Fisher Peak - Winter Climb

Who: Dave, Phil, Marcus and Silas
When: 12/30-31

Fisher Peak from the basin.

Phil came up with the idea of giving Fisher peak a try over the holiday. His snowmobile was working in top form, and he had a new randonee-climbing ski setup. It was obviously time to battle the closed section of Highway 20. A quick check of the map revealed that the summer parking area on the road is about 20 miles from the road closure! A long, long ways. We recruited Silas and Marcus into the mix and headed up to the Ross Lake Resort parking lot hoping that there would be enough snow on the road for the three of us to be towed behind "the black machine".

In Marblemount it was looking doubtful that there would be enough snow, but by the time we'd climbed up to the road end there was about 6 inches of snow/ice on half of the road (the other side is ploughed, interestingly enough). So we hauled the machine off the trailer, and packed up the dragged sled with out heavy gear. At that point Silas got a great idea that made the first 14 miles in along the road a cinch for he, Marcus and I.

Unloading the Black Machine.

Along the road there was progressively better road-cutt ice, culminating in some super thick stuff around mile marker 147. We were thinking that if this Fisher business didn't work out we'll at least have something to do! The last 6 miles or so to the "summer trailhead" went pretty well, although there was some difficult snow on the road for us tow-ees.

Marcus and Silas being towed by Phil on a beautiful morning.

We stowed the sled and began the short descent to Granite Creek soon after we arrived. As luck would have it, Marcus's rental randonee ski's bindings were set far far too loose, and he released right out of them on the first turn. This wouldn't have been too much of a problem if his Leki ski pole hadn't sheared right in half at the same time! Phil and I left Silas and Marcus to fix the pole via a stuffed in branch (ingenious, by the way), and scouted our way down to an easy river crossing on ice. After waiting for a while they joined us again we continued on to the next crossing of a slightly more dubious quantity. We crossed on a skiable log, but just as Marcus was making the last descent down to the log, the branch within his ski pole broke. Ak! What a terrible way to start a winter climb! We all made it across the log fine, but the log would get it's revenge. Oh yes, it's sweet revenge...

Phil skiing through the trees on the approach.

The forest wasn't too different from in the summer, except all the underbrush was nicely buried under a few feet of snow. We moved quickly, staying closer to the stream this time, and in about two hours we broke out into the basin under Fisher and Repulse Peaks. We weren't sure where to camp at first because the upper basin doesn't offer much of any protection from avalanches, and there are almost no flat spots to go along with that. But in the interest of help for the next days climb, we skinned up about 800 feet to a great camp in a groove of trees right of a wind scoop. We were a mere three hours from the road. Silas and I set to putting up his camouflage single wall tent which was a really cool WinterLight tent. Afterwards Silas built us a door mat and patio for our dining convenience, and I made a short-lived fire out of the bone dry underwood. For some reason the guys didn't want to sit around a spark and smoke-spewing fire about 10 feet from the tents. Crazy..

We hung around the rest of the evening, eating, drinking tea and melting water for the next day. Phil, Marcus and I were all dissing on Mountain House's packaging and "magic o-ring" for a while, and then shut up when we began enjoying their good food. Later on Silas said to us, Do you guys still eat out of those things? Don't you find their packaging a little crappy? Well, Phil says he's harder hearing than even me, but I think it's Silas and I's love of Winstopper hats. :)

Around 7pm the moon had risen above the cloud bank and began to completely illuminate our valley, quite a beautiful sight. It was decided that some Moon-lit skiing was in order! Phil and I racked up and skiied down perfect light sugar snow for several hundred feet. We came back up to camp, and Silas joined us for a second, even more brightly lit run down the hill. It was so light, that Phil was able to take the picture below with his digital camera. All my slides from then turned out totally black!

Repulse Peak basking in the moon light. Photo: Phil Fortier

We woke up at 5:30 the next morning and were moving before 6:30 with moderate snowfall. The cloud deck was high, about 9,000 ft, and I figured if we could summit by noon that we would be fine in getting back to camp, and back into the valley by the time it got dark. I had accidentally left my camera in the tent, so Phil "Rowell" Fortier became the sole photographer for the climb. We began by skinning out of camp up towards the basin marked by Fisher's SE ridge, the route Phil and I had climbed previously. Up near the basin the East aspect we were climbing the snow became really wind blasted. Eventually we just took the skiis off and booted ourselves up into the basin. It was tiring work dragging the skiis along (especially my extra heavy ones!), so Marcus and I ditched our soon after we entered the basin. Phil and Silas held out longer because their skiis weigh roughly half the weight of ours!

The weather had considerably improved by dawn, and there were even patches of blue sky above. Soon we were all climbing up the entrance gully that leads to the South Face's gully system. We put the helmets on and took out a single axe to climb the 40-45 degree snow. I recognized a gendarme that we had descended from in the summer (as we are climbing the descent from that trip). I even spotted the sling we left to rapp from, though it's blackness had bleached out to pearly white in only a year and a half. At the saddle of the gendarme it was a prudent time to rope up, so I kicked out a small platform and set in an anchor.

Marcus and Silas climbing up steeper-than-it-looks snow to the gendarme. Photo: Phil Fortier

So far the snow conditions had been excellent: very solid and great for step kicking. Phil racked up and lead off up a gully to our right. The snow looked thinner up here, and was often interrupted by rock ribs and cliffs. Phil found the going pretty sketchy with only a thin coating of snow over 50 degree rock. He came back down to the belay, and handed the lead off to me to try another route. I decided to check out a thicker looking gully that lead through a short section under a monster cornice.

Dave leads off the belay, cornice above. Photo: Phil Fortier

At 50 meters I was able to place a solid cam in the rock and then climb around for a 20 meter section of cornice-exposed climbing. The snow was steepest here, up to 55 degrees, but very thick and in perfect step kicking condition. Silas and Marcus's rope soon followed and we began the running belay up the face. The climbing was pretty interesting being sustained steep snow, 50 degrees or more, with intervening rock ribs. I was usually able to get in solid rock pro of medium chocks or lost-arrow sized pitons. At a bench below where we had downclimbed a short sheet 4th class wall in the summer, I began traversing right across different gullies to reach the main gully leading up to the summit ridge cirque.

Marcus belaying Silas up. Photo: Phil Fortier

I was just about to cross over a rib into the main summit gully when the rope stopped coming. There was some discussion that ensued, and it was decided that we should turn around. I checked my altimeter and it showed that we were at 7,920 ft, only 120 vertical feet below the summit. The route ahead mellowed out a bit, but it wasn't to be for us that day.

Phil's picture up from his high point. The ridge at the top of the picture is part of the summit cirque. Photo: Phil Fortier

We did a running belay back down, and it was surprisingly easy to downclimb the steep snow. An hour later we were back at the base of the approach gully, and soon back to our skiis. The skiing down from the basin was incredibly hard on the wind-blasted snow. Silas and I managed to make turns, but it took so much effort that it was like we were skiing at altitude! Eventually the snow became sugarry again, and we quickly descended the 1,500 ft back to camp. A quick pack up ensued and we were soon skiing back down to the valley bottom. Here Marcus was able to put his ski pole replacement (a branch) to good use. He said that it worked "Ridiculously well."

Marcus skiing down with branch in hand. Photo: Phil Fortier

Silas skis down with Fisher in the backround.

I teamed up with Silas for the ski down through the forest, and we managed to keep our skinns off the entire way down to Granite Creek. We covered the ground in half the time it took us to get up to camp from there. However, the icy ski down through the forest was not without its mishaps!

Dave tries to put his binding back together after being snagged by a tree limb. Photo: Phil Fortier

We found ourselves again pitted against the log crossing the creek. Many options were discussed, and I volunteered to be the guinea pig to cross first. It was a short downhill onto the log where the snow for one ski had fallen away. I hit the run face on, and made it across the one-ski gap, but only to have that ski slip off the log at the last moment. I landed luckily with my butt on the log and not in the creek. I got down off the log and was able to stem across the water on a mushroom of snow and pull myself up onto the log on the other side of the creek. Whew! Now Marcus's turn. He of course also falls off the log, and attempts the Dave-stem method. However, in mid stem the mushroom collapses, sending Marcus into the stream in a "Daffy" position. Much fighting of skiis and grunting ensued until Marcus found a different way across. Phil and Silas, not wishing to add to the log's saga of sorrow, decided that skinning across one inch ice was better. They both made it across without incident, but not without fear!

We made it back to the highway soon after, and I was really wishing that I had a car sitting there waiting. But no, only Phil's "car" was waiting there. The rest of us would have to be dragged behind the machine. We roped up to the sled and at dusk began the long, 20.7 mile journey back to the Parking lot. With only a couple breaks, we made it back in an hour and 45 minutes. Being dragged along through the mountains at night, on skiis, was quite a new experience for us all!

Our route from the highway up the South face to our high point.

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