The date was November 23, 1963. The world was reeling from the news of John F. Kennedy’s assassination the previous day, but Vancouver newspapers soon minimized the JFK headlines for news of a military plane crash in the North Shore Mountains. This alpine hike gives you the opportunity to visit that crash site and, if you wish, pay your respects.
The Royal Canadian Navy T-33 training jet was flying in bad weather when it slammed into the dense forest of Mt. Strachan, in what is now the Cypress ski resort. Both pilots from Victoria were killed, and it took rescue workers more than three days to locate the wreckage. Today, you can hike to the debris field in close to two hours.
The trailhead for this journey back in time is the Cypress Mountain parking lot. Find the Cypress Provincial Park information board and the Baden Powell Trail just a few steps north of the parking lot. Head east as the BP Trail quickly dives into a forest blessed with numerous old-growth cedar, hemlock and fir trees.
After crossing several creeks, you reach a junction with the Mt. Strachan Trail. Turn left and start climbing as the trail runs parallel to the creek gully on your left. Shortly after the next junction with the Old Strachan Trail, you reach a mammoth yellow-cedar tree — nicknamed the Hollyburn Giant— which stands three metres in diameter and is more than 1,000 years old.
As you continue climbing on a hot day, you’ll likely need a few water breaks (bring plenty to drink). One great place to stop and breathe the fresh alpine air is Frank Lake, which is slightly visible through the bush on a small plateau to the right. Take a look, but the best views of the lake are just ahead. As the trail rises, look back: the lake is perfectly framed between the trees.
Eventually you arrive at another junction in a shady mountain saddle between Mt. Strachan on your left and Hollyburn Peak to your right. Stay left, and enjoy the viewpoint looking east to Crown, Grouse, and Seymour mountains.
Resist the urge to turn right to Hollyburn. The trail is steep, rough, and there are many stories of injuries and visits from North Shore Rescue. If you want to tackle Hollyburn Peak (and by all means, you should), do it from the Cypress cross-country ski parking lot.
A little bit of scrambling up and down is required here and there as the trail turns back toward a ski run, Collins. But follow the tree markers, which weave through a number of small ponds and are great for dogs to cool off in. Just east of the base of the upper ski lift, turn right and back into the forest for the final ascent up the south peak of Mt. Strachan.
It won’t be long before you stop again. After a short, steep section which leaves you a bit breathless, the rest of your breath will be taken away at the sight of metal debris scattered in the woods.
The ferocity of the T-33 crash is immediately evident. The debris field covers a large area spreading from east to west across the trail and ending with a large concentration of fuselage and engine parts on the forest floor, just 30 to 40 metres away from the ski lift and a ski run named “T-33” in tribute. The ski resort has detailed the history.
A small metal plate on a tree announces: "These are the remains of a Canadian Armed Forces T 33 Trainer which crashed on Nov 23, 1963, killing 2 — Do not take anything."
Fortunately, it appears hikers have respected this request, even placing poppies beside the plaque.
After contemplating the accident, it is time to finish on a more uplifting note. Return to the trail, and start climbing — up, up, up — on the steepest ascent so far. You’ll likely need your hands and feet to scramble at some points.
Then, suddenly, you emerge from the forest, and over a rocky crest, appears your first view of The Lions to the north. You have reached the south peak of Mt. Strachan. Enjoy the stunning 360 degree views. And spare a final thought for the two pilots.
For the trip back to your car, you can either retrace your steps or simply follow the downhill ski runs, which are less interesting but quicker.
Mike Hanafin is an avid backcountry hiker who can see the forest and the trees.