Return to the Cirque - Preparations

Return to the Cirque - Preparations

The Vampire Peaks. The Ragged Range. The Cirque of the Unclimbables. These place names indicate the response of early visitors to the Logan Range of the Mackenzie Mountains.

 

 

These visitors wanted to indicate a challenge, maybe a threat. But to me the biggest threat in the cirque area is a mountain with a very non-threatening name — Mount Sir James McBrien. McBrien was a member of the North West Mounted Police, an organization dedicated to eliminating threats.

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Standing at almost 7000 feet, the second highest peak in the North West Territories, the mountain has its own weather system — a system that catches a lot of cloud, fog, wind and rain causing temperatures to drop and frost and snow to form. Because McBrien is just to the north of the cirque, part of the same granite intrusion, climbers spend a lot of time living like hobbits under giant blocks of rock, waiting for the sun to shine, for the ice to melt, for the rock to dry. Some of them come from halfway around the world and never get to climb.

 

Hikers have it better. At least we can keep walking, out of the range of McBrien weather when we’ve had enough.

 

It’s not just the challenging weather, of course. It’s also the rugged landscape, some of it newly exposed from the still receding glaciers. The boulders and rocks are huge, jagged, often unstable, not having been in their landing spot long enough for them to attract specks of earth that hold seeds of trees from which roots take hold thus anchoring the rocks. Not long enough for wind and rain to smooth some of the edges.

 

And the area is isolated, hundreds of miles from civilization. There are no doctors, no equipment stores, no restaurants, no grocers and no microwave towers from which to call for help.

 

To enter this country you must be prepared not only for the expected length of time for your trip but for extra days in the event the pick-up plane can’t land due to fog, rain and/or snow.

 

When Linda, Deb, Peggy and I started talking about gear, we started with shelter. Peggy had a bivouac. Linda had a two-man tent that would take some bad weather although it wouldn’t withstand a heavy snowfall. Deb and I had summer one-man tents that wouldn’t stand much wind, never mind snow.

 

Obviously, considering McBrien, our equipment needed re-tooling. Based on previous experiences, I was inclined to take my winter (four-season) tent with heavy poles and snow-proof covering that keeps body heat in, once people have settled in for a few minutes. This way if there was an injury, the patient could be kept comfortable or if there was snow and one of the summer tents collapsed we could get into the winter tent. Also, staking down a tent is important since strong winds are common and winter tents require staking.

 

But winter tents are heavy. My two-man MSR, four season weighs in at six pounds where as my summer one-man is a mere two. When carrying food and clothing for a long period, this is a huge consideration.

 

By the time we’d gone this far in our preparations, Peggy’s kids decided that her little bivouac just wouldn’t do so, as a surprise gift for mother’s day, they purchased her a very expensive, light weight, European made, four-season tent in bright red so she wouldn’t only be warm and safe under most conditions, but her tent would look great in photos too. They didn’t think about the other important factor and that is, it would easily be seen from a searching helicopter.

 

So with Peggy’s new tent, she solved any problems we might have in the event of injury and Linda had a two-man that could hold Deb or me should we lose our shelter. We were covered.

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To add to the shelter we also needed a tarp as a cooking shelter and an alternative if something did happen to all the tents. Deb and Peggy both had lightweight, large tarps that we practiced with for hours, putting them up in different landscapes. We used hiking poles and logs found in the bush as braces and we put the tarps against hills when possible to give us more room. We even used a boulder field to figure out how we could get shelter between large rocks. The secret we learned too late was to tie rocks to the corners of the tarp and hang the four corners over the huge boulders that surrounded a small clear space where we could tuck in underneath. This technique we thought out after we left the cirque but it’s really handy when stopping for lunch during bad weather.

 

A pitched tarp with a fire just in front is called a siwash tent, a serviceable mode of shelter favored by all the early trappers and explorers, summer and winter, in the McKenzies. Although we didn’t use this method of shelter for sleeping, we had the tarps with which to back up our other tents.

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Keep tuned for the next installment – more on the preparation.