Ski-touring Whistler Backcountry (Fitzsimmons Range)

The frustrating thing about Whistler ski resort, due to the fact that everywhere in-bounds is considered fair game, is how quickly the resort gets tracked out after a good snow dump. Even locals have a rule that after 30cm has fallen, they’re allowed the morning off work (how cool is that!). It was back in March 2012 when I first saw the potential of Whistler backcountry. After seeing the huge expanse of untouched terrain off the back of Flute peak on Whistler mountain, I wiped the drool from my chops and vowed to myself to come back before long.

I finally got around to it in Feb 2014 – I booked myself and a friend (Chris Woodcock) onto the Spearhead Traverse, a popular 34km ski-tour which follows a horse-shoe shaped traverse through a series of glaciers and peaks above 2000m. It’s easily accessed from either Whistler or Blackcomb mountains and usually takes between 2-4 days depending upon conditions and fitness. We’d planned for the standard 4 days which the guides at Whistler Alpine Guides recommended departing on Feb 27th with the possibility of climbing some of the surrounding peaks. I’d seen that Whistler were having a relatively dry season by their standards, but wasn’t too concerned as historical snow levels for March are generally quite high.

A week before the trip, over 1m of snow had fallen with warm temperatures forecast. Although this had the potential to ruin the new snow, of more concern was the persistent weak layer in the snow pack from early Feb that the avalanche report at CAC was flagging. On meeting our guide Chris Lawrence, he informed us that the Spearhead Traverse would be too dangerous due to this weak layer and recent snow load. The traverse features several steep pitches of 40° or more which can’t be avoided. Gutted! It was therefore decided that we would base ourselves at a hut besides Russet Lake and climb a series of surrounding peaks instead. Although disappointed, it’s just one of the things you have to learn to accept when in the mountains. I would rather our guide say it’s not an option rather than risk our lives in avalanche conditions.

Loaded up with 4 days worth of supplies and camping equipment, we made our way to the top of Flute Summit on Whistler mountain. From here, instead of skiing down into Flute bowl, we went off the back on a South Easterly direction over the Musical Bumps towards our destination of Russet Lake. The previous couple of days had been quite warm with freezing levels up to 1800m so the snow conditions were quite sun affected here.

View over Musical Bumps with Fissile and Overlord peaks in the background

View over Musical Bumps with Fissile and Overlord peaks in the background

Following the Singing Pass trail across the summit of Oboe, we arrived at Himmelsbach Hut at 1882m next to Russet Lake about 4 hours later. The hut was occupied, so we set up camp just outside and settled in for the evening.

The next day brought colder temperatures which was good news as the recent warm weather had already formed a crust on the snow, which was becoming increasingly challenging skiing. We circumnavigated the south side of Fissile Peak on our way to the summit of Whirlwind Peak hoping for better snow conditions in the higher terrain.

Skinning up Whirlwind Peak in great weather!

Skinning up Whirlwind Peak in great weather!

We arrived at the summit of Whirlwind Peak at 2427m after just over 2 hours of climbing. After a brief break for snaps, we transitioned to ski mode and descended around the summit of Whirlwind onto the Overlord Glacier just beneath the bergschrund with the intention of climbing Overlord Mountain at 2625m. The snow at this altitude was powdery for the first 150m before transitioning to the surface crust experienced before. Even on this north facing aspect at around 2300m the snow had been affected by the warm temperatures just a few days before which surprised everyone including the guide! We transitioned to skins before roping together to ascend the Overlord glacier.

After snaking our way up the glacier avoiding the crevasses, we attempted to cross over a notch in the ridge covered in rock directly beneath the west face of Overlord. Usually, the snow level makes for an easy crossing but today with the dry season they’d experienced to date, it was a technical climb over rocks with heavy backpacks. Our guide decided to abandon the summit attempt and instead ski back down the glacier the same way we came up.

Overlooking Overlord glacier, with Fissile Peak in background

Overlooking Overlord glacier, with Fissile Peak in background

The scenery from here overlooking the glacier was simply stunning! Not another human-being in site, and the whole mountain to ourselves. The ski down was great for the first 200m or so, before the surface crust made the skiing quite challenging again. The crevasses were spread out quite evenly so were obvious to spot and avoid, especially with such clear visibility. It took about 25 minutes to ski to the toe of the glacier and into Russet Creek before climbing back up to Russet Lake and our hut for the evening.

Chris skiing down the Overlord glacier like a boss!

Chris skiing down the Overlord glacier like a boss!

With the hut now vacant, and the temperatures forecasted to be -20°C overnight, Chris and I decided to abandon camp, and sleep in the hut. The first night was pretty cozy for Chris and I in a two man tent, so we were both happy to have a bit more space (even just to dry socks and boot liners!). The guide soon followed our move. Overnight was cold…very cold! We awoke to find the temperatures had plummeted to -27°C. After checking I still had 10 toes, I reluctantly emerged from my sleeping bag to eat some porridge. Fortunately the forecast for the day was for more snow and cloud cover which would mean slightly more bearable temperatures.

Yes that says -27°C. Any lower and we'd need a bigger thermometer!

Yes that says -27°C. Any lower and we’d need a bigger thermometer!

After melting our water supplies and warming our fingers and toes, we set off for Overlord Mountain again, but this time via a different route. We skied down to Russet Creek, onto the Overload glacier at it’s toe, and then climbed up the glacier on the left hand side of the ridge which we were unable to cross the day before. After just 30 mins I was able to feel my toes again – it’s surprising how quickly you warm up in those temperatures from ski-touring. After an hour or so, the cloud came in with snow and reduced the visibility considerably which made the terrain navigation more difficult.

By early afternoon, we reached the bergschrund of the glacier, but winds were now howling from a southerly direction. After a quick check Chris, our guide, traversed around the north side of Overlord rock face only to discover heavy wind scoured snow conditions and 100+km/h winds. He decided to abandon the summit attempt again, and instead ski down the glacier the same way we came up. The mornings snow had accumulated a little which made the ski down that slightly more enjoyable, although the low light meant spotting the crevasses more difficult. We reached the bottom of the glacier within 30 minutes or so, and begun the climb back up to Russet Lake to our hut for the night.

Heading back to Whistler fully loaded

Heading back to Whistler fully loaded

On the final day we were pleasantly surprised to find a good 10cm of fresh snow besides the hut. Fully loaded, we set off for Singing Pass and Cowboy Ridge, a westerly facing aspect of about 30°. Our guide was keen to avoid anything steeper due to the recent snow loading, especially in the wind affected areas. On reaching Cowboy ridge, we were rewarded with over a foot of fresh snow – only just touching the surface crust we’d been skiing on the previous three days. Ironically, this was the best skiing we’d had throughout the tour. We did three laps of Cowboy Ridge before ascending Oboe and heading back in bounds through Flute.

Fresh lines down Cowboy Ridge

Fresh lines down Cowboy Ridge

Although we were disappointed with not being able to attempt the Spearhead Traverse, we still had a great 4 days and learnt a lot from our guide Chris. If the avalanche risks had been lower, the Spearhead would still have been very tough skiing with a fully laden backpack on a surface crust, so it was probably for the best. All in all, an amazing introduction to Whistler backcountry in the Garibaldi Provincial Park.

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