Tag Archives: Mountaineering

Blending Old With New, part 2 – A Virtual Tour of the First Ascent of Mount James Turner

This week we resume our virtual recreation of Neal Carter & Charles Townsend’s 1923 exploratory mountaineering expedition. This video, the second of three, depicts the first ascent of Mount James Turner. (Check last week’s clip here).

Though lower and less well-known than its neighbour Wedge Mountain, Mount James Turner is still a formidable peak, revered for its remoteness and technical challenges by hardcore climbers and ski-mountaineers. For a more recent episode of James Turner lore, check this account of the mountain’s first ski descent by local ski builder and steep-ski pioneer Johnny “Foon” Chilton. Note that Foon and friends skied Turner’s massive north face, while Carter and Townsend approached from the south.

Our story will conclude next week as Carter and Townsend head up the Fitzsimmons Creek Valley to spend a week based out of a now-gone prospector’s cabin in Singing Pass. Watch for some striking photos from the undeveloped summit of Whistler Mountain, and their gripping attempt on the aptly named Mount Diavolo.

Virtual Mountaineering? The First Ascent of Wedge Mountain, 1923

This week we’ve got something a little different for you.

We’ve written before about the beautiful Neal Carter photo collection, which documents a two-week exploratory mountaineering expedition into the mountains surrounding Alta Lake by Neal and his friend Charles Townsend  in September 1923.

Approaching the summit of Wedge Mountain.

Approaching the summit of Wedge Mountain.

Well, since we also have the written account that Charles wrote for the British Columbia Mountaineering Cub’s journal, we plugged some of their photos and words together into Google Earth, and have recreated their encounter with these mysterious, unexplored peaks as a sort of virtual tour that you can follow from the comforts of your home:

This first video revisits the first two days of their trip, during which the pair managed the first ascent of Wedge Mountain – the highest peak around. Instead of contently heading back to Rainbow Lodge, Neal and Charles continued deeper into the Coast Mountain wilderness towards the lesser-known but equally formidable Mount James Turner, which they named after a popular Vancouver reverend.  Check back next week for this episode, as well as their subsequent climb of Whistler Mountain and more first ascents deeper in the Fitzsimmons Range.

Of course, watching this little video doesn’t provide quite the same experience as actually climbing  these peaks.  Since we’re currently enjoying a wonderful window of late  summer weather similar to 1923, hopefully the virtual tour inspires you to get up into the alpine for some fresh air, exercise, and inspiring views!

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?

Neal Carter climbing album

Among the tens of thousands of historical photos that the Whistler Museum holds in our archives, I think Neal Carters’ are my favourites. Carter was one of the most prolific mountaineers on the BC Coast during the 1920s and 1930s, gaining several first ascents. He also managed to turn his climbing hobby into a career, working as a surveyor first on Hydro crews around Garibaldi Lake, and then playing a major role in creating the first official topographic map of Garibaldi Park in 1928.

The mountains immediately surrounding Whistler were of special interest to him. Not only did he personally map much of the area (original copies of his massive topo map are in the Vancouver City and BC Provincial Archives), he was also instrumental in convincing the Provincial Government to expand Garibaldi Park in 1928 to approximately its current boundaries, including the Spearhead Range and the Wedge groups of peaks.

His first excursion into our local mountains occurred in September 1923 when he, along with fellow Vancouver climber Charles Townsend, spent two weeks bagging first ascents in the region. Beyond the sheer joy of two weeks climbing in such sublime terrain, the two were also on the lookout for potential sites for future BC Mountaineering Club summer camps, which had been held almost exclusively in Black Tusk Meadows for the last decade.

Their first night’s camp on the flanks of Wedge. Tent pole technology has come a long way in the last 88 years.

Using Rainbow Lodge as their base (they gave Myrtle Philip copies of their photos from this trip, which is how the museum ended up with them) they first scrambled up Wedge Creek with a week’s worth of provisions. Townsend’s very matter-of-fact account printed in the BC Mountaineer belies their huge, gruelling days of bushwacking, navigating crevasse mazes, and scrambling up terribly steep and loose talus slopes in uncharted terrain.

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

They managed to bag the first ascents of the twin giants of Wedge Mountain and Mount James Turner (whose summit was almost too small to build a cairn), while surveying and naming many of the surrounding peaks and glaciers, over seven days. Along the way they were treated to remarkably clear conditions, which, combined with Carter’s substantial technical skills as a photographer (crucial for accurate topographic surveys), produced some striking images of the surrounding landscape.

Getting radical near Mt. James Turner.

Returning back to Rainbow Lodge, they revelled in a massive dinner and comfortable night’s sleep in a bed, but were back at it early the next morning heading for the “largely unexplored” Spearhead Range. They first headed for Singing Pass-then known as “Avalanche Pass” and spent a night in the prospector’s cabin.

Impressive solitude near Whistler’s peak.

The rest of that week was spent climbing surrounding peaks such as Fissile (then known as Red Mountain), Overlord, and a further excursion for the first ascents of Mount Diavolo, which they named for their difficult experience on its steep and exposed north ridge.

This is just a small sample from more than fifty photos in our collection that Carter produced over the two-week dream trip. Most of them are beautiful in their own right, but are just as interesting as a unique perspective on a landscape that has become so familiar to us. Scanning through the images, you get a sense of Carter’s excitement and wonder as he peered out over vast expanse of completely undeveloped, largely unknown terrain.