Tag Archives: geography

Mountain Profile: The Table

Of all the glorious mountains the surround Whistler, The Table has got to be  unique.

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Approaching the Table in a helicopter with Pacific Ski Air, circa 1970. Cliff Jennings Photo

This curious flat-topped mountain near Garibaldi Lake was formed when a volcanic eruption burst up through a massive glacier, roughly 10-15,000 years ago. The fast-melting ice kept the lava flow contained on the sides and forced it to cool off and solidify quickly, while the pull of gravity caused the nearly perfect flat top.

Scientists have been able to date it to quite recently since there are no signs of glacial erosion along the sides or base. This indicates that the initial eruption and formation occurred after the great Holocene ice sheets were in retreat, but obviously before they were completely gone, roughly 10-12,000 years ago.

In geological terms, a flat-topped volcano formed through this spectacular interaction between fire and ice is called a tuya. These are extremely rare, being found in Antarctica, Iceland, Siberia, Coastal BC, the Oregon Cascades, and not much else.

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As seen from Panorama Ridge during the 1939 George Bury ski expedition.

The Table sits within the midst of a highly active and scenic volcanic setting, with the Black Tusk, Cinder Cone, Mount Price, Mount Garibaldi, The Barrier, and several other nearby volcanic features. As a whole this area is called the Garibaldi Volcanic Belt, which is considered to mark the northern terminus of the Cascade Volcanoes that follow the Pacific Coast down to northern California.

First climbed by BC Mountaineering Club member Tom Fyles in 1916, The Table’s steep, rotten flanks repel all but the boldest climbers. It is rarely repeated, and prospective climbers are strongly dissuaded from attempting.

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The Table’s distinct flat top can be seen silhouetted in front of Mount Garibaldi.

No, there are no known ski descents. Maybe a local BASE jumper or speed-flyer would like to give it a shot? After all you need to get on top is shoot a rock video.

With such a rare and distinct shape, it’s not surprising that this mountain has made a few appearances in pop culture. The Table served as the world’s most over-sized and epic stage for Canadian rockers Glass Tiger in their 1986 video “I Will Be There.” Make sure to keep watching for the incredible guitar solo on the Table’s edge.

Also, in the sci-fi film Stargate: The Ark of Truth, The Table was used as some sort of underground spaceship base/hangar. We’re not really sure because we haven’t actually watched the film.

Jump ahead to 47:30 for a few more shots of a wild man from the future (past?) trekking around Garibaldi PArk. Presumably the giant flat zone is where The Table used to be.

 

Mountain Profile: Wedge Mountain

On this blog we try to highlight many of the unique characters in Whistler’s history. Being a mountain community, however, many of the local mountains are arguably as familiar as any person.  In the past we’ve set the spotlight on Fissile Mountain; today we shift slightly northwards to Wedge Mountain.

Wedge is an iconic local peak first and foremost because at 2895 m (9497 ft) it’s the tallest peak around. In fact, it’s summit is the highest point in Garibaldi Provincial Park (not Mount Garibaldi, as is commonly assumed), and all of the southern Coast Mountains. To find a higher peak you need to go the remote Mount Dalgleish, 100km to the north west, or to Mount Baker, across the border in Washington State.

Wedge Mountain is visible from just about anywhere in the valley, Rainbow Lodge and the entire westside have an especially clear view. Wedge is the most prominent peak, directly above the cabin in this photo, it's wedge-like shape quite evident from this angle.

Wedge Mountain (at right, above the cabin) is visible from just about anywhere in the valley, Rainbow Lodge and the entire westside have an especially clear view. The mountain’s wedge-like shape is quite evident from this angle.

The origin of the name Wedge Mountain is uncertain, although it presumably describes it’s triangular, wedge-like shape as seen from the Whistler Valley. The name is probably local in origin (like Whistler Mountain), as this name was already in use when Vancouver mountaineers Neal Carter and Charles Townsend made the first recorded ascent of the peak in 1923. When Garibaldi Provincial Park expanded in the late 1920s, a suggestion was made to rename the peak “Mount Vancouver,” but for whatever reason it never stuck.

Speaking of Carter & Townsend, we have already written about their two-week exploratory mountaineering trip to the region in 1923 which included the first ascent of Wedge (blog article here, full photo gallery here, and a virtual video recreation of their climb, using their own written account here), but needless to say, it was a dream trip.

The view south from Wedge to our familiar W-B backcountry: (l to r) Overlord, Pattison, Fissile, Trorey, Davidson, Castle Towers and Decker.

The view south from just below the summit of Wedge,  towards our familiar W-B backcountry. Charles Townsend, photograph by Neal Carter.

Today, most people know Wedge because of the notorious Wedgemount hiking trail, arguably one of the toughest and steepest around. The trail leads up above treeline to Wedgemount Lake and the Wedgemount Hut, built by the BC Mountaineering Club in 1970 under the guidance of long-time local outdoorsman, environmentalist and community icon Don MacLaurin. The hut is of the same gothic arch design as the Himmelsbach Hut at Russet Lake, and many other backcountry huts in the region.

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The idyllic Wedgemount Hut and Wedgemount Lake, with Wedge Mountain looming in the distance, right above. Jeff Slack Photo.

This is as far as most people make it, and that’s more than enough. Summiting Wedge is a far more challenging ordeal, requiring proper ice and rock gear and the skills to use them, but the standard North Arete route is considered one of the classic mountaineering routes of the Coast Mountains. There are also a number of popular steep skiing lines on the mountain, the most popular being the massive NW couloir visible from Highway 99 at the north end of town.

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Wedge’s massive North face. Jeff Slack Photo.

Few places in our region feel as “big” as the high alpine area around Wedge Mountain, but it is just one of many peaks that make our mountainous milieu special. What mountain would you like to see profiled in a future Whistorical post?

The Black Tusk

One of the most distinguishable mountains in BC is the Black Tusk. Visible from many different heights in Whistler and the Garibaldi region, it is often talked about and almost always identified aloud when viewed in any form; people can’t help themselves from calling out “Black Tusk!” when they see it in pictures or from afar. Aside from its distinct and fascinating appearance, the Black Tusk has quite an interesting geological history.

View from the High Note Trail on Whistler Mountain, 2014. Photograph by Trish Odorico.

View from the High Note Trail on Whistler Mountain, 2014. Photograph by Trish Odorico.

In the last two million years volcanoes and glaciers have added dramatic scenery to the landscape of Whistler and the surrounding area. The topography of BC has been continually modified by glacial and steam erosion and the eruption of volcanoes. The Black Tusk, a local volcano that erupted about 170,000 years ago, is a reminder of our volcanic past. The Black Tusk is a stratovolcano, meaning it is made up of many layers of hardened lava, tephra, pumice, and volcanic ash. Centuries of erosion have stripped away its outer cone of bombs and ash, leaving behind solidified lava of its central conduit that now forms its narrow summit spire.

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Photograph by Trish Odorico.

The Black Tusk reaches 2,319 m (7,608 ft) above sea level. Alike to well-known mountains such as Cerro Torre in Patagonia, the Barbarine in Germany, and the Vajolet Towers in Italy, it is a pinnacle, giving it its sharp and unmistakable structure. Pinnacles are individual columns of rock, isolated from other rocks or groups of rocks, that form the shape of a vertical shaft or spire.

The mountain hosts two significant glaciers that start from approximately 2,100 m (6,890 ft) and flow northward to below 1,800 m (5,906 ft). Both glaciers are heavily covered in debris due to the crumbling nature of the Black Tusk’s rock.

To the Squamish people, the Black Tusk is known as t’ak’t’ak mu’yin tl’a in7in’a’xe7en, meaning “Landing Place of the Thunderbird,” while for the L’íl’wat, the mountain is called Q’elqámtensa ti Skenknápa, meaning “Place where the Thunder Rests.” It is said to be named after the supernatural bird Thunderbird. The story goes that the jagged shape and black colouring of the Black Tusk is due to the Thunderbird’s lightning, or as another account goes, by the Thunderbird’s talons that crashed into the peak.

Whistler Museum Collection.

Whistler Museum Collection.

Whistler Under Ice: A Look at the Glaciation Effects on Whistler

Earlier this year, Sarah (Executive Director and Curator) and I (Assistant Archivist Trish, here!) went on a ziptrekking adventure. As the wonderfully informative guides toured us around the heights of Fitzsimmons Creek, one of them began explaining how the last Ice Age affected the mountainous terrain that we know and love today.

Immediately intrigued I decided to dig a little deeper into the geology of Whistler – most enchantingly, the effects of glaciation on our town. In short, ice sheets and glaciers are vastly recognizable within Whistler’s topography, as they have essentially shaped our entire landscape. From quarrying out the alpine basins we ski in to producing the series of ridges that define our skyline, ice sheets and glaciers are the key culprits to the rocky grounds and heights we’ve become so familiar with.

Whistler's oldest rocks are found on Fissile Peak

Whistler’s oldest rocks are found on Fissile Peak

Whistler Bowl, West Bowl, Horstman Glacier Bowl, Harmony and Symphony Basins have all been molded into their present states by glaciers that have plucked at the bedrock, while carrying and grinding loose fragments into smaller pieces with the movement of ice sheets. The bowls were all created during the initial stages of the build-up of the Cordilleran ice sheet. The Cordilleran ice sheet periodically covered large parts of North America (including British Columbia) during glacial periods over the last 2.6 million years. Approximately 15,000 years ago, it covered all but the highest peaks of Whistler.

Noticeably, mountain peaks in Whistler range from jagged to more rounded. These physical traits are so interesting in that they can identify the height of the Cordilleran ice sheet. Essentially, a peak that is jagged was above sheet level, whereas more rounded peaks are so because they were under ice. This is endlessly fascinating as you can scan Whistler’s landscape and notice each peak, visualizing the height of the ice that once covered our land.

Blackcomb from Whistler Bowl.

Blackcomb from Whistler Bowl.

A prime example of the ice sheet elevation levels is evident when comparing Whistler Mountain to Blackcomb Mountain. Plucked features and striations (effects of glaciation) can be found on the summit of Whistler Mountain (2160m) but not above the Horstman Hut (2252m) on Blackcomb Mountain (2437m). Therefore, the surface of the ice in this area was likely just below Horstman Hut.

Next time you’re wandering about in the valley or ascending in a gondola up Whistler or Blackcomb Mountain, imagine how Whistler would have looked 15,000 years ago. Imagine our ice-filled valley and our jagged mountain peaks peering out from under a massive sheet of ice, while large glaciers pluck at bedrock and carry pieces to new terrain.

1973 aerial of Wedgemount Glacier terminus in lake basin. The trimline marks the former extent of the glaciers circa 1895, with various stages of recession also marked. Interpretation by Karl Ricker.

1973 aerial of Wedgemount Glacier terminus in lake basin. The trimline marks the former extent of the glaciers circa 1895, with various stages of recession also marked. Interpretation by Karl Ricker.

For an excellent resource on the geology of Whistler, visit http://www.whistlernaturalists.ca/

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?