Fissile like a Missile Couloir and the Overlord Glacier - April 23, 2006
Off to Fissile again this time to ski a route I had looked at so longingly after skiing the NE face and scouted out when I had skied Overlord Glacier and Whirlwind Peak. The Fissile like a Missile couloir is on the back side of Fissile Peak and can't be seen from Whistler itself. It was going to be a warm weekend - already plus 3 in the alpine early in the morning. Conditions were good, fast snow for skinning, last snow had fallen on Friday on top of an already consolidated pack and no wind. The biggest avalanche danger was going to be pinwheels and wet slides from sun-affected slopes.
This time I am joined at the top of Oboe Peak by Brian, a recent Ontario transplant, and James, who guides for the Whistler Alpine Guide Bureau.
The route is straighforward and is described in other TRs. A randonee race was held yesterday so there's a highway out to Whirlwind Peak. The drawback is having to wait till lifts open to get going. If I was to do this later in the year I would skin from Singing Pass starting a lot earlier or overnight at the Russet Lake cabin. Our initial plan was to ski the couloir earlier - which is NE facing and in the shade of the NE face of Fissile - and then loop back over to Banana Chute and ski the Psycho Chute variation. As you can see from the pictures, the Banana Chute and Psycho Chute faces are NW exposed and get way too much afternoon sun. If you want to ski either of them at this time of the year and its sunny, I'd recommend skiing no later then 1 to 2 in the afternoon (depending on temps).
On the way out its relatively easy to find safe terrain to exit. The first time I skied Overlord was about a month ago, I dragged a probe to spot crevasses and check snow bridge depth. At no time were bridges less then 300cms in depth. With this in mind, I had some degree of comfort travelling and skiing unroped even down to the moraine at the base of Overlord Glacier.
We brought rope (50m of 8mm for a 3 person roped team), crampons and ice axe. No ice tools, pickets or deadmans. We could have used all the gear if we had stuck to our original plan of first climbing the couloir and then skiing down it. However, not having a picket, screws or reasonable protection we decided not to climb the couloir straight up the choke but to access Fissile like a Missile from the summit ridge.
The summit ridge itself can be accessed by bootpack from the vestigial glacier SW of Fissile (see the NE face TR) or you can skin all the way to the summit by heading to the windlip at Fissile-Whirlwind Col then skinning the SW ridge. If its wind-scoured, ski crampons aren't a bad idea but not necessary. On the map below - red is the way in; blue is on the way out.
Lots of avalanche activity on sun-affected slopes. These are what look like several size 3s off a W facing ridge near Mt Davidson looking south across the valley to the Cheakamus Glacier. Possibly triggered by cornice failure.
Obligatory shot of Brian and James heading to Fissile looking SE - taken from the slopes above Russett Lake.
Another classic shot with Cheakamus Glacier in the background.
Lee with Whirlwind Peak as the backdrop.
Panorama from Whirlwind Peak showing the view all the way from the Cheakamus Glacier back to Whistler - which is about 7km distant. A month ago there was still ice on Cheakamus Lake but now it looks like spring is here at valley bottom almost 2km lower.
Up high there's still plenty of coverage - this shows the view from Whirlwind Peak looking E to SE covering a lot of the terrain if you do the Spearhead Traverse.
Lots of groups coming off the Spearhead Traverse. Brian gets ready to ski on top of one group; lucky that it was a low-angle approach.
The Overlord Glacier almost looks mogulled so many other skiers had this same bright idea.
As we approach Fissile like a Missile, it becomes clear that we really don't have all the gear to climb and protect the top/steepest part of the couloir. James is the most experience rock/ice jock so we defer to him on that call.
Nothing to do but skin back up to Fissile-Whirlwind Col and ascend the SW ridge.
There's some exposure off the E face of Fissile on the SW ridge.
If the ridge is wind-hammered (which it usually is), this is the part where ski crampons would be nice.
James and Brian coming around the lesser peak and dropping down to the saddle of the lesser peak and Fissile Peak. The entrance to Fissile like a Missile is at the saddle.
Brian and James at the summit.
I bootpacked down to the entrance of the Summit Chute to take a look. A party of two had gone in. I'd left the rope at the bottom of the couloir otherwise I'd have liked to also take a look at the cornice on top of Saddle Chute (lookers left outside the picture) to see if there was a way around the cornice. Summit Chute looked fugly with runnels and sluff coming off the rock walls on the side. Saddle Chute and the NW Face hadn't been skied. Summit Chute, Saddle Chute and the NW/Main face drop about 600m to the toe of the Overlord Glacier.
This shows the peak (unfortunately cut off just at the top of the picture) maybe about 5 minutes from the saddle at the entrance of Fissile like a Missile.
Fissile like a Missile drops about 200m down to the Overlord Glacier. There are no open slots at the bottom. We left a cache of heavy gear to skiers right off the path of any potential slides. It averages 55 to 50 degrees down the centre to the narrow choke and then about 50 degrees down the choke till it opens up at the bottom. Skiers right and skiers left appear steeper and are exposed also to falling bits of cornice.
Brian, who's probably one of the strongest steep skiers I've skied with gets to go first. He looks like Hermann Meier waiting to explode out of the gates here.
Turns look and sound great, no girlish shrieks of panic, no scrape of ice, no whimpering for mercy ... just nice powerful controlled turns.
Nearing the choke Brian slows down and starts sidestepping. He yells up that the snow is icier there.
James patiently waits for his turn - nattily attired in matching two-tone Arcteryx sangria.
3, 2, 1.... and he's off.
James shows his steezy pedal turn form making strong turns down the fall-line. Lot of sluffing going on but no triggers or signs of instability.
Then its my turn. When you're skiing stuff this steep you literally jump 2 or 3 meters from platform to platform setting your edges and turning. I find I can make about 3 linked turns before my sluff catches up to me so I have to wait every so often and shoulder-check just so I'm not skiing in my own sluff.
The upper steeper face is fine. The lower icy choke isn't pretty. There's a firm patch of snow about a ski and a half length wide surrounded by icy patches so it would be polite to say that the snow conditions in the lower third was bollocks. Fortunately everything goes swimmingly and I make it down to the bottom just fine. Unlike when I skied the NE face, there were no "oh my god" moments.
I think we were all happy with the way it went. Despite wasting some time going to the toe of the couloir and then back-tracking we got it in near-perfect conditions avalanche-stability wise and we were all pretty solid coming down it.
I might add, for the record, that Brian on relatively skinny K2 Public Enemies and antiquated Silvretta 404s skied the route better then both of us.
Now that we were done getting firm chalky mixed in with icy crusty snow it's time to get rewarded by powder goodness on the Overlord Glacier. Here's Brian with his reward.
James getting the white fluffy goodness.
A word on Overlord. I scoped the line out on other trips first before skiing these faces. There are open slots all over the place. I was very careful to identify landmarks and routes FIRST before opening up on these faces. DO NOT try this in a whiteout. DO NOT try this first before thoroughly checking the faces to make sure there aren't any "surprises" on that big wide open slope. Rescue from here would be difficult to say the least.
With that nagging in mind, here's Brian opening it up. Fissile like a Missile and the NE face are on picture right.
Brian again. The bergschrund on the right is what you would drop into if you ski the NE face all the way down to the bottom and don't hang a skiers left on the first rockband. I'd suggest a rope if you want to go down that way.
Beauty of a shot with James and the crevasses in the middle of this nicely-pitched face.
Lee with the NE face in the background
Lee doing the big mountain turns under the un-earthly light of the Overlord Glacier.
Our tracks split the concave slope between the two crevasse complexes in this panorama of the Overlord Glacier. I didn't dare go near the convex slope to lookers right of our tracks.. Convex slopes on crevasses tend to have bigger slots - which may or may not be visible on the surface.
The snow turned pretty manky at this point (about 1900m) and we made tracks over to Russett Lake. We detoured to take some pictures of wet slides coming off the sun-warmed rocks surrounding Banana Chute. I was trying to find the crown line of a 2.5 that had cleaned out Banana Chute early last week but couldn't find a defined crown. The crown on picture right doesn't look skier-triggered. I suppose its possible that the new snow and sun had masked the debris and start zone.
Wet slides pack a punch and can run quite far.
Here's a possible early-season objective as a Banana Chute variation.
View back of Fissile - safe and sound and another fine trip.
Skiing out from Singing Pass will get more and more interesting as the snow melts.
But its still top to bottom coverage.
Post-trip healthy eating just to top it off.
Total ascending was 1720m over about 15km. Interestingly my HR didn't skyrocket going down the couloir like I did when skiing