Cirque of the Unclimbables

A little over ten years ago, when I first started leading rock routes, my dad bought me a climber’s log book to record my various ascents. Unsurprisingly (based on my lack of effort with keeping diaries in the past) I’ve been diabolically bad at updating it. However it has been far from a wasted purchase as the photos that are scattered throughout the book have been a huge source of inspiration to me. The photo that caught my imagination more than any other was an image of a silhouetted hiker dwarfed by a gargantuan wall of granite, bathed in sunlight and rising countless hundreds of metres into the sky behind him. The description underneath read: “Cirque of the Unclimbables, North West Territories, Canada”.  The seed was sown.

In March this year, my friend Wilki discovered that he currently has a condition which precludes him going to extreme altitudes. This news forced us to re-think our proposed trip to climb high altitude peaks in Peru and got me thinking about some potential low-to-medium altitude destinations where we could find adventure in abundance.  It wasn’t long before I was researching how one goes about getting to the Cirque of the Unclimbables. “Not easily” was the answer!  But that wasn’t going to put me off.

I put together a four man team consisting of a sports climbing super-star (Sam Hamer), a highly experienced alpinist (Wilki), and a world class kite skier/ kite surfer (Muzz).  Despite not being a climber I had no doubts that Muzz would be a fantastic addition to the team due to his general competence as a highly experienced expeditioner, and his boundless enthusiasm.  I wasn’t wrong. We met up in Vancouver airport and drove straight up to Squamish (Canada’s answer to Yosemite) for a quick training hit on the immaculate granite which it has to offer and spent two days getting to know each other properly and consuming copious amounts of pancakes and syrup. The highlight of our trip to Squamish was climbing ‘The Grand Wall’ on the Chief, Squamish’s most impressive cliff, which is generally considered to be one of the most coveted routes in the world at its grade (approx. E4). We climbed in two teams, as we would in the Cirque, Sam with Wilki, and Muzz with me, and ascended the route in around eight hours with only one awkward moment when Wilki emptied his bladder down a crack, unaware of the fact that someone was climbing up said crack just five metres below. Wilki made a swift exit, thus avoiding being beaten to a pulp by a steaming Canadian (literally and figuratively) three hundred metres up the Chief!

Below are a few shots from Squamish including two shots that I’ve stolen off the net which shows the crux pitch of ‘The Grand Wall’ of which we failed to get any particularly good photos.

Wilki climbing 'The Exasperator' in Squamish  Wilki leading on the 'Grand Wall'  'The Grand Wall' Split Pillar pitch

Finn McCann climbing 'The Exasperator' in Squamish  Sam Hamer leading on the 'Grand Wall'

'The Grand Wall' Sword pitch  Muzz climbing 'The Grand Wall'  Muzz on the descent route off 'The Chief'

On returning to Vancouver we spent a fantastic evening with my great friends from uni days Joe and Polly, before flying up to Whitehorse which is the biggest settlement in the Yukon. A fantastic fact about the Yukon is that it has a population of 30,000 people; 27,000 live in Whitehorse itself and approximately 1,500 live in each of ‘the other’ two settlements. What’s important to note here is the Yukon is approximately the same size as Spain! That leaves a huge amount of wilderness. I had arranged to be flown into the Cirque by a float plane pilot based out of Watson Lake which is a four hour drive from Whitehorse so the morning after arriving in town we found ourselves optimistically stood on the south exit with our thumbs stuck out attempting to hitch a lift. Seven hours later we traipsed back into town with aching thumbs and tails set firmly between our legs! We finally made it to Watson Lake by bus a day later and began the next challenge of our trip which was to track down our pilot who didn’t use computers and never picked up his phone. This took a further twelve hours! It wasn’t without a small amount of relief that the following day we found ourselves taking off from Watson Lake, finally on our way into the wilderness that we had come so far to explore.  We landed on a glacial lake an hour or so after taking off and after a brief sort of our gear and food set off on what was to be a seven hour hike in to our base camp with as much as 40 kilo’s on our backs. Having poo poo-ed all the locals who had assured me that if we didn’t carry a gun we WOULD be eaten by bears and/or wolves I was slightly disconcerted by the ubiquitous bear and wolf droppings that we passed on our hike in!

Attempting to hitch out of Whitehorse  Glacier Lake

The team ready for an adventure  Heavily laden for the walk up to the Fairy Meadows

The Cirque of the Unclimbables is a cluster of sheer granite towers in the Ragged Range of the Mackenzie Mountains (not a bad address). We had set our sights on the most famous peak in the Cirque called the ‘Lotus Flower Tower’, a 750m (2,500ft) monolith which stands out from the rest of the peaks as being particularly beautiful. We set up our base camp in the idyllic meadows known as the ‘Fairy Meadows’ an hour’s hike from the base of the Tower and spent our first day bouldering and organising gear for the climb. A heavy rainstorm in the night and the need to allow the face to dry delayed the start of the climbing for twelve hours till 14.00 the next day. The first ten pitches of the Tower climb up amazing flakes and chimneys, at a relatively moderate grade, to a substantial ledge which is located at the half way point of the climb. I was chuffed to bits at how well Muzz climbed these pitches despite his lack of climbing experience and he ended up only having to jumar two of the pitches up to this point and free-climbed everything else with a big grin on his face!

Sam Hamer bouldering in the Fairy Meadows  Wilki bouldering in the Cirque of the Unclimbables

The Lotus Flower Tower  Sam Hamer and Wilki on the approach to the Lotus FlowerTower  Finn McCann leading on The Lotus Flower Tower

Sam Hamer, Muzz and Finn McCann low down on the Lotus Flower Tower  Muzz climbing a chimney on The Lotus Flower Tower

We arrived at the ledge just as the light was beginning to fade, it never really got dark as we were so far north but it got dark enough that you wouldn’t want to climb, so we set about failing to make ourselves comfortable and warm and spent the next six hours shivering. That is, everyone but Muzz, who put no effort into making himself warm or comfortable but proceeded to sleep as though he was lying in a hammock in the tropics! He even slept through a few snow showers that passed through. By 04:30 I’d had enough of the shivering and decided that the best way to warm up was to start climbing so I set off up pitch 11 with freezing water running over my fingers and clouds looming above that didn’t inspire confidence. By the time Sam was leading out on pitch 12 a full-on blizzard had set in and after a brief wait to see if it was going to be short-lived we made the difficult decision to retreat off before we really got caught out.

Finn McCann leading pitch 11 of The Lotus Flower Tower  The team huddled on a ledge contemplating waiting or retreating  Muzz abseiling off The Lotus Flower Tower

We then proceeded to have three  days of diabolically bad weather confirming that we certainly made the right decision in bailing off the Tower. We decided to spend these days back down at the lake where we’d left the majority of our food in a shed and could entertain ourselves by going out canoeing, fishing, rock throwing (boy there was a lot of rock throwing) and chatting with a team of Canadians who had hiked in from the nearest settlement. This is a very impressive feat given the unexplored terrain of glaciers, high passes and dense forests.

The Lotus Flower Tower a day after our retreat  The Cirque of the Unclimbables in serious conditions as seen from Glacier Lake

Out canoeing on Glacier Lake  Canoeing on Glacier Lake

As soon as the weather improved we raced back up to the meadows with the remainder of our food. By this stage we had been joined by a second team who were hoping to climb the Tower, Young and Tag from Norway, who proved to be fantastic company for the remainder of our time in the Cirque and have become very good friends indeed. With the new weather window we faced the conundrum of attempting the Tower again immediately but potentially finding it still very wet, or alternatively climbing it a day later when it should be drier but risk missing the weather window for a second time.  With a good forecast coming through on the sat phone we opted for leaving it another day to dry out. This gave us an opportunity to climb some of the boulders and routes around our base camp which we found to be incredible themselves and made for a fantastic day of fun.

Sam Hamer leading a yoga session in the Fairy Meadows  Sam Hamer climbing near our base camp in the Fairy Meadows

  Finn McCann climbing in the Cirque of the Unclimbables  Finn McCann climbing near base camp in the Fairy Meadows  Wilki bouldering in the Fairy Meadows

Sam Hamer climbing in the Fairy Meadows  Sam Hamer climbing in the Cirque of the Unclimbables

This time around we woke to clear skies when our alarms rang at 00:30 and we enjoyed a pleasant hike to the base of the route. On pitch two, with headlights still necessary to find holds Wilki took what looked like an unpleasant fall. It’s always horrible watching someone fall; hoping with your heart in your mouth that nothing’s going to snap, be it the rope or their ankles. We could see that the fall had knocked Wilki’s confidence but he reassured us that he was OK and proceeded to dispatch the pitch without a word of complaint. As Muzz set off following me up the second pitch the Norwegians arrived at the base of the route and started gearing themselves up. They took a few shots of us which put the route somewhat into perspective.

The first few pitchs of the Lotus Flower Tower with Muzz visible bottom right  Our team on the first few pitchs of the Lotus Flower Tower  Muzz climbing on The Lotus Flower Tower

The first half of the route went without a hitch and before we knew it we were climbing on new ground. From the ledge to the top we decided to climb as a single team with Sam and myself taking it in turns to lead each pitch. The Lotus Flower Tower,  although not known to many, is considered to be one of the most beautiful climbs in the world and it’s the second half of the climb that gives it this reputation. The headwall which forms the last three hundred metres of the route would be nigh on impossible to climb if it weren’t for the small diorite inclusions which protrude from the granite giving it the feel of an artificial climbing wall with screwed on holds! The headwall itself gets steeper and steeper the higher you climb but the diorite nubbins or “chicken heads” as some call them keep on appearing whenever you need them. It is undoubtedly some of the most enjoyable and aesthetic climbing I have ever done and it certainly deserves the reputation it has gained.  We had a bit of route finding difficulty in the last thirty metres of the climb which came as an unpleasant end to an otherwise immaculate afternoon of climbing but finally found ourselves stood on top of one of North America’s finest peaks as the sun dipped low on the horizon, lighting up the amazing ‘Ragged Range’.

Sam Hamer leading out on The Lotus Flower Towers headwall  Wilki climbing on the headwall

Finn McCann leading out on the headwall of The Lotus Flower Tower  Sam Hamer climbing on The Lotus Flower Tower  Finn McCann climbing the headwall of the Lotus Flower Tower

Sam Hamer pulling through the roof on the crux pitch of The Lotus Flower Tower  Wilki climbing the crux pitch of The Lotus Flower Tower

The Ragged Range  The penultimate and best pitch of The Lotus Flower Tower

Sam Hamer climbing high on The Lotus Flower Tower  Looking down from one of the last pitches of The Lotus Flower Tower  Sam Hamer reaches the top of The Lotus Flower Tower

With darkness preventing us from beginning our abseil immediately,  Wilki, Sam and I found a comfortable spot where we sat shivering whilst Muzz lay down on a spiky rock and slept like a baby…

Our abseil got off to a terrible start when Sam’s and my rope got snagged so badly that we were forced to cut it, but was uneventful thereafter and by 09:00 we were hiking back into basecamp to a chorus of high-pitched whistles emanating not from an adoring crowd of people but from the marmots who sat at look-out points throughout the meadows. Quite an experience! The weather broke three hours after we returned to our tents but luckily the Norwegians, who topped out a few hours after we started abseiling back down, beat the weather and got down safely later that afternoon. We ended up only having one more day of climbable weather in the remainder of our time in the Cirque, but that was just long enough for us to climb some more amazing routes in the meadows and for Sam to make an incredibly impressive ascent of ‘The Cobra’ an 8a route on one of the most amazing pieces of rock I’ve ever seen! Nice one Sam!!!

Wilki climbing in the Fairy Meadows  Finn McCann in Lotus position at the Lotus Flower Tower base camp  Sam Hamer on 'The Cobra' 8a

We said our farewells to the meadow and its marmot inhabitants fifteen days after first arriving and headed back down to the lake where we proceeded to sit for two days waiting to be picked up by our float plane. This is pretty prompt by Yukon standards… back in the day when hunters and trappers were dropped in the wilderness by pilots they’d simply agree on a season to be picked up in! The Norwegians, who got picked up a day after us, made a rather impressive entrance into our lodge by jumping out of the plane from 11,000ft wearing wing suits! The two of them are currently in Yosemite where they’re hoping to climb some big walls and base jump as much as possible. Amazing guys!

The team along with the Norwegians in our kitchen at base camp  Glacier Lake at the end of our trip

Finn McCann canoeing on Glacier Lake with the arriving float plane just visible behind him  Time to go home

So we discovered that the granite towers of the Cirque are indeed climbable, but only for very brief periods of time! Given that people only ever attempt to climb in the Cirque in July and August it’s no surprise that these mountains get very few ascents. What made this trip so special was that we were visiting an area which is truly remote and pristine. The Lotus Flower Tower, which I’ve been dreaming about for over ten years, is as beautiful as I could ever have imagined and certainly ranks as one of the most amazing climbs I’ve undertaken to date. All in all… a great adventure!

I want to thank my three team mates for being such fantastic company and such competent and reliable partners on the rock.  Many thanks to my mum and Niall for their role as the ‘home team’ in keeping us up to date with forecasts. Huge thanks to Lucy for the texts that she sent through daily on the sat phone brightening my days and infuriating the others who appeared to have been forgotten by the outside world! Thanks to Warren LaFave of ‘Kluane Airways’ and ‘Inconnu Lodge’ for his incredible hospitality and generosity. And lastly, a huge thanks to Mammut for their support and amazing kit which couldn’t have performed better.

Mammut

5 thoughts on “Cirque of the Unclimbables

  1. Looks way epic! How hard is the climbing on the upper headwall? Thinking of making a trip there soon, would appreciate any tips you could give me 🙂

    • Hi Daniel, the climbing is largely around 5.8-5.9 on the headwall. The crux pitch is 5.10c. Very well protected the whole way up. The lower half of the route is fun the upper half is stupendous!

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