Cypress Mountain, just north of Vancouver, British Columbia, was an Olympic venue in February 2010, when we hosted the Games. It’s just minutes away from downtown, and offers a fabulous “big mountain” experience.
There is an alpine area and a Nordic area that includes x-country skiing, snowshoeing and snow-tubing facilities. An extensive trail network is accessible to snowshoers for a low-price ticket. For those of us who are even too cheap to fork out that much money, there’s another option. The Hollyburn Ridge Trail is part of the BC Parks system, hence it is free to use. As with most BC Parks trails, this trail is clearly marked with orange poles. The only downside of the trail, is that it starts climbing right from the first few steps.
The reward is equally instantaneous. When you stop to catch your breath and look back to the car, it’s gratifying to see your rapid elevation change. After the first climb, the trail evens out and the hills become more rolling for a long stretch. The trail meanders through the woods and every now and again you catch a glimpse of the cross-country skiers on their trails.
Eventually you come out of the woods, and see a warning posted that this is the end of the trail system, and that you are now entering the backcountry. There’s really only way to go – and that’s up – so getting lost is not a concern. From this point on it’s all up hill to the end. It’s 4km from the parking lot to the top of Hollyburn Ridge, with a 440m elevation change: the majority of those metres being in the last 1500m of the trail.
The best days are when the snow is fresh and the first part of the climb is just this big hill, bathed in sunshine in front of you. With no trail broken you just frolic through the fresh powder. It’s so much fun you don’t even realixe how steep it is. There’s a nasty false summit at the top of the first climb: but again the views make up for it. If this is as far as you’re going on any given day, it’s a stunning spot to stop to refuel and take some pictures.
If you feel like you have to see what’s on the other side of the mountain, you can keep climbing. The last stretch up is very steep and pretty hilarious to get up in fresh powder. It feels like you advance 1 step for every 5 steps of slipping and sinking into the snow: definitely a good spot to use your poles. Fortunately this nasty bit is fairly short, and you come out on top of Hollyburn Ridge, and can’t even believe where you are. It’s like a alpine world of wonders. The chalet of alpine ski area seems like a teeny little toy structure, and the skiers look like little ants. Looking north, the majestic Lions seem so close. The snow covered peaks and endless vistas take your breath away. Be aware that you are on a mountain ridge, and the cliffs do drop away precariously.
After the strenuous climb, your body cools down pretty quickly, so be sure to layer up if you’re dawdling over a sandwich at the top. Often we’ll carry a stove and cook a dehydrated meal up there – just to savour our time on the mountain. A hot meal also provides great energy for the trek back to the car. Refueled, rehydrated and rested, you’re ready to head back.
The big descents can be a bit scary if you’re new to snowshoeing. My favourite trick is small quick, steps with soft knees. When I first learned to snowshoe and was taught to descend this way, the group leader said it was just like a duck would walk. So even now, when I come down a steep incline, I think “Quack! Quack! Quack!”. Of course, the faster way down is to sit down, lift your heels up high and let it rip. Be very careful to lift your feet so you snowshoes don’t catch the snow on the way down, which can hurt your knee. Whichever way you choose to come down, it’s always way faster than the climb up, and usually way more fun.
As you retrace your steps back to the car, you can’t help but marvel at the wonderland that exists so close to a major urban centre. If you’re heading up on a weekend, the trick with this trail is definitely an earlier start. Heading back to the car around noon or shortly after, we’re always amazed by the number of people heading up the trail. Many of the local trails are very heavily used, so if you prefer a quieter, less congested experience, you have to beat the crowds.