Trick Question: Ever been to Red Mountain?

Most would agree that the physical landscape has played as much a role in our region’s history as the people, so we figured we’d give Mother Nature her due by profiling some of the amazing natural features and landmarks surrounding Whistler.

As with any history, it’s easiest to start at the beginning, so it only makes sense to go way back and profile the oldest thing in Whistler, Fissile Mountain.

Beginning over 200 million years ago sediment deposited in a large basin that was forming between the west coast of North America and smaller tectonic plates incoming from the Pacific. The ensuing tectonic clash created the Coast Mountains and left much of the ancient sediment basin covered with younger rock.

Fissile Mountain is our region’s notable exception, as it’s steep slopes of rotten shale and sandstone are actually a persistent exposure of this ancient sedimentary rock. For tens of millions of years now, Fissile has weathered stoically all the while witnessing the creation and growth of surrounding, much younger peaks.

Fissile Mountain is full of character. This rock face can be found between the Banana Couloir and the Northwest Face.

Undoubtedly local First Nations have their own set of stories from millennia of hunting goats, climbing around, or simply admiring the striking peak from a distance. Fissile’s first modern ascent is unrecorded, and was likely achieved by prospectors around the turn of the twentieth century. The Singing Pass area between Fissile and Whistler saw a fair bit of mining activity at the time, and for decades an old prospecting hut doubled as a popular hiking destination for residents and visitors to Alta Lake. Back then, however, there was no Fissile, it being known instead as “Red Mountain.”

Myrtle Philip takes in the sublime setting at “Red Mountain,” 1928. William “Mac” MacDermott photo.

For a long time we weren’t sure whether “Red Mountain” was today’s Fissile or it’s neighbour Overlord, both are in the same general area and composed of rotten, rust-coloured rock, but one of Neal Carter’s old climbing photos fully convinced us it was Fissile.

Shown below, the annotations on the backside of this 1923 Neal Carter photograph, which looks south from the near the summit of Wedge Mountain, clearly identified Fissile (only the top of which is visible) as “Red Mountain” while identifying Overlord as well. Note how the foreground peaks and glaciers (the Blackcomb backcountry, including Mount Pattison, Mount Trorey, and Mount Decker) are unidentified because at this time they were still unclimbed and unnamed.

Neal Carter’s 1923 photograph. The digital scan of the backside of the print has been reversed. Carter actually wrote the mountain annotations backwards. If you hold the original print up to a light, they can be seen through the image, appearing the right way around, pointing to their respective peaks. All the other writing (that which appears backwards here) doesn’t really show through the darker parts of the image.  “C.T.T.” (backwards) refers to Charles T. Townsend, Carter’s climbing partner who is visible in the right-hand foreground.

Red Mountain received its current name in 1965, based on a suggestion from the Fitzsimmons Names Committee, which consisted of local mountain-lover Karl Ricker, and interestingly enough, Neal Carter. “Fissile” is an adjective used by geologists for rocks that split easily, which will make sense to anyone who has ever slipped and skidded up (or down!) the loose, sharp rocks which cover Fissile’s flanks.

In 1968, the British Columbia Mountaineering Club, led by local climbing veteran Werner Himmelsbach, built a small backcountry hut at the base of Fissile beside Russett Lake. Now known as the Himmelsbach Hut and administered by BC Parks, the compact, sturdy, and easy-assembly Gothic Arch design has been replicated with several other backcountry huts throughout the Coast Mountains. In ensuing years the area grew in renown as a summer hiking and climbing area (the rotten rock isn’t pleasant to climb, but the north-facing snow and ice routes stay in great shape all summer long).

With the rapid growth of Whistler Mountain, and major advancements in ski technique and equipment, it wasn’t long before skiers followed suit. Many pioneers have been forgotten with the passage of time, but John Baldwin’s “Whistler Backcountry” map credits Jim Vaillancourt with the Saddle Chute’s first descent way back in 1980, and the imposing Northeast Face route was first skied by the prolific skiing/climbing duo of Jia Condon and Rich Prohaska in 1990.

As a result the entire north side of Fissile Mountain has become an absolute classic among steep-ski enthusiasts, with close to a dozen named runs. These days it’s a genuine race across the Musical Bumps to get there first when in prime condition. (Don’t be fooled though, folks. This is serious mountain terrain that deserves caution and respect.)

This is why Fissile is such a favourite among backcountry skiers.

Fissile is undoubtedly one of Whistler’s most iconic peaks. Even if you’ve never skied or climbed its flanks it has probably left an impression on you, as the jagged pyramid is plainly visible from all over the ski resort.

Fissile dominates the view from many points within Whistler-Blackcomb, including here at the top of the old Orange Chair. George Benjamin photo.

It’s visual impact is so strong that when Eldon Beck first began conceiving the layout for Whistler Village in the late 1970s, his starting point was the Village Gate entrance, which he designed specifically so that Fissile would be visible to greet incoming tourists. On one of Beck’s original drawings held in our archives, he even labelled “an entrance of importance with a view of Mt. Fissel [sic].” (For more on the design of Whistler Village, check this post.) Inspired viewscapes such as this have shaped the experiences of countless visitors to Whistler over the years, and convinced more than a few of us to stay.

How about you? Do you have any interesting Fissile stories? What is your favourite local peak?

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One response to “Trick Question: Ever been to Red Mountain?

  1. Pingback: Mountain Profile: Wedge Mountain | Whistorical

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