GET YOUR ASS OUTSIDE: On Climbing Our Most Emblematic Local Peaks, “The Lions”
by Ariel Taylor | My apologies, dear readers. It has been far too beautiful outside these last couple of weeks to spend any more time than necessary indoors tapping away at a computer. That being said, I recently found some inspiration whilst taking in the snowcapped skyline from a friend’s nineteenth floor balcony. Take a moment and look north today and you’ll see what I’m talking about…
The Lions are likely the most familiar peaks visible from Vancouver. They’ve been forever memorialized in some of the city’s more famous architectural and cultural legacies. Do the Lions Gate Bridge, BC Lions Football, or maybe Lions Gate Films ring a bell? In case they’ve escaped your attention up to this moment, The Lions are two nearly identical rocky peaks dominating the North Shore’s mountain skyline. Reaching over 1600m (5400ft) high they are at once intimidating and ubiquitous. First Nations refer to the peaks as Ch’ich’iyúy Elxwíkn (or the Twin Sisters) and have credited them with bringing peace to the once warring Haida and Squamish. Whatever your association to these icons, they hold an important piece of west coast history, culture, and spirit. Not to be overly trite, but visiting them is a remarkably humbling experience.
There are two ways to reach the Lions, though I will come right out and say that neither are for the average couch potato. I don’t mean to be dispiriting, but let’s just lay that right on the table, shall we? The good news is that there’s lots to see en route and nobody will fault you for turning around. So consider that the full disclosure.
As I was saying, there are two routes. The newer, more direct, and better maintained Brinket Trail begins from Lion’s Bay and takes about 4.5 hours to reach the West Lion. Let me be straight, I have not attempted this route. That said, this article will focus primarily on the second, older, less direct and at times pitifully maintained Howe Sound Crest Trail. Good news, the views of Howe Sound and the city skyline are well worth the slog.
From Vancouver head to the upper parking lot at Cypress Mountain (Exist #8 on Hwy 1). The trailhead is located near the main lodge and is well marked with BC Parks official insignia. Lucky for us the first section of the trail is pretty forgiving. A gradual incline and it doesn’t take long – about 5.5km – before your efforts are rewarded with St. Marks lookout. Howe Sound, the Tantlus Range mountains and even some Gulf Islands are visible from here. No doubt you’ll have company, especially on weekends, but there’re plenty of spots to take in the scenery.
From St. Marks you’ll head towards Unnecessary Mountain. As you may have gathered from the name, this peak is exceedingly frustrating as it requires a number of descents before making any tangible upward progress. I’ve heard this section of the trail compared to the notorious Grouse Grind. But hey, maybe that’s your thing.
The Lions have, at this point, been in your peripherals for some time now and really once you’ve made it to the North end of Unnecessary Mtn you’re as good as there. Traversing the spine-like crest of Unnecessary reveals panoramic views of the Vancouver skyline and Howe Sound. Make sure to stop and look behind you! The last leg of the route requires one final descent to Lion’s Lake – a small set of glacial ponds – before ascending the ridge towards West Lion. Note that East Lion is off limits as it resides in the Vancouver watershed, while West Lion requires rock climbing experience (and equipment) to summit. If I’m about to lose you, let me just say that I’m no rock climber and the last ridge is the final destination for 99% of visitors.
The best possible piece of advice I can offer you is to know your limits and don’t use this route as a way to test them. You may be just a short trip from the city, but make no mistake you’re a long way from help should you need it. St. Marks summit is a great day trip and one which offers spectacular views and a solid sweat. 11km round trip shouldn’t take more than an afternoon to complete which means you’ll be back in time for dinner. Pack water, a light snack, and probably some sunscreen – you’re very exposed on the ridge and leftover snow patches reflect a ton of extra UV rays. Oh and definitely bring a camera – it’s a million dollar view up there.
For those of you with a little extra steam Unnecessary Mtn and the Lions are challenging but super fun destinations. I wouldn’t recommend trying to complete the route in a single day – remember you do have to come all the way back down. There are some amazing camping spots along the Unnecessary ridge and better a few extra pounds on your back than getting caught in the dark. Note this article only touches on a small section of the Howe Sound Crest trail and if you’re looking for a multi-day adventure it is possible to continue north to Porteau Cove. You’ll have to do your own research for that one.
Some final thoughts: This section of the Howe Sound Crest trail is best attempted between late June and early October. Use caution when walking on melting snow and dress appropriately for swinging temperatures. Always pack more water than you think you need and food that will give your body the fuel it needs to kill it on trail. Always tell someone where you’re going, when you plan to return and don’t let your ego get in the way of better judgement. Most importantly, take the time to appreciate the extraordinary place we call home. I’m certain after this trip you’ll also come to respect it a little more too.
Ariel Taylor is a writer and professional student living and working in the West End. Though never short on opinions, she approaches most things in life with an open mind and a grain of salt. She suffers from acute wanderlust (hence her Get Your Ass Outside column) and as a result can be packed for most adventures in 10 minutes or less.