Date: August 28, 2018
The Stein Valley is a special place: a completely intact and unlogged watershed ecosystem fed by glaciers and stretching down to the dry pine forests along the Fraser River. The area is an important place for the Nlaka’pamux and St’at’imc and it was thanks to their efforts along with environmental groups that the area was protected as a park in 1995.
The Stein Valley Traverse is a 90km route through the area that goes from Lillooet Lake near Pemberton to the Fraser River near Lytton.
Running the Stein Valley Traverse was something that I had thought about for a number of years, but I had always been dissuaded by the logistics, stories of bush and deadfall on the trail, and the simple fact that 90km is a long ways. Starting in 2016, quite a bit of work was done to improve the trail and I began to think more seriously about trying it. My initial plan early in the summer fell through, but when a friend told me that he was hiking it from the Lytton side I jumped at the opportunity to do it a prearranged vehicle swap.
Most parties take about week to do the traverse. The first time that it was done in a day was by Nicola Gildersleeve and Peter Watson in 2016 and their time was later improved on by Dan Durston in 2017.
I started by headlamp on the old logging road section leading to Lizzie Lake. I had been as far as Arrowhead Lake in 2017 while climbing some peaks in the area and so had a good idea what to expect for the first few hours. However, I was happy that the sun was rising just as I started to navigate unfamiliar terrain.
Once in the alpine, there was generally a defined footpath through meadowy areas but much of the travel was essentially off-trail, including some sections of hopping across talus. I spend quite a bit of time in this type of terrain and I felt like I generally moved efficiently and made good route-finding choices throughout the alpine portion of the route.
The “ridgewalk” between Tundra and Stein Lakes was undoubtedly the highlight of the traverse for me. Although there are some ups and down, a defined footbed exists for much of this 5km section and I was able to legitimately run the majority of it. Following a trail along a narrow ridge crest with views of glaciated peaks and pristine alpine lakes is about as good as trail running gets and I felt lucky to be one of the few people to have ever been there without a heavy overnight pack.
As the route leaves the ridge, it enters some open, loose slopes. Like most people, I lost the trail for a while in this section and eventually pulled out the map on my phone to make sure I reconnected with it before getting into the denser forest lower down. Once back on trail, the deadfall had been recently removed by a trail crew and I made good time to Stein Lake.
If you only looked at the elevation profile you might think that it would be a gentle downhill cruise from Stein Lake to the trailhead. However, not only is losing 700m over 55km not really a noticeable downhill grade, but there are many short but steep little ups and downs that don’t look like much relative to the whole traverse but turn out to be quite annoying.
My progress in the valley often felt painfully slow. It was hot and I had allowed myself to get a little dehydrated. My pack (I was carrying bear spray for the first time ever on the Coast) and my legs felt heavy. The trail, while never that bad and certainly better than it has been in many years, rarely seemed to allowed me to relax and cruise along. I was never working very hard aerobically and yet I had a very strong desire to sit down and rest. Simply completing long distances isn’t something that particularly intimidates me but I will admit that it was a humbling experience to be sitting in a creek feeling very much ready to be done and yet knowing that I had another 45km to go.
However, with no options to bail, there was nothing to do but keep pressing onward. As the trail gradually improved throughout the final 30km, my condition gradually deteriorated such that my pace remained relatively constant. When I finally reached the end of the trail after 13.5 hours I mostly felt a kind of deep fatigue. It took weeks for this fatigue to slowly dissipate and only then did I start to look back on the experience fondly.
Although not the type of effort that garners much fanfare, running the Stein was the most personally significant athletic thing that I did in 2018.
Finally, a few splits which may be of interest to anyone doing the traverse in the future. (GPS track here).
Lizzie Lake: 1:25
Lizzie Lake Cabin: 1:57 (32 min)
Heart Lake: 2:23 (25 min)
Col above Tundra Lake: 3:35 (1:12)
Col at the start of the ridge: 4:34 (59 min)
Stein Lake: 6:14 (1:40)
Avalanche Camp: 7:47 (1:33)
Logjam Camp: 9:03 (1:16)
Cottonwood Creek: 9:58 (55 min)
Suspension Bridge: 11:00 (2:02)
Lytton Trailhead: 13:30 (1:30)