Mount Fee, North Tower
April 9, 2016
The infamous Mt. Fee isn’t a “big mountain” by size but its twin towers appear so evil from every side that they almost look “paper thin”. The higher south tower has likely only received lass than a handful ascents in its entire history while the lower north tower is considerably easier, albeit still a serious climb. The rocks are primarily loose volcanic conglomerate so the best time to climb is in spring when snow covers most, if not the entire mountain. The problem with the south tower is that it’s so steep (almost overhanging) that never gets filled in by snow so for someone like me lacking experience in “old school 5.6” rock climbing the north tower would be the best bet.
There’re two trip reports on ClubTread from Simon/Alastair and Dean (solo), respectively, indicating the south-west face is likely the “standard route” but reading their detailed descriptions made me wonder if that’s actually the best way to do it. I also came across a couple pictures from FOON SKIS and ever since that a plan had formed in my head. I talked to Alex about this “secret” route a few months ago and he seemed to be keen to give it a try later in the season. And then there came this spring which has been a good one for the “steeps” so after successfully bagging Atwell Peak and Mt. Shuksan in a roll we figured it’s eventually the time. The route we were counting on was the “North Face Direct” which as some of you might know already, didn’t quite go as expected.
The weather was perfect for the entire weekend so to take the most advantage of it we’d plan as an overnight trip, bagging the nearby glorified “snow dome” – Powder Mountain and another steep volcanic massif – Mt. Cayley as bonuses. Regarding gears, we’d forget about ropes and stuffs as both Alex and myself are super confident on soloing steep snow. After sorting the logistics out the last minute decision was made by Friday night (as usual), and the next morning saw us departing from Alex’s home at 2:30 am. We managed to drive a few kilometers up the Brandywine FSR and parked at the junction where the “low road” branched away from the “high road”.
Head-lamps on we walked back to the “low road” and started skinning right away. We had to take skis off for about 5 times but none of the dry stretches was long and in short time we were back on skinning. The snow became continuous at elevation roughly 900 m and after that we followed the well-groomed snowmobile road down across the upper Brandywine Creek and then up into the “Avalanche Alley”. Most of the cornices hanging way up on climber’s left had collapsed dumping debris all over the place, but thank to the recent grooming the road was free of obstacle, and the next thing we had plodding into the upper bowl and there came the first break of the day.
Our initial plan was to bag Powder/Cayley on Day 1, camp near the face of Mt. Fee and climb it on Day 2, but as we approaching the high pass west of Brandywine Mountain we changed our mind. The route over to Powder/Cayley looked much longer than expected and the S. Face of Mt. Cayley was already baking under the sun. The N. Face of Mt. Fee would still be in the shade for a couple more hours so why not climb Mt. Fee first. We dug a pit and dumped some unnecessary gears before swinging back left (south) over some undulating terrain along the ridge. There’s one troublesome pinnacle along the way but we went up and over it nonetheless.
After that pinnacle we went climber’s right to bypass a sub-peak, over a few more rolls (some frustrating down-hills along the way) and then the N. Face of Mt. Fee was finally displaced in front of us. I was disappointed about the first sight of it as the “North Face Direct” was apparently melted out near the bottom. There’s a huge gap on what appeared like down-sloping rocks so that route was a no-go on this day. We skin’d to the base of our objective nonetheless and after some discussion a “variation” idea was formed – to sneak through the only snow passage on climber’s left side before making a long traverse over some very steep stuffs to hit the upper face.
The route still looked gnarly even from the base of it and appeared much steeper than Atwell, but oh well. Two ice tools out, crampons strapped we also ditched our backpacks before proceeding up the face. The initial section staying on climber’s right side of north ridge went fairly easily, until the grade steepened near the rock step. The snow passage was quite narrow and the snow was thin and loose making some uncomfortable mixed climbing moves. The rocks were no joke at all even for someone with a strong Rockies’ background. I gingerly led the way through, and then up a steep (50-60 degree) channel before crossing the first snow rib to my right. Here there’s a massive cornice hanging above and cliffs below so we moved as quickly as possible. The slope angle increased to about 60 degrees for a while as we started traversing the “middle bend” but thankfully mellowed down to about 45 degrees later.
Thankfully the snow condition was close to “perfect” on this day – hard enough to give some solid purchase on our ice tools and yet, not too icy so after a few kicks we could manage to create those “bucket steps”. It never felt that intimidating but to create those steps we had to kick at least 3, if not 6 times per step. I knew these steps could be very handy for the down-climb (given the rising diagonal traverse angle). Eventually after what seemed like a long process we merged to the upper face’s fall line. Alex took over the lead and kicked the rest of the way, straight up the face. The slope was mostly 45-50 degrees for the channel but steepened for the last few meters near the top. The views were great (as expected) and especially with the intimidating south tower stealing the show.
After a few obligatory pictures we had to focus on getting off this mountain. I was pretty worried about a few sections of it to be honest, but let’s focus on one step at a time. The first few steps getting back into the upper face was super sketchy. The snow was a bit loose, the steps were huge (long reach required for descent) and the exposure was severe, but after getting into the “mode” the rest of the upper face’s down-climb was not bad at all following our steps. Now time to traverse, and again, those steps made our lives much easier than anticipated and in short time we were back to that 60-degree section. Some great care was required to deal with a few more long-reaches but soon enough, it was over and we were back to the crux rock steps. And again, a few stemming moves and long-reaches solved the problem, and the rest of the descent down the lower north ridge was fast and fun.
Back to where we ditched backpacks I was happy to have Mt. Fee North Tower – North Face successfully climbed and yet, still safe and sound. We took a long break regathering both physical and mental strength before putting skis back on for the skinning plod. A few rolls were ascended and descended before we could eventually rip off the skins for a fast, albeit a bit slushy run down into the Brandywine bowl. We skin’d back along our own (and the snowmobile) tracks to where we ditched overnight gears.
Now with the biggest prize down the “list” it’s time to focus on our next objective. Our plan was to plod all the way to the base of Mt. Cayley before setting up camp, and then go for another long plod up Powder Mountain in the evening, wake up at 3 am the following morning for another steep climb up Mt. Cayley.
Speaking Mt. Fee North Tower, this is certainly another highlight adding to the already-awesome season. While there’s no particular “cruxy” step (and we did manage to down-climb the entire thing without aid of a rope), this is certainly one of the most committing objectives I’ve ever done and without the prefect condition there was no way.