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South Nahanni 2022: The Cirque of the Unclimbables

2022-09-26 by Quinlan Pfifferoutsideadventureclimbing

Read part one first.

This part of the trip is from day six through day twelve, our time in the cirque.

Day 6

The crew gets read to heft packs up to the fairy meadows. My giant static line in the bottom left.

We had a semi-relaxed morning in camp and were more or less on our way up to the cirque proper by 9:00AM. We took a good picture of all of us standing in front of our comically large/heavy bags before heading out, trying to hide from the mosquitoes before going into the woods. I’d thought the load in the bag the day before was heavy, but with ~7 days of food, climbing gear and a 100 meter static rope, the bag was REAL BAD.

Dirk stands in front of Mt Harrison-Smith after we enter the Fairy Meadows

We split into two groups and started making our way up the ~2500 feet necessary to get to camp. The first couple of miles were fine, and Dirk managed to find some edible mushrooms for dinner, but the trail soon became steep and exhausting. Every time we stopped we were swarmed by mosquitoes. We took a break just before the trail got really steep and I begrudgingly got out the trekking poles. They helped a lot.

After a few hours of slogging, sweating, stumbling and general misery, we made it to the top. We were all a little confused, since every single trip report we’d read mentioned that the traverse along the scree slope under Mt. Harrison-Smith was the worst part of the approach, but we hadn’t even touched it. We’d later learn that the park service had put in a nice trail, which is what we’d been on. Nice! Nobody mentions this anywhere, of course. All told it took us 5-6 hours to get to the top from Glacier Lake.

Home sweet home

It was drizzling a little when we finally made it up to the beautiful alpine wonderland of the fairy meadows, but the advance party (M/Whitney/Mitch) had found a good campspot for us under an overhanging rock. It was a really cool hang-out spot, and a few climbers before us had built little tables, chairs and wind-breaks out of stacked stones. There were even a few places to hang things off the ground so marmots couldn’t get to them.

Jason Magness had told us to look around the cirque for leftover food from previous parties, and I was starting to feel greatly depleted from the calorie defecit, so we did just that. The park service left a bunch of metal crates up there to keep food from being eaten while people were away, and a lot of parties just ditch things in them. I was grateful for whatever was left, which was mostly sardines and a single jar of peanut butter. Calories are calories! I’ve never had liferaft rations before, but they were in there too. Not bad.

I did make the mistake of not cleaning the sardine tin very well, and my food smelled like dead fish for the rest of the trip. Oh well. Whitney gave me some extra instant coffee and I was pretty happy.

Whitney and M had some disagreement over how to do the climb, with M favoring a single push and Whitney looking for more of a 2-day. After talking with a guided party of three in a neighboring rock warren, we all decided the 2-ish day approach would be better.

We’d gone over to talk to them since we saw them looking pretty haggard and trudging in from somewhere, and all of their stuff was wet. Turned out their weather window had gone bad and they’d been snowed on during the upper pitches of the climb, and bailed. They gave us good beta on the conditions up there, including the difficulty and how wet things were probably going to be.

Megan asked them how hard it was and they all just looked at eachother and laughed. It was funny and a little worrying. We all decided that night to spend the next day putting up the static line I’d hauled up, then go for a 2-day attempt the day after, with a bivvy in the middle. Our weather window kind of forced us into that plan, but we all were more or less psyched on it.

For once, the mosquitos mostly left us alone. We all retired to the tents and kind of did our own thing in the evening. M was worried about a burgeoning overuse injury in her arm, so we tried to figure out what to do. Eventually we settled on full Ibuprofen doses around the clock, but she didn’t know if she’d be able to do the climb. With nothing much else to do except try to sleep, we went to bed. As usual, the sun was up for way too long and it felt like it never truly got dark.

Day 7

M looks up towards the base of the climb

Day 7 was kind of a weird one. We got up at the usual time and did breakfast and such before loading packs up for a short climbing day. The plan was to fix the first three pitches of the climb, which are at a much greater difficulty than the rest of the pitches on the first half of the tower (and often wet) so that on our actual climbing day we can just ascend them. To that end, I hauled up the 100 meters of static line and everyone else brought gear, snacks, water and whatever else they wanted to stash at the base of the climb.

First off, it wasn’t easy to get to the climb. Some reports mentioned 45 minutes, the guided party said something like two hours, it was all over the place. I think the first time it took us around 90 minutes, since we ended up traversing a morraine a few times along a poorly marked, shifting trail to get to the base. At one point, Scarlett, Mitch and Dirk took a weird path and went to a random highpoint before joining back up with our trail again.

Once we all made it to the base of the climb, our work still wasn’t done since there was a small snow ridge. I ended up cutting some stairs into it with chunks of rock that I found and tossing the rope in so the climbers could use it. Dirk was hanging out for in the sun to watch, and Scarlett and I would just be in the way so we watched as well.

After a lot of finagling and figuring out systems/gear, Megan led up the first pitch. It wasn’t as wet as we’d thought, but it was super chossy and scary. Scarlett and I had originally planned to head up after them, but the risk of rockfall was too great so we stayed behind. Poor Mitch stood in place on the snow drift for like 90 minutes while Whitney and M went up to a really uncomfortable belay.

M belays Whitney up to the top of pitch 1

They hauled up a backpack, then Mitch joined them. The whole thing looked uncomfortable and like a lot of work. Whitney led up pitch 2 and made a great show of it, looking strong on some overhanging, widening cracks. Mitch had some trouble following up due to the absolutely astronomical weight of the follower pack with all the extra gear on it and aided up to a really comical spot, with all three of them hanging together on one anchor.

After a good amount of shuffling, standing on eachother and pack shifting, Mitch led up pitch three but bailed just under the intimidating roof. M finished it out strong with some crazy moves to skirt under it. Mitch came down and the rest of the gang followed a while later, just after the sun set behind the ridge leading to Mt. Proboscis. The rope was fixed without much other madness, but it had taken something like seven hours to do three pitches. Yikes.

Scarlett and I, meanwhile, just hung out in the granite chaos below, hiding from the sun. I mostly read articles on my phone, occasionally watching the struggles up on the rock. I was glad they took on the task. Thanks climbers! I screwed up on the trip by not bringing sunglasses and burned my eyes, so I had a headache for the next 48 hours.

The evening was slightly apprehensive, with everyone deciding plans, times, what to bring, etc. We all went to bed earlyish, hoping that the day after would be a bit more smooth than today.

Day 8 (Lotus day 1)

Scarlett getting ready to jug up the fixed line. You can see Whitney already on the line near the top of pitch two.

Megan and Whitney get up a bit earlier and head out before Scarlett, Mitch and I do. They’re going first and we don’t want to be crowding them at belays. My alarm doesn’t go off for some reason so I have a semi-rushed morning, but all is well. Everything was packed the night before so I only had to eat, drink some coffee and get going. We leave around 7:45AM, and the packs feel heavy.

M is just about halfway up the fixed line by the time we get to the base. Whitney starts up after we get there and we take our time sorting packs and gear and making a “light” leader pack, which I take. Eventually Scarlett starts up and makes it past the first re-belay on the rock. I start up after her.

None of us had practiced ascending before the trip, and it takes a while to figure out technique. Even with the lighter pack, I use way too much energy and end up hosing my left arm for the rest of the day. It’s exhausting work, especially after doing nothing but paddling and driving for the previous couple of weeks.

Eventually, I make it up and theres a slight traffic jam. We’d left a bag at the top of pitch three, and now both Whitney and Scarlett are there hanging with it. I stay below for a while. Sooner or later everything is sorted out, Megan and Whitney are out of the belay and I start up.

Mitch following up one of the chimney pitches carrying the heavy pig

It’s easy climbing but sketchy: Loose chunks, big hollow flakes, dirty ledges and cracks full of grass. Luckily someone has scraped out parts of the grassy cracks so that I can put protection in. M gives me some pointers about loose things from up above, and I make it to the first belay with only some moderate panic.

I belay Mitch and Scarlett up, and we’re on our way. I make some mistakes on the next pitch and have to do some exciting dynamic moves as well as a weird downclimb to get into the chimneys. Luckily M and Whitney have done a lot of the flailing and route finding already, and M points out the first couple of good belays. Eventually we lose sight of them and I’m on my own.

Things go well, but my arms start cramping. Mentally, I curse my poor technique on the jugging. My left arm is way worse, but I fight through it and try to hydrate. We’re well into the chimney now, and after 4 full, long, 60 meter pitches I hand over the lead to Mitch. He takes off and I’m really sad about how heavy the bag he was carrying is on my shoulders. Poor Scarlett had the heaviest one of all of us and was working really hard.

Mitch fires up his first lead after the swap

Scarlett and I trade delirious conversation as Mitch presses up towards the top. We eventually make it out of the chimneys, and Megan cheers us on as we near the last pitch to the ledge. Mitch takes a while but sends the hardest pitch of the day with some clutch secret-hold finding. Scarlett and I enjoy a good long sit just below while he makes it up. We follow and collapse onto the bivy ledge, which is as incredible as everyone makes it sounds. Whitney is already half asleep, but we all chat and eat dinner. We’re all totally hosed.

The next pitch looks seriously difficult, but we’re all happy after a brutal twelve hour day. I curl into the corner, everyone finds a good spot and we go to sleep pretty early. The moon is aggressive as soon as it rises and it’s like someone is shining a flashlight on us all night, but I don’t think anyone really noticed.

The gang on the bivy ledge. Mitch is closest to the crack of doom, which is the de facto latrine on the route

Day 9 (Lotus day 2)

Megan starts up after Whitney on pitch 11

Whitney and Megan get up super early, but not as early as they’d like. The rest of us kind of snooze. I am dead out, apparently, and am not awake until somebody tries very hard to get me up. It’s the first time I’d been warm sleeping on the whole trip, very cozy. The sun hits the ledge about the time Megan and Whitney are ready to go up.

Whitney hangs once or twice on the pitch but otherwise makes short work of it- it doesn’t look any less exciting. It’s an overhanging fingercrack that squeezes shut, making some sections kind of run out. It’s intimidating and I’m super sore. Mitch, Scarlett and I agree to give it a go even though we’re all ready to go back down. I start up after M is at the next belay- I leave my pack and go with a light rack since I’m only interested in getting to the top of this pitch.

Off the ground, it’s not too bad, but it gets hard. It’s kind of a lie-back, it’s thin, and I don’t feel super strong. I get through some sections just fine, but sew it up and piece-to-piece it toward the top. In general I make it look REALLY hard. After like 45 minutes or an hour or something of making myself feel silly, I make it to the top and lower down. Scarlett and Mitch make it look way better than I did, and we all unanimously agree to just head back to camp.

We pack up our stuff, leave a bunch of water for Megan and Whitney who seem to be having a real trial up on the pitches above, and say our goodbyes before beginning the 10 rappels we’ll need to reach the ground again.

Mitch getting ready to lower off the bivy ledge

It’s an uncomfortable few hours back to the ground. All three of us are hanging at belays, stepping on toes, joking, cooking in the sun, etc. We eventually work out a system and it’s not too bad. Funnily enough, the last couple rappels take the longest since we unfix the static line and take the backpack we’d left at the top of pitch three. It feels like real blue collar mountaineering.

We’re happy to be on the ground, I chug a bunch of water and we start heading back to camp through the morraine.

Walking back to camp

I give out mentally just as we get back, glad to be rid of the static rope once again, but it wouldn’t be the last time I’d carry it. I drink some coffee, poop after not doing so since the day before and take a nap. I think everyone takes a nap, actually. I spend some time wandering around camp, eating everything in sight and trying to rehydrate. Every now and then we check back on Whitney and Megan with the help of the binoculars and track progress to make sure they’re doing okay.

If you look very closely, you can see Megan and Whitney near the top of Lotus Flower Tower

Just as it starts to get dark, we see them summit. I do some mental calculations and set an alarm for around one in the morning. They still have a long way to go.

When I get out of the tent at 1AM, I walk up to where I can see the tower in the dark and I can just barely make out some headlamps. I figure it’s another two hours, so I set my alarm and back to bed I go.

I have a bunch of weird dreams, and then at 4AM I hear people rustling around camp so I get up and go to meet them: They tell me how hard the upper pitches were, how delirious and crazy the hike back was, and how nervous they were about the clouds moving in. Way more exciting than our trudge back to camp. I’m not quite awake enough to really appreciate the whole thing, but I make them some hot water and we all go to bed.

Day 10

Megan relaxes after three brutal days of climbing

Nobody gets up until 11:00AM or so. The sun cooks the tent and Megan and I get up to go eat. Whitney is a stone in his tent for a little while longer, but theres cautious, slow movement from everyone else. We all hang out for a bit and Whitney gets up too, and everyone shares various battle stories from the day before. I guess M and Whitney ended up hallucinating on the way back and couldn’t find the cairns that marked the trail. The upper pitches sounded very rough and I’m glad my team decided to bail.

Everyone wanders off eventually: I go to scout for bolted lines on random boulders in the meadow, Whitney takes a nap and then heads up a valley looking for a swimming hole, Mitch goes up a different valley looking for sheep and high points, and M disappears without anyone really noticing.

Much later, like a few hours later, I see her up near the bathrooms after passing out in a small field. She’d found an awesome looking roof crack right nearby, which we agreed to check out when we weren’t falling apart. Then she fell asleep, just laying in the grass. Very idyllic. We wandered around for a while, checking out rocks and bolted lines and looking for food. It was nice. We even watched part of Meru.

M on top of one of the boulders near camp

We eat dinner, play a few games, and go to bed early. Everyone is totally fried.

Day 11

Me leading one of the weird little cracks we found. Very tricky, bouldery start. Photo by Scarlett.

Mitch and Scarlett and I ended up cragging on day 11. They’d spotted some good lines up near the Huey Spires so we wandered up there and took turns going up weird routes. There were a few good ones that we felt comfortable enough leading, but a lot had bizarre anchors and were full of lichen. Some looked amazing but were super long and strenuous. We climbed a few and then headed back down.

Dirk, Scarlett and Mitch returned to Glacier Lake in the afternoon to get more food. Whitney, M and I stayed up in camp and just hung out. I read The Watchman cover to cover in the evening. How do you pass up a $5 book? “Taut, Muscular Thriller” becamse something of a catchphrase after reading one of the reviews on the back of the book.

Day 12

Whitney after successfully leading the mystery roof hand crack Megan found. Photo by Megan.

Those of us that stayed up in the meadow packed our things, had breakfast and then spent the morning working the roof crack above the toilets. It was super burly, but Whitney sent it on his second go. I gave it two really ugly attempts and called it good, totally defeated.

Me desperately trying to figure out how to stay in the roof. Photo by Megan.

We headed down in the afternoon, in pleasant temps. We were absolutely amazed out our weather window: Aside from the drizzle on the hike up, we’d had sun every day. It was a nice hike down, but I was exhausted from battling the roof and carrying the damn static line back down. I was happy to be back in camp.

Along the way we passed a group of four from Vancouver heading up to attempt the LFT, and another group of four from Spain planning to spend two weeks up in the cirque. They looked exactly how I felt on the hike in, with heavy bags and 2000 more vertical feet to go. We felt a little sorry for the Vancouver boys since their weather window was super short and they were going to have to pull some long days.

We had a good evening in camp, with everyone happy to have extra food to eat. We all repacked gear, dropped fishy-smelling trash in bags to be flown out, ditched bad breakfasts, and used the toilet for the last time. M and I spent the night in the little cabin there.

M and I just before hiking out of the meadow

Thus ends out time in the cirque. Next up, the final leg of the journey.