I’m not sure exactly how it began, but somewhere during my limited pre-trip research I got the idea in my head to climb Mt.Moresby. It is the tallest peak in Haida Gwaii at a whopping 1164m. Its relatively close proximity to a logging road and low elevation made me figure it must be possible. A google search brought up minimal information making it clear there wasn’t a ‘trail’, nor was it that popular. My only real returns were a tourism blog about bushwhacking and a youtube video showing enticing summit views. That was all I needed; I was hooked on the idea, and going to give it my best effort despite not even knowing where to begin. I was completely committed to trying without a route description, topo, directions or first hand accounts. I intended to take a mountaineering approach by packing for a overnight trip and mentally preparing myself for a bushwhack. I love the tummy tickles I feel before heading into the unknown; the feeling of a real adventure. I find great value in being motivated even when I don’t know what to expect. What is to come may be a slight spoiler, but I hope to keep the mystery alive for any explorer intending to try this route while still relaying my account.
As my trip came a little closer I learned there was a Wild Harvest Festival happening on Moresby Island so I decided to make it to Haida Gwaii in time for that. Between the festival events of the shore walk, and the mushroom foray I went in search of water in the community of Sandspit. As I passed by Morisby Exploreres, an adventure tour company and B&B, I noticed someone cleaning kayak gear with a hose and stopped to get water. The young man was nice enough to let me fill up, but as with most people I asked had not been up the Mt.Morisby route. As will happen in any small town the person you need to meet will cross your path, and out of the building comes the company owner who happened to have summited the previous year. In a hurry to be elsewhere she provided me with clear directions to the trailhead and the same warning of a steep rope section I had heard elsewhere. My water jugs full I headed back to the festival, and off to the mushroom foray. Upon arriving in my own van with Frank I realized the leader was the owner of Morisby Explorers who I had talked to just a hour earlier. Hoping to gather a little more beta on the route I joined her group as we headed into the forest to pick mushrooms. While she taught me about picking chantrelles I was able to glean just a little more information. During her scouting mission she had found a way to avoid the roped gully, but had decided not to bring her dog the day she summited. She didn’t reveal very much information about the route or what to expect, but it sounded like there was a lot of hands on action. At this point I wasn’t feeling too optimistic about a summit (especially with Frank in tow), but I was stoked for the adventure of trying.
The next morning, after a huge feast of chantrelle scramble and a little too much time in the hammock at the Moresby camp rec site I made my way to the un-signed trailhead. Not the quickest snail in the morning I managed to hit the trail shortly before 2pm. Soon I would learn I had underestimated the mountain. My time in the ‘Sea to Sky’ left me pampered with short approaches, heavily traveled trails, and so much beta you hardly need to think; while my time in the desert .and northlands pampered me with visibility. and ease of travel. There are no shortcuts on Haida Gwaii, no roads to the alpine, no guidebooks, and no search & rescue on the sidelines. If you want to go to the top you have to start at the bottom, and that means a lot of this rainforest between you and the alpine. I had only walked about 15 minutes when the old logging road I was supposed to follow for ‘5 or 6 kilometres’ seemed to disappear. Momentarily stumped I considered I may not have begun in the right place, but I also had a really good feeling I was in the correct place and decided to poke around. I remembered from the map I would be following a river, so I headed towards water trending upstream, and soon enough had found myself back on the old road. This road was much, much older than the old logging roads I had previously encountered in my life and would frequently disappear for a moment, then reappear across a creek or through the forest. For the most part it was easy to follow, pleasant walking and soothing to the eyes. I was perplexed at the flagging though; it was so frequent in the most obvious places, yet lacking in others. Regardless, time passed quickly and soon the road had tapered out and the route took over as the bush grew thicker and the terrain steeper. Before long I had to stow my trekking poles to keep them from snagging and free my hands for scrambling and protecting my face from bushes. Packed to spend a night Frank and I worked our way up the steep hillside following a drainage. The route was a bushwhack on the verge of becoming a trail, so when possible I placed my feet where other had clearly done so. The flagging had been placed that year, since the huckleberries grew foliage. In some moments I was thankful for the assurance it brought, but mostly I begrudged it for robbing me of a proper adventure and allowing the type that drops bar wrappers to pass more easily. Perhaps I am stuck in a time I’ve never been apart of, but I put the wrapper in my pocket and continued up along the flagging which itself will one day decay becoming garbage in the forest…
Movement up was an engaging effort that called to use some questionable techniques. In the same moment I would struggle holding onto an entire fern plant to climb slippery slopes Frank would flow past me on all fours. When Franks pack would get stuck he would find a way to make it work, and when he couldn’t get over the big slippery logs I would use it to hoist him up. Virtually no work has ever been done to create a trail; only the collective footsteps of explorers. Occasionally you share the same steps, using the same roots to climb, ducking under the same trees and awkwardly climbing over others. In the next moment you might believe you were the first, not a step in sight, but only for a moment or two. Flagging, new and old guiding you to the same crux, a steep and soaking gully with a big old marine rope dangling down. A summit stopping kinda crux for Frank, and therefore myself as well. We had climbed our way through a sopping, slippery and steep forest for the past couple hours. I knew it was coming, and I knew that someone had bypassed it, but I was also curious. I had Frank stay behind for my first inspection. Muddy scree leading to a loose and soaked gully. Even with the rope it looked like a challenge, and I questioned getting Frank down so I called him up to me for his opinion. It was much longer than anything he has encountered before and not by-passable within sight of me if I went ahead. For a moment we stood at the base together looking up, but gravity was strong and neither one of us were inspired. To our right mossy cliffs lead to more cliffs, so the obvious thing to do was to retreat until we could find a way to try again. Knowing it had been done made this part easy because it wasn’t a matter of if anymore, it was a matter of where. Of corse that didn’t mean it would be possible for Frank, that was the big unknown of the whole trip. Upon finding a break in the cliff band I thought may work, I had Frank wait behind while I checked it out.. Normally he will not allow me to leave him, but in situations like this he will stay with my pack as long as it takes for me to go scout and come back. He will wait patiently, and take the opportunity to rest. After several minutes I returned to Frank, and we continued very carefully up a steep ‘no fall’ slope. Once again it was easier for him than I. His low centre of gravity and four feet makes steep, steep vegetated slops much easier than being upright on two feet using handfuls of plants to gain leverage and avoid slipping down the slope and over cliffs. I remember on a similar slope, before the time of Frank, I slipped and instinctually went to self arrest, but I had no axe and my only option was to grab a young tree. It painfully worked, the roots stuck and so did the needles in my palm. The slope eased and we continued to switchback our way up through the open forest gully until we rejoined the main route. We were not far below the alpine, and there was a perfect camping location. Soft, level ground for the tent, a view to behold and a small fire pit. I contemplated staying, but with a coupe more hours of daylight left I made a mental note and continued on to the alpine.
I was happy to find myself on dry, solid rock. It was a great relief after fighting the downward ooze of the rainforest scramble until that point. I was pretty exhausted already, my legs had not carried me up that far in a long time (specially with a overnight load). I had gotten used to bouldering, and long walks on rolling ground not the continuous up a mountain demands. What I was lacking in physical preparedness I was able to more than compensate with determination, and a positive attitude. We had reached the most pleasurable part of the route, hiking and scrambling on rock with stunning views of land and sea. At one point the flagging tried to lead us up another wet gully but we opted to swing around on terraced slabs. Looking back that was one of the funnest sections of the entire route and it wasn’t even on ‘the route’. I enjoyed watching Frank think about how to tackle each section, how to use the holds and judge whether or not to take it with momentum. Once I had to give his bum a power spot when the holds disappeared and he slid back a little. I was not worried though, and that is exactly how it should be if you are leading someone who would otherwise never be there. If Frank is being challenged, I cannot be. I need to be completely solid in order to ensure his safety.
As I ascended through the alpine I made a mental note of every possible tent and water location while staying mindful of the time it would take to retreat to them, and the amount of daylight left. I saw no reason to be moving after sundown; I was out to enjoy the views and time spent. Then we hit a crux that we could not make our own way round. A little chimney, a boulder problem only a couple meters with one good move. but steep enough Frank could not do it on his own. If we were going up I was going to have to lift him over my head, and somehow get him down. I called Frank over and instructed him to climb, he got up as far as he could and I wedged my body in behind him. With my ear two feet from his heart I could hear it pounding, his body tense and heavy, and we went back down. I took my pack off to think about it, Frank laid down to relax. It was a crappy location to spend the night, possible but not ideal. I wasn’t ready to call it in yet, but there was not enough daylight to search for a bypass this time. We would need a whole new way into the alpine to be able to avoid this crux. I knew I could get Frank up, but there was also no point continuing if it got any harder, so I told Frank to stay with the pack and went on ahead. I returned several minutes later, Frank exactly where I left him. I told him it got easier after and that it would be okay, before taking my pack to the top of crux and coming back for Frank. He had seen me go up and down a couple times now, so when I went to hoist him he calmly cooperated coordinating his paws on the top of the chimney and mantling over. On ahead we went, him leading; both of us a little proud. The feeling quickly ended when my legs began to buckle, quads knotting combined with painful sensations of ripping. I had experienced these types of craps on a couple previous occasions and had come to the conclusion it was best to walk them off rather than try to sit it out. Grimacing I moved up the mountain, with absolute focus needed to conduct each step. My legs did not want to lift off the ground, therefore I used my shorts to lift my legs up so I could step down into them and keep moving. Instinctually I found myself licking salt off my arms and hands. Progress was agonizing for close to a quarter hour before the cramps eased and my body began to work again much to my relief. Sitting was not an option in my mind, like a foot cramp that must be stood on to work itself out, I had to keep moving to prevent complete seizure. As it seems I have a strong tendency to dehydrate myself in order to keep a water supply on hand for Frank.
Less than a hour till sundown and I had accepted we would not camp on the summit as hoped. As far as I could see there was no suitable camping locations ahead, so we called it a day and headed back to a small, damp patch of moss I had noted. Surrounded by rock it was perfectly level with a source of water for Frank, and just enough space to call it home. As the sun set across the lowlands I made camp, fed Frank and tucked him into bed. For myself dinner consisted of hard boiled eggs, almonds, hazelnuts and raisins. I was glad I left the stove behind saving weight and time cooking. I too was exhausted to cook anyways, my mind desperately needed to clock out. I laid down with Frank to wait for the stars to show themselves. Stretching, relaxing and thinking calm, positive thoughts for the next day I was overwhelmed with gratitude for my furry little companion. He certainly experiences a full life following me around which is why I take every measure to ensure his comfort along the way. In order to made sure we can have warm, comfortable nights together I upgrading my sleeping bag. My old bag was packed out and a really tight squeeze with Frank inside. Too many times it left us chilly and poorly rested, but thanks to Western Mountaineering we were about to have a fantastic sleep. After much consideration I opted for the Antelope MF, a -15c down bag that will tolerate moist conditions, condensation and hopefully Franks paws. The best part is they make bag expanders that allow us to not only fit in the same bag together, but I can roll over and change positions with minimal disturbance to Frank. I was half asleep when the moon rose over the mountain illuminating the land. As tired as I was I couldn’t resist getting up for awhile to enjoy the night before climbing back into the sac Frank had so kindly kept warm and drifting away.
Somehow I managed to wake a hour before sunrise to enjoy the show. Not often do I wake that early on my own, and even less often do I get up to enjoy it, but this time I was eager and full of energy. Perhaps it was the excitement of the day ahead, or the excellent nights sleep with Frank by my side; regardless he did not share my enthusiasm and stayed in bed awhile longer. By the time the sun had risen I no longer felt rushed to get going and instead enjoyed cuddles with Frank before a breakfast of nutritious cold slop.
Leaving camp set up Frank and I continued up the mountain across rock, scree and heather’d slopes. Shortly after reaching our high point from the day before the route took a sweeping traverse to gain the ridge. If the route had gone more direct it would not have been possible for Frank and had therefore been scouting the longer option from camp. Within an hour we found ourself on a broad, relatively flat summit eating wild blueberries. Aside from the man made towers on the summit the 360 degree views were incredible. Lakes below us, and layers of land leading to the ocean on either side. Had I known the summit was so friendly and lush I would have pushed on the night before, but I had no way to know and was at my wits end. Frank rolled around with glee and smothered me with kisses while I took photos and savoured a brief moment of success. It was early in the day, but I dared not to linger. As soon as my mind turned to the way down, to getting Frank down, I was on my way.
We were camped less than 200m below the summit. Frank lead us back swiftly and was asleep before I could break camp. He’s a smart boy, he knows what is between us and home and does not want to waste energy in the process. Packed and heading down through the alpine I worked to calm my nerves about reversing the crux. I imagined my early adventures with Frank when at half the weight he would resist my assistance, and I found myself wishing I had a certain taller, stronger friend to help us. Arriving at the crux I tossed my trekking poles down, but before I could take my backpack off Frank was down. I stood there flabbergasted! It was the most incredible thing I have ever witness a dog do. With no command from me he dropped over the edge flowing from one chimney wall to the other like a squirrel down a tree perfectly squeezing himself and his pack through the constriction at the base. I laughed, relieved and impressed. Lowing my pack before me, I climbed down with a lot less momentum and grace. Celebration erupted, my heart exploding with love for the bravest companion I’ve known. No assistance needed.
With a huge weight lifted we continued easily down until recognizing the location we had rejoined the route above the rope. Having trouble retracing our steps we made our way slowly trying several dead ends until I caught a glimpse of the main route. It was a steep step down to join it, which I now knew was possible for Frank. I wasn’t sure he could get back up if it was the wrong way. Leaving him with the pack I headed down until I saw familiar trees that confirmed we were indeed below the roped crux. Returning for Frank we carried on down the mountain side. Still as wet and slippery as on the way up I must have landed on my ass a good dozen times, other times I found my feet dangling with a handful of bushes saving me from a tumble. The descent tired me quickly, constantly slipping, and feeling burdened by gravity. I was relieved to lift Frank over the last slippery log and reach the valley bottom. All that was left were several kilometres of over grown logging roads, a couple creeks, and way more logs to step over and duck under than I remembered. Arriving at the van I removed our packs and Frank brought me a stick. I could hardly walk, and he wanted to play fetch.
That night we stayed at Mosquito Lake Rec Site, and laid eyes on Mt.Moresby for the first time ever. It was beautiful, it’s reflection rippled by a breeze on the lake, sun setting. It didn’t even feel real, being up there, completing Franks hardest objective to date. My body was already aching, and I was in no hurry to do anything like that again, not anytime soon and maybe never without another person. Food sizzling away I was crashing hard from days of adrenaline flowing. It’s easy to turn back, much easier than dealing with the consequences of plowing ahead when you shouldn’t. It’s not so easy to continue forward with a wisp of terror inside, to do it as safe as possible and remain in control. To be responsible for the life of another is a huge weight to bear in an environment like that. To have no way to call for help, and no organization to call to help, to know that any rescue will be self-rescue. As scary as it might sound that may be my favourite part of it all. To set out to walk on the edge, to live completely accountable to myself, and to feel fully the fragility of life. I believe these experiences are made as rich as possible by being ‘alone'; a level of satisfaction is enjoyed that cannot be reached otherwise. Ultimately success hinges on being in tune with something our society tends to deny and suppress, instincts. That’s how it’s alway been done though; instinctually exploring, and pushing the boundaries of faith, mind and body to do so.
I’m glad there was so limited information before setting out, that I had to let the universe guide me to the the right people to find the needed information. Despite being spared some route finding difficulties thanks to the recent and enthusiastic flagging job I still enjoyed plenty of uncertainty along my way. The steps we left behind helped turn this rough route into a little bit more of a trail. Step by step it is becoming less of an adventure. Never again will I be able to experience it in that state, which only makes the memories I’ve created that much more special. Days later I enjoyed a long conversation with a island local who began trying the route 19 years ago, it took him 9 tires just to reach the alpine and never had he heard of a dog on the summit. In fact, he wasn’t to quick to believe that I had made it to the top myself, especially on my own and on my first try to boot. After a series of questions I had satisfied his doubt and earned a little admiration. This was the morning after completing my next adventure, the East Beach Trail. We met briefly as I was departing, but I had to bolt for a ride as he tried to dissuade me from such an endeavour. Now he knew I was not the usual visitor used to having rescue on standby, a guidebook and trail to follow. He rest assured knowing I understood Haida Gwaii, it’s untamed nature and the toughness needed to thrive in such a place. He acknowledged the solid team Frank and I appeared to be as he told me about a incident on the islands ‘user-friendly mountain’ earlier that week. The helicopter had to come from Prince Rupert to save a man and his dog. Sadly the dog did not live. I could not imagine to loose Frank for my own desire to climb a mountain. My heart goes out to the man who lost his best friend.
As proud as I am of Frank for a potential FDA (first dog ascent) of Haida Gwaii’s tallest peak it was not what we set out to do. I set out to to learn the mysteries of the unknown, not for a known glory. Learning after the fact what we had accomplished was delicious icing, but never the goal. I was willing to turn back if it was truly warranted, and closely monitored Frank, his control, judgement and abilities. Leading up to this we had done more than a dozen scrambles together, yet this was by far the most difficult. Spending our entire lives together outside we have a exceptionally strong bond of trust, something that is necessary because if he is scared we cannot be safe. He is naturally agile and intelligent, and conditioned to being handled in case I need to carry him to safety. It is my belief that most dogs should not be taken into these types of environments. Not only are they not always as physically capable making them a liability to their owner, but the challenges we faced are not appropriate to partake in if you’re the type who’s willing to leave your dog behind to pursue other activities. The saying goes something like ‘you don’t climb 65 days a year and solo big walls, you climb 300 days a year and then maybe solo big walls’. Three years of continuous companionship and ‘training’ have lead to a very proud moment, one I am okay with never out-doing. It is a great feeling of team success, but there is no success greater than that of a long life with Frank.
I hope to inspire you to share the wild with your dog, but please never push your dogs limits for your own glory, or to get a epic photo. Not every dog is meant to be a mountain dog, and not every dog that is physically capable will enjoy Type 2 fun like Frank does. Scrambling can be a excellent activity to do as the right human/dog team, but so are camping and hiking if you and your dog enjoy being in nature. Please do not endanger yourself or your dog simply because you saw someone else do it. Do not take dogs beyond your ability to rescue them, and do not take dogs you do not know well (such as friends dogs you are sitting and foster dogs) into challenging terrain. Know your dogs limit and let your number one goal always be to return home safety, together.
Adopt, don’t shop.
Huge gratitude to my sponsor SOG knives for making this trip possible, supplying me with great gear, scoring me hook-ups, and getting me filming. Thanks for the push.