Picture of ruins

The Climb into the Cirque

Posted May 15, 2016

After a boisterous and animated greeting from the Nahanni National Park’s welcoming committee, we quickly hauled our gear from the plane and made camp for the night so we could get the latest gossip about the Cirque of the Unclimbables, our destination above Glacier Lake.


The day was hot and sunny, which is unusual for the Cirque. The welcoming committee suggested that we go up first thing in the morning and utilize the good weather.

The warden, who was in charge of the committee told us that just that year the park had completed a trail from the lake to Fairy Meadows, the area in the Cirque guarded by Cathedral Mountain and it shouldn’t take us more than two or three hours to ascend.

“Where does the trail go?”

“It follows the one described in Diary of a Lake. You recommended coming down that way, through the forest.”

“You don’t cross the creek until you are in the meadow by the overhanging rocks.”

I was glad to hear this. The original climb was up the talus slope below Cathedral, where rocks the size of pick-up trucks moved when pushed with a finger and free moving scree flowed down in waves at the sound of approaching boots.

“You don’t need to carry much water because it shouldn’t take much more than two or three hours to get up and you’re beside the creek all the way.”

I failed to ask what “near” meant. Coming down on my previous trip had been so quick we didn’t need water and I assumed the creek would always be within a five-minute walk off the trail.


After an early morning breakfast, we eagerly headed up the trail, cameras clicking and Peggy singing old 1960s songs. Crossing Frost Creek that flows into Glacier Lake was uneventful but the second creek, just a few meters beyond Frost was adorned with flowing orange travertine and tufa mounds that compelled us to drop packs and explore. The formation of the tufa and travertine is caused by underground thermal activity. As the water travelled upward, it passed through and dissolved limestone and siltstones. Once at the surface, the carbon dioxide in the water dissipated leaving the lime precipitates that formed the tufa and travertine. Generally, travertine is smoother than tufa but we couldn’t tell which one we were looking at. The orange colour was caused by the water’s reaction with hydrous iron oxide.


After an hour of playing, we donned our packs and headed up the new trail. And up it was. Straight up. No switchbacks. And the sun was out. So were the wasps. Linda and I, being the oldest and slowest, were the ones with whom the wasps took out their anger after speedsters, Peggy and Deb had accidently poked the wasps’ nests, located in the ground, with their hiking poles. Behind me, Linda, who out of concern for her old friend usually acts as the sweeper, also got it.

One guy was so angry that he came at me like a Kamikaze suicide fighter jet buzzing straight for my forehead. He hit dead on, pulled away and hit again.

Besides avoiding the wasps, Linda had another problem. She was thirsty. On park’s advice, we had decided to forego the extra weight of carrying water. After three hours of hiking we realized we were about halfway to the meadows, and the sun was beating down through the trees.


We listened but there was no sound of a creek. Deb and Peg went ahead. I saw them far above, drop their packs. They were in an opening and near the top. There had to be water. Linda, never a complainer was red, slow and frowning. She and I both dropped our packs and sat on them, waiting for a rescue. Then I saw Deb coming back down the trail with a container, which I knew would be full of cold water. Linda drank like it was beer.

Peggy was sound asleep in the sun when we reached the creek. I wanted to join her but we still had another hour before we reached the meadow and I was tired.

An hour later we reached the meadow. The sun was still out, creeks flowed everywhere and we had an overhanging rock under which we could cook and eat meals.


“It’s a Hobbit House,” Peggy said and pulled out the stove to boil water for tea.

Below our kitchen by just a few feet was a relatively level spot with enough room to pitch all four tents. And it overlooked a heaven-perfect view.