Saxifrage Mtn: In the Footsteps of Rachael and Jonathan

I only met Rachael once before she disappeared. It was Canada Day 2010, and we were both on a large VOC trip to Skypilot. The weather was crappy, there were no views, but we still had a good time and some people got to the summit. I had a short chat with Rachael, she seemed nice. I remember she mentioned hiking naked with a few other girls in Garibaldi Park and coming upon a somewhat shocked hiker. Two months later, on the Labor Day Weekend, Rachael and her boyfriend Jonathan went missing. It is believed they were hiking in the Valentine Lake area. To the best of my knowledge, no meaningful signs of them have been discovered, no backpacks, no tents, nothing. The search had only been called on a few days after they were due home, since no one knew for sure what their plans were and when to expect them back.

Overview of the area where Rachael and Jonathan probably disappeared (Cassiope on left and Valentine Lake in center)

One year and one week later, here we were, just Maya and I, hiking back to the very same place where they probably disappeared, under very mysterious circumstances. We designated two friends as emergency contacts, and made sure to give them clear instructions on what to do if we weren’t back in time. I had been wanting to hike in this area for several years, and was just waiting for the right opportunity. So this trip had nothing to do with Rachel and Jonathan, but actually it did. When I suggested going there, Maya was strongly against, saying it was too spooky. Gradually I managed to convince her and she reluctantly agreed. Only during the trip did I start thinking about this more thoroughly: what if we found their backpacks, tent, or even their skeletons? I started constructing various scenarios, some of which could put us in danger: what if a recluse living in the mountains had murdered them and would come after us? What if a murderous grizzly or cougar had devoured them and their gear? I resolved to look more carefully at my surroundings to try and spot anything that might be associated with them, and pulled the bear spray a bit closer.

The night before the trip, I suddenly realized that we would have to leave very early in order to avoid a two hour closure of the Lions Gate Bridge due to the Grandfondo, an annual cycling trip from Vancouver to Whistler. We woke up at 5am and drove up to Pemberton, and beyond on the Birkenhead Road. We turned off onto a logging road and drove for a few km’s before being stopped by a washout (which we had known about). This washout adds another 5km each way on the road, although the road is narrow and at times bushy enough to almost qualify as a wide trail.

Maya arriving to Valentine Lake

Once we reached the trail head, we climbed up through interesting forest, thankful for the forest cover which provided some coolness on this hot day. I reflected on the goodness of cotton clothing on hot days such as this. The very quality that has made them taboo on winter trips (“Cotton kills”), makes them perfect for hot summer trips such as this. When we arrived to the extensive meadows I realized why I had ruled out this trip in September of the year before, the bugs were atrocious! They were much worse than we had had earlier this year in North BC and the Yukon, which are notorious for their bugs (then again it was a very cool year there). There were lots of ribbons to lead us through the meadows to Valentine Lake, so named due to the fact that it is shaped like a heart. At the lake we came upon a large wooden cross, with the writing:

“Be Not Afraid”, Isaiah 41:10
In loving memory of
Rachael Bagnall and Jonathan Jetta
Lost on this mountain, September 4, 2010

The Cross

We took a quick dip in the lake and continued on towards the Saxifrage-Cassiope col. where we had planned to camp, to maximize the views and minimize the bugs. We went around the left side of the lake, and then off trail up to some talus slopes, and eventually the ridge line. The route we had taken included a lot of annoying sidehilling, so I was on the look out for a better route for the way down. It was here that I started looking behind each large rock, almost expecting to find a hidden backpack or some clothing. On the ridge we soon found a perfect flat spot with great views towards the Joffrey Group on the Duffey Lake Road. It seems like access from that side could be very good, but as far as I know there is no trail, so perhaps we should check it out in winter (when snow makes a trail almost irrelevant). The bugs followed us right up to the col. We had dinner while watching the sunset as it spread its orange glaze on the many beautiful mountains around us.

Our camp, high above the Duffey Lake road (center) and the Joffrey group (right)

The next day we woke up and had breakfast while enjoying the views and the sun rising. On days such as this the glare of the sun is very strong midday, so the best lighting and views are early or late. We hiked along the ridge on big rocks, avoiding the hard and slippery snow. From here Cassiope seems very impressive. We reached the base of the south ridge of Saxifrage and scrambled up the ridge line. Eventually we reached a steeper dark cliff where cairns mark the route, along rock shelves, then up a gulley and finally to the summit. From there we could see Place Glacier, and the peaks around it, Valentine Lake below us, and innumerable summits. This is one of the best scrambles I have done lately: it has a long scrambling section on good rock, with exquisite views and a remote feel. We studied the summit register carefully: I was very curious to see if Rachael and Jonathan had been there, whether they had signed the register (they hadn’t) and if so, whether Search and Rescue had checked the register. In the past seven summers only 14 ascents (including ours) were recorded, so it is not a very popular summit. We headed back down the same way, and packed up while making toasted cheese sandwiches on the stove, using a flat rock underneath the pot to “simmer”. I had hoped to summit Cassiope also, and check the register, so I’ll have to go back some other time.

Maya scrambling up the S ridge of Saxifrage Mtn., Cassiope in the background

This time we headed directly down from our camp at the base of Cassiope, using some sandy slopes and then snow to speed our progress. We reached the lake and then went around it (this time on the S side), back to the trail. The trail seemed very long on the way down, and so did the logging road, and we reached the car just after dark after descending about 1700m that day. At least we enjoyed handfuls of thimbleberries and raspberries. We tried to get some food in Whistler, but everything was closed since it was almost 10pm, so we had some burgers at the Watershed Pub in Squamish and arrived home late, tired but happy and very satisfied.

View from the summit of Saxifrage Mtn towards Place Glacier group

more photos

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