The Cirque of the Unclimbables

Pete and Laetitia on route to the Lotus Flower Tower

The much anticipated flight from Inconnu Lodge to Glacier Lake was fantastic! Although the weather was far from perfect – we flew through, or round, a number of storms. It’s amazing that from the perspective of a small plane flying over the sub-artic wilderness of the Yukon and North West Territories each individual storm cloud be seen in isolation with a dense plume of rain literally pouring out of it’s underside. Spectacular.

The beaver float plane leaving Inconnu Lodge
The beaver float plane leaving Inconnu Lodge
There's an awful lot of water in the Yukon, and that means there's an awful lot of green, trees, and rivers, many of which have crazy meanders!
There’s an awful lot of water in the Yukon, and that means there’s an awful lot of green, trees, and rivers, many of which have crazy meanders! Check out the ancient dried out meanders alongside the waterway…
Pete, Ted, Steve, and Laetitia on board the beaver float plane
Pete, Ted, Steve, and Laetitia on board the beaver float plane en route to the Cirque
Turning in to the basin of Glacier Lake with the Cirque beyond
Turning in to the basin of Glacier Lake with the Cirque beyond
Ted, Steve, and Pete disembarking from the beaver float plane at Glacier Lake
Ted, Steve, and Pete disembarking from the beaver float plane at Glacier Lake
Pete, Laetitia, Ted, and Steve with massive packs just about to leave Glacier Lake for the tough hike up to Fairy Meadows and the Cirque of the Unclimbables
Pete, Laetitia, Ted, and Steve with massive packs just about to leave Glacier Lake for the tough hike up to Fairy Meadows and the Cirque of the Unclimbables

The hike from Glacier Lake up in to the Cirque and Fairy Meadows used to take nearly 10 hours via the talus (scree) slopes below Mt Harrison Smith. These screes are incredibly dangerous with large (read: house-sized) chunks of Harrison Smith regularly coming crashing down. One such chunk nearly wiped out a Parks Canada working team “dusting” them with debris. And so it is that Parks have built a new trail on the true left bank of the creek flowing out of the Cirque. This much safer trail is also supposed to be quicker. We’d been told that it could be done in around three hours. They lied! First off one has to walk from Glacier Lake along a wooded but vaguely level trail to the creek, this takes about one and a half hours. Then one turns uphill, and this new uphill trail is not adorned with switchbacks to ease the strain on one’s legs, it takes as direct a line as it can directly into the Cirque, allow up to two and a half hours for this section depending on your load. Finally depending on where you choose to camp in Fairy Meadows there may be up to another hour of hiking. Our best times were five hours up and two and half down.

We had planned to get a helicopter to fly us right in to the Cirque. This is far and away the best plan! The walk up is a killer. Especially when considering the super heavy loads that need to be brought along: climbing gear, camping gear, and food for one maybe two weeks.

Unfortunately for us Warren wasn’t operating a helicopter this year as planned due to a lack of mining work in the region to cover the operating costs (climbers don’t provide enough business to pay for the chopper to be on site). This was seriously bad luck for us! We ended up having to make the trip from Glacier Lake to Fairy Meadows twice, each with cripplingly heavy packs. Just look at the sizes of the packs in the pictures below… Laetitia’s bag is twice her size! And she did this twice! To say we were knackered by the experience is an understatement. Best advice is simple, if you can, use a helicopter!

The hike to Fairy Meadows passes through thick woods passing beaver dens and dams, fierce wasp nests (I was stung repeatedly), and heads up very steep ground to eventually reach the meadow
The hike to Fairy Meadows passes through thick woods passing beaver built lodges and dams, fierce wasp nests (I was stung repeatedly), and heads up very steep ground to eventually reach the meadow. Check out the size of those packs!
Awesome views from the hike to Fairy Meadows towards the Cirque of the Unclimbables
Awesome views from the hike to Fairy Meadows towards the Cirque of the Unclimbables

Camping in Fairy Meadows is a surreal and serene experience. Once the float plane (or helicopter) leaves you are completely and utterly on your own. Although Warren does leave a satellite telephone in the Cirque to stay in touch regarding flights and for emergencies. Plus Parks have installed a pit-toilet to help manage human waste.

Many of the best camping spots are located under the overhangs of huge boulders. But be careful not to choose a boulder that will actually channel run off in to your camp!

Our site (doss #4) was high up in the meadow with a view directly west towards the Lotus Flower Tower. We also had a banked grassy area to our south to soak up any sunshine. And to top it all we had a bear-proof food box kept dry by a rock overhang which we enhanced in to a sheltered kitchen area with a tarpaulin we had brought along expressly for the purpose. We of course knew there was a strong chance of poor weather and having a place to stay dry in was key.

Our camp site in Fairy Meadows was a boulder overhung site towards the top of the meadow with views directly on to the Lotus Flower Tower, a bear proof food box, a neat area to set up our kitchen that we covered with a tarpaulin, and a lovely grassed area that caught all the sunshine going.  Nice!
Our camp site in Fairy Meadows was a boulder overhung site towards the top of the meadow with views directly on to the Lotus Flower Tower, a bear proof food box, a neat area to set up our kitchen that we covered with a tarpaulin, and a lovely grassed area that caught all the sunshine going. Nice!
The open-air toilet!  There is another newer, enclosed, toilet too.  But you can't beat this one for the view!
The open-air toilet! There is another, newer, enclosed toilet too. But you can’t beat this one for the view!
The Cirque of the Unclimbables
The Cirque of the Unclimbables
L to R: Mt Harrison Smith, East Huey Spire, the Lotus Flower Tower, and Parrot Beak Peak
Here's what was a far more typical view for us of the Cirque!  Still amazing and beautiful, but not great for climbing.
Here’s what was a far more typical view for us of the Cirque! Still amazing and beautiful, but not great for climbing.
The Lotus Flower Tower
The Lotus Flower Tower
Our tarpaulin covered kitchen area with a gang of climbers enjoying a sociable afternoon of sunshine.  Richard, Dave, Christian, Ted, Pete, and Steve.  A few moments earlier we also have Susan, Dave, and two Demetrius'. A fantastic sunny spot with comfy grass and an unbeatable view of the Lotus Flower Tower
Our tarpaulin covered kitchen area with a gang of climbers enjoying a sociable afternoon of sunshine.
Richard (US), Dave (US), Christian (US), Ted (UK), Pete (Australia), and Steve (UK). A few moments earlier we also had Susan (Canada), Dave (Canada), and two Demetrius’ (both Greek). A fantastic sunny spot with comfy grass and an unbeatable view of the Lotus Flower Tower
( 😛 Just before this picture was taken the party had really started when Dave rolled up some “hemp”! 😛 )
To help try and keep morale high while waiting out bad weather we had planned a varied menu.  Here is Laetitia cooking pancakes with cranberries for 2nd breakfast!
To help try and keep morale high while waiting out bad weather we had planned a tasty and varied menu. Here Laetitia is cooking pancakes with cranberries for 2nd breakfast!
(We bought the pan for $8 in Whitehorse)

After two days of carrying our heavy loads in to the Cirque and setting up our comfortable camp site our thoughts turned to the actual climbing ahead…

It’s worth noting that as yet we had not had a single day without rain!

We walked up to the base of LFT and watched the waterfall cascade down the corner the defines the first four pitches of the route. Not completely deterred I had a go at the first pitch anyway – despite the rain and the waterfall the sun was out! It took me 50 minutes to climb the pitch. Too slow. Then to compound issues it started raining again, this time heavy enough to force a retreat. We left all our gear at the base to make our next attempt a little easier.

The next day dawned with our only blue-sky of the trip. Steve and Ted headed off and Laetitia and I left a hour later to allow them to clear the first pitch before we started climbing. Unfortunately it took Steve two and half hours to climb the first pitch and so that plan didn’t work out and it was 11am before Laetitia and I got on the rock. Our single fine day was vanishing fast.

At the top of the fourth pitch Laetitia was clearly struggling with the load, we were carrying bivy gear for a night on the half-way – “Winnebago” – ledge. It was simple stuff – bivy bag, small cooker, a little food – but it was the weight of the water that was crippling her despite our having been forced to dump two litres of water at the top of pitch one when we realised we had a leak in one of our bottles. So with time fast evaporating and with Laetitia not matched to the load carrying we decided to retreat.

Ted and Steve carried on climbing until midnight but failed to reach the half-way ledge before darkness fell. They bivied (doss #5) on small grass ledges barely big enough to lie on one pitch below Winnebago ledge. The next morning was icy cold and the top of LFT was encircled in thick cloud. They retreated too.

There’s no way to know for sure what the best strategy is until one has tried them all, however, on reflection we thought the best strategy for Laetitia and I would have been to go light, forgo the bivy, and climb all 19 pitches in a single (very) long day. This has worked for us far better in the past. In fact this is the strategy that worked for the only people to be successful while we were there: Richard and Dave, and Christian and Jason. Of course with better weather things might have turned out differently…

Pete and Laetitia on route to the Lotus Flower Tower
Pete and Laetitia on route to the Lotus Flower Tower
Laetitia climbing on the lower section of the Lotus Flower Tower
Laetitia climbing on the lower section of the Lotus Flower Tower

We used up four days festering at Inconnu Lodge, had just one full day of fine weather in our week thus far in the Cirque, and we were worried that more poor weather might lock us in to the Cirque with the plane unable to fly. This would have scuppered our planned foray to climb at Squamish before we returned to the UK. So we got on the satellite phone and arranged our extraction for the next day.

We phoned again in the morning to confirm a 2pm pick up. But due to an array of misunderstandings (the quality of satellite phone reception makes cellular phone reception seem great) plus the hour difference between Mountain and Pacific times meant we thought we had just three hours to get from Fairy Meadows to Glacier Lake. We were wrong, we had two. Our best time down with empty packs had been two and half hours.

We packed fast. Then we set off as fast as we could with a single mega heavy load, no time to make two trips today! Of course much of our food had been eaten so that helped a bit. As we were worried we wouldn’t make it in time, and concerned as to what Cam, our pilot, would do if we were not there when he landed I took off even faster. I ran where I could. No mean feat with a 20kg pack and steep muddy woodland tracks! On the final level leg through the woods I heard a distant “Hello”. A bit further on through a gap in the trees I saw the plane sitting on the lake’s shore. I ran faster. Luckily I caught Cam, he said he was going to leave in another 10 minutes. Steve, Ted, and Laetitia were another 30 minutes behind. Cam was a little upset – he still had three teams of fishermen from Inconnu Lodge to retrieve before his working day was over!

Series - LFT

  1. Journey from the UK to Canada’s Yukon
  2. The Cirque of the Unclimbables
  3. Whitehorse and Yukon Rock
  4. Squamish and Vancouver

3 thoughts on “The Cirque of the Unclimbables”

  1. Wow wow wow- what an amazing looking and beautiful place!

    Shame about the weather scuppering your climbing plans though. But at least you got to see the cirque it looks so incredible!

  2. And I forget to say: I can’t believe there’s a pic of Tish on the loo!!! 😯 😯 😮
    Does she know you took it Pete?? 😈 and does she know you posted it??
    Great view though 🙂

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