The Hardest Hike of My Life: Panorama Ridge (Whistler)

We left before dawn, our path illuminated by only the dimly-lit sky, typical in the summer months.  My ride was 15 minutes late, but it hardly mattered. The drive from Vancouver to Whistler is approximately 90 minutes on a normal day, but with the deserted roads of an early Sunday morning, we arrived at the base of the trail before 7am.

If you are doing any hike near Vancouver, it is usually a good idea to start early in the morning.  Even with the abundance of trails, parking becomes sparse by mid-morning.  It’s also more relaxing when you do the bulk of the work (uphill) before the heat starts to settle.  By the time you get to the zenith of your journey, you can enjoy the view with the full beauty of the day.

Planned and forgotten a few months ago, the date of the hike crept up on me.  Panorama Ridge is an imposing 11 hour, 30km hike with an elevation gain of 1520 meters (5000 feet).  There are several indirect routes that take you by Garibaldi Lake or among other trails, but that only adds to the length of the journey. I had intended to train for the hike, which would have been the logical and prepared thing to do.

The trail head gives you several typical warnings about the hike ahead, reminding you to bring water and proper footwear. Similar signs are posted among the entrances to most trails, so it wasn’t a great indication of the difficulty of the hike to come. Being fairly chilly at 7am, our entire group of eight had long pants and several layers to start off the morning.  Wondering if I brought too much clothing, soon I lamented my extra layers. The first 6km of the hike consists of numerous switchbacks.  As we ascended, layer upon layer left our bodies into our packs.  The first portion is the most tiring part of the entire hike, but at least you start off with fresh legs!

Every hike near Garibaldi Lake starts with the 6km climb, an accomplishment for every hiker with no scenic reward.  With a bad knee, I already felt the trail taking its toll on my legs in the first kilometer.  We made good time, completing the first leg in under two hours, even with my plodding pace and several rest stops.  The terrain and view from the trail in the first leg is monotonous and the sights unchanged through two hours.  I feel that the steepness and length of the first climb deters most leisurely hikers from attempting these trails. With the bulk of the incline, 890 meters (3000 feet) behind us, the rest would be easy right?

Whistler Bird Trail Garibaldi

Wrong! With 9km to go until the peak of the hike, I was expecting a stroll the rest of the way.  We passed Taylor Meadows, a beautiful campground, and a number of picturesque clearings, I found my enjoyment of the peaceful landscape overwhelming the pain radiating from my knees and hips.  Time passed quickly as we progressed through the hike, trudging over small hills and the few boardwalks. The road was easy until we hit the base of the mountain.

Instead of the odd patch of dirty snow, we began walking over more mounds, until the muddy terrain was lost underneath.  We were soon surrounded by white, following a single set of footprints over what I assumed was a meadow.  A lone signpost pointed up the mountain, indicating we were only one kilometer away from our goal.  A 1km which included over 700m (2300ft) of elevation, which would be an average of a 35 degree incline.

To say the climb was grueling would be an understatement.  With 14km already behind me, my entire lower portion of my body was on fire.  A five minute rest only offered me ten steps of pain-free climbing before I felt my legs start to give out again.  At first, there were small clearings where you could see the rock and vegetation peeking from the snow.  These brownish patches were my finish lines.  Every time I reached one of these clearings, I would look up again and grumble about how much further it was.

Panorama Ridge Hike Climing Snow.JPG
At times, you could climb the snow banks or the loose rocks

Approximately halfway up the slope, we stopped for a rest at a particularly large clearing.  The wind was starting to pick up, cutting through my thin layers that were suited for the majority of the hike and chilling me to the core.  I collapsed on the supple moss and yearned to rest for the sake of my legs, but needed to move to keep warm.  The combination of the lingering pain and chilling cold made this climb one of the hardest physical challenges I endured. Several times, I thought of giving up, only spurred forward by the seven struggling bodies in front of me and the promise of a breathtaking view.

The final kilometer took almost 90 minutes; in the last stretch, my steps had shrunk to a painful shuffle.  It took us a total of 5 hours to make it to the top, which was a decent pace (we could have done it faster). The stunning view is worth the 5 hours of pain.

We rested on a rocky outcrop overlooking Garibaldi Lake and the surrounding mountains, just as the sun peeked out from the blanket of clouds. Nevertheless, the apex was exposed to the chilly wind, so we spend most of our time sheltered by the rocky cliffs with a view of dirt and snow.

Descending the mountain was significantly faster. The struggle of the final 1 km climb was lost as we sat on our rears and slid back down. With the snow quickly soaking through our clothes, we wish we had brought toboggans, but that would just have been another item to carry for 30 km.

I had my camera out for the majority of the hike uphill, but I had to put it away for the way back down. Descending a mountain really kills your knees and the hike felt even longer on the way down.  On even ground, my pace was a slow shuffle and even the slightest incline felt like I was scaling a ski slope.

Recommendation: July is the perfect time to attempt this hike, preferably in the first few weeks after cold weather has lifted. You get the stunning view of snow-covered mountains, while the majority of the hike is at a comfortable temperature. If I were to attempt this one again, I would camp at Garibaldi Lake or Taylor Meadows and split the hike into two more manageable legs. Make sure you are prepared with plenty of water, food, and warm clothing.



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