Floundering on Fletcher

I’ve gotten a lot of skiing in this season, both at the resorts and in the backcountry, but haven’t managed any mountaineering. Ever since my inaugural ski descent of James Peak in 2009, I’ve been wanting to get out and do another big-mountain ski descent. The weather and schedules finally converged last weekend and I set out for Fletcher Mountain with the able companionship of Scott and Eric. Fletcher hides behind the much more visible and famous 14er Quandary Peak. At 13,951′, it’s no slouch in terms of altitude, but, since it doesn’t top 14,000′, no one has ever heard of it. Fletcher would kill two birds with one stone: I’d get a second ski mountaineering fix and tick the last remaining major peak along the crest of the Tenmile Range.

Skinning along Blue Lake Road

Passing the dozen or two vehicles parked at the Quandary winter trailhead, we drove another half mile up the Blue Lake Road before parking and setting out. The weather was mixed; some sun, some clouds, some wind, neither encouraging nor particularly discouraging. For nearly two miles, we skinned along the gradually-rising Blue Lakes Road to the large, drained reservoir of the same name hiding behind a startlingly large dam. From here, the going got a little tougher. Scott in particular hates to take off his skis for any reason, but large patches of bare rubble forced us to bipedal locomotion more than once.

Half way along the north shore of the lake, we found a steep snow slope leading upward and we started the climb in earnest. Climbing skins are great things, but they only work on grades up to a certain level. A certain amount of switchbacking back and forth across the slope brought us to a level area at 12,200′ and the entrance to the hanging valley. From here, two routes became apparent. We could stay in the relative shelter of the valley and climb the steep headwall at the end where avalanche conditions might be an issue or bear left and climb the nose of a more gentle ridge to the upper plateau where we would be at the mercy of the wind for quite a while. We opted to try our luck with the valley route.

Ascending to the mouth of the hanging valley with North Star Mountain behind.Entering the valley. The summit is the far-off peak in the center.

The weather hadn’t improved and the lighting was very flat. Distances were very hard to judge and the closer we got to the head of the valley, the steeper the headwall at its end looked. Spying a likely-looking ramp on the right side between different bands of rocks, we opted to make our ascent there. It proved to be arduous. We became nervous about avalanche potential and about my ability to ski down this. Finally, we took off the skis and just booted up the slope which changed my perception of the slope. While the top 3-4″ of snow was relatively unconsolidated wind slab, the lower layers were quite solid. Our skis had stayed on top of the snow, slicing off blocks of new snow and sliding out from under us, but our boots kicked through to the firmer layers below and felt very secure.

It also became clear that the head of the valley was a good deal lower angle than we’d thought from afar and we’d chosen the steepest possible ascent route! There is a bench half way up the headwall, so we traversed over to the middle and ascended the final three hundred feet on the broad slopes there.

Eric and Scott contemplate the final thousand feet of climbing during a rare blue-sky moment.

Finally on the plateau at 13,300′, we got a good look at Fletcher’s summit pyramid. It was imposing, steep, and cut through with a significant band of talus. Eric and Scott maintained hopes of skiing from the summit (surely the most aesthetic option) and lashed their skis to their packs. But I harbored no illusions about my abilities and stashed my skis in some rocks before starting the final ascent (and carefully marking the location with my GPS, a fact that would become important later). Skiing this slope was definitely more than I was comfortable handling, especially after the somewhat nerve-wracking ascent from the valley below. Boots worked fine, but I wished I’d brought more than just my sawed-off skiing and running ice axe for support.

Starting the final push.Scott and I booting along with Drift Peak in the background.

We’d learned that slopes can be deceiving from the distance, but this one was at least as steep as it had appeared. We picked our way up the snow and through the talus band at 13,700′ headed for the ridgeline above. Wind slab “bricks” kept breaking off, but we had seen no sign of shooting cracks, recent slide activity, whumphing or any of the other avalanche danger signs. Still, we were glad to reach the final summit ridge. What appeared to be a potentially huge cornice from below turned out to be a beautiful knife-edge snow ridge with the nearly-vertical eastern face on the other side. It was deliriously exposed (in the good way) and we would have enjoyed it a great deal had we not been so frazzled from the somewhat daunting ascent so far and poor visibility.

Eric rides the spectacular summit ridge with Quandary behind.Scott just below the summit.

Five hours after starting, we reached the summit and took ten minutes to snack and enjoy the incredible position. Fletcher has a dramatic view in all directions: the jagged west face of Quandary to the east, the McCullough and Mayflower Gulches to the NE and west, respectively, the jagged Wheeler and Rockfountain ridges to the south and north, and the familiar summits of Lincoln, Cameron, Democrat, Pacific, Atlantic, Drift, and all the numbered 10-mile peaks, all of which I’ve climbed. It was a good way to “finish off” the Tenmile Range mountains.

Suddenly we noticed that we could no longer see the summit of Quandary across the way. The cloud deck was lowering and the wind was coming up. Hmmm, time to go. We resolved to stay within sight of each other, but spread out enough to probe the best line of descent. I lead off and, by the time I reached the dramatic aerie above the steepest of the east face couloirs at 13,700′, I could barely see my companions a hundred feet farther up-slope. Again, I dearly wished for a more substantial axe as I plunge-stepped down the slope. Our ascent tracks, where they were visible at all in the isotropic whiteness, were rapidly filling with blown snow and it was only by extensive GPS use that I knew I was following our ascent route pretty closely.

Spectacular top to an east-side couloir at 13,700′.Another 20 minutes and I would have been walking down minus a pair of tele skis!

Back down on the saddle, we found my stashed skis (three-quarters covered with snow already). With skis on, I discovered exactly how daunting things were. With white sky, white snow, and light coming diffusely from all angles, it was difficult to see terrain changes. Indeed, it was sometimes hard to tell if you were even moving or not! We resolved to get off the plateau as quickly as possible before things got any worse.

We were essentially flying blind for the descent of the upper headwall. Unsure of the slopes directly below, I performed a long, leftward traverse across the bowl, falling once when I sliced off a ski-length of wind crust. That got all my alarms clamoring and I quickly got down to the flatter area at 13,000′. Visibility had improved a bit at this point and the second drop was a bit easier. Rattled as I was, all the marginal telemark skills I picked up this year and last went right out the window. I managed a few half-hearted turns in the wildly-varying snow conditions and was inevitably rewarded with a face-to-face with the snow. So mostly I just survival-skied as hard as I could. Scott and Eric with their heavier AT gear (and much higher skill level), managed to make it look good and were clearly having a good time.

Making it look semi-good.…and making it look not so good.

The farther down we got, the better the weather became. We found a long, gentle gully back down to Blue Lake which was essentially a huge, natural half pipe. It was great to oscillate from side to side and play around with the various small lips and cornices. I started to relax and enjoy myself, but my technique still hadn’t improved appreciably. We reached the frozen-and-drained lake and booted up and around the dam again. The road which had seemed like a gentle grade on the ascent turned out to be a pretty steep descent and I was quickly out-distanced by the AT-ers. Back at the car, it started to snow again and the clouds dropped even further than they had before. Mission accomplished. Time to go.

It wasn’t necessarily the triumphant climax of my skiing season, but it was still a great day out with friends. I got up, I got down, and mostly I had skis on my feet. Good enough for me.

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