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Thursday, 8 August 2013

Climbing Mount Benson

The city of Nanaimo is about halfway up the eastern coast of Vancouver Island. Just behind the city is Mount Benson. For a few years now Linda and I have discussed climbing it. Two weekends ago we were out for a drive around Nanaimo. It really is a beautiful city and deep forests are always close by. On our drive I was trying to find a spot that back in the early 1970s I spent a day totally naked with a number of other people. I remembered the place as being just west of Nanaimo and that it was called Jingle Pot Mines. It was kind of a quarry with fresh water you could swim in. Some friends took me there and the naked stuff was simply part of the hippy era. I can still see someone up on precipice playing a flute. That whole day back then was kind of surreal.
Linda and I never did find what I was looking for but we stumbled onto the eastern trail head to Mount Benson. We had hiked in the same general area a number of times in the past to Ammonite Falls. Those hikes would turn out to be a walk in the park compared to hiking up Mount Benson. We made plans to climb the mountain last Sunday August 4th.
Mount Benson has an elevation of 3356 feet. In 1951 23 people died in a plane crash on the mountain. Up until that time it was the worst aviation accident in Canadian history.
We loaded our backpacks up with a number of bottles of fluids and lunch. We checked our packs over making sure we would have all that we needed. We had gone on-line to see where the trails were and the best route up to the top.
Before going any further let me add a few other things about us climbing Mount Benson. I am 66 and Linda is 58. We don’t quite have the elasticity in our legs anymore that we used to and we have little experience at climbing mountains. Both of us are also carrying an extra pound or two. Sure we have both done a fair amount of hiking over the years including the West Coast Trail but this hike was going to be almost all vertical. About 15 years ago I did the Grouse Grind in North Vancouver and found it exhausting. We both kind of went into this mountain climb blindly not knowing what to expect. All we knew was that we wanted to see the view from the top.
We arrived at the trailhead at about 10:00 a.m. We sort of had a general idea of where the real trail to the top starts. We crossed over a newly built floating wooden bridge that took us over a small lake with the odd name of Witchcraft. We then took a sharp right and walked for about 5 minutes until we came to a sign on a tree that indicated one of the trails going up the mountain.
Picture of new wooden bridge we took the week before our hike.
Witchcraft Lake.
Dried out creek bed.
We quickly discovered that this was not going to be a “soft” trail hike. This wasn’t going to be meandering through the woods on soft pine needles. I think we both felt it hard to breathe at first. We were using muscles that we didn’t normally use. We kind of got our wind a bit and that wasn’t a problem anymore. We were starting to sweat like…no tomorrow…or whatever adjective fits sweating. There was no quick  or easy way up. We found ourselves pulling ourselves up rocks and hanging on to tree trunks.

And over.
Slowly but surely.
Every now and then we would stop for a water break. There was hardly any conversation. One thing was constant. We were always going up. Not very fast but we were going up. Roots were our friends as they provided sure footing. Both of us had hiking runners on. Some of the areas we hiked on were river beds in the winter and walking on pointy rocks and boulders does not make feet happy when wearing runners.
Break time.
Back on the trail.
We found the trail markings to be confusing at times. Coloured metal squares about 4” x 4” indicated what calibre of trail we were on. For the most part we were on orange square trails. I think that colour meant intermediate. The trails up to the top of Mount Benson seemed to be on two levels, an upper and lower level. There were times when we wondered if we were ever going to get to the top. About 3 hours into the hike we ran into a blonde gal probably in her thirties from nearby Parksville. Other than a guy with his dog who we saw at the start she was the only one we saw on our way up.
Taking another break.
We chatted for a few minutes and then she disappeared in the distance among the trees. On average the trees were probably 40-50 tall. Some were even bigger. For a good part of the hike we could see the beauty of the sun shining through the above canopy but we were too exhausted to really appreciate it. It also seemed that the hardest parts of the hike didn’t lend themselves to whipping out our cameras for that Kodak moment.
Getting closer to the top.
And closer.
It was close to 4 hours before we reached the summit. The last part up was the hardest part. We discovered that we were now on a “red” trail which meant the hardest trail. Built for mountain goats I think. A few times we thought we were close to the top only to discover that there was more pain coming our way.
Finally we looked up and saw the blonde gal we had met earlier waving at us from the summit. We edged our way up a rock face and joined her. The views were spectacular. In front of us we could see the city of Nanaimo below us. We could see one of the BC ferries coming into port. To our left we could see the still snow-capped Mount Washington and some clear cut logged areas. To our right, on a precipice, we could see a privately owned communication tower.
We made it!
Northwest view.
Southeast view.
BC Ferry coming into Departure Bay, Nanaimo
Linda and Tanya.
One last view.
I took some photos of the blonde gal whose name is Tanya and another hiker named Eric and later e-mailed them the pics. We hung about the summit for about an hour. I was thirsty but had no appetite. My lunch ended up being eaten by our dog the next day.
We were kind of satisfied with ourselves. Forget “kind of”. Now we had to make our way down the mountain. The red trail was not an option. I wouldn’t be writing this story if we had taken that trail down. We opted for what we thought was a meandering trail down but soon found that we had got that wrong.
In some ways going down the mountain was more difficult than going up. At this time of year the ground is very dry which makes it easier to slip and slide. Sliding is quite dangerous as the momentum could see us taking a tumble and injuring ourselves. At times the edge of the trail is a sheer drop off. Linda had brought along hiking poles and gave me one to use on the way down.
We very gingerly made our way down the mountain. There was some added discomfort as my toes were now getting jammed with each step. Plus there was a bit of dirt in my shoes. Several younger people passed us on the way down including a family with a young girl who was wearing flip flops and a loud mouthed kid who pretty well skipped down the mountain. Linda told his parents that she would really have liked to have had his legs.
I’m far passed the age of trying to look cool in dangerous circumstances. The old body isn’t what it once was. Making it down to the base of the mountain and both of us still in one piece was our sole objective at this point.

The only easy stretch on the way down.
Finally I spotted the reflection of the water on Witchcraft Lake and I knew we were just minutes away from the end of our hike. A good thing too as we were totally out of water. All in all it took us 4 hours to get down the mountain which meant we had spent 8 hours hiking that day.
We found our way to our car and drove straight to MacDonald’s and we ordered a  couple of large soft drinks and a cuple of  back-up milkshakes. We were really thirsty. I peeled off my socks and wasn’t surprised at the number of blisters on my toes. I soaked the digits in the tub when we got home and applied some Newskin. We had no problem falling asleep that night. It took a few days for our upper legs to unstiffen.
We were planning on climbing Mount Arrowsmith near Port Alberni this coming weekend but we both agree that our days of climbing mountains are over.
It isn’t that we don’t plan on hiking anymore, it’s just we don’t want any part of those damn mountains. Some things are just too dangerous to attempt when you get to an age. More power to those getting up there in age who can still do it. I’m not one of them!




  1. Great post! I just did Mt. Benson for the first time (from Witchcraft Lake, too) and found it to be a great challenge. I enjoyed it but was glad to be finished!

  2. One and done for me! Its not the climbing. Its the coming down that really hurt my toes.