The Status of the Cirque

Martin Roos - 1995

This trip began with exam time procrastination in McGills Redpath Library. The entire CAJ collection graces her shelves, and can have a powerful effect on redirecting studies. My attention was destined to wander from my crib sheets, and I was soon drawn to the Northwest Territories, and tales of adventure in the Cirque of the Unclimbables. The area is remote but accessible, the climbing has an excellent reputation, and the photos that I had seen were stunning. I became convinced that an expedition was absolutely necessary. On this 36 day trip, Kevin Riddell, Paul Swayze, Dominik Hartman and I climbed in the Cirque, and returned to the Liard highway by paddling down the Nahanni River. This report is written to describe our expedition in the Cirque of the Unclimbables, and to encourage climbers to protect it for the future.

There are several ways to get to the Cirque. We flew in from Fort Liard, since we planned to paddle down the Nahanni, and this is where the river trip would end. Most people however, come in from Watson Lake since it involves the least flying time. After being delayed a few days due to weather, we piled our gear into a single Otter float plane and flew to Glacier Lake. When we arrived, we divided our equipment into two equal parts that we would ferry into the Cirque. With our packs approaching 100 lbs., the ever shifting talus mountain leading into the heart of the Cirque was a brutish and joint grinding chore. Although the approach is only about 3 miles, it rises about 2000', all of which was within the last mile. Our first ferry, complete with a Tyrolean traverse across a swollen creek, and losing the trail several times required seven exhausting hours.

After hauling in our food and climbing gear, we were rewarded with our first view of the Fairy Meadow. This is a lush alpine meadow at the centre of the Cirque, which is adorned with boulders of all sizes, and gushes with clear rivulets. With luck, one can see families of wild goats, and also chunky marmots that oversee the Meadow from the tops of the boulders. We saw no signs of the Grizzlies that patrol the Brintnell Creek valley. The ground squirrels are the only threatening wildlife in the Cirque: everything must be fastidiously hung above the ground, since the diminutive marauders find great delight in gnawing on everything from sleeping pads and tents, to rubber dry bags. Some hefty steel military cases can be found at the more popular campsites, and these can keep the rodents out of the whisky.

The weather in the Cirque of the Unclimbables is unpredictable and often wet. We made our home in a cave under a house-sized boulder; this was useful during the ensuing deluge, since the waterproofness of our 20 year old expedition tent was no longer worth debating. For the first ten days, the weather cycle included intermittently rainy and snowy mornings, and only slightly less soggy evenings. We spent our time in our cave, cooking, staying warm by climbing the boulder problem formed by the roof of our cave, and devising clever ways of waging war on the more clever squirrels.

The foul weather in the Cirque has soaked the climbing ambitions of many teams. When we first arrived in the Meadow, we met a dejected group who had been there for three weeks; originally they had hopes of establishing a new line, but only managed to climb the Lotus Flower Tower (LFT). Another experienced group stayed two weeks, but again the climate rebuffed their attempts on technical routes. Though good weather is never certain, it is best to plan to stay in the Cirque for at least two weeks providing your Karma is in positive balance. The walls of the Cirque block out the sky other than directly overhead, making it difficult to analyze the weather. Our barometer proved to be of little use, since the weather patterns are very local, and offer few forecasting clues. When bad weather comes, it sweeps down quickly on the Cirque, dousing it with freezing rain or hail. When the weather looked like it was finally settling, we prepared to climb the (in)famous LFT.

With our first clear view of the peaks around us, the apocalyptic sound of engines filled the air: a helicopter landed by the base of the LFT. Our route was being scooped! Some well heeled climbers wisely avoid climbing the talus slope by flying directly into the Meadow. Grumbling about our tree planting wages, we set out the next morning at 4:15 for the one hour hike to the base of the route, passing the tent that had materialized there the night before. The first three pitches are technically moderate, but required direct aid due to the torrent of frigid water, and glistening verglas on the rock. Beyond this, the route follows a system of easy chimneys to a Ritz Carleton of bivouac ledges. Above the ledge, the route takes on a different character. A system of cracks leads to the summit, and numerous chickenheads make great holds; some are so large that they can be slung as protection.

The LFT is by far the most popular route in the Cirque of the Unclimbables, and for good reason. Whereas the lower pitches are damp and dirty, the upper pitches interesting climbing on solid, clean rock, with eye-popping views and breathtaking exposure. A night on the great ledge is said to be a spiritual experience, especially if the Northern Lights are glowing. On our first attempt, we climbed to pitch 13 when the sleet that had started while we were on the ledge forced us to retreat. We rappelled down the well established descent route adjacent to the main line, which has very solidly bolted anchors, set approximately 50m apart. The danger of snagging a rope on a horn or exposed flake is high, and recovery from such a mistake might be extremely difficult. Though we were soaked and frozen, the taste of the upper pitches was so delicious that we swore we would return: this route truly deserves its spot in the 50 Classic Climbs of North America.

Unfortunately most of the climbers in the Cirque are there specifically to climb the LFT; when the weather finally clears after a long wet spell, any team that has not yet climbed the LFT will inevitably be lining up. When the four of us summited on the LFT on our second attempt, we shared the route with eight other climbers! Perhaps this is the bane of a route that is known for its quality.

Yet it is not for lack of interesting routes that the LFT is crowded. There are many excellent routes that rarely get climbed, and as the popularity of this area increases, these routes will inevitably certainly receive more attention. An example of such a route is the Direct East Buttress route on Mt. Harrison Smith. We climbed the East buttress of Mt. Harrison Smith between our attempts on the LFT. This is a 17 pitch affair, established by a Japanese team in 1985. Due to the instability of the weather, we sieged the route over the span of three days, fixing ropes, and returning to our cave to sleep. Due to the slightly northern exposure of this route, the first few pitches are very mossy: "multe erba" as the friendly Italians in the Meadow would say. The upper pitches of Mt. Harrison Smith are a lot dirtier, wetter, and looser than the LFT. Aid was necessary several times, but only briefly to avoid particularly loose sections. A handhold pulled out, sending me on a 150 foot space flight, as my protection zippered out from the chossy rock. This is exactly the kind of bladder draining ride that can make a person laud the merits of golf.

In retrospect, the route is perhaps not as brilliant as claimed by the Japanese, but it is more of an adventure than the LFT. In addition the East buttress of Mt. Harrison Smith (V 5.10d A2), and the LFT (V 5.9 A1), we also climbed Terrace Tower (III 5.9 A1), and Unicorn Spire (III 5.9). From the latter, the views of the entire Cirque and Fairy Meadow are absolutely stunning.

The routes we managed to climb are but a tiny sample of the approximately fifty known routes in the Cirque. Since Arnold Wexler's team first climbed in the Cirque of the Unclimbables in the 1950's, many impressive lines have been established. The week before we arrived, Stefan Glowacz and Kurt Albert, two leading European alpinists, established a new route on Mt. Harrison Smith, their progress recorded by a helicopter supported film crew. Across the Meadow, a team of three was visible near the summit of Mt. Proboscis. Elite alpine rock climbers see great potential for new routes in the Cirque, and the number and caliber of routes is sure to increase.

The Cirque is no longer a well kept secret among climbers. This is a mixed blessing of the relative ease with which information can now be accessed and disseminated; for example every team that we met in the Cirque had a copy of George Bell's Guide to the Cirque of the Unclimbables. This is a WorldWideWeb site at which contains maps, geographical and logistical information, relevant addresses and names, a topographic route description of the Lotus Flower Tower (LFT), and a record of mountaineering routes in the area. We used this ourselves several times during the planning and execution of the expedition. One of the results of this access to information is that more and more people are discovering the Cirque of the Unclimbables, and making the pilgrimage. During the 24 days that we were in the Cirque, there were a total of 33 climbers from Montreal, Calgary, Revelstoke, Illinois, Colorado, Utah, Czechoslovakia, England, Italy, and Germany. Nonclimbers, including hikers and guided tourists from Nahanni River based tourism companies, added approximately 25 more.

The volume of traffic in the Cirque is infinitesimal in comparison to the masses seen in Yosemite. However, considering the fragility of the Fairy Meadow, this number may already be too many. The ecosystem in the Cirque is an alpine meadow, which is fragile by definition: it does not take much to erode the vegetation at this northern latitude. Based on the accounts that I had read, I went into the Cirque expecting an untamed wilderness, and in many ways this was true. The walls rise high, the pristine Meadow is verdant, and the endless streams that wind through it are cold, clear and pure enough to drink.

Nevertheless, the Meadow is beginning to show signs of wear. For example, in the 50 Classic Climbs in North America, the bivouac ledge is described as grassy. There is no longer any grass on the ledge, and its cracks have been stuffed with many rusted tins and other signs of human wastefulness. Refuse and old fuel cans littered our base camp cave, and others nearby, when we moved in. Deep ruts have been worn into the Meadow by human feet. It will not take much more carelessness to violate the raw beauty of the Fairy Meadow, and thus low impact camping should be encouraged.

There are a few simple measures that we can take to protect the Cirque from human induced damage. We packed our rubbish, as well as several bags of trash left by other people. Hauling garbage down the monstrous talus slope is an added effort, but it must be encouraged. The Meadow currently has no outhouse, which as human traffic increases, will become a necessity. If the borders of the Nahanni National Park were extended to include the Cirque of the Unclimbables, wardens would be able to maintain an outhouse. There is a movement to expand the Nahanni Park borders however, this is a controversial issue involving Native land claims, and no solution is immediately forthcoming.

When our sojourn in the Cirque of the Unclimbables was over, we exited via the Nahanni river. We staggered down to Glacier Lake, where were picked up by float plane, to be deposited by the Wardens cabin at Rabbitkettle Lake. It would have been possible to hike this distance, but the plane was carrying our rented canoes, as well as our salvation of fresh fruit and single malt whisky.

The river is a leisurely cruise, spiced with exciting whitewater sections, that attracts about one thousand paddlers every summer; this does not include the hundreds who fly in simply to view Virginia Falls. Although the river witnesses hoards of tourists, the campsites are clean and relatively unobtrusive. The wardens do an excellent job at managing the crowds and keeping the park organized and clean. Perhaps if the Cirque were granted National Park status, the area might be protected from human damage. Until then however, it is up to climbers to pack out what they pack in. It is sad to think that if we do not adopt a protective attitude toward this beautiful area, it may be spoiled by human laziness. As young climbers of tomorrow, we extend a challenge to those who climb in the Cirque of the Unclimbables, to keep its rough fragility intact.