Gros Morne Mountain is the second highest mountain on the island of Newfoundland, Canada. Its French name means “big dreary” or “great sombre” mountain perhaps because it is often cloaked in fog, wrapped in snow or capped with clouds.
From the moment we first set eyes upon Gros Morne Mountain, I was intimidated by its harsh and forlorn appearance. Its predominant characteristic appeared to be a smooth, bald, round summit of solid rock. I was afraid that I might fall off the top of the mountain were we to climb it.
As if daring us to scale its slippery slopes, Gros Morne Mountain was ever present on the horizon no matter where we were in Gros Morne National Park. Right from day one, we set our sights on reaching the summit.
Bob and I were nearly denied the opportunity. Two weeks earlier, Park employees at the Visitor Centre told us that the summit is off limits to visitors until July 1st each year. Rock Ptarmigans breed there and would be roosting on their nests. Our schedule brought us to the mountain on June 29.
As luck would have it, a chance encounter saved the day. A group of Park employees and naturalists were hiking up to the summit to install trail markers, and they granted us permission to access the summit since the Rock Ptarmigan breeding season was essentially over. Whew!
In order to hike up to the Gros Morne Summit, we first had to get to the base. A 4-kilometre hike along gushing streams…
and through forest got us warmed up for the challenging part of the hike. Small sections of boardwalk and wooden steps break up the rocky sections and carried us over the boggiest areas.
Even though the ascent was gradual, it was not easy covering those first 320 metres of elevation from sea level.
At a set of benches along the way, Bob and I zipped off the legs of our hiking pants because the temperature was rising. No water is available, so we had to carry enough for the 16-kilometre hike as well as sufficient food for the day.
While taking a brief break, a rustling noise in the bushes drew our attention to this Short-tailed Weasel.
No doubt attracted by food remnants from previous hikers, the weasel quickly changed course once it saw us standing on the platform.
At the base of Gros Morne Mountain, there is a viewing platform. From there, Bob and I had a good view looking south over Bonne Bay and the distant Tablelands. It was now noon on the clock.
Looking ahead, we saw that the trail leads up through a daunting, steep, boulder-filled gully. From this point, the Gros Morne Mountain Trail takes climbers to the Gros Morne Summit then loops down the backside of the mountain and circles back to the base.
As I pondered the task at hand, I wondered if I was good for the 8 hours required to complete the next leg of the Gros Morne Mountain Trail.
The steep, scree-filled gully made for very difficult footing and progress was slow. We had weighed the challenge carefully before starting up the slope because it was another 9 kilometres of very difficult hiking ahead of us. We had to be sure to be off the mountain before dark and hopefully before any fog settled on the summit.
In “The Gully”, no trail exists. We just had to pick our way over the layer of frost-shattered rocks. Our walking sticks were abandoned in the process so that we could use our hands to help pull ourselves up in some cases.
About one-third of the way up The Gully, we had a fantastic view back to the forests and wetlands through which we had hiked, Bonne Bay in the distance and even further still, The Tablelands where remnants of snow still lay.
It was encouraging to see how far we had climbed from the ponds near the base of the mountain.
As we ascended the mountainside, the air was growing colder, and some snow still refused to melt.
The ascent up through The Gully represented an elevation change of 500 metres. In the 2 hours it took us to reach the summit, we had passed through a series of zones and now found ourselves on an arctic-alpine plateau. We were glad to put the talus slope behind us.
If we thought the trail surface would be smooth and flat at the summit, we had another think coming. All we could see were rocks, rocks, and more rocks.
The obligatory photo at the summit.
And my turn to mark the achievement.
Rock cairns mark the stony path across the summit, each marked by a fluorescent banner in the event of heavy fog or clouds. The trail goes perilously close to the edge at some points, and it would be very easy to become disoriented.
The habitat on this flat-topped mountain is a slice of Arctic tundra far south of its usual range. Stunted vegetation hugs the ground, and conditions are harsh and unpredictable.
That is why it is imperative that hikers stick to the marked trail so as to preserve the fragile flora and fauna that eke out an existence there.
At one time, the quiet domain of Rock Ptarmigan, Arctic Hare and Woodland Caribou, Gros Morne Mountain now sees visitors to the summit during all seasons of the year with the exception of excluded periods.
Bob and I really did not expect to see a Rock Ptarmigan. To spot one in those surroundings would take the eyes of a hawk. Lo and behold, Bob detected movement on the ground.
A Rock Ptarmigan was foraging amid the rocks and meagre vegetation. This is a poor photo of it, but the bird is smack dab in the centre of this image looking like a rock itself.
Rock Ptarmigans are a type of grouse commonly seen on tundra in the high Arctic. They are highly adapted to survive in harsh habitats and require plants that provide berries, buds or twigs for their diet.
It was reassuring to see the trail markers all freshly painted for the upcoming summer season. The park employees were also kept busy edging the trail with rocks and rearranging cairns. They, in fact, brought supplies for 3 days in case heavy fog should roll in and trap them on the summit like once before.
From our lofty perch, Bob and I had spectacular views of the surrounding landscape. Carved by glaciers eons ago, Gros Morne National Park is home to such striking features as Ten Mile Pond. This u-shaped pond is a landlocked fjord.
Ten Mile Pond stretches languidly to the west and is connected to Eastern Arm Pond, while Half Moon Pond can be seen beyond that. Gazing into the canyon inspired a sense of wonder and awe.
To protect hikers from tumbling over the cliffs when mesmerized by the breathtaking views, a low rock wall has been piled up to define the edge near the drop into Ten Mile Pond.
That is where we were accosted by this large black flying insect. It was flying around our heads in an erratic manner so I began waving my hat in the air. The insect took cover in the rocks.
All we had to do was swivel our heads to have another picturesque view. A hanging valley to the north side of Ten Mile Pond holds a small pond that overflows as a thin waterfall into Ten Mile Pond 600 metres below.
Hoping to spot a Woodland Caribou, Bob and I eagerly scanned the perimeter of the pond in the opposing valley, but we had no luck. From another vantage point, however, Bob did see a Moose eating snow on a far off slope. A Park naturalist told us that a Moose will eat snow and then lay on it to help cool themselves.
It was imperative to keep an eye on the clock. We had to be off Gros Morne Mountain before nightfall. There were many more kilometres to travel, our food had been eaten, and it was growing cooler.
As Bob and I made our way around the back side of the mountain, we had no idea what faced us when it came time for the descent.
A very steep set of wooden steps constructed to save wear and tear on the flora was a welcome sight after constantly stumbling over irregular pieces of shale. I counted 178 steps, but I might have missed one or two.
It was nice to be back among lush, green growth. The moist, fertile habitat just this far below the top of the mountain provided prime conditions for a number of Thyme-leaved Speedwell plants.
Members of the plantain family, Thyme-leaved Speedwell is a perennial plant that goes largely unnoticed unless in full bloom. It was introduced from Europe.
Continuing on from the back of the mountain, the trail descends to Ferry Gulch before heading around the face of Gros Morne Mountain back to the viewing platform at its base.
A primitive campsite is made available at Ferry Gulch, and for those hikers running low on water, your supply can be replenished here though it is advised to use purification tablets.
We were surprised to find that the next leg of the trail was the roughest and toughest experienced that day.
A long, slippery stretch across a scree slope led to a boulder-strewn cowpath.
Every footstep had to be placed carefully, and strict focus maintained to avoid tripping up at that stage of the game.
We were relieved to finally catch sight of the ponds near the base of Gros Morne Mountain, but it still took ages to get there…3 hours in fact over several kilometres.
A little surprise was waiting near one of the ponds. A group of American Crows was taking advantage of the water for a late afternoon splash.
Our exhaustion had Bob and me taking no precautions to avoid scaring off the birds.
We were elated to finally see The Gully again. It had been a full 8 hours since we had last been there.
From thereon, the last 4 kilometres of the trail gave us some reprieve with mostly hard-packed earth underfoot. My knees, hips and feet ached, and every rock and root seemed insurmountable. But by 6:30 p.m., we stumbled out to the car. Bob and I were filled with pride for our achievement!