Location: "The Cirque of the Unclimbables" is the name given to a small cluster of peaks and walls in a remote region of the MacKenzie Mountains near the border of the Yukon and Northwest Territories, just outside Nahanni National Park. Terrain: The Lotus Flower Tower, publicized in the book Fifty Classic Climbs of North America is perhaps the most well known climb there. It is also home to the awesome Mount Proboscis, an amazing hunk of granite who's easiest free route is a fifteen pitch 5.12a!
Late June to the end of August are best. Deep snow may be encountered as late as mid June. Torrential rains occur frequently throughout the summer, bringing snow to the summits and occasionally all the way down to Fairy Meadows. Fortunately, spells of excellent weather often last three to five days. In addition, the 18 hour days allow one to take maximum advantage of good weather. September brings shorter days and snow which lingers on the faces longer.
Both black and grizzly bears are found in the area around Glacier Lake. If you leave a food cache make sure it is bear proof. Bears have also been known to destroy cached rafts. Apparently the rubber smells tasty to them. The bears never seem to venture above timberline (most importantly to Fairy Meadows), but if they realize what goodies are up there we are all in big trouble. Marmots and smaller rodents are currently the only food thiefs in Fairy Meadows. [Expect nasty mosquitoes at Glacier Lake, and possibly in Fairy Meadows too]
History: As a member of a 1955 expedition to the Logan Mountains, Arnold Wexler was one of the first to see the Lotus Flower Tower. So frustrated was he by the sheer granite walls that ring the entire drainage that he named it "The Cirque of the Unclimbables". Nearly a hundred years earlier, frustrated members of the California Geological Survey described Half Dome as a peak "which never has been, and never will be trodden by human feet". The similarity of these descriptions is more than just coincidence; The Cirque of the Unclimbables is remarkably similar to Yosemite Valley in scale, altitude, and even layout. One can get a fairly accurate perception of The Cirque by mentally shifting Yosemite Valley northward 2000 miles to the middle of the Canadian wilderness, near the border between the Yukon and Northwest Territories. The geographical culmination of the Logan Mountains, The Cirque of the Unclimbables is in reality several cirques, which drain through an idyllic alpine garden known as Fairy Meadow. Both the floor of Yosemite Valley and Fairy Meadow lie at the same elevation, and are surrounded by "unclimbable" granite walls, culminating in 9000' peaks.
Wexler's pronouncement of these peaks as unclimbable caught the attention of the mountaineering community. Bill Buckingham, a young mountaineer with a voracious appetite for Teton and Bugaboo ascents, organized an expedition to the Logan Mountains in 1960. Over a period of a month, his team succeeded in climbing nearly every high point in The Cirque, by means of intricate and devious route finding which bypassed the major walls. Their greatest success was an ascent of the Proboscis, a curious bald fin of flawless granite which had stymied all previous attempts. Buckingham and his crew tackled the south ridge, which appears deceptively easy due to its low angle. The head on view was horrifying, but they persevered over level sections draped by the shrinking remains of cornices precariously clinging to the smooth granite snout, and steep vertical steps where aid was required. Not overly difficult by today's standards, this line still requires a solid repertoire of mountaineering skills.
Although the high points had been reached, the main walls of The Cirque remained as impenetrable as ever, awaiting a new breed of climber more accustomed to vertical granite. Again it was the Proboscis that captured the attention of several Yosemite pioneers. When viewed from the south, this peak appears remarkably similar to Half Dome. Indeed, early accounts of the Proboscis refer to it as "a mountain sheared in half", because it appears to have been bisected by a primeval knife. The polished white face formed by this bisection is 2000 feet high and an incredible likeness to Half Dome's sheared-off northwest face, complete with a zebra striping of black water streaks. It should come as no surprise that Royal Robbins was attracted to this face, as in the sixties he was the driving force behind every first ascent of Half Dome's northwest face. In 1963, Royal Robbins and Dick McCracken completed the first ascent of Half Dome's Direct Northwest Face. Two months later, joined by Valley locals Jim McCarthy and Layton Kor, they pulled off the first ascent of the southeast face of the Proboscis. This ascent was one of the first examples of Yosemite big wall techniques applied in a remote alpine location. The Proboscis has since faded into obscurity, and its southeast face awaits a second ascent.
The Lotus Flower Tower was the next peak to attract attention. This peak is not a significant high point, and is scarcely identifiable as a separate peak on a topo map. Characteristically, it had been named and climbed by Buckingham's expedition as they traversed along a connecting ridge. Nonetheless, like the Nose of El Capitan, the 2000 foot sweeping southeast buttress of the Lotus Flower Tower is one of the most striking sights in The Cirque. In 1968, three climbers honed by Yosemite walls pioneered a spectacular route directly up the prow of this buttress, since popularized in the book Fifty Classic Climbs of North America.
Big wall climbing in The Cirque became increasingly popular through the early seventies, and new route activity reached a peak in 1977. The summer of 1977 was comparatively wet, but as many new routes were established that summer as during all previous years. The 1968 route on the Lotus Flower Tower also received its first free ascent. Although climbers continued to visit The Cirque in ever increasing numbers after 1977, they seemed to lose interest in first ascents.
During the seventies two trends emerged which continue to this day. The first is the tremendous popularity of the 1968 route on the Lotus Flower Tower, and deservedly so for it is undoubtedly one of the best rock climbs in the world. Presumably the lack of readily available information on other climbs in the area has contributed to this trend. Many modern climbers in The Cirque (including myself) are unaware that most of the other towers in the vicinity even have names, much less routes on them. Few climbs aside from the Lotus have been repeated. The second trend is the large percentage of foreign climbers in the area. Even today about half the expeditions to the area originate outside of North America. In the last twenty years three quarters of the first ascents in The Cirque have been made by Europeans or Japanese. This is a remarkable statistic, and one may speculate that either The Cirque has escaped the notice of many American and Canadian climbers or it indicates more of a willingness among foreign climbers to climb wet rock during unsettled weather.
Recently, Don Mank and I spent two weeks in The Cirque of the Unclimbables. The standard approach is identical to that used by Wexler in 1955, involving a lengthy drive up the Alaska Highway and then a short (but expensive) hop via float plane. Glacier Lake, the landing point, is an easy day away from Fairy Meadow.
The Lotus Flower Tower has eclipsed all other climbs in the region, to the extent that nearly every climbing party concentrates all their efforts on it. Climbers come to The Cirque to escape the crowds, only to become part of the Lotus traffic jam. Meanwhile, surrounding them are a dozen equally beautiful monoliths, most of which have not been climbed in the past ten years. It must be admitted, however, that the quality of the climbing varies considerably from wall to wall. Many a climber has launched himself onto a seemingly beautiful face only to find cracks crammed with moss and mud, dripping water during the longest of dry spells. Fortunately, there is a simple rule for avoiding most such nightmares: north facing means grunge. The cleanest walls have at least a partial southern exposure, and these have yielded the highest quality routes. In the 90's, there has been considerable action on the Proboscis and other stunning walls. It's not so easy to find a new line now. Baffin Island seems to be the current "in site" for big wall first ascents.
Glacier lake drains into the Nahanni River, and a large portion of this river was protected in 1976 by the formation of a National Park larger than Yosemite. The original park did not include the Cirque of the Unclimbables. As of June 2009, the Cirque is now protected as part of the Nahanni National Park Reserve, making the park 3rd largest in Canada. The Cirque is vulnerable to any number of abuses, and past accounts have mentioned the slaughter of marmots, and piles of trash accumulating in Fairy Meadow.