Fairweather skiing

Fairweather: inappropriately named mountain of dreams

You dream, you plan, you negotiate with your significant other for sufficient time, then you just hope for good luck.

After landing under a brilliant sapphire sky on the Grand Plateau Glacier in May, we would have little of it. For photographer Steve Ogle, Prince Rupert fisherman and ski mountaineer Dean Wagner, and I things started well. Fairweather is a mountain of dreams that straddles the Alaska-BC border, whose 4,663 metre summit (the highest point in our province) soared above us in an arc of windblown snow and ice. More than 200 years ago Captain James Cook named the peak on a rare sunny day as he sailed through the Gulf of Alaska; these days it has the reputation among mountaineers as the most inappropriately named mountain in the world.

This trip would be different, we deluded ourselves into believing. As we listened to the buzz of the Bush Hawk’s engine fade into the vast icy wilderness of Glacier Bay, we were cheerful, almost ridiculously optimistic, shuffling around the snow in t-shirts to establish our base camp. Fairweather’s summit appeared so close, it seemed as though we could reach across the sky and touch it.

Fairweather skiing

May 15. Two weeks have passed since we touched down. Wind blasts with nerve-shattering force. Somewhere above this maelstrom, I detect the roar of a jet. I fantasize about business class passengers ordering cocktails and watching an in-flight comedy.

Except for a handful of brief, between-storm forays, we’ve been pinned in our tent by spring storms dumping more than a metre of snow. Temperatures have plunged into the -30C° range. I have read my two books twice. One of them, Cormac McCarthy’s grim apocalyptic tale Blood Meridian, does little to boost spirits but serves to pass time. I have even scanned the labels of my long underwear, which oddly makes me dream of beaches in Vietnam and Thailand.

Fairweather skiing

We monitor weather forecasts from Alaska’s National Weather Service multiple times daily like a call to prayer, growing to despise the computerized voice crackling over the handheld radio as if it is personally responsible for the horrendous weather. This time however, the voice delivers a few shreds of optimism in the form of a high pressure ridge that’s forecast to settle over the Gulf of Alaska. Our cheers are muted, having been suckered numerous times over the past couple of weeks into making a summit attempt only to be turned back by savage wind, cold and murky clouds. Yet late that night when I awake for a midnight pee, the wind has stopped and the night sparkles. In the morning, the sky is bluebird and the air is calm. Only a few wisps of wind are visible whipping snow from Fairweather’s whipped cream ridges.

We inhale bowls of oatmeal, pack lunches and climbing gear, pry our feet into boot liners and frozen plastic shells. Setting off, we skin across the flats of the Grand Plateau until it rears up steeply. Movement is invigorating but we’re stopped in our tracks by a cascade of ice and snow burying a nearby pass where we skied weeks ago, as if we need more reminders of our tenuous existence in this alpine. In less than two hours we pass through this avalanche alley, stash our skis, and force down some water and a steel-hard energy bar. Steve slaps his hands together and I wiggle toes trying to generate circulation. After roping up, we retrace our route across the bergschrund then ascend toward a low-angled dihedral that splits a vertical slab of ice. The col is tantalizingly close and when we crest the headwall we’re greeted by a surreal sight, the sweeping aquamarine crescent of the Gulf of Alaska 4000 vertical metres below us. This impressive height in just 20 kilometres from the tide line, making Fairweather one of the highest coastal mountains in the world.

Fairweather skiing

We traverse the col until the west ridge rises into the sky, weaving around crevasses and crossing others, occasionally pausing to test with our ice axes the strength of snow bridges before committing our weight. I stop to lean on my ice axe and gulp mouthfuls of air. Steve and Dean do the same; the sight makes me think of the adage, mountaineering is fun only in hindsight, or something like that. My altimetre reads 4,210 – another grueling 450 metres to go. Gazing upwards, I piece together a route among cracks, drifts and gargoyles of ice.

Fairweather skiing

I concentrate purely on the next 100 metres, unwilling to be tempted by the deception of another false summit. But the next time I look ahead, the slope decreases and before us sits the broad  plateau of Fairweather’s crown and beyond, the wildly corniced ridge of Mount Quincy Adams. Together we shuffle the final few paces to a wind-hammered knob of snow, the hostile but beautiful apex of BC that in a busy year might see the boot prints of a half-dozen souls, and in some years none at all. On one side, an ocean of ice and mountains, on the other, the wild blue north Pacific curves to the western horizon. Above us a jet liner traces a silent white arc across the blue sky. In a single instant, the mental torment of idle days spent waiting out storms beneath this brooding monolith of snow and ice washes away. Our trio gathers for a requisite hug, our shouts heard by nobody but ourselves. Dean produces a small flask of Jagermeister saved for the occasion. I look at my watch, 2:15pm. Six hours after leaving the tent this morning, and two weeks after flying in from Haines. Steve boldly removes his gloves then kneels to tap out a SPOT text to friends and family: S-u-m-m-i-t-!

May 22. Back on Vancouver Island, I’m lazing around in shorts in my backyard, fingers and toes numb. I peruse an email from a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Alaska in response to a query I made about the weather in the Glacier Bay region. I knew it was bad, but how bad? He tells me that the first half of the month witnessed some of the coldest and wettest weather ever recorded in the Gulf of Alaska region. Sometimes you’re lucky, sometimes you’re not, but we made it.

 

Alpinist wearing climbing harness and large backpack in big mountain range
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