This season myself and Spring decided to bite the bullet and buy Ski Season passes for Whistler/Blackcomb. Last Winter we simply didn’t get to ski near as much as we wanted. Very little of the fluffy white stuff fell early in the season and then a few weak layers appeared in the snowpack creating persistant avalanche concerns. A lot of our free time was spent waiting out bad weather, waiting for more snow or waiting for the avalanche risk to drop. We’re total ski novices, so we didn’t want to push our abilities under those conditions.
This season, even if the weather is bad, we can ski at Whistler inbounds at the resort. We only really visited Whistler for the first time last Spring and we were amazed by the amount of terrain it gives access to. We expect to use it for ski practice under bad conditions and access to backcountry terrain under good conditions.
A benefit to buying the Ski passes was that we got free Summer passes for hiking from the Gondola tops. Initially we imagined we’d be using these a lot this season but things didn’t work out that way. We didn’t use them at all. We’re still bitten with that West Coast ideal that mountains have to be earned and that requires hiking them from the bottom up and not using gondolas to bypass the slog to get above the treeline.
However, with the hiking season coming to a close, and the mountains beginning to feel like the snow is about to fly any day now I wanted to use my free Summer pass at least once.
Similar to my Mount Cook report, I had a free day when Spring was working so I decided to visit the summit of Blackcomb Peak solo. I actually imagined I’d be accompanied by other scramblers but that wasn’t to be the case.
I arrived in Whistler late in the morning, joined the throng of tourists heading up Whistler Mountain, then took the Peak2Peak gondola across to Blackcomb. The place was buzzing with tourists. It’s not usual that my days in the mountains begin at 6200ft, surrounded by people in cotton and denim and the buildings and machines of modern society. I’m glad that this experience is still novel and not the norm.
I headed out quickly on the trails. I knew that my time was limited. I had been tardy and it was already close to noon and the last gondola down the mountain was at 5pm, and I wanted to be on it. I could of course hiked down the mountain after the last gondola but I had a free pass and I was going to use it, goddammit, ha!
Quickly however I stopped seeing people ahead of me as I hiked up towards the top of the 7th Heaven Express Chairlift, which would be the start of the scrambling along a narrow ridge towards the summit. At the top I stopped for lunch near the Horstman Hut which will be swarming with skiers and snowboarders in a few short months, but today it was a ghost town. I headed out on to the ridge, following it’s crest for as long as possible, passing over the unofficially named Horstman Peak. The ridge is narrow here but straightforward. I’ve grown a taste for narrow ridges, it’s about as close to the feeling of flying one can have while still having both feet firmly planted on the ground.
Past Horstman Peak the ridge breaks up into the aptly named “Broken Towers”. The route description mentioned dropping down and following a narrow ledge around these broken towers of rock. I guess I had my climbers glasses on instead of my hiking glasses. What a climber deems a “ledge” is nothing more than a wrinkle in a rock to a hiker. I spotted a wrinkle that I could traverse, the handholds looked good and I could balance the front of my boots on this ledge. As I believed I was on route I expected this traverse wouldn’t get much more difficult than this as it was a moderately difficult scramble not a climb.
I began traversing until I came to a gap in the ledge that would require me to jump down about 4ft onto a downsloping slab covered in sand and pebbles. It was at this time I realized I was definitely off route. Any jumping down onto sketchy slabs would have been mentioned in the route description. I could see below me another ledge system. This was likely the one I was supposed to be on. The problem was that it was 30ft below me and I was in a position were reversing my route had become not an option.
I kicked myself. I guess being inside a resort and on a mountain that I deemed easy had made me complacent about the route I was on. I was now alone on a mountain, off route and I became aware at this point that my helmet was also still in my pack. Getting it out now and putting it on while perched on this narrow ledge was not an option. Not smart Leigh.
I was able to crouch down and grab a horn of rock near my feet. If I could lower myself off this horn I could get into a position where I could downclimb a gully to get onto the proper ledge below me. Lowering off this horn meant trusting my body weight to it which I wasn’t stoked on. I checked if it flexed or moved and inspected the rock around it. It didn’t budge, so I committed to the move and swung out into space. My feet touched down. Downclimbing the gully was not much easier but I at least was able to maintain at least 3 different points of contact with the rock. I got to the correct ledge, which was a veritable highway compared to what I had been on and kept moving.
From here it was a straightforward scramble to the top, I touched the summit cairn and dropped my pack. I had originally planned to continue on and visit another summit nearby but the day had gotten away from me. I calculated I had about 20 minutes at the top before I had to start making my way back to catch the last ride down off the mountain.
So I sat back and just relished being up there. This summit felt different to others I’ve been on, partly because I had been carried up the majority of the mountain in a gondola but also because this mountain was owned by a company. Something about this mountain being the property of a ski company made it feel odd. I thought about mans history with mountains. Since the early days of Mountaineering man has tried to tame these places by “conquering” their summits by any means necessary. Siege style tactics have been used and are still used today like fixing ropes, chopping out trails, putting ladders across crevasses, drilling bolt ladders up blank faces of stone, all in an effort to bring the mountain down to our level so that, with our weaknesses still preserved, we can surmount them.
There is a different school of thought though that I agree with. Modern Alpinism turns this notion of conquering a peak on its head. Rather than bringing the mountain down to our level, we raise ourselves up through training and experience to meet the challenges a mountain poses on its terms.
I spent a while musing on these topics and where I see myself going in relation to them for a while before realizing I had to leave. I dropped off the summit and began a long descent hopping between boulders before picking up a trail back to the gondola.
In no time at all I was at my car and heading home. This Winter I will spend many days below the summit of Blackcomb Peak skiing within Whistlers resort, it will have most of it’s flanks groomed into ski runs for myself and others to enjoy. It will be preened daily to ensure that no avalanches will release and hurt those below it. But even though it has become the domain of man I couldn’t help but feel like it will never be truly tamed. As I traversed on that broken ledge, exposed, the mountain was as it always has been and will be, indifferent to my actions. Somehow, that realization was comforting.