The mountains overlooking Vancouver have several rockstars. There are the three ski resorts, the gondolas of Grouse, and the choppy crest of Crown. Perhaps the most distinctive peaks are The Lions, named in the 1880s because they resemble two sleeping lions (and because nobody back then deferred to Indigenous names). The East and West Lion peaks (reaching 5269ft and 5400ft respectively) inspired the BC Lions football team, Lions Gate Bridge, Lions Gate Hospital, and Lions Gate Entertainment. They also inspire ambitious hikers to brave a knee-punishing ascent with a memorable day-hike or overnight trek, complete with a challenging summit free climb. I am not an ambitious hiker, but conquering the Lions has been on my bucket list for years. This year, all my excuses finally ran out.
Before we get to the hike, it’s important to recognize that these are not Lions at all, they’re actually twin sisters. According to the Squamish people, the Twin Sisters are markers of peace between the Squamish and Haida, formed by the Creator to honour a treaty, or as a result of twin Squamish sisters captured by a Haida raiding party. Dismissing Indigenous legends and name places to honour colonial heroes and symbols has fortunately run its course, so this blog post would like to acknowledge that it takes place on the unceeded territory of the Squamish people, and is grateful for the opportunity to visit the hallowed peaks that mean so much more than a great view and a hiking adventure. I’ll call them Lions moving forward, but continue to pay my respects to the Twin Sisters and their cultural legacy.
There are two ways to hike the Lions. Park at Cypress Mountain Ski Resort and hike up and across the mountains, or park in Lions Bay and hike up… and up…and up. The Cypress route adds a few kilometres and requires some parking and driving coordination, especially if you’re descending on a one-way route through Lions Bay. The Lions Bay route requires a lucky parking spot in the few public spots available at the trail head, or get ready to add some asphalt road ascent to your journey. Be on the lookout for unimpressed NIMBY Lions Head neighbours who don’t appreciate hikers visiting their secluded mountain community. At least they didn’t seem to appreciate me, perhaps because I had arranged a parking pass and my Kia brought down property values for a day. Signs at the trail head to West Lion make no mistake what’s in store: Difficulty: Strenuous. Only be attempted by properly equipped and experienced hikers. The sign states it is 15km round-trip to the summit, with a hefty 1525m elevation gain. It suggests you budget an ambitious 7 to 8 hours. There are also bears in the area, along with cougars, bobcats, coyotes, lynx and even snakes (although the local snakes are harmless). As I started up the trail, encountering any wildlife would instantly become the least of my concern.
Up we go. And up. And up. And up further still. Ah, what’s this? A flat section! Through fairy beds of green moss and lush tree tunnels, beautiful, I needed that welcome breather, and…. nope, it’s up again. And up, up, and up further still. Poles are essential, as are frequent water breaks (I slugged through 2.5 litres of water on my hike, and I don’t drink that much). Loose rocks are waiting to roll your ankle, and slippery roots waiting to trip you up. We cross a bridge over a fetching cascade, which invites a cool dip in the rock pools, but there’s no time to dally. It’s an unseasonal warm and dry October, which means a lovely cool temperature and few bugs, but also shorter days. We were on the trail by 7:45am. The parking lot, incidentally, was already full.
The West Lions is a popular hike, and everyone I passed seemed in better physical and mental shape to do it. A group of bro’s (shirtless, tanned, bleached hair, ripped, backward baseball caps) were already on their descent. These are BC’s hiking equivalent to California’s surfing dudes. I encounter groups and couples, and a quick-footed solo teenage boy with parents that should be proud and worried. Up and up, over and up, until almost 4 hours in, we crest at a viewpoint and finally see the mighty Lions up close. Solid rock (hornblende diorite for you geologists), the two peaks are more imposing and intimidating when you stand beneath them, casting a shadow into the valley below. As we continue our ascent, the rocks become bigger and more challenging, remnants of several millennia of rockslides. Tears are flowing from my knees, and I’m cursing the weight of snacks I thought I’d need in my daypack. Finally, we reach a large outcrop where most sane people stop to enjoy the incredible 360-view of the Lions, the Howe Sound, and on a clear day, Vancouver far below. Most sane people will reach this point, say they’ve hiked the West Lion, and call it a day. The rest of us might continue on the 29-kilometre Howe Sound Crest Trail from Cypress Mountain to Porteau Cove, or decide it’s worth the risky free-climb up the rock to the West Lion summit. Cramping legs, blistered ankles, heavy breathing, no fitness whatsoever…of course I’m going for the top.
Other than one handy rope to assist with a 5 metre drop at the start, there are no chain ladders or ropes. I had to navigate up and over sheer rock face, balancing on narrow ledges while desperately searching for rock holds, doing my best not to think about the 30m – 50m plummet below. Some hikers brought helmets and climbing shoes. I had a flask of rum. Remember: three points of contact! It’s been a while since a physical challenge intersected so concisely with my mental fear, and several times I paused to breathe, stay calm, and recollect myself in that special place we all visit sometimes. It doesn’t take very long to get to the summit, but after a challenging 5-hour ascent, it’s tough as hell. My thighs cramped up just in time to collapse in a heap by the West Lion’s rock cairn, the only sign that you are indeed, as high as you can go. Oh, and the sweeping, spectacular view that surrounds you. It’s almost enough to make me forget that I now have to scale down the dangerous rock, and then hike down a trail so steep it could snap a shock absorber.
A few Band-aids, a swig of rum, some yummy sandwiches, painkillers, candy and nuts, and we’re on our way down. It’s always much quicker hiking down than up, but it’s also hell on your knees and tricky for your ankles. Yet with fine company, fine weather, and the intangible joy that accompanies any sense of accomplishment, we slowly made our way down to Lions Bay. You do not want to descend this trail in the dark, but we timed it perfectly, arriving at the parking lot at 5:45pm. With plenty of breaks and time to enjoy the views (and factoring the state of my fitness), it was a very long, 10-hour hike, and the second most challenging hike of my life (here’s looking at you West Coast Trail).
It took a few days for me to stop walking like a stepped-on spider, and yes, it definitely would have helped to have prepared with more than just a few games of pickleball. There’s plenty of reviews of the West Lion hike on various hiking sites, and yes, I can confirm the last scramble is as challenging as everyone says it is. Unless you’re that ten-year old girl who passed us on the way down, carrying her stuffy Snow Leopard.
As I lay in bed that night groaning with stiffness, my wife asked me why on earth anybody would ever want to do this to themselves? My reply was simple: “Every time I see those Lions, I can think ‘I’ve been to the top of that!’ It’s a personal accomplishment that just keeps on giving.”
Special thanks to Jon, Revelie, Mike and Stephanie.
T’was a time when chasing a bucket list did not necessitate cracking an Enigma code of shifting Covid tests and requirements, juggling what’s needed to board a plane, to enter a country, to embark on a boat, to disembark, to return in transit. T’was a time recently where nobody was allowed to travel at all, but it looks like we’re finally done with that bit. There’s still too much friction when it comes to global travel, the legacy of Covid lingering like a suds stain around a student’s bathtub. The good news is that much of the world has collectively decided to move on, focusing efforts on protecting the vulnerable while living with Covid the way we live with other problematic viruses. It just took time and money, which tends to solve most problems. The better news: last month I returned to both my Canadian and Global Bucket List after too long a hiatus, and I returned in style. I’ve always wanted to sail in the Caribbean, and I’ve waited over a decade to once again experience to the deep virgin snow of backcountry skiing. March presented the opportunities, and so I grasped them, tightly, with the wind at my sails, and a smooth path from peak to gully.
Part One: The Caribbean
It started with a thought about sailing as an eco-friendlier form of cruising. Then I got lost in the fascinating real-life history of pirates, and distracted by the pool-clear waters of the Caribbean. Putting it altogether, I found the perfect itinerary on board one of the world’s largest passenger sail boats, a towering old-world tall ship operated by Swedish-owned, Malta-flagged Star Clippers. My experience will get its full due in an upcoming issue of the Vancouver Sun, but I will say this: Star Flyer – a 4-masted tall ship that swivels the head of even the saltiest sailor – is out of this world. It carries up to 166 passengers served by 74 crew, sailing the trade winds and ocean currents in the Caribbean, Mediterranean, Central America and across the Atlantic. Unlike cruising, you feel the ocean (sometimes a little more than you’d like, but that’s part of the adventure), visiting bays, islands and beaches beyond reach of the cruise ships. It’s a luxury sailing adventure for those who don’t know anyone with a luxury sailboat, which I’m assuming describes most of us.
Staff and service is fantastic, the meals top notch, the cocktails smooth and the onboard amenities (two pools, a massage therapist, deck chairs, an open bridge, stocked library, water sports etc) most accommodating. Time slows down, and people read books, not feeds. You can do bucket list things like hang out on the bowsprit, sprawled on the netting as it dips over rolling waves above playful dolphins (yep, that happened). You can climb up the rope ladder to an 18m-high viewing platform, gazing over islands and ocean. You can bake in the sun like those fried European passengers who don’t seem to know about skin cancer. You can dance at night, request tunes from the pianist, dress like a pirate, or ask a thousand questions of the patient crew as they pull ropes and release topsails with special names that I forgot the moment I heard them. Pop into the Caribbean’s most legendary beach bars (the Soggy Dollar, Foxy’s etc) for a souvenir headache, nap in your cabin, listen to stories of fellow passengers, snorkel into sea caves, paddle-board, ogle at super yachts parking in St Barts. It’s everything one would expect the good life to be, and a very different kind of cruise experience. The more I travel on a small ship – a luxury river barge in the Amazon, a catamaran in the Galapagos, an expedition ship in the Antarctica – the more I fall in love with boats as a bucket list form of travel. If you can burn just 15% of the fuel of a regular ship, as the Star Flyer does under sail, it feels like the future of cruising, and the responsible way to go. As time progresses, I hope to add more small ships to my growing, curated bucket list cruise collection.
Part Two: Catskiing in the Skeena
The last and only time I cat-skied was on a private mountain in Chile. We were filming an episode of Word Travels, and my single biggest memory of that adventure is nervously watching our cameraman Sean ski backwards while he filmed my descent with a large six-figure camera on his shoulder. It was the only true bluebird ski day I’ve ever had, when the sky is crystal clear after a big dump of white snow. Skeena Cat Skiing in BC would be my second, and this time I wouldn’t have to worry about my TV show crashing with a wipeout (I can do that all by myself, thank you).
I had one day to switch my Caribbean bag for my snow gear, catching a prop flight north from Vancouver to the town of Smithers BC. Here I met a group of elite ski journalists, gathering at the helipad for our memorable ride into base camp. Any day you get to ride a helicopter is a good day. Skeena Cat Skiing is a family-run affair and clearly a passion project of immense love and hard work. Many hours away from anything, guests stay in heated dome tents buried in snow, which is a cool experience unto itself. The comfy, wood-fired heated lodge tent is loaded with fine beer, snacks, worn couches, and a friendly chef who prepared outstanding hearty dinners and desserts. We’re surrounded by the Thomlinson and Gail Creek mountains, 30,000 hectares of fresh powder and skiable glades in every direction. Our ski chair is a customized Piston Bully snow grader, with a large heated cabin for 14 passengers on the back. This ‘cat’ can go anywhere and everywhere it pleases, and it does. Skirting a steep ride, it deposited us at the top of runs that funnel into valleys where we would be collected by the cat for another ascent. Backcountry safety is taken seriously: we’re all equipped with avalanche kits, air bags, walkie-talkies, and given a tutorial in rescue. Veteran guides know what they’re doing and accidents are rare to non-existent. Any nerves dissipate after the first run, replaced with elation and joy and wowzers because this is the skiing you dream about, every time you strap in, and every time you head up a mountain. I was easily the weakest boarder of the group, and I’m no slopestyle expert (especially in the company of Olympic skier Yuki Tsubota). But even at my own pace, I was able to keep up, sharing the pinnacle of what snow sport can deliver. Cat skiing is more affordable than heli-skiing, and you can read more about both in my Bucket Listed column for Can Geo Travel. Suffice to say: it’s going to be hard going up a local ski hill again, but there’s always something to aspire to, and something to look forward to next time.
You can really get a sense of place by its name. Take Istanbul, Timbuktu, or even Bird Island (where I write these words, off the coast of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia). Revelstoke, the BC transport hub on the way from Vancouver to Banff, certainly has a name better than most. A town that lets you revel in the stoke? Come on, a high-priced brand agency couldn’t have come up with something that good. The town, population 15,000, got its name from one Lord Revelstoke, an English industrialist who rescued the Canadian Pacific Railway from bankruptcy in 1885. In the shadow of the Selkirk Mountains, sandwiched by the mountainous beauty of Glacier and Mount Revelstoke National Parks, the town also boasts a ski resort with the greatest vertical descent of any ski resort on the continent. Fun for another time. We’re here for a family roadtrip in summer, driving six hours up from Vancouver to explore local activities for all ages, including another tick on my ever-expanding Canadian Bucket List.
An Old Lady Lived in a Shoe in an Enchanted Forest
After crossing dramatic mountain passes and driving alongside large, scenic lakes, we pull off the Trans Canada Highway to explore The Enchanted Forest and adjacent Skytrek Adventure Park. With various high ropes courses through the tall forest trees, the latter is catnip for kids and adults channelling their inner gibbon. The former is eccentric and certainly bizarre. Dozens of tiny and not so tiny fairy tale houses have been built on the forest floor, complete with a castle, a giant climbing a tree, mermaids, wooden horses, and mischievous forest elves. A passion project that has been a popular, quirky roadside attraction for half a century, my young kids embraced Enchanted Forest with sheer, unadulterated delight. Happy kids, happy parents, and happier still that both these attractions are less than a half hour’s drive from downtown Revelstoke, where our room at the Regent Hotel awaits.
A town that straddles the industries of railway, forestry and tourism, Revelstoke is refreshingly devoid of glitzy retail brands, and oozes small town charm. It is protected from being overrun by its relative isolation from a major city, resulting in the kind of place where locals greet each other at free nightly summer music concerts in Grizzly Plaza, or at the weekend street market bursting with local flavours. Our outstanding meals at Taco Club, Nico’s Pizza, Paramjit’s Kitchen and the exceptional Quartermaster offered funky, homely and fine dining, while a visit to the Aquatic Centre (a must for young kids) made me pine for something similarly inexpensive and less crowded in Vancouver. Toasting outstanding craft beer at Rumpus Beer Co, I admired the moxie of the husband-wife owners chasing their small town dream, and wondered, along with many others I imagine, if Revelstoke is the kind of place where I could chase a dream too. A real sense of community permeates the town, a community that doesn’t mind living ten minutes down the road from a world class ski resort, or two and half hours from Kelowna, the nearest regional airport.
The Pipe Mountain Coaster
Revelstoke Mountain Resort is famous for the highest vertical run on the continent, but is embracing its four season possibilities. This means world-class mountain biking, and for my bucket list, the longest alpine rollercoaster in Canada. Taking the gondola up to mid-mountain, my family soaked in the stellar mountain views and fanning Columbia River, before hopping into yellow go-cart like contraption connected on a narrow single rail. My wife and I each put a kid in our laps and strapped in for a thrilling 1.4 kilometre descent. The Pipe Mountain Coaster twists, curves and whoops its way 279 metres down the mountain, through forest and breathless dips at speeds of up to 42 km/hr. A simple mechanism allows us to brake and go at our own pace, and most first timers will take it easy. Get the three-ride pass (or more) and you’ll soon dispense with the brakes altogether, hitting the hell-yeah! controlled maximum speed that ensures it’s safe and fun for the whole family. “Faster Daddy!” yelled my daughter, and who am I to argue?
Paddle at the Rumpus Beer Company
Feet away from the exit point of the coaster is newly opened Aerial Adventure Park, where you can easily spend two hours navigating fifty different balance and height obstacles, rising four stories above the ground. Graded like ski runs into green, blue and black difficulties, climbers are safely harnessed throughout the entire contraption. Watching brave little kids take on swinging rings or a knee-shaking four-story jump should add some pep to your steps. Fortunately, great food and craft beer awaits the victorious in the village regardless (and for the kids, ice-cream).
A Pirate Battle
River rafting is another popular summer activity in Revelstoke, with various companies offering grade three runs. For younger kids, consider Wild Blue Yonder’s River Pirates Tour, complete with pirate costumes, face paint, bush battles and fun tales of yaargh! Downriver from the impressive hydro dam, we drifted on the glass mirror of the Columbia River, listening to Captain Jack’s brogue as he recounted the myth of the man-eating moose. My daughter - made-up with face paint, bandanna’d, and now known as Jolly Lips Sue - had a blast. Nobody got wet, and foam sword battles continued back in our comfortable family suite at the Regent.
Here comes the train!
Fortunately the sword stayed behind when we checked out the old world Railway Museum, although the knives came out when my three year-old had his thermonuclear meltdown when we told him it was time to leave the large, warm wading pool at the Aquatic Centre. We packed a lot into just three days, and could have easily spent a week exploring this underrated wonder of the BC interior. It’s all right there in the very name of the town, where families can revel in the stoke of it.
Please come in. Mahalo for removing your shoes.
After many years running a behemoth of a blog called Modern Gonzo, I've decided to a: publish a book or eight, and b: make my stories more digestible, relevant, and deserving of your battered attention.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.