Once in a blue moon something unlikely occurs. A goal beyond expectations – beyond capacity of aging knees – is accomplished.
The view of Fisher Peak from our Kimberley home is mesmerizing. For years I’ve gazed across the Rocky Mountain Trench at that daunting, taunting pinnacle. Fisher dominates the skyline in this range of the Rockies. At nearly 3000 meters it towers over its lofty neighbors.
Last July I watched the second full moon of the month, a blue one, rise near Fisher and said to my brother, “Let’s do it.”
Good weather is critical to mountain climbing. Luckily, the forecast was ideal: clear skies and calm winds. An alpine storm even in summer can necessitate an overnight bivouac. We were not equipped for that nasty contingency.
As predicted a perfect day greeted our early start. Climbing Fisher requires no mountaineering equipment, no technical skills. But it’s a long drive to the remote trailhead and the sheer, steady steepness of the climb – and the equally grueling descent – make for a long, hard day.
From trailhead to summit the elevation gain is 1400 meters. That’s nearly a vertical mile!
The hike began unfortuitously. When my brother Patrick donned his daypack, the water reservoir was empty – and his pack was sopping wet. A leaky start.
It is imprudent to begin a seven-hour climb on a hot summer day without H2O but we had little option. We’d driven an hour up bumpy logging roads to reach the trailhead. Returning to get water meant we would not have time to complete the ascent. Besides, we were in the mountains. That’s where water comes from. Find a stream, fill up – and beaver fever be damned.
The upward march began in a shaded forest of conifers. After an hour, patches of light started to shine through the canopy and the trail opened across a jumble of rocks. Beneath our feet we heard gurgling, the babbling of an invisible creek. The steepness continued as the path skirted a cascading waterfall, the source of the hidden rumbling – and the source of clean, beautiful liquid sustenance to fill an empty camelback.
After ninety minutes of relentless climbing, the trail leveled and we came upon a beautiful alpine tarn, its crystal clear waters mirroring the jagged peaks enveloping us. Above the small lake a cirque opened up and we had our first view of Fisher, the temptress, still hundreds of meters higher.
A solitary marmot whistled a warning call. The sound echoed loudly off the walls of the rocky amphitheater.
We were halfway to the summit.
The next leg of the assault is difficult: three hundred vertical meters of steep, loose scree. A real b*#ch!
Even with foreshortened hiking poles digging firm, two hard-earned forward steps were countered by a slippery step backward. The scree section is also dangerous. As it steepens, the risk of lost footing and a fall increases. And, worse still, a hiker above can dislodge rocks upon those below.
Did I mention the scree was a real b*#ch.
After an hour the loose slope resolves to a saddle – a safe refuge before the final climb to the top. This notch in the mountain is festooned with prayer flags. We took a breather in the thin air and gazed around. We had equaled the height of the nearby Steeples, where we’d seen the moon rise a few nights before. Dibble Glacier, a remnant of the last ice age is visible from this vantage, its ancient blue-gray mass cupped within the Steeples.
The last section begins innocuously with a well-marked switchback through ever-bigger rocks. But soon these boulders become broken, vertical slabs. We abandoned our hiking poles, which became a liability in the four-limbed scramble up, over and around truck-sized stones.
Clinging precariously to handholds and squeezing through narrow fissures, we neared the top. In a few spots only a tiny foothold marked the difference between moving safely upward or making a quick 1000-meter descent. But for us this was the fun part.
The top of Fisher is as tiny as it appears from our balcony 30 kilometers away: a small platform with room for just a handful of climbers. I’m not sure what I expected at the peak but was surprised to see just a jumble of huge boulders stacked atop one another. Like the playthings of a giant.
The view from the top is remarkable. 360 degrees of pure horizon. To the north and east an endless ocean of mountain peaks. To the south the blue meandering waters of the Kootenay River and Koocanusa Lake disappearing into the United States a hazy hundred kilometers away. In the west, directly below us, lay the verdant green fields of the Trench. Further distant the bare ski runs of Northstar Mountain stood out clear as day. I could almost see my deck over there in Kimberley. No, I couldn’t.
The difficulty with scrambling up to a steep, precarious perch is… what goes up must come down. On the ascent we had concentrated on grabbing, reaching and looking upward. To get down we had to look down. It was disconcerting hanging over a cliff ledge, slipping toward an invisible foothold below.
But we slid safely through the slabs, retrieved our poles at the saddle and surfed down through the scree. Soon we were back at the lovely tarn. We stopped briefly to look back up at the now distant peak. Picas gallivanted about, squeaking cutely, gathering nesting grasses, oblivious to the great feat we had just accomplished.
Surprisingly, the last downward section can be the hardest, an unrelenting ninety minutes of joint-jarring, toe-busting, knee-knocking descent. Alpine wildflowers in radiant bloom helped ease the pain.
We were back in Kimberley in time to enjoy barbequed steak. At sunset we sipped a cold one on the deck and watched as alpenglow lit Fisher’s face. The next blue moon is January 31, 2018. What to do for an encore?
See the original post and more images on Gerry’s blog.