Return to the Cirque

Return to the Cirque


Fifteen years ago, a team of six people, me included, hiked from the abandoned mining town of Tungsten into the Cirque of the Unclimbables, which, at that time was not part of the Nahanni National Park. Today it is. The hike took us 14 days to reach Glacier Lake located below the Cirque.



When we got there we were amazed at how busy it was. Planes loaded with climbers were coming and going, and canoeists paddling the South Nahanni River hiked the 10 kilometers from the river to the lake to have a look. We were also amazed at the international mix of people who then, chattering in German, Italian, Japanese and Texan, proceeded to haul their gear up into the Cirque, eager to take on some of the greatest climbing walls in Canada.


Nobody at that time was there to hike but since then, two experienced groups of trekkers have followed our route. All teams agree that the route from Tungsten into the cirque is one of the most spectacular hikes on the planet — isolated, rugged, steep, and with challenging weather.


Plans for my return to the Cirque started like all my trips, mid winter when a fire is crackling in the fireplace and wine is flowing from a bottle. This is when memories of discomfort, pain and even danger are buffered by the passage of a few months. But most of my friends know what I’m up to. They are wary. Not unreceptive, totally, but wary.

One cozy evening, all the necessary items (fire, food, wine) in attendance, my friend Linda Thompson, a skilled hiker and photographer suggested that we fly into Glacier Lake thus avoiding the long haul of heavy packs from Tungsten.


I argued a bit about flying in since the walk from Tungsten is spectacular and I wasn’t sure if the granite monoliths would be as impressive without the labor of getting there. But as I thought about it, I realized that Linda had a great idea. Fifteen years ago, I was just plus fifty. Now, (you do the math) the idea of hiking with less than 60 pounds in my pack is irresistible. And the idea of returning to the Cirque had its alluring charm.


So Linda and I planned for a fly-in and three weeks of hiking. I couldn’t be happier to have her as my co-conspirator. Linda had been in Kluane National Park with me the year before, walking to the Donjek Glacier and we were accustomed to each other’s eccentricities. When I suggested that a pass would be a “cakewalk,” for example, she knew what I meant and checked carefully for alternate routes.

Our next question was “how many?” Under the cirque’s difficult conditions, six people would be best – enough for safety should someone get hurt yet not so many as to make decisions complicated. The question after that was “who?”


We had a short list of potential candidates. Deb Hazell had been with us in Kluane National Park on a ten-day hike the previous year and survived almost unscathed except for an unplanned swim in the Duke River. According to Linda, Deb’s confidence in me hadn’t been shattered in the least. Maybe just cracked a bit. And Deb was strong enough to carry 75 pounds up extremely steep slopes at a pace faster than I could manage with just half that mount of gear. We were also accustomed to each other’s quirks and quarrels.


Peggy Tobin, a notoriously strong hiker who had done numerous week-long hikes with the local hiking club was our next candidate. She had also heard me reference “The Cirque Hike” often, comparing it to hikes in the region. The stories had intrigued her. On yet another wine-inspired winter night when we mentioned the possibility of going in, her instant response was, “I’m in!”


That made us a team of four. We needed two more. An obvious one was yet another member of our Kluane team, Vancouver resident, Kelley Faubion, whom I’d met a few years before in Chile where we had done a difficult hike up a still erupting volcano. She and her partner Hash, who had also been in Kluane with us, would be great.

More wine, in Vancouver this time, at Marcello’s on the Drive. But Kelley hesitated. She’d let me know, she said. Hash remained silent. I called. I emailed. I wondered, “What the hell?”


But our plans continued to include them. In April, I went to Vancouver again and Kelley and Hash met me for breakfast rather than the usual dinner. Hmmmm, I wondered.


“I’m pregnant,” she said with the largest smile I’d ever seen.


“So, I guess your pack belt won’t fit by July.”


Hash smiled too.


Although very disappointed about their absence on the trip, I congratulated them on the great news of yet another hiker entering this world.


But now it was Linda, Deb and Peg sitting around the fire with me, filled wine glasses in hand, maps on our knees. We decided we would go with four.


Keep tuned for the next installment – the preparation.