Once in a blue moon something improbable occurs. A goal beyond expectations and beyond the capacity of aging knees is accomplished.
The view of Fisher Peak from our Kimberley, B.C., condo 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 3,000 metres, it towers over its lofty neighbours.
Last July, my brother Pat and I watched the second full moon of the month, a blue one, rise over Fisher and decided, “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 weren’t equipped for that nasty contingency.
An aside. Have you noticed the weatherman has become markedly more reliable over the last few years? 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 gruelling descent – make for a long, hard day. From trailhead to summit, the elevation gain is 1,400 metres. That’s nearly a vertical mile!
The hike began less than fortuitously. When Patrick donned his daypack, the water reservoir was empty – and his pack was sopping wet. A leaky start. It’s 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 wouldn’t 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.
After 90 minutes of relentless climbing, the trail levelled 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 clear view of Fisher, the temptress, still hundreds of metres above us.
A solitary marmot whistled a warning call. The sound echoed loudly off the walls of the rocky amphitheatre.
We were halfway to the summit.
The next leg of the assault is difficult: 300 vertical metres of steep, loose scree. A real bitch! 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. Self-preservation dictates that you want to be in the lead. Unfortunately, Pat is fitter, stronger and younger than I. So, lagging behind, my focus was on keeping my head up while keeping my head down.
Did I mention the scree was a real bitch?
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 equalled the height of the nearby Steeples. Dibble Glacier, a remnant of the last ice age, is visible from this vantage, its ancient blue-grey 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 1,000-metre descent. But for us Feehans, this is the fun part.
The top of Fisher is as tiny as it appears from our balcony 30 km 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 Lake Koocanusa disappearing into the United States a hazy 100 km away. In the west, directly below us, lay the verdant green fields of the Rocky Mountain Trench. Further distant, the bare ski runs of Northstar Mountain stood out clear as day. I could 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 90 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 barbecued steak. At sunset, we sipped a cold one on the deck and watched as alpenglow lit Fisher’s face.
The next blue moon is Oct. 31, 2020. What to do for an encore?
Troy Media travel writer Gerry Feehan is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. He lives in Red Deer, Alta. Contact him at [email protected]