Cirque of the Unclimbables & Nahanni River

August – September, 2011

We emptied the entire truck, dumped the contents of our many duffel bags on the gravel pad. No ropes. This was turning out to be a spectacularly bad start to a trip into the Cirque of the Unclimbables. Our pilot, Warren, showed up before we’d even rolled out of our sleeping bags after our 2 am arrival. We spent the short night at his plywood cabin on the unpaved Canol Road that had taken us more than 8 hours to reach from Whitehorse. He was ready to go, but we weren’t. We scrambled to pull all of our gear together before realizing that in our haste to pack for this trip 4 months prior, we forgot a key piece of equipment.

“Well, I might have some old ropes kicking around at the lodge that you could use.” Warren was amazingly good-natured about our embarrassing oversight. But his mention of old ropes wasn’t terribly reassuring. “I know, if we don’t have anything there, I have to fly to Whitehorse on Tuesday so I could pick some up for you.” So it was decided. We would fly to his lodge where we would have to wait for a weather window anyway and figure out a plan from there.

Finally, almost a week later, we had our ropes and Warren flew us into Glacier Lake near the base of the cirque. It was late August and darkness had begun to creep into the evening hours. He shuttled our gear out quickly, racing to beat the twilight. After chasing a porcupine out of the gear shack at the lake, we regrouped and checked all of our gear, paranoid that we had everything we needed for camping, climbing, and packrafting. The next morning the clear skies offered a glimpse of the staggeringly steep, snow-covered peaks above. We picked our way up the large talus of the lower slope with heavy loads—food and climbing gear for 8 days.

We arrived at the Fairy Meadows in the late afternoon. What an apt name for the gorgeous cirque so picturesque that it might easily house a village of gnomes. Marmots and pikas dashed between boulders and small streams ran perfectly clear. The snow on the top of the massive granite spires didn’t bode well for our climbing objective—the Lotus Flower Tower—but offered a stunning visual contrast to the warm colors of the meadow below. We set up camp under a giant boulder, the choice campsite, and had the cirque to ourselves.

We knew going into this that we were pushing the climbing season and the previous week of wet and cold weather didn’t help. But with the sun baking the peaks we hoped the snow might melt and give us a shot at climbing the impressive, 2000’ pillar.

The next couple of days offered a mix of sun and precipitation and we waited for a decent window to start climbing. One afternoon we stashed our gear at the base so that we could get an early start in the dark when the weather allowed. Finally, we went to bed under clear skies and rose at 3 am to hike up to the base of the climb. It was chilly, temperatures hovering near freezing, and the first pitch gushed water. The next few pitches weren’t much better, dirty and wet, and terribly cold. What should have been easy terrain felt much trickier with the slippery rock and it was difficult to move quickly enough.

By this time clouds had begun to take over the clear skies and an ominous dark band loomed over the next ridge of peaks. We continued to the bivy ledge at approximately the halfway point and stopped to consider our options. It had started to snow lightly and we were still hours from the top, with the more aesthetic but tougher pitches ahead. The weather didn’t look good and it would become more difficult to descend again until we climbed another several pitches. I wasn’t feeling very strong and the cold made everything harder. I worried that the rain and snow would make the pitches nearly impossible for us. So we decided to rappel.

The disappointment from our failure to reach the top was soon tempered by the snow flurries that began in earnest shortly after we reached the ground. We hiked back to camp, cooked a hot meal, and crawled in the tent. When we woke up the next morning, there were several inches of snow on the ground and the entire route on the tower was plastered in snow.

Without an end in sight to the snow and cold, we decided to pack up and head down. We still had the rest of our trip ahead—packrafting the South Nahanni River. We made our way slowly down the wet talus and picked up the rest of our food and gear stashed at the lake. With packs burdened by another 2 weeks of food, packrafts, drysuits, plus our climbing gear, we could barely stand, much less stagger, down the flooded, brushy trail. Finally, we reached the river in a downpour. We waited out the rain under a stand of spruce and were happy to inflate our rafts and begin paddling.

As the second to last party on the S. Nahanni River for the season, we had it essentially to ourselves. After a couple of long days on the upper river, we reached the roiling water of Victoria Falls. These class VI rapids drop more than 300’, twice the height of famous Niagara Falls.

We made the necessary portage around, then donned our dry suits for the class III rapids below. For the most part, our packrafts handled the big holes and standing waves well. But about an hour below our put-in I managed to point my boat directly toward a huge boulder and associated whirlpool. By the time I realized where I was headed, it was too late. The circulating water grabbed a side of my heavily-loaded raft and flipped me in an instant. Fortunately I was able to grab my paddle and boat and, with Pat’s help, climb back in. Unlike the dire consequences of capsizing a canoe, flipping a packraft isn’t necessarily a show-stopper. With a dry suit I didn’t have to worry about getting too cold in the frigid water and after a bit of bailing I was ready to keep paddling.

Over the next few days we navigated many more class II-III rapids and passed through deep canyons with multicolored limestone walls. The crisp fall weather and autumn colors created a spectacular backdrop to our paddle. Some days, we hiked up side canyons to explore.

Soon, we learned not to camp in these exposed canyons the hard way. One gorgeous evening we decided to stop paddling a bit early to enjoy a particularly beautiful island site. We watched the moon rise over the canyon walls before we curled up in our sleeping bags. A slight breeze had kicked up and we heard the tent walls flapping lightly. By midnight the wind began to strengthen and showered us with sand. As the wind progressively worsened, we spent a sleepless night holding the tent walls to keep our lightweight shelter from collapsing. Fine silt blew in everywhere, caking our sleeping bags, faces, hair, and inside our mouths. When we woke in the morning, covered in a layer of yellow grit, we looked as though we’d aged a decade overnight. For the rest of the trip, we chose our campsites much more carefully.

The wind offered a final dose of excitement on our last day of the trip. After we’d met the confluence of the Liard River, we had only 20 miles or so to reach the highway where we would take out. We passed Nahanni Butte and started early the next morning under clear skies. By the time we reached the final, straight section of river, the wind was howling from the southwest. Whitecaps built quickly as we were pushed to the far shore in our buoyant rafts. Dust blew from the banks and swirled like mini-tornadoes across the river. We struggled to stay upright in the downriver blow, but finally landed on the shore under the watchful eyes of two Danish tourists who saw our small boats from a distance.

We straggled out of the water, dripping and tense, and were treated to a tasty sandwich and ride to the nearest town by the friendly couple. Over the next day and a half, we caught rides with an x-ray crew and a cadre of motorhomes before reaching our truck and starting the drive back home.

Check out more photos from this trip here

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