Story by Joe Lax. Photos by Brad Slack
The Coast Range of British Columbia is home to hundreds of unique peaks including several volcanoes. Though the region is not well known for it’s volcanic peaks, the Sea To Sky area of southwest BC is described in geologic terms as the ’Garibaldi Volcanic Belt’. The Garibaldi Belt is the northern extension of the ’Cascade Volcanic Arc’ that includes prominent volcanoes such as Mt. Baker, Mt. Rainier and Mt. Shasta. Most Garibaldi volcanoes are dormant strato-volcanoes and sub-glacial volcanoes that have been eroded by glacial ice. They don’t look like the typical cone-shaped volcano, but just like the more conical volcanoes to the South, the volcanoes in our backyard hold incredible riding terrain.
Most of the volcanoes in the Garibaldi Belt are considered dormant, but not all of them. Scientists recently discovered fumaroles (volcanic holes that emit steam and other gases) that have become exposed high up on the glacial ice. This has sparked renewed interest from the community to monitor the activity of the volcanoes much closer. The impact of a modern day, large scale eruption would be catastrophic. Thousands of people live downstream of these potentially still active volcanoes.
The last known volcanic eruption in the Coast Range was nearly 2400 years ago. The flow of rock and magma mowed down everything in it’s path and blocked the Lillooet River at it’s headwaters. When the river finally broke through the volcanic dam, a hull shaped slot in the earth and a 120-foot waterfall were formed. The Lil’wat First Nations people named the waterfall Sq’em’p. In Lil’wat mythology the waterfall slot was cut by the hull of a copper canoe that was navigating the waters of a great flood. The copper canoe pierced through the volcanic rock freeing up the Lillooet River to continue it’s journey to the Pacific Ocean.
The peaks and valleys of the Garibaldi Belt are sacred territory to the Lil’wat nation and the mountains are highly respected for their spiritual power. One of the most prominent peaks in this area is known to the Lil’wat people as Q’welq’welustn. This sacred peak was both a traditional hunting grounds and a training grounds for young men to acquire knowledge and strength. Q’welq’welustn is a powerful mountain in both geological and mythological terms.
Last April, photographer and shred partner Brad Slack and I headed deep into the mountains around Q’welq’welustn to hunt for spine lines and steep terrain. We went in hoping to make the most of a short break in stormy weather. As it would turn out, our weather window was quite small, but we definitely made the most of it. Upon arriving in the high country we were greeted with sun and blue skies - a rarity in the months previous. We were quick to capitalize on what we could before the weather closed in again.
The third day of our mission we left before sunrise and climbed the ominous Q’welq’welustn. Cresting the top of the peak, strong upslope winds and gnarly flat light kept us on our toes as we prepared to drop into the steep north facing spines. With the smell of sulphur in the air and a sea of untouched mountains in every direction, we dropped in and followed the path of the ancient eruption, a steep 1900m descent to the valley. Brad and I both made it down unscathed, despite a few tense moments navigating rocks and blue ice.
At the bottom, we thanked the mountain for safe passage as we watched the clouds swallow the summit. The Lil’wat people believed that the energy of man, mountains, animals and spirits were all connected. Riding amongst these giants we definitely felt like we had become a part of that flow. Our experiences gave us even more respect for a time when man lived in balance with nature’s energy. No doubt we will return to ride in the shadow of Q’welq’welustn. There are still countless lessons to be learned out there and these volcanoes have many more stories to tell.