Cirque of the Unclimbables

I recently had the pleasure to network with like-minded UK mountaineer Sven Hassall, and he agreed to share his riveting experience assaulting one of Steve Roper’s and Alan Steck’s Fifty Classic Climbs of North America.

Be sure to look up Sven’s outfit– Summit Mountaineering.  Especially if you are in the UK and looking for adventure!


Irene!  Yeah man, Irene! The enthusiasm behind the voice and the significance of the Black Hawk Down movie quote (the code word that initiated their long awaited operation) were not lost on me; I had just escaped a meeting at Whitehall and finally, after a lengthy period of planning, training and fund raising was on route to meet the rest of the team and begin our journey to Canada.

24 hours later and crammed into a bean tin of a different flavour I recalled the people around me on the Underground as I took that call; rushing around lost in their own worlds of SMS, time pressures and iPods. I pitied them a little knowing that I was heading for a better place and a more satisfactory way of living. I envied them too though; knowing that they would be at home that night, cocooned in the warm security of the concrete world they have created, no hanging belays, sickening exposure or fear. Yes I envied them, but not too much.

There are many amazing things in nature; there are Giant Redwood trees, beautiful glacial valleys, perfect splitter cracks and unbelievable Granite towers reaching for the skies. Unfortunately there are also shoe eating Marmots, Wasps and Mosquitoes. The latter had been bugging us for most of the trip but at least we have left the black clouds of the Yukon behind. Not so for the wasps………….

We squeezed all of our packing into the night before departure and it stretched beyond all our estimates, all of us consumed as only climbers are, with detail; what cooker to take, how many screw gates and how many wires? A mountain of metalwork, down, Dyneema and Goretex that we would not see again until Whitehorse.

Optimistically referred to as a city, Whitehorse is really a large frontier town in Canada’s Yukon Territory and our staging post in to what is worryingly known as the Cirque of the Unclimables. 12 hours drive and a helicopter ride out of Whitehorse, our objective was one of the top twenty routes in the world: the remote and difficult 2500ft SE face of the Lotus Flower Tower.

Lotus Flower Tower, Tom Frost, 1968
Lotus Flower Tower, Tom Frost, 1968

I moved, quickly. The pain of numerous red hot pokers in my ankles and shins carrying me over the difficult ground we had spent so much effort picking our way through just minutes before.

This trip started for me with an overheard conversation; the participants sadly declaring to each other that despite having some funding guaranteed that they would have to withdraw from organising the Lotus Flower Tower expedition due to other commitments. This was the last event planned to mark the 50th anniversary of the AMA and was an adventure climbing opportunity right up my street, and one I could not pass by. With the unhesitating enthusiasm of one ignorant to the challenge, I quickly made a nuisance of myself and barged in.

Eight months later, many lessons learned, a team assembled and trained and a huge amount of money raised I stood in the only supermarket in a remote Canadian town playing supermarket sweep! Not dissimilar to Dale Winton in many ways, our game show host for the day was Will Brant. Will, a triathlete and big guy with more than a passing interest in food had kindly agreed to take care of our dietary needs for the expedition and had put together an amazing menu of pancakes, trail mix, energy gels and hot dogs to while away the two weeks of bad weather we were expecting in the Cirque. The only problem was that we only had limited time to shop, pack and drive. Will gave orders and we followed.

We had been working our way through the woods around the huge boulders and their brushed and chalked lines. Oft frequented, it wasn’t them we were looking for today. We were heading for the iconic curving finger crack known as the Exasperator on the main wall of the Stawamus Chief’s Grand Wall rising high above Squamish. It was just as we caught site of the wall that the pain registered.

Outside, the 7 seat SUV we had hired was starting to look a little sorry for itself. Bags were now strapped on the roof, unpacked under the seats and squeezed into every space possible. Dubbed ‘Irene’ by the team, she had to carry us, our equipment and fuel 750km to a remote helicopter landing site in the Yukon bush.

We ate up the distance along Highway One, doing 450km before reaching the next town and our first change of direction! We left the tarmac behind for a dead end gravel track. It was here that the adventure aspect really kicked in.

It was about the time of the first puncture that we realised the disproportionate amount of fuel the automatic four wheel drive was using on the rough road.

We pulled out the huge nail and did the maths, we were approaching a decision point where we could reach the HLS but not return. I phoned our pilot on the satellite phone and he kindly agreed to fly us out more fuel when he picked us up. We continued.

I had just stepped on top of a well camouflaged wasps’ nest and they were fighting back with a vengeance.

“They are following you!” Will’s voice cautioned through the woods. I did not need further warning and kept moving. Wasps repeatedly sting and excrete a chemical that attracts others to do the same. The colony was swarming and most of them were on my arms and legs!

The second puncture an hour later was equally unexpected and somewhat unbelievable. It was also, without another spare or repair kit, a critical failure. One that none of us was happy with, now 100km away from the nearest civilisation. I had debated early on about the level of insurance cover that we would need for the vehicle on this trip. Thankfully I decided to play it safe and went for the maximum. The rental company would recover us and replace the tires.

It is only at times like this that you realise just how remote some parts of the world are. It took the rental company 24 hours to reach us, bringing 4 spare wheels, fuel and the news that we had mistakenly been given a vehicle with soft winter tires! If they had not supplied the extra fuel we had requested we would perhaps have literally shot the messenger!

We reached the prearranged RV, set up camp and drifted off to sleep, wondering whether the grunting was the wildlife or Henry dreaming again.

If ignorance is bliss then knowledge is most certainly a burden. My lips, nose and eyelids were beginning to swell and the itching and swelling in my groin and arm pits indicated that my lymph nodes weren’t happy. I had been stung, a lot, perhaps twenty times or more but I thought I would just about get away with it.

The anticipation was at fever pitch the next morning and we repacked our equipment in equal loads ready for the aircraft. Stripping down our equipment yet again, Will agreed to only taking half a haul bag of spare clothes, whilst I stuffed all my spare gear into a jacket pocket!

The Legendary Kluane Airways
The Legendary Kluane Airways

Shortly after ten a high pitched whirring signaled Warren’s approach up the valley. A huge man in a tiny aircraft, Warren is a legend in the Yukon, flying to places no one else will and in conditions that see everybody else grounded. He is the only person currently willing to fly a heli into the Cirque and the only means of avoiding the grueling and dangerous ascent from Glacier Lake, the only float plane landing in the area, a hard day’s walk away. He used to fly a float plane there, going via the Cirque in order to do a bombing run of people’s haul bags and gear before dropping them off. He has since been persuaded that this is too dangerous!!

As we piled into a waiting car that Nic had flagged down I could feel the tingling on my tongue, the beginning of swelling. I knew what came next; I had been a wilderness medic for years and had treated people in the same position.

Two hours later we had our base camp set up under one of the huge boulders in the beautiful alpine Fairy Meadows. The towering walls and boulders seemed strangely familiar to us after spending so long looking at photos, videos and topos and I decided to push straight out to get a good look at the LFT whilst the weather held. Nobody wanted to be left out and all seven of us hiked the 3 hour round trip to the base of the route.

It is only here that the true scale of the LFT can really be appreciated, it simply goes on and on and on for 2500ft, a series of interlinking cracks and chimneys from summit to base.

“Can you bring my friend in to take a photograph?” I mumbled through the oxygen mask. The nurse looked at me and raised an eyebrow as she gave me the Adrenaline and Antihistamine injections that we had discussed and decided to leave behind in the UK. “There are no real nasties in Canada” I declared to Baz, “We don’t need to worry about anaphylaxis”.

The rash was now incredible and over the whole of my body; my neck resembled a swollen, angry red grapefruit. The concern was obvious in the haste of the doctors and nurses.

In Fairy Meadows, the anticipation builds along with the weather and the following morning we are forced to spend the morning drinking tea and eating fresh hot pancakes under the huge overhanging boulder that serves as our base camp and shelter from the rain. It is times like these that allow you a yardstick with which to measure the remainder of your life and is perhaps why this type of climbing is so addictive. Life here is distilled down to its essentials: food, shelter, rest and good company. We talk, eat well and laugh a lot.

Baz came in and joked that it was safer to solo than to climb with me! This was the second time this trip that I had nearly died, perhaps he had a point.

“BELOW!” It is always a sickening sound, accompanied by the empty feeling in your stomach as you try to determine whether it is a pebble, rock or rope and whether it is heading for you or not. This time there was no doubt; I was trapped in a chimney with nowhere to go and the sky above was black with falling rock, heading straight for me.

In the afternoon, Andy and I take advantage of a break in the weather and strike out again for the wall. Past experience and objectives missed tell me that we must push a little.

There are some ropes in place at the base but they are frayed from a winter swinging and rubbing in the wind. The anchors too are shocking, a collection of frayed and cut prussic cord, tape and unequalised pegs. We replaced one pitch yesterday and do the same today.

Jugging up a rope using Jumars, trailing a rope and placing gear in anticipation of it snapping is both physically and emotionally demanding, but it does mean that the team will have safe ropes in place to expedite our return when the weather improves.

No pain, just a world of stars and blue/red haze as I sluggishly regained consciousness. I had just enough time to push myself into the wall at the back before the first rock struck. The size of a breezeblock (I removed it later!) had smashed into the centre of the helmet that had saved my life. More followed, tearing the rucksack I was wearing and then continued hundreds of metres down below, sending Jon diving for cover and forcing Will to tuck into the wall and hope for the best as the barrage hit the snow at the base of the tower. Thankful to be alive they turned on their radio and attempted to contact the teams above..

Sven coming to immediately after the rock fall.  *Note the damaged helmet.
Sven coming to immediately after the rock fall. *Note the damaged helmet.

We awake at 4 but the strong winds low down in base camp convince us that today is not the day. At 8 however the weather is dry, warm and perfect for climbing. We race to get up, pack, eat and head back up the scree slopes to our lines.

For some of the team, this was the first time they had clipped into the ropes and jumared with a load on their backs and it is hard and un-nerving work. An American and French team that decided to brave the weather at four are a little way ahead; they did at least reduce our need to route find.

Voices drifted through the haze, “Are you ok?”, “Is anybody hurt?” Nic had recently taken over the lead and had not fared much better in the rock fall, taking an equally large piece directly to his leg. He had however saved all our lives. We had decided lower down on the wall that we would back up all of the in-situ rusting peg belays; Nic had done so with the biggest cam we had, placed in a crack behind him. When the rocks came down and smashed the rusty peg belay into dust it was this cam and Nic that held the three of us on cut ropes.

Barry Whale finishing the flake section.
Barry Whale finishing the flake section.

Beyond the fixed ropes, the route is not what we expected. 5.7 but stiff for the grade with little in the way of reliable protection. It consists mainly of slabs or huge layback flakes glued on with dirt. Holds are plentiful but camming the flakes is unnerving to say the least. The belays are largely bolted, a mixture of new Petzl expansion bolts and hangers and all manner of home made things. All are covered with a myriad of faded and frayed tat that the Americans and French seem perfectly happy clipping into to save 30 seconds on a pitch!

On inspection, one rope had been cut in four places with only a little of the core remaining. We cut this section out but it had a nick further down, the other rope was not looking too healthy either and we had to put an isolation knot in the middle. Badly shaken and with the day getting on we had no option but to push on to the half way ledge where we had intended to spend the night. Nic built a new belay as I thanked the Rock God for Petzl helmet engineers and no more rock fall.

Several pitches later see you at the base of the chimney, fairly uniform throughout sometimes with awkward overhanging chock-stone boulders and often with a crack in one of the back corners. This would probably go easier with a pair of lightweight mountaineering boots as it is wet and mossy throughout. Those determined not to carry much water could collect some here but it is unlikely to save you much time and effort.  The topo is misleading in its indications of pitches as there are old belays everywhere; It is best simply to climb until the rope runs out and then to take a natural belay.

Sven and Barry Whale belay at the comfortable but small ledge below the chimney.
Sven and Barry Whale belay at the comfortable but small ledge below the chimney.

This is also the case at the exit of the chimney where the topo indicates a series of ledges. The reality is that the route continues just to the right on exiting the chimney, on the obvious layback flake all the way to the half way ledge. Everything else is loose. Henry reached this point first and looked for a way ahead. Everything creaked and as he reached for a flake it came free. A one metre square of white granite whizzed down past Andy and down the chimney followed by their urgent calls of “BELOW!”

Not knowing the problems unfolding below they pushed on to the corner crack, the hardest pitch so far. Lacking energy, Henry was forced to run it out without his sac, too tired to place gear. Some hours later he dropped a line and half hauled the three of us up, the efforts of the day etched on our faces.

Without hesitation Nic lead off up the remaining section of the chimney. We must have taken an age to get ourselves together as it was now dark. 23 hours of daylight at this latitude meant we had not carried head torches and we cursed our luck.

Nic lead out sixty metres in the dark on two cut ropes and placed no more than half a dozen pieces. Baz and I followed, radioing up to the team ahead to fix a rope down from the half way ledge so that we could Jumar up. After what can only be described as another heroic lead by Nic, towing a half conscious climber, we reached their rope and a very welcome flat, comfortable, secure, free from stone fall ledge. We slept!

With a number of teams above them, Will and Jon had decided to climb to the base of the chimney and fix their ropes for a single day push the following morning. Bivvying at the base they made great time the following day passing us on our descent.

They met up later with Nic and Henry who had decided to wait for Jon, our best climber to arrive to tackle the crux pitch above. 5.9+ on the topo, it was the opinion of every team in the Cirque to be 5.10b or harder and sustained for 40m! A few more pitches on and into the head-wall ‘train tracks’ – shallow, full of moss and presenting the age old question of gear or handhold(?!) and decided to call it a day.

The LFT was not going to go this time; neither did it for the Americans. The whole team now made a retreat, confidant that it was the right decision to do so.

The early dawn came bright and welcome. Looking up at the perfect cracks and chicken-heads on the Xenolith Wall above we recognised that some things you cannot change. The 3 star pitches above that we had come to climb are 50m long, now much longer than our ropes and we had lost a lot of lead gear that was clipped to the belay the night before. After a quick change around of teams, Andy having reached his ceiling and Nic still keen to push on, three of us wished Henry and Nic luck and left them on the ledge to begin an exhausting 7 hour descent down the route, on much shortened ropes and natural anchors, abseiling past knots on almost every pitch.

Back at base camp, laughing, we opened a bottle of Champagne and discussed our options. We were all alive, wiser and with time left in Canada.

What about Squamish…………………

Anyone for golf?! 

Breakfast on the ledge
Breakfast on the ledge.

Quite the story!  Thanks to Sven for writing, and thank you for reading.  We’d both love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.  While you’re at it, why not check out this account of an assault on another famous rock known as 富士山 (Fuji San).

Fire Up-Get Dirty-Scare Yourself-Bleed

Do more than just survive…  THRIVE!

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