious damage. All looked good, but then, he noticed a hissing noise. The front driver’s side tire was losing air! Time to throw on the donut! We were nervous about driving any farther up the road on the tiny spare tire, but neither of us felt like busting out another 5 uphill miles at roughly 2am on aching legs, when we still had over 4 hours of driving to get home, so we chanced it.
Luckily, it worked out. We drove to within a half mile of the Subaru, stopped by yet another water bar that was larger than we wanted to attempt, and hiked the final stretch of the road up to the car. It was cold and clear, barely above freezing, and there were brilliant stars everywhere. We booked it back down to Emily and Scarlett who were awake from their nap and worried about what was taking us so long. After packing up all our stuff we drove to a gas station in Pemberton where we got our “post-adventure meal”. Not as good as pizza or a burger, but everything else had closed many hours earlier. The gas station mini mart employee got all excited when we walked in the door and asked if we “were going camping!” We didn’t have enough energy to laugh, and simply told him, we just got done camping. Then he commented on how late it was and that we didn’t look too good.
Needless to say, Mitch didn’t make it back in time for his 5am work departure, but after a long drive to the border, sitting in morning rush hour lines at the border crossing, and driving straight to WCC, I dropped Emily off with 5 minutes to spare for her quiz. She hadn’t bathed in 4 days, had the beginnings of trench foot and was wearing sandals, and didn’t smell too great, but she got an A! After dropping her off, I drove home, showered and then went to work.
We all thanked Scarlett for coming up with such a grueling adventure…perfect adventure race training. She tried to tell us that going into the trip she was worried that the route would be too easy…that we’d finish the entire thing on the first day. The 4 of us were getting ready for Primal Quest in September. Emily, Mitch, and I had all done at least one multi-day race before, and we were unsure how Scarlett would do for her first one. In retrospect, I think the Stein Traverse was Scarlett’s way of testing the 3 of to make sure we were tough enough to keep up with her! I think we just BARELY passed the test.
Link to our route.