We got up to rain, had coffee and porridge in the rain, and packed up to hike to Lotus Flower Tower, the most challenging peak in the Cirque, the one most climbers come to conquer.
Although there are reports collected by the Nahanni National Park that the first to climb in the Cirque were Fred Lambert, who did the first ascent of Mt Logan and George Roberts, who was a Fort Simpson trapper hired by Colonel Snyder as a boat man in 1937.
But Lambert never recorded any of his climbs in the Cirque so the credit goes to six Yale students who were members of the Yale Mountaineering Club. So far as they knew, they were entering on virgin ground. The leader of the group, Dudley Bolyard said to me in a letter, “To my knowledge there had been no serious previous attempts to climb these mountains. We saw no cairns or other evidence of prior ascents.”
Their visit to the area was inspired by the aerial photos that accompanied Colonel Harry Snyder’s article in the Canadian Geographical Journal #15, about his expedition to Glacier Lake in 1937. Bolyard published an account of the Yale Team climbs in the Canadian Alpine Journal, #36 (1953.)
They climbed eight of the peaks of what is now known as Sidney Dobson as well as Mt Ida overlooking Mt Proboscis and Glacier Lake. They went up onto the Brintnell Glacier and other smaller glaciers between Brintnell and Sidney Dobson. And they were very careful. One of the six, John Christian Bailer III, wrote that, “we had an acute sense that we were utterly on our own and that even a small accident might become a major disaster.”
They went up Cathedral too, late in the season, finding themselves on a subsidiary peak, an ice-covered col between them and the pain peak. In the course of that climb, in early September, it started to snow and they descended to the lake and left the area. While waiting for their plane they watched the collapse of part of the face of Cathedral.
The Yale Team didn’t register their climbs, but once they returned to the States, they published their story and the word was out.
Three years later, in 1955 Arnold Wexler and four other American climbers scaled the southwest face of Mt Sir James MacBrien and took a good look at the surrounding peaks. It was these peaks that gave Wexler the idea of calling the area by its foreboding name, which in turn caught the attention of the climbing world.
Five years after Wexler’s expedition, Bill Buckingham, an enthusiastic American climber, spent a month conquering most of the highest points in the cirque including the south ridge of Mt. Proboscis. Its southern face looks like it has been cut in half, revealing polished granite towers that go 2000 feet straight up. Although it looks deceptively easy, according to Buckingham, once in line with the upward direction, it is horrifying. Besides skill, he must have had excellent weather, a rarity in the cirque!
In 1968, Lotus Flower Tower was named and scaled by a team under the leadership of climber, J. McCarthy. His report stated that Lotus Flower was the most perfect climbing wall on the North American continent. It has 20 pitches with each pitch being 60 meters. At the end of ten pitches, which usually takes climbers a full day to complete, the wall has a mossy ledge big enough to hold a tent. This means that climbers don’t have to hang by ropes in a bivouac to get some rest. It was this same year that Lotus received its first free ascent, which for non-climbers means no ropes.
Until the early 1970s the Cirque was popular only with North American climbers, but in 1972 mountain photographer, Galen Rowell published a series of photos and the international climbing community started arriving in droves. These foreigners, mostly Europeans or Japanese, have made three-quarters of the first ascents in the Cirque.
As Linda, Deb and I trudged silently through the rain, jumping from rock to rock across large pools of water we kept our heads down. Near the entrance to the Lotus Flower Tower’s valley, we stopped a moment and looked up. The mist swirled away from a straight granite wall leaving us just enough time to gasp before the vapour returned.
Being this close to the king of northern rocks we hoped to see more, so we pulled out the tarp and made a shelter between a group of boulders. It was a tight fit for the four of us but our tea was warm and our cheese and sausage filling and we could see the shadow of the Lotus behind the fog. We watched. The rain fell harder and the mist got thicker. We waited until our fingers were numb and our noses dripped. We packed up and returned to the hobbit house.
Back at camp Jason and Christian were tucked in reading and listening to the rain. This was their seventh day in the Cirque and they hadn’t even pulled a piton out of their gear bag. Maybe tomorrow.
But it was too early for us to prepare and eat dinner and we couldn’t get back into our tents so we jumped across the creek and went over to inspect the new outhouse plus see who was in the neighbouring hobbit house. We said hello to a group of Americans and got a nod. They were preoccupied with a gadget of the kind we hadn’t seen before. It buzzed above us. We stood close to one of the climbers who was playing with a hand-held operating piece.
“That’s a drone!” Linda yelled. The operator nodded.
But no matter how many questions we asked or how insistent we became for an answer our drone operators were not interested in telling us anything. They sort of waved us away and continued droning the cloud-covered peaks of the cirque.
“Would this be considered a new first?”
“Sort of like being the first to map the ground cover?”
“Or maybe they’re delivering coffee to other guys farther up the valley?”
We didn’t know.