Crossing Garibaldi Lake Wearing Sneakers

Arnold Shives with Mount Price, a volcano, in the background

As I’ve aged, my hobbies have become stranger and stranger. I have to admit that I have an obsession with getting pictures and samples of all minor volcanic vents in southwestern BC. I collect these for universities and the Geological Survey of Canada. As a side benefit, it forces me to explore the backcountry, away from standard hiking areas.

Planning another adventure

If you’re pondering a visit the Sphinx Moraine volcanics in the summertime, you’ll be presented with an interesting challenge. The Sphinx Moraine volcanics are located on the eastern side of Garibaldi Lake. Of course, in warmer months, getting from the west side to the east side involves going around the lake. Unfortunately, the lack of a shoreline trail means a substantial detour – with a couple of substantial ups and downs – making the trip into a long day, even for the young and fit.

Sphinx Moraine volcanics
Travelling along this route in the winter is more straight-forward; you could ski across the lake. The journey up the Black Tusk trail is difficult. It is not pleasant to ascend because it is usually hard-packed with snow on a very uneven surface created by travelling walkers, snowshoers, and skiers. The descent is even worse, especially for skiers, as the trail’s narrowness makes speed control non-existent.

I had given up hope for a visit in the summer. I have not put on my skis in a decade and I was not prepared to put in two hard days to reach the volcanics.
Then, while cruising climbing websites, I came across a trip route online, describing an ascent of the Sphinx. The report said there was no snow until the junction and the lake was snow-free.

In other words, summer-like travel to the lake. The problem of skiing the trail had been eliminated as there was no snow. And the summer problem of crossing the lake had been solved as it was frozen and ”dry.”

Summer footware on the winter route. Perfect!

With those problems solved, there was one more issue that had to be addressed on how long I would encounter these conditions. The forecast indicated snow on Thursday.

On Sunday, I called Arnold Shives and I had a partner for Tuesday. Arnold had climbed with Culbert and Woodworth in the sixties. His resume includes early and first ascents on the Chief (the classic Caramba Crags amongst them!) – as well as an ascent of Raleigh and peaks in the Howson Range.

An early departure from Vancouver had us starting up the trail at seven in the morning. The lack of snow had saved us walking up the road and allowed fast progress up to the junction.

It was just after nine when we arrived at Battleship Islands and a coffee stop. Now, there were three things we had to worry about. The first was getting onto the lake from the shore. The second getting off the ice on the other side. Lastly, the possibility of uncrossable cracks in the ice – somewhere in the middle of the lake.

The first ten metres were quite thick and solid, an indicator we probably wouldn’t have a problem on the far side.

The surface of the lake was virtually skateable. In-step crampons would have been handy, but as old timers we didn’t have any. Fortunately, the freezing and thawing of the surface had created a crunchy layer and allowed us to walk with relative ease most of the time.

Arnold Shives with Mount Price, a volcano, in the backgroundArnold Shives with Mount Price, a volcano, in the background. (Photo credit: All photos courtesy of Paul Adam)

As we made our way to the centre of the lake and beyond, no ‘trip-ending’ cracks appeared. In fact, we were more than three-quarters of the way across before a problem-causing crack emerged. With a small diversion and a small step, we were quickly passed it. And as it turned out, it was the only crack in our trip.

The Crux

One last challenge

The final concern was getting back on land. The open water at the mouth of Sphinx Creek forced us slightly northward from the direct line to the Burton Hut. But barely. An hour after leaving our coffee stop, we were having a very early lunch at the Hut.

The Sphinx Hut near Garibaldi Lake

And we had dry feet. The last time I crossed the lake, in the nineties, heavy overnight rain meant that the tips of my skis were underwater most of the way back to Battleship Islands.

Exploring volcanic vents

After recovering from our three and half hour journey, I took my gear and went to explore the geology of the area. That gave Arnold, my hiking partner and the professional artist, a chance to pull out his drawing kit and sketch away.

I disappeared. The snow was frozen enough that I only put a foot through the ice crust ocassionally. I made numerous stops to capture photos and whack rocks. After forty-five minutes, I sat atop the volcano. I headed off eastward – with more rocks and one less GPS. Corkscrewing clockwise, I headed for the Hut. The cliff that faced south was a phenomenon of beauty, volcanically speaking.

The cliff that faced south was a phenomenon of beauty, volcanically speaking.

About the Sphinx Moraine volcano
This volcano consists of several domes of basaltic andesite lava. The eruption (s) occurred about 21,000 years ago.After the eruption, glaciers removed much of the material left on the surface. The nature of the radial jointing suggests the cooling was assisted by ice or water. With the retreat of the Cordilleran ice occurring at the time and proximity of an alpine glacier today, the source of the ice is an open question.

I arrived at the Hut an hour and half later. After another bite to eat, we started to head home. The return trip wasn’t all that much faster; it was after three when we arrived at the car.

On the journey home, we glowed in ecstasy. A sunny day with spring temperatures, good views and company and, best of all, a lack of snow, providing ideal conditions for walking on water. A perfect trip!

We smiled even more on Thursday when we experienced a good dump of snow.


If you’re interesting in learning more about geology and volcanic vents, here are some of the terms explained:

Lava mounds
Volcanoes that erupt under ice can take on a number of differing shapes. When the lava is confined by the ice, it can form dome like shapes. These “domes’ are often built up of layers of “pillows” or “tubes”. Often a lot of breccia (broken pieces of lava) is formed as the lava cools again the ice. These pillow and tube have characteristic radial patterns of jointing.

Columnar jointing are features formed by cooling lava. The lava shrinks and forms cracks perpendicular to the cooling surface. Columnar jointing is commonly seen in basaltic lava flows, but can in fact form in most kinds of lava.

Radial jointing occurs when the lava is cooled on all the sides close to the same time. This occurs when the lava is surrounded by water or ice. Or even when the lava forces its self between breccia layers that are cold, but not yet compacted.

The small-scaled formations are called pillows because of their shape. In cross-section, the radial jointing can be seen.

Large diameter radial jointing features, such as the example on Sphinx Moraine (pictured), are formed as the lava cooled in a tube of ice or already cooled pillows in the ice.

Looks like an onion that has been sliced in half. The joints that are perpendicular to the columnar joints are also formed by rapid cooling.

Breccias are small angular fragments of rocks that are cemented together by volcanic sand to form larger rocks. They are the igneous version of a conglomerate rock.

Huge radial jointing feature

Closeup of volcanic vent
(Photo credit: All photos courtesy of Paul Adam)

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