Fissile by the North East Face


or “Nowhere to run to, nowhere to hide”

When Peter suggested that we give Fissile a go I was naturally interested. When he mentioned that he wanted to try theNE face, I was both a little taken aback and, at the same time, excited. To be honest, now that Peter was a father of two I thought he had sworn off big faces. But I couldn’t think of a better time, with more stable conditions tongo for it; so off we went to have a shot

HHere is our route. As described in “Backcountry Whistler” by John

Baldwin; Northeast Face (55 degrees, 540m). 1st desc – 1990 – Jia Condon and Rich Prohaska. A steep sustained face above a 100 m cliff. Typical terse clinical guidebook description.

Another friend of mine, Andre, joined us for this excursion. We left at the typical civilized Whistler time of 9am from the Peak Chair catching the first lifts to the alpine and moving quickly. Here is a view of Fissile from Flute; one which anyone who climbs to the Flutesidecountry often sees.

Just for contrast, here are Cowboy Ridge and Fissile Peak in the summer. Fissile is a rotten choss pile and quite an unaesthetic talus-fest as a summer hike.

Photo by Mitch Sulkers

We don’t waste time getting over to our destination by taking the steeper slopes, which take you out of your way. Even descending the lower-angle slopes on the backside of Oboe Peter and I manage to make some symmetrical turns.

Our route goes Flute – Oboe – Cowboy ridge; taking the quickest low-angled way across. Then traverse on the south side of the Russet Lake bowl heading up the small un-named glacier to the W of Fissile Peak and heading to Fissile-Whirlwind col. The summit ridge can be bootpacked from the col or from a slope just N of the col. Then ascend the ridge to the lesser summit and N to Fissile Peak.

On the traverse of the Russet Lake bowl Peter looks so happy he could burst. Our shared excitement is palpable; the conditions superb and the air crisp and cold.

Andre and I heading up to the glacier and Fissile/Whirlwind col. There are quite a few people out here – Scott F is scoping out a course for a locals randonee rally and two other parties heading to the Whirlwind/Overlord area.

Heading up the glacier, this view shows the west face of Fissile. I suppose it is skiable but the beautiful lines are on the North and East faces. Just outside picture left would be a bootpack along a moraine ridge to gain Banana Chute and Main/NW chutes. The bootpack we want has some old tracks in it and is marked to picture right. Feeling the tight wind-scoured glacier surface and stiffening snow I wish I had brought an ice-axe.

This view looks back down the Fissile glacier W and NW to Helm Meadows, Black Tusk, and the Callaghan Creek drainage.

Its been a great snow year and the ice caps of the Squa-Cheak divide are magnificent. Andre is the lead climber while a solo skier – who later heads over to Whirlwind Glacier – follows.

Peter in a Cheakamus Glacier moment. Shortly after this I jokingly asked him whether he was going to get into trouble for missing Sunday morning church. His reply; “Places like this I feel closest to God

As I said an ice-axe would’ve been nice. Not necessary as kicking seps was fine and the snow around the rocks wasn’t rotten and faceted (a good sign!) but it would have sucked to have slipped.

My kingdown for a whippet (or an axe)!

The view from the summit ridge is stupendous, breathtaking, marvellous, indescribable … picture tells a thousand adjectives. Somewhere over on the Platform Glacier at this very moment is Sharon and Frank on a one-day Spearhead traverse.. Since cell phones work all the way over here, I give them a call to let them know that none of us have fallen into a crevasse.

They’re having a fantastic day too and making great time. In picture center you can see Peter heading up. Its a long way down to Overlord Glacier at this point. I don’t feel the need to point out to either Andre or Peter that the east aspects are wind-scoured and hard.

From my perch on the summit ridge, here is Whirlwind Peak. That’s a long ski down for this group down the Whirlwind Glacier; I wish the best for their tracks.

Ski crampons wouldn’t have been a bad idea today to go with the axe. Some portions of the face are scrubbed clean so we have to bootpack. Here is Peter approaching the lesser summit. Its not too often one gets a view like this.

To find the silver lining, hard stiff snow makes for good stability and easy bootpacking. I don’t like the exposure though for the traverse over to the true summit and elect to ski across. Here’s Andre trying to ignore the vertical kilometer drop down to the Fissile glacier.

This chute is not named on any map and is at the saddle between the lesser and true summit. Not having a rope I don’t feel the need to get closer but if you look down and to skiers right, it looks like it goes. I don’t have a way to get a closer look though ….

but across the Fitzsimmons valley, about 4kms away to the NE, Sharon manages to get a good picture of the route. It does look like it goes; dropping perhaps 300 to 350m to the Overlord glacier with a start of between 50 to 55 degrees. But we are not to be distracted from our mission today.

Peter got this shot of me staring obsessively down the chute.

Windless day on the peak. It’s 1:30pm when we get there; warm - not the typical Coast mountains suffer-fest I’ve grown to expect.

Here’s something you don’t see too often without spending a few hundred bucks on a plane flight; a birds eye view W from Fissile Peak of Russet Lake looking down on the Himmelsbach Hut and Cowboy Ridge.

This shows the view looking SW down on the Fissile glacier and the Whirlwind Glacier. Those are another parties skin tracks heading up to Fissile. It appears that we are not the only ones in this area today; but no-one else is ahead of us.

It’s time for the safety talk and to drop. At this point I make the remark that the only beta I have about this face is that it has a horribly exposed ending if you go straight down, that you have to head to the left and that if you get knocked off your feet by sluff you will probably die. At this remark Andre’s adrenaline meter goes off the scale. Andre will go in the middle while Peter and I will alternate leads. How funny that in our younger days, perhaps both him and I would squabble over who goes first yet now that we’re a little older (and perhaps wiser) neither of us are too crazy about leading. I volunteer to lead; study the picture of the face one more time and make the first tentative turns.

The face is big. I mean really really big. “Get a grip of yourself man, you’ve skied lots of stuff like this before” says my rational mind. My reptillian brain, the one that send you into panic reaction mode, wants to jump out of my skull and hide somewhere. “Oh god… this face is hugggggggeeeee……..I am so effed if anything goes. “There’s nowhere to go but down, no islands of safety, just blank hardpack, windblown snow.

At this point, I’m relying on instinct and reflex trying to make turns; everytime I turn I look back and see sluff tumble down 2000 ft past me to the glacier; please please please let it just be sluff. About 200 m down the slope, legs burning and mentally a mess, I make it over to the first “island” of safety. A 30 degree perch on top of some rocks.

Its funny how the mind works. All of us are fairly knowledgable and conservative. We’ve assessed the route, snow stability and objective and subjective hazards to the extent possible. I knew the chances of that face sliding were slim to none; I knew the face would probably sluff and as I skinned and climbed higher on Fissile I knew that snow conditions would probably be crap. All of this was very rational. Yet, I am shaking, mentally fried by skiing a slope that, had it been inbounds in Whistler, would not have been a problem. Sheer exposure can play strange tricks on the psyche I suppose.

Here comes Andre down the face. The camera is not tilted. Can’t say I blame him for not throwing in a tele turn.

Peter comes down and joins us on our rock island of safety while the clouds paint a wonderfully bizarre tapestry.

At this point on the slope you have the option of heading down skiers left or right. Honestly, the snow on either selection was pretty junky so it didn’t matter and none of us particularly care. Skiers right looks like it takes you longer down the Overlord Glacier so we head down skiers left. The good news is that the snowpack even around the rocks is not particularly rotten or faceted; the wind and solar must have taken care of that; the bad news is that the hard windpack of the first section with the “you fall you die” characteristics now becomes breakable wind-slab. Often pictures flatten out a slope; making it look less steep then it really is. This is not one of those times.

Andre heading down to Peter; still nary a tele-turn.

I head down the slope; nothing pretty about the turns. I do remember though at this point that I had gotten over the “Oh S%@t” feeling of the first pitch and managed to string together some semi-competent steep skiing.

I descend past Peter bearing skiers left and hoping to find better snow. No such luck as the slope must have been consistently wind-hammered. Now instead of sluff, I kick off 10 cms of wind slab at every turn; which in many ways is much less nerve-wracking then sluff. There are still sizeable rock bands below and entertainingly the wind slab that gets kicked off by our turns gets air off the rocks. As I stop at another safe zone, here comes Peter with Overlord Glacier in the background.

Peter and Andre yo-yo each other a few time and we alternate leads making our way down. Here is Peter in the bowl at the bottom of the face. This last pitch has mellowed out to only 45 – 50 degrees.

From the bottom of the face here is Fissile’s N face with the summit chutes looking good. The Elevator Shaft is apparently accessible from the NE face but I don’t recall seeing the entrance.

After traversing the bottom of the NE face you can head down to Overlord Glacier and come all the way back or you can work a gully feature over to the Russet Lake bowl and cut off some climbing. The snow is now sun-crusted and feeling mentally cooked none of us object to taking the quicker way out.

Looking back at the ski-out from the gully feature – to lookers left. We cut off the NW/skiers left side of the gully and took this short slope down to the face just below the Himmelsbach Hut.

Skinning past the hut with the gully feature in the light and Overlord Glacier in the shadow. The other party had skied Overlord Glacier and said they found reasonable snow up high that day but that conditions deteriorated lower.

Pano of Fissile Peak from Russet Lake. Already the sheer terror (how else could I honestly describe it?) of the first turns on the NE face are receding and I am plotting out other lines to ski. Banana Chute is the “baby line” in the middle of the picture; it is only 45 degrees and is not as big a vertical drop as the peak chutes. Who am I kidding? Perhaps the big lines should be left to the hard men and wannabes like myself should stick to their comfort level; .

Another Fissile Pano from Russet Lake looking SE

We were back on top of Cowboy Ridge at 3.30. By 4.30 I was back in the comforting hordes of the Whistler weekend madness crowds.

I found this HR graph interesting enough to snip out. When I skin up or climb my HR is rarely above 160; just don’t work that hard going uphill I suppose. My highest heart rate of this entire trip was going down that first part of the NE face. Guess that it wasn’t just my imagination when I felt like my heart was going to jump out of my chest.

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