We unpacked under an overhanging rock in Fairy Meadows next to a couple of American climbers, Jason and Christian. They were here to climb Lotus Flower Tower, the greatest wall of granite in Canada.
Under a bright northern sun, we talked about other climbers who had done the tower and we sipped on spiked tea. Suddenly everyone went silent and watched as a wall of mist swirled its way up the same slope that we had hiked just hours before. It flooded Fairy Meadows until visibility was no more than ten meters. Even the bright red roof of the new multi-million dollar outhouse across the creek was invisible and the sounds of the campers’ activities on the opposite side of the valley became muffled.
I’d seen weather collect at high peaks before. The rain that gathered at Mt Decoli, the highest mountain in the front range of Kluane, forced us more than once to retreat to the comfort of a Bed and Breakfast. If we ever saw Mt Robson, the highest mountain in British Columbia’s Rockies, not in cloud, we were compelled to stop and take a photo. And farther abroad, a trip to Illampu in the Bolivian Andes had forced us to cancel a ten-day hike because the weather had moved in bringing rain, sleet and snow. Our guide was far too cold in his rubber-tire sandals and second-hand jacket to go farther up than the 5000 meters we were at.
But the Cirque towers, dominated as they were to the north by the highest mountain in Canada’s North West Territories, Mt Sir James McBrien, seemed to attracted more moisture than anything I’d ever seen.
We finished our tea and headed into our tents. I opened Diary of a Lake, a book of data about the area and stories of how it was collected by successive teams of scientists. This was the book mentioned in last week’s story that had resulted in our enthusiastic reception, by park staff, on our arrival. They had used our recommendation to carve a trail from Fairy Meadow through the bush to the lake rather than using the talus slope.
Randomly, I opened it and read about my favourite bunch of Cirque scientists (because they did lots of hiking,) the Yale Team who had flown in in 1952. Their main purpose was to climb but one of them had been hired by the Pentagon to assist in an expedition to identify ground cover that showed white on aerial photos. Another member of the team was working on his Master’s thesis, a diagrammatic detailing of the area’s geography.
The photographer of the Pentagon expedition, Norm Thomas, had written, “We awoke that morning to the slow steady beat of rain on our sleeping bags. And we looked out on a bleak wet world where heavily saturated clouds hung dark and threatening in the valley and his the mountains in ominous swirling vapour…” Oh yes, I thought, as I tucked my book into the side pocket of my tent and drifted off to sleep to the rhythm of the pattering rain.
The following morning, after a comfortable night’s sleep, I awoke to the same environment as Norm Thomas had over half a century before. I pulled on all my rain gear and crawled out of the tent to make coffee. Like Thomas, I too saw saturated clouds and mountains in ominous swirling vapour. At the rock, our climbing neighbours were looking pretty glum too.
Linda and I stood under the rocky overhand and sipped. I read from Diary that when the Raups were at the lake studying the flora of the area, during the late 1930s they had recorded the temperatures while they were there between June 16th and August 20th. The maximum average daily temperature was 18.7º C (65.7º F) with a maximum of 28.6º C (83.5º). The minimum average was 6.4º C (43.6º F) and the lowest they recorded was 0ºC (32ºF.) Out of those 60 days, the rain fell 19 days.
“Okay, we’ve had our one day out of three of rain,” said Linda. “The sun should soon be here.”
“I hope we aren’t here for the day of 0ºC!”
And with that, the clouds broke, the rain stopped and a sliver of blue contrasted the grey. We had breakfast and packed up for a day of exploring. We would head to the farthest reach of the valley towards Lotus Tower Flower.
“I’ll take the tarp,” Deb said. “Just in case we need shelter when we have lunch.”
“Rain jacket,” said Peggy. “Check.”
“Umbrella … check.”
Christian grabbed his camera and followed us as we headed up the valley and past a rock wall that, because of its shape, is called the Penguin.
“If it stays like this and the wall dries….”
There was a crack of thunder and the rain started again. We didn’t look back.