A little bit of history: As mentioned above this is the third attempt we've made at climbing Blackcomb Buttress. In theory it shouldn't be too difficult of a route to climb, however the weather never seems to co-operate for us. We made our first attempt on the July long weekend last year (2009) and after spending $40 for a chairlift ride up we hiked to the base of the talus fields and discovered that there was still way too much snow on the route to climb it safely. We spent the day practicing anchor building in the talus field and hiking at Whistler. We went back later that year in August when we were sure that the snow would be gone and we thought we were well prepared. This time we brought a tent and overnight gear and camped out beside Blackcomb lake, right below the buttress in hopes of having an early start and a good weather window in the morning. We went to bed under beautifully clear skies and woke up at 5am to a socked in and mega cloudy day making the decision to go back to sleep for a few hours and then have leisurely hike back to the chairlifts to head home an easy, but disappointing choice to make.
And that brings us to Sunday's attempt (Take 3). After experiencing how quick it was to hike from the chairlifts to the base of the route at Blackcomb Lake the year before (about 45 min on sidewalk-like trails) we decided to try to climb the peak in one day. According to the ascent times listed in the guide book it should be possible to take the first chairlift up in the morning, climb the mountain and be done in time to catch the last chair lift down that same night. This is, however, a tight window. The first chair up isn't until 10am and the last chair down is at 5pm; the climb is estimated to take 6 hours round trip. This doesn't leave a lot of spare time, however, if you do miss the last chair all it means is a looooong hike down Blackcomb mountain, which sucks, but isn't the end of the world. The downside to doing the route in one day using the chairlifts is that you can not get an early start and weather in the moutnains tends to be better (and safer) early in the morning.
We left North Van at 6:30am on Sunday morning and after a quick breakfast at Timmy's we were on our way to Whistler. We had an uneventful drive along the sea to sky and arrived in Whistler shortly after 8am. Along the way we noticed the weather was deteriorating the further North we went but the forecast had promised no rain until that evening so we thought we'd go for it, even with the dark clouds looming in the distance. We bought our lift tickets, harassed the lifties to let us up the mountain early (to no avail) and grabbed a coffee while we waited for the lifts to officially open. The lifties let us board the chairs at 9:45, 15 min earlier than expected. Every minute counts on this climb so we were happy. The last two times we've been up to Blackcomb Buttress we have taken the Whislter Gondola followed by the Peak to Peak over to Blackcomb. This time however we took the Wizard and Solar Coaster chairs to the top, which turned out to be about 20min faster. We were at the top of the lifts by 10:15 and at Blackcomb Lake (the base of the Buttress) by 10:50am.
We took a minute here to do some route planning and then we were off and heading up the scree slope to the base of the Bu tress. The scree slope was fairly easy hiking that alternated between loose scree, big rocks and grass/dirt trails. It was steep but not too technical so we could make good time on the approach. It took us about an hour to hike/climb up the approach and reach the start of the 3rd/4th class scrambling. At this point the route quickly went from a reasonably easy hike to fairly technical scrambling. Not having much experience with scrambling or unroped climbing I was a bit uncomfortable ascending this bottom portion of the route as it quickly steepened, which slowed us down a bit. We scrambled over the first few steps unroped and then we harnessed up and short roped the next step.
Approach to the Buttress
At the Base of the Buttress
At this point we were traversing to climbers left to gain the easier rib up the Buttress. We came to a step that was quite steep (almost vertical) where we stopped to reassess. We spent a few minutes deciding if we should rope up and simu-climb this step and this is when the snow started. It was only snowing lightly but the dark clouds in the distance made us decide that we should probably cut our losses before we got into anything too technical. So, once again we turned back and retreated off of Blackcomb Buttress (for the Third time!), officially making it seem incredibly elusive to us, i.e. our Unicorn!
Black Tusk and Bad Weather
We took our time and enjoyed the hike back to the chair lifts and the ride down to the village where we took a stroll through the Whistler Farmer's Market followed by a great dinner of beer and Nachos in Squamish.
Bad weather and Blackcomb Lake
Retreating; Blackcomb Lake in distance