One of the most photographed mountains on Vancouver Island is Nine Peaks. Not because of the distinctive Matterhorn-like profile of Elkhorn, or the dizzying heights of the East Face of Mount Colonel Foster, but because of its summit ridge symmetry squaring off across above its glacier. In the 1980's a picture of Nine Peaks with Cream Lake in the foreground was on the cover of BC Parks brochure for Strathcona Provincial Park. The aim was to highlight the parks alpine attractions as a magnet for tourists such as hikers and mountaineers.
The eye-catching profile of Nine Peaks behind the torquoise-coloured Cream Lake would have probably have been first seen by Reverend William Bolton and his party as they hiked Flower Ridge as part of their north/south traverse of Vancouver Island in 1896. However, John Buttle more than likely first saw the mountain from the south when he climbed to the unnamed summits at the head of the Ursus Creek during the Vancouver Island Exploring Expedition in 1865. A closer inspection of Nine Peaks occurred in 1899 when Joe Drinkwater traveled through Bear Pass immediately to the west of the peak. Drinkwater undertook a solo trip from Bedwell Sound, up the Bear (Bedwell) River to You Creek then over the pass, down to Della Lake and finally down the Drinkwater Creek passed Della Falls to Great Central Lake and onto Alberni. Drinkwater went on to stake a copper claim (Ptarmigan Mine) on the summit of nearby Big Interior Mountain and a gold claim at Della Lake. There is no doubt on one of his return trips that he would have searched all the creeks for further showings of gold that flow into Della Lake including the creek from the glacier on Nine Peaks. Although there was a lot of activity over the years on Big Interior Mountain and around Della Lake, it is not known how much activity occurred on Nine Peaks, however, there were claims staked around Beauty Lake to the east of the mountain. Activity in the area remained spasmodic but over the years there was always interest especially from the mining sector.
In 1953 a party led by Rex Gibson and Mark Mitchell from the Vancouver Island section of the Alpine Club of Canada organized a successful trip over the Labour Day weekend to Big Interior Mountain via Drinkwater Creek. Impressed with the beauty of the area Syd Watts, who has been on the 1953 trip, returned two years later (July 1955) with a party that included Connie Bonner, Elizabeth and Patrick Guilbride, Bill Lash, Eric Page and two others. After using a water taxi to get to the head of Great Central Lake, they hiked in to the base of Della Falls and set up camp. At the same time a party of Search and Rescue personnel from the CFB Comox under the leadership of Ken Stoker also made their way up Drinkwater Creek. The next day Watts et al continued up Drinkwater Creek and just before the waterfall further up the creek, took a gully up to the shoulder of Mount Septimus and then dropped down the glacier to a camp under the boulder at Cream Lake. Over the course of the next few days they climbed Mount Septimus and Big Interior Mountain. They then returned to the base of Della Falls via the old miner's pack-horse trail down from Love Lake and the next day made an ascent of Nine Peaks. As it was early in the season, no crevasses were exposed and conditions were such that they didn't need to use crampons. Once on the summit ridge, just metres below the summit, Eric Page dropped his ice axe and Bill Lash had to rappel down the south side to retrieve it where it had fortunately wedged itself into a crack. It is not known whether anyone had previously climbed Nine Peaks as Syd found no cairn or sign of anyone having been there before, however, at the time Syd never considered that maybe theirs was the first ascent.
Whether it was Syd's ACC party who made the first ascent of Nine Peaks or an earlier group we probably will never know, however, Nine Peaks was to take on a significant role with the ACC. In 1974 at an Annual Meeting of the Vancouver Island section of the Alpine Club of Canada, a suggestion was made that the Climbing Committee set up a list of graduating climbs on the island similar to that of the ACC in the Rockies. As a result a list of prerequisites required for the climbs was determined and in 1977, Nine Peaks became one of the graduating climbs of which there are nine. These climbs were eventually called the Island Qualifiers or IQ's. The others IQ'ers are: The Golden Hinde, Elkhorn, Victoria Peak, Mount Colonel Foster, Warden Peak, Mount Harmston, Rugged Mountain and Mount Septimus. As of 2008, twenty-five people have achieved their IQ. However, not everyone who climbs Nine Peaks is on the quest to achieve their IQ. Many others climb it purely because of its aesthetic beauty, but for others, especially those from Port Alberni, it's because they can see it from their town and the area is linked to their history.
There are two routes by which to access Nine Peaks. The first is via Great Central Lake and the Drinkwater Valley to Della Lake, and the other is via Bedwell Lake, over Big Interior Mountain and across to Nine Peaks. Both routes usually take three to four days and it is best to climb the peak before the middle of August when moats on the glacier become impassable. However, in 1998, Chris Barner and Paul Rydeen of Campbell River, made a one day ascent of Nine Peaks. Starting at midnight at the Bedwell Lake trailhead, they proceeded up to Bedwell Lake, over the summit of Big Interior Mountain and across to Nine Peaks which they arrived at after eleven hours. From Nine Peaks they continued back over Big Interior Mountain and around to Cream Lake where they climbed to the summit of Mount Septimus. After twenty-three hours, including rest breaks, the pair was back at the trailhead having put in a strenuous, but enjoyable, day in the mountains.
In August 2001, Barner and Rydeen returned with Darren Wilman and Nick Elson and made the coveted first complete summit traverse of Nine Peaks. Beginning at Bear Pass they approached the first summit from the west and then continued over all nine summits, including several sharp pinnacles, to the eastern end. Several rappels were required including one off the Main Summit. This was just one of many summit traverses that Barner and Rydeen have made of the years including a summit traverse of Mount Colonel Foster, and The Misthorns, Mount Rosseau and Mount Septimus traverse.
challenges faced through Global Warming, the glacier on Nine Peaks appears
to be one of those that are gradually shrinking which means that access
to the main summit of Nine Peaks may become more exacting. The tongue
of snow that most climbers ascend between the Main Summit and the summit
to the west is also shrinking creating huge moats that make it problematic
to get off the snow and onto the rock. We are seeing more frequently that
Nine Peaks is being attempted earlier in the season each year when the
weather can be more fickle so that climbers have a better chance of reaching
the summit without being stopped by the moat. However, photographers can
get the best views of Nine Peaks from Flower Ridge or by hiking into Cream
Lake. Although no mountaineering skills are essential for these destinations,
they are wilderness locations and as such no-trace camping ethics are
necessary to protect the fragile environment.