Some photos contributed by Alan Chung and Brett Rudd
So there I was, on a warm Friday evening in our backyard, manning the BBQ grill for my son's second birthday party, when my wife handed me the phone. It was Dave Lippmann. This was confusing to me because Dave, according to our well laid plans, was supposed to be, At That Very Moment, camped at Wells Lake, on the Whipsaw Trail, about six hours' driving time from my backyard. He should not be on the other end of my phone line, but there he was.
"Larry! This is great, we got cell reception!" He was clearly excited, in the same way that a drunk is when he discovers a forgotten $20 bill in his other pocket. After more talk about how awesome it was that he was able to talk to me on his cell phone, he got to the reason for the call. "We need more Long Island Tea, there's not enough for the rest of the weekend. We need three 40 pounders. We have money! We have money!" And with that simple directive, he ended the call and my planned weekend trip on the Whipsaw Trail had suddenly turned into a desperate mission of mercy.
The Whipsaw is one of the best known and loved 4x4 trails in southern BC for good reason, it embodies everything we like about fourwheeling. Its scenery is spectacular, it's far from civilization, and it's challenging for stock vehicles while still being interesting for modifieds. It is also located at a high altitude (around 6000 ft at its highest point) so there is a somewhat narrow window of opportunity for 'wheeling it. If you go in the spring (usually June is as early as you can go, you run the risk of deep snow drifts and mud. If you wait until July/August, you could run into severe dust (unless no one is driving ahead of you) and you are guaranteed to be attacked by swarms of black flies and mosquitoes. September's usually the best time, when the only complaint is that it gets cold at night, and so that's when we decided to go. More specifically, we planned to go there on the Labour Day long weekend.
That long weekend is a popular one for people to do the Whipsaw. The Lippmann family had been going there on that date for the past few years so Dave's brother-in-law, Steve, volunteered to head up there on a Wednesday evening to grab the prime campsite by Wells Lake, which is approximately at the half-way mark on the Whipsaw trail. The prime campsite is easily recognized by its large shelter built by the guys from the Illusions 4x4 shop which featured shelving, wind and rain protection, and a huge four-foot diameter fireplace and chimney. The Lippmanns headed up there Thursday night and the rest of us got a leisurely start on Saturday morning, with the comforting notion that a good campsite awaited us.
About Saturday...things didn't go so well. I had been busy all week so certain preparations for the trip weren't done until the last minute. This was my all-time worst departure, though, because I decided to balance all four of my tires on the morning that we were supposed to meet up and begin our journey. My Jeep was getting a vibration around at 100km/h which I expected to be a problem considering that's the speed we'd be driving at on the highway. I was fortunate that Sport Trucks Unlimited in Langley had time to balance the tires for me but unfortunately, I didn't budget enough time for the process. I also managed to forget to pack our bacon and eggs...and the pack of bacon that I bought as a replacement disappeared sometime between departing Langley and meeting up with Yolanta in Chilliwack (I think I left the new pack of bacon on my Jeep's Duster cover and it slid off at the first corner). Yolanta and her dog, Jessie, were in Yo's very new (maybe a year old) Jeep Liberty with a 2" lift kit and Mud Terrains. So, starting from Chilliwack, there were three trucks in our group. My buddy Brett, and I in my YJ; Yo and Jessie in her Liberty, and Alan and my brother, Bill, in Alan's Cherokee (all terrain tires and a rear Detroit with about 3-4 inches of lift). We topped up our tanks and headed east on the Hope-Princeton Hwy. Our next stop was Eastgate gas station in Manning Park for more gas (the last re-fuelling opportunity before the trailhead). And finally, after almost two hours of delays, we arrived at the turn off of the Hope-Princeton onto the Whipsaw Creek FSR. Waiting there for us (with great patience!) was Ron in his Rubicon. He drove down from Salmon Arm to join us on this trip. The last time we saw Ron was when he and his wife, Dolores, went on a trip to the Rubicon with myself and the Lippmann's back in 2001. We aired down and then hit the trail.
The drive to Wells Lake was quite uneventful. Yolanta's Liberty worked very well. She had to take a couple of re-tries on some sections but no one needed any winching and we made pretty good time. Al's Cherokee didn't have any problems even though it was wearing AT tires. It used to be a lot more exciting when I first started doing the trail, but back then, my Jeep was virtually stock. Fortunately, the Whipsaw's not just about a 4x4 challenge, it's also about beautiful scenery and enjoying the solitude of the British Columbian back country. When we reached some of the alpine meadows (at around 6000 ft), we saw the first of many signs put up by the Rover Landers 4x4 club, asking people to stay on the trail to preserve the delicate alpine terrain. They did a great job and I'd like to see even more of these signs on this trail. There are a lot of unsightly and pointless bypasses that need to be avoided but they've been around for so long that sometimes, it's hard to tell which is the correct trail. Posting signs will make it easier for first time visitors to recognize the areas they should avoid.
At these higher altitudes, the temperature had dropped noticeably, fog had rolled in, and it had begun to hail. When we finally arrived at Wells Lake, it was a welcome sight to see the Lippmann's campsite and smoke coming from their nice, warm fire. As we drove into the camp, they were visibly excited to see us, probably because they knew that in one of our vehicles, there were three large bottles of Long Island Iced Tea, and thus, they would be spared the uncomfortable, creeping horror of making sober conversation this evening. We quickly picked our tent sites, set up the tents, and deployed our folding chairs around the fire. Not long after we arrived, Steve and a passenger (sorry, forgot his name) arrived in Steve's rather nice Early Bronco. Already there were Chris, Dave, Pam, Armin and Marion Lippmann, Pam's brother Steve, and a bunch of kids whose names I mostly know. In short, there were a fair number of people there. The shelter was nicely organized (I expected nothing less from Pam and Marion) with shelves full of food, snacks, refreshments, alcohol, cook ware, dining utensils, a wash basin, stoves...everything. Steve (Pam's brother) had been rather industrious and had built a little wharf and a hot water shower (propane powered heat, with an electric pump to draw water from the lake) and we were duly impressed. The evening was an enjoyable one that gradually devolved from enjoyable conversation to loud, raucous hilarity, the stories of which shall remain safely locked away until the next gathering around a campfire. Sometime during that night, Steve and I wandered about 100 meters into the bush where a large contingent of mostly Suzuki guys were camped. I recognized Ingo and a couple of other guys and it was a fun visit. One of them, Shad, had driven there in his girlfriend's VW Rabbit (I think that's what it was). He admitted that it needed quite a bit of help but they managed to get it there AND drive it home the next day. A couple of Toyota guys (I talked to them on our message board prior to the trip) camped on the other side of the lake also visited our site that evening.
The next morning was a leisurely one, as people woke up at different times, depending on their activity the night before. Some should have been mercifully buried in a dark hole and left in peace, but that would have deprived us of the fun of watching their misery. It must have been close to noon when we were ready to depart and leave the Lippmanns with what tragically little remained of their three bottles of Long Island Iced Tea. Everyone who arrived the day before was leaving today.
On our way out, I wasn't expecting any trail difficulty except for maybe Falcon Hill, which is a long, steep hill that needs to be climbed when leaving the shallow bowl that contained Wells Lake. It actually wasn't very difficult at all. What was difficult, however, was a small but nasty rock ledge a little ways after that, that I had completely forgotten about. It had begun to rain again, and Yo had some trouble on it, with her Liberty not having enough articulation to get a good grip on the wet rock. After one particularly zesty attempt to climb it, Yo caught the inside of her front passenger side wheel on a rock and peeled back the rim, resulting in a blown bead. Steve put a winch line on the front of the Liberty to stabilize it on the slope and Ron and I put a small bottle jack under the A-arm to lift it high enough so we could remove and replace the wheel. After that, Yo opted for the winch and that was it for problems on the way out. Not long after that, we came across a full-size Bronco that had broken down and then abandoned a couple of months before. It was in the process of being stripped by some locals. The other abandoned vehicle we saw was a vandalized Subaru wagon with at least one flat tire and a big hole in the rear window. As of this writing (three months later) both vehicles are still there and are destined to become eye sores on this beautiful trail. I like to think that most fourwheelers are firm believers in bring out what you bring in, and that should apply even more so to entire vehicles!
When we finally descended the mountain and reached the tiny village of Coalmont, we used Steve's onboard compressor to air up and left Yo and Steve and his passenger to make their way back to the Lower Mainland. Brett and I, Al and Bill, and Ron were going to look for a mine shaft behind Hedley.
It was already late afternoon and by the time we picked up a few more supplies at the Overwaitea supermarket and stopped for a bite at A&W, it was almost evening. After topping up our gas tanks we headed east along Hwy 3 towards Hedley, which was only about 30 minutes away. Once there, we drove through the village and found our way onto an old gravel road which I had scouted out a few weeks earlier. Back then, I had driven past a campsite that I thought we could use for this trip, but looking at it now, it was clearly too narrow, so we skipped the idea of setting up camp first, and proceeded up a steep series of switchbacks to what was reported to be an old mine shaft high above the valley floor. These switchbacks were to the tightest I've ever driven on, and the straight sections joining them were surprisingly sharp and short. The altitude gain was fast and along the way, we passed some old concrete buildings and foundations which processed the ore carted down from above. After about ten to fifteen minutes of switchbacks, we reached the end of the road, and at the top of a rock pile, slightly behind some bushes, was the mine entrance.
I've explored a handful of mine shafts in the past but have never seen one like this, nor had my brother, who used to work at a gold mine in the Yukon. The shaft was about three to four times the width of a typical shaft, climbed at a steady 20 degrees, and was perfectly straight for its entire length. Actually, at first, we didn't know it was perfectly straight for its entire length, Our long range 12V flashlight couldn't illuminate to the end of the shaft. As far as we could see, it was just perfectly straight and then the light dimmed to nothing. My big hope was that this shaft would join the tunnel system belonging to the Mascot Mine operation which was now fenced off and operating as a tourist attraction. And so we began walking, or, more accurately, climbing. None of us brought any water because we have never encountered a mine system long enough to work up a thirst (nor had we ever thought far enough ahead to think of bringing emergency provisions in the event of a cave-in, but that's another story). Well, after exploring this shaft, I will ALWAYS bring water in the future. It didn't take long before we were gasping for breath and wishing for some water. If they ever put the Grouse Grind hill climb underground, I'll bet it would very much like this mine shaft. It took about 45 minutes before we finally, finally reached the end...the dead end. It was a bit of a disappointment to discover that it didn't lead us into a larger tunnel system, but it also felt good to have forced ourselves to conquer the climb.
On the way back down, we poked around in some of the side shafts that didn't go anywhere. Going down was quite Tricky due to the steep angle and loose surface. I wondered how often people had been injured by rolling rocks. The entrance seemed a lot further away during the descent but that was because it was now dark and the only indicator of the entrance was Alan's flashlight (Alan had waited at the bottom rather than make the climb).
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