“You want to do what?” I said to Mirek Hladik, my good friend and climbing partner, while discussing plans for our newest adventure – a trip into the Cirque of the Unclimbables to tackle the world famous “Lotus Flower Tower”.
“Parachute our gear in – it will be great”, replied Mirek with enthusiasm. Having heard about the horror of the hike into the cirque; Mirek, always thinking, had come up with the idea of parachuting a significant portion of our gear into the Cirque, thereby saving us the pain of having to hump it in.
Now one thing you need to know about Mirek, is that he is as entrepreneurial a person as you are going to meet. Since I’ve known him, he’s built an indoor climbing wall business, built a portable climbing wall (from scratch), started a mountain bike shuttling service, and converted a military amphibious vehicle into a backcountry ski lodge shuttle (this vehicle takes clients across a lake and then up into the mountains to a ski lodge). The bottom line with Mirek – if he has an idea, no matter how crazy it might initially sound, he’s a guy that can make it work.
The whole idea of a trip to the Cirque started when I picked up a copy of the 1996 Canadian Alpine Journal and on the back cover saw a photo of climbers on the headwall of the Lotus Flower Tower (LFT). To me, it seemed to be one of the most beautiful natural lines I had ever seen – two parallel cracks unbroken for a thousand feet to the summit. The idea to climb the LFT started right there. It was easy to talk Mirek into the idea, and the planning began.
We soon had booked Warren LaFave of Kluane Airways to fly us into the Cirque from his backcountry lodge, which is located 3 hours north of Watson Lake in the Yukon Territories. We also recruited two other friends, Dan Mack and Tim Thurston, who like us, were from Nelson, British Columbia.
Mirek, who couldn’t be persuaded to abandon the parachute idea, actually bartered for the loan of a military parachute from an acquaintance in Nelson. So off we headed in two pickups, loaded to the top with climbing gear, clothes, food, and a parachute, for the 1500 mile trip to our pre-arranged pick up point with Warren.
The trip took us 2.5 days – with the main excitement coming on the last day when Mirek locked his keys in the truck about 6 hours before we had to meet the plane. I, of course, panicked, and was thinking of ways to break the window, but Mirek, calm as ever, decided there had to be a way to break in. I told Mirek about a previous job I had working in an automobile dealer – ones of the things I did was break into people’s vehicles that had locked their keys inside; but we had a specialized tool (called a Slim Jim). Mirek asked me to describe the tool – so I did. He said it sounds a lot like a nut tool – which it did. So he grabbed a nut tool out of our gear, hooked it up to a pair of needle-nose pliers, and with a bit of coaching from me, had the truck opened in about 2 minutes. Off we went.
Turned out I needn’t have worried about being late. We were supposed to meet Warren at 3 p.m. Four o’clock came and went. Five o’clock came and went. Six o’clock came and went. Finally, we decided to drive back down the dirt road to a road construction crew we had encountered on the way in. We asked to borrow their radio phone and then phoned Warren at his lodge. His reply was something along the lines of “Oh you guys are here, well I guess I better come over there and pick you up”. He arrived about 30 minutes later in his Beaver floatplane. Yukon time, I guess.
We had all agreed, since the parachuting of gear was Mirek’s idea, he was going to be the guy to propose this idea to Warren. Now I have to give Warren credit; after listening to Mirek’s plan he didn’t laugh out loud and tell him he was crazy. He actually considered the idea for a while and pointed out to Mirek some of the things that could go wrong – for example, the parachute becoming entangled in the tail of the plane thereby killing us all, or our gear might float off never to be found again. In the end, Warren proposed an alternate plan. There was a small (18 inch diameter) camera hole in the bottom of the plane. If the weather was perfect in the Cirque, he would consider dropping gear out of this hole into base camp (called Fairy Meadows). So we spend another hour re-packing all of our gear into bags that would fit out of the camera hole, and contained gear that could stand the impact of being bombed out of the bottom of a DeHavilland Beaver traveling at over 100 miles an hour and 300 feet off the ground.
After we lifted off from the lake and were on our way to the Cirque, Warren told us that he had only bombed gear in once before and it was a little hairy – one of his passengers had gotten sick. He also reiterated that the weather needed to be perfect, as we would be flying into a narrow cirque right toward a 2000 foot rock face. He went on to give us instructions on how this was going to work. Warren explained that when we are flying toward the rock wall, at the last moment he will bank hard to the left and down – he will continue to turn left and down until the plane is pointing back in the direction we’d come – at that point we will have about 3 seconds to drop gear out of the bottom of the plane. He will say “go, go, go, stop”. If we drop anything out of the plane after he says stop, we’ll never find it again.
The view looking out the right side of the plane as we headed in for a bombing run
Bombs away! – This is the camera hole in the bottom of the plane
This all sounded very scary and intimidating to me; and I don’t mind admitting I was hoping the weather was going to be too lousy to do any bombing of gear. Unfortunately for me, an hour and a half later we arrived at the Cirque to perfect weather. So we made our first bombing run.
Words can’t quite describe the feeling of the next 15 minutes, as we made three gear drops. As we flew in, the right wing tip was so close to rock that you can make out individual blades of grass. Oh yeah, and you’re flying directly at an enormous rock wall. Suddenly, Warren banks the plane hard to the left, loses tons of altitude, and turns around, all at the same time. You plummet out of the sky, only to be slammed back into the seat as he pulls the plane up right near the ground and starts yelling “go, go, go”. The first time in was horrifying, but the next two times were exhilarating. By the amount of whooping, hollering, and high fiving between Warren and ourselves, you could tell our pilot got just as big a kick out of doing this as we did. We ended up bombing 5 bags of gear out of the plane –saving us about 100 pounds of backpacking.
A view of our plane making one of our 3 bombing runs – taken by another party that was in the Cirque at the time
The actual drop off point for passengers is Glacier Lake – a beautiful blue-green lake nestled in the bottom of a drainage that flows out of the Cirque. After Warren left, I think we were on an adrenaline high for another couple of hours, reliving again and again with each other our feelings during the bombing runs. We finally drifted off to sleep around one in the morning and it still wasn’t that dark.
The hike in is ugly. You just need to cowboy-up and do it. The worst part is the 2000 feet of loose talus. Mirek and I choose to do one trip each with an enormous pack (we had brought gear and food for a three week stay), while Dan and Tim each had two packs, which they shuttled up the slope one at a time (moving up a couple hundreds of yards with one, and then going back down and moving the other one up). In the end, it was faster for Mirek and me, but not by much. It took about 8 hours of arduous hiking, but the first views when you break over the top into the Cirque are well worth the effort. The Cirque of the Unclimbables is simply a stunning place. I think we shot a couple of rolls of film, not quite believing we were there.
After first gathering all of the gear that we had bombed in (not as straightforward as it sounds), and erecting camp underneath a huge overhanging boulder (so overhanging that we had no need for a tent fly), we took a little hike and scoped out the Lotus Flower Tower. Even from a mile away, the line on the LFT is obvious – the route is composed of two separate features broken in the middle by a small flat ledge- an obvious place to bivy. The bottom half of the route follows a large broken corner/chimney system, ending at the bivy ledge. The top half of the route consists of two parallel cracks that split a white granite headwall for approximately 1000 feet to the top.
The next day Mirek and I made our first attempt on the LFT. The view from the bottom gets your bowels churning, and you see why it’s called a tower. The first three pitches are stiff crack climbing made harder by the fact that they are often wet. While the third pitch is rated 10a (due to an overhang move), we both thought the first two pitches were harder. The fourth and fifth pitches climb a series of broken features heading into the obvious corner/chimney system. The climbing is steep but fairly straight forward. At the top of the fifth pitch, the weather broke and we rappelled. We fixed two ropes from the top of the third pitch, so that we could jug them on our next attempt.
The view from the bottom of the Lotus Flower Tower
The next week, we did nothing but read, hang-out, hike, eat, and sleep. The weather was cold, windy, and rainy. In between small breaks in the weather we managed to do some short sport climbs on some of the large boulders around camp (put up by previous climbers) and also some bouldering on the smaller boulders. If the boulders of Fairy Meadows were anywhere easily accessible in the US, they would be overrun with boulderers.
Looking down on pitch 2
The weather cleared one night and we decided we would have another go at the LFT. As we had left our ropes fixed on the first three pitches, we started off by jugging. Now unfortunately due to the overhang on pitch 3, a lot of the jugging is free hanging. Also unfortunately for us, we had fixed two 9 millimeter ropes which suck for jugging. We both weren’t sure if it would have been quicker and easier to re-climb these pitches or jug them. In any event, we only made it to pitch 6 before the weather turned to rain, and we were back down again. We did leave one more pitch fixed (using an 11 mill rope).
So it was back to reading, waiting, sleeping and eating again. We had long since eaten all of our sweets, so this wasn’t as fun as it sounds.
About another week later the weather looked like it was improving again, so we made our third trip to the bottom of the LFT. We were a bit disconcerted to see that a huge flake (about 30 feet high), which was leaning against the rock at the base of the route, had fallen into the starting corner of the route, cutting our route severely (it would have also killed anyone on that section of the route at the time). Luckily, the damaged rope was low enough to the ground that by the time we had fixed the jumars to the rope and pulled up all the rope stretch, it was only about 5 feet of questionable rope that needed to be jugged on. We started jugging at about 7 a.m. and 1.5 hours later, we were at the top of pitch 4 and ready to start leading again – there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.
The next 6 pitches follow a big corner/chimney system. All of these pitches are around 5.7 and are fairly steep – you also need to look out for loose rock. We climbed with a 60 meter rope and made stations whenever we hit the end of the rope. On the last pitch to the bivy ledge we simu-climbed for about 15 meters to avoid making another anchor. We got to the bivy ledge at about 11 o’clock – this ledge is a beautiful little flat platform that would be a fun (if not cold) place to spend a night in the mountains; the views were spectacular. However, Mirek and I had made up our minds to climb the LFT in a day; so we ate a little lunch, snapped some pictures, dumped one of our packs and headed off. There were a few clouds forming.
The first of the headwall pitches climbs a huge left facing corner ending up on the far right edge of the headwall. It’s rated 5.9+ and involves some delicate stemming. I led this pitch and thoroughly enjoyed it. The next pitch (pitch 12 on the topo) is probably one of the most photographed and famous moderate alpine pitches there are. It’s the photo taken from this pitch, which was on the back cover of the Alpine Journal and that inspired me to come here. On this pitch you make your only route finding decision of the whole climb – you need to traverse left into the parallel cracks. It is also on this pitch that you are first introduced to one of the most startling features of the Lotus Flower Tower’s headwall – the “chicken-heads”. These black protrusions are harder than the surrounding granite and therefore haven’t weathered to the same degree – the result is a multitude of “chicken-heads” that look like climbing wall holds, both in their vast variety of shapes and sizes and in the way they appear stuck on the wall.
Pitch 11 – the first headwall pitch
The climbing on pitches 12 to 15 is unbelievable – moderate climbing with perfect protection anywhere you need it and nice protruding holds to stand on to place the gear. In reality, the crack climbing on these pitches felt more like face climbing (on the chicken-heads) with two bomber cracks on either side of you for protection.
Pitch 12 – the money shot
Pitch 16 is the crux pitch – as the crack goes through a 3 foot overhang. It goes free at 5.10c or can be aided at A1. This pitch was Mirek’s lead and he did an admirable job – moving through the crux with no problems. I made it through with the pack on, but only barely and it tired me out so much that I grabbed some gear on the remaining upper section. By the time I had reached to top of pitch 16 the weather had crapped out completely – the sky was completely dark and light snow had begun to fall. If you were belaying, you were suffering – both from the cold and from the hanging belays (all the pitches on the headwall are hanging belays).
Now the 17th pitch is intimidating, as it starts off vertical to slightly overhanging (for about 10 metres) with no chicken-heads to face climb on. The only way to surmount this section is to jam it. I’m the first to admit, I’m not the world’s best jammer – probably not even in the top 10,000. I was also bagged from climbing the last pitch with the pack on. So I did my best to convince Mirek to take this lead, but (thank-goodness) he refused and told me to suck it up and get going. Am I ever glad that I did! For both of us, we thought that this was the best pitch of the climb. The exposure is awesome as you’re looking down the full height of the wall. The climbing is fabulous and requires both good jamming technique and face climbing skills. It’s rated 5.9. When I brought Mirek up to the belay, he was kicking himself (and has ever since) for not leading the pitch when I gave him the opportunity.
Looking down the full length of the wall from pitch 17 at the belay
We combined the 18th and 19th pitches into one by doing a bit of simu-climbing. We arrived on the flat, fairly unremarkable summit just before 4 p.m. – two happy but tired climbers. After a few quick summit photos we began preparing ourselves for the descent.
Getting Down & Home
The way down is via 17 rappels – we had heard many stories of people getting their ropes stuck on the way down and had seen much evidence of the same on the way up. Pitch 17 contained numerous cut sections of ropes lodged far in the back of the crack. So it was with much trepidation that we started the rappels down.
Pulling the rope on pitch 17 was fairly comical as neither one of us wanted to do it and be the guy that got the rope stuck. Mirek finally pulled the rope and we had no issues. We arrived back at the bivy ledge in short order and then hung out there for about ¾ of an hour to wait for Dan and Tim, who had started the climb from the bottom that morning. When they arrived, we chatted with them for a while, gave them our extra clothes and water, and then bailed off for the remaining rappels. As luck would have it, our rope got stuck on the very last rappel (when we were on the ground), so we just left it for Dan and Tim to get on their way down.
The next day, after a cold night on the bivy ledge, Dan and Tim completed the headwall pitches in beautiful sunshine and summitted. Mirek and I watched them all day through binoculars from base-camp. They started descending around 4 p.m. and unfortunately got caught in a huge early evening thunderstorm (with intense hail) about half way down the chimney system. Their descent turned into an all out epic with their rope getting stuck and hail avalanches raining down on them in the chimney system. They finally made it safely to the ground around 10 o’clock in the evening – they even retrieved our rope.
We had a few days left in our trip, but for me my motivation was lagging. I had invested so much time and effort into climbing the LFT that I was ready to go home. I was also having a medical problem with my right eye that needed tending to. We had managed to arrange for Warren to come pick us up a couple of days early. I decided to leave for Glacier Lake the day before our arranged pick-up time, because I have a bad knee and wanted to take it real slow going down the talus slope. It was at this time that we realized the idea of bombing all of our extra gear into the Cirque might not have been such a good idea, because now he had to backpack it all out. This is the only trip I’ve been on when my pack weighted considerably more going out then in.
For all of us, the hike out was actually worse than the hike in. Our packs were heavier and it was very scary walking downhill on loose talus with a top heavy 100+ pound pack. There were numerous close calls but no injuries. Warren’s plane arrived about 4 hours late the next day and brought us back for a night at his luxurious lodge, complete with a 5 course meal, pool table, open bar, a hot tub by the lake, and friendly staff. All three-week backcountry climbing adventures should end this way.