Sean Isaac and I had climbed several long routes together in Yosemite in May of '96, so when he called me to ask if I was interested in going to the remote Cirque of the Unclimbables in the summer of '97, I readily accepted. I had found him to be a reliable and committed climber - something of a rarity these days in the climbing community, as I was discovering. Those of us who know Sean are also aware of his unwavering and disgustingly coarse sense of humour, which I considered to be something of an asset in anyone with whom it was necessary to share the unflattering, close confines of a portaledge for days at a time. Sean had also done all the legwork involved in financing the trip through the Mugs Stump Award. This pretty much solved the major obstacle of an expedition - money.
Winter flew by; before I knew it, the appointed time was upon me and I was off to Canmore with fifty bucks in my pocket and every shred of gear I could carry with me.
Once I had arrived in Canmore, we frantically packed what seemed to be a ridiculous amount of food into the back of Sean's rusty Datsun pickup. The sight of the fully packed mini-truck was frightening; its wheels almost touched the wheel wells, it was so overloaded. Nor had there been any time to replace the brake pads, which were pretty much worn to the metal. We therefore opted for the "safer" of the two routes north - through the prairies, burning a litre of oil per tank of fuel in the process.
Our hopes of actually making it north grew as we closed in on Watson Lake; by the evening of July 27, we were rolling down the last few miles of desolate dirt road to Findlayson Lake, where we planned on being picked up the following morning.
After getting picked up by our pilot, Warren LaFave, on the morning of the 28th, we spent several idle days at Warren's luxurious lodge. It was located only 85 miles from the Cirque, but we were delayed several days because of the weather. This was no bad thing, as we enjoyed much fine dining and comfortable accommodation during our wait.
Finally, on the third day, Warren felt the weather was good enough to do an airdrop in Fairy Meadows, our future basecamp. The nearest place to land the plane was 6 km from Fairy Meadows, so Sean and I decided to throw as many items out of the plane as we thought might withstand the 60-ft. drop onto the meadow. This was meant to save us valuable days of hiking and time spent recovering from the long trip from Glacier Lake to Fairy Meadows. There wasn't much room within the granite walls of the Cirque, and some difficult-looking flying was necessary to pass over the meadow. We threw our equipment out of the camera hole in the bottom of the plane during a three-second window of time that would keep the gear within the appropriate drop area.
It took Warren five gut-churning passes over Fairy Meadows to get all of our stuff out of the plane. I felt sick for the rest of the short flight to Glacier Lake.
At the lake, we emptied our remaining supplies out of the plane and onto the shore. We briefly said goodbye to Warren, knowing that he was our only connection back to civilization. The remoteness of the area seemed rather daunting as the plane took off and disappeared over the nearby peaks. The steep march to Fairy Meadows was longer than it had first appeared.
From the lake, a flat walk for several hours along a rough, swampy trail led to the base of Mount Harrison Smith. We crossed several fast-moving creeks along the way. From the flanks of Harrison Smith a loose, shifting talus slope a kilometre wide in places gains almost 850m of elevation in roughly 2 km. It was very hot and I soon began to feel as if I were in the desert. Sean arrived in the meadows before me and busied himself gathering our gear which was scattered everywhere, some of it having exploded over the length of the marshy meadow. I helped Sean locate several missing items, many of which were submerged in the various creeks flowing through the meadow. We lost some food, and Sean's sleeping bag was soaked.
Over the next week, we ferried more gear from the lake to Fairy Meadows, scoped the various towers in the area and established a gear cache at the base of Bustle Tower. We had intended to climb Flattop Peak but decided against it because of the quantity of water running down the face. Nearby Bustle Tower was equally as big, and the south face had some excellent, clean rock.
We spent some time getting to know the other party in the area, a group of climbers/skiers/kayakers from Telluride and Park City. Since our arrival, the weather had been mostly sunny and warm. There were short periods of rain on most days, but I was beginning to figure that the stories of torrential rains were all lies told to dissuade other climbers. It seemed like a long time since I had last climbed; I started thinking that this expedition stuff was going to ruin my climbing fitness. Finally, 12 days after leaving Canmore, we began climbing. We fixed 100m of rope up a short rock scar at the base of the wall. That night, we ate pizza and "fried" a cake in anticipation of having to eat cold, canned wall food for the next five days.
We had intended to get on the wall for good the following day, but after only one pitch an alarmingly fast-moving rainstorm hit us. We waited in an evil cave in the boulders at the base, but after an hour or so we realized that this storm was a lot more like the extended downpours we'd heard about from other parties. As we walked back to camp in the slashing rain, waterfalls began pouring off everything, carrying with them torrents of rock débris, snow and ice. We witnessed several spectacular slides and noted with relief that the line we had chosen to climb on Bustle Tower had remained reasonably sheltered because of two roofs on the route.
The following day dawned clear and warm. Again we hiked to the base of the tower and jumared to our high point. From here there was a face crack which appeared to go for several pitches. It was my lead and I quickly discovered that the face crack was actually only a seam surrounded by huge, detached flakes of granite. I quickly backed off and opted for the gold corner crack immediately right of the belay. This pitch proved to be one of the finer pitches on the route, with steep 5.10 hand jamming for 55m and a short section of easy French free at the end. Sean was leading another mixed pitch when a squall hit us. I was a little freaked and anticipated the force of the previous day's downpour, so I set up the portaledge, while Sean drilled anchors at the top of his pitch. Soon he was rappelling back to the belay. We enjoyed a show from our ledge, watching the rain fall 20 ft. away as the roof directly above sheltered us. The weather had cleared by the time we finished preparing for the night.
The next morning, I led past the exposed, box-shaped roof above, feeling I had lucked out on this jewel of a pitch as I aided easily out the left wall via a hidden flake crack in the glorious morning sunshine! We climbed higher and the rock improved, becoming more featured with the prominent knobs we had seen from the ground.
We set up our final portaledge camp that afternoon in a spectacular location below the last big roof. At the left-hand edge of the roof, a crack split a long corner that led almost to the tower's ridge crest. Our intention was to take advantage of the almost 24 hours of light to make a push from our high camp to the summit and back in one day. The weather remained warm and clear. Sean expressed his disappointment that we probably weren't going to see what it was like to sit out a cold storm in a portaledge. That evening I watched as the quarter moon rose over the Echelon Spires across the valley.
The next morning's breakfast of pop tarts and canned peaches felt like too little food. The corner we were climbing into yielded more steep crack climbing on the knob-peppered granite. Despite the corner being nearly vertical, it went at 5.9 and easy 5.10. I watched Sean as he led the second pitch up the corner, weaving from one side to another, following the path of knobs and short seams, the second rope hanging off the back of his harness and never touching the rock. He freeclimbed over a small roof at the end of this pitch. In two pitches we joined the 1973 west ridge route.
This led to a classic, exposed, knife-edged ridge with a few steeper sections of 5.10-. Since we were no longer hauling, the climbing went quickly. I felt much more at home on the upper part of the route. I was enjoying the feeling of covering lots of ground on a wilderness alpine wall. Soon we were snapping photos on the summit, a little surprised at how close it had been from our camp. It was still early in the day. We descended the ridge and before long were continuing down the face from our high camp, having decided that there was enough time to make it to the ground that day.
As we packed up and sorted gear on the ground, I watched the evening light track across the beautiful face, its expanse so much more familiar now. Looking back over the past few days, I thought to myself that the route had been much easier than I had anticipated. The hardest thing had simply been wrapping my head around the idea of doing something unknown. This was my first new, long route; I was proud of the quality line we had established. Perhaps it would go entirely free (5.11+?) in the right condition (dry, that is!). I scanned the face for other potential lines, looking for the next challenge and marveling at the quantity of unclimbed rock.
We spent another 14 days in the Cirque, being constantly reminded of the fickleness of the mountain environment. It rained solidly for the remainder of our stay. We became good friends with the two new arrivals, Doug and Gene, who were from North Carolina. We were becoming more desperate to climb again and, at the same time, increasingly grateful that there had been such a window of good weather for our main objective earlier in the month.
The day finally came when we had to leave the Cirque for good. Our new friends Gene and Doug walked out with us back to Glacier Lake, hoping to escape the everlasting rain by flying out with us. The weather cleared at about the time we arrived on the shores of the lake. We spent the evening drying out and baking on the shale beach.
Warren picked us up on the morning of July 27. I was glad we were about to be delivered back to Warren's lodge, where we would soak in the hot tub and drink a few cold beers. I watched the Cirque slowly disappear from view into the wild northern landscape, its familiar peaks, gleaming with run-off, tempting me to forget the endless rain of the past weeks and reminding me to return again.
The party would like to extend their thanks to the following for their contributions of gear and/or money: CLIMBING magazine and the Mugs Stump Award, the Canadian Himalayan Foundation and the Escape Route.