Cirque of The Unclimbables and the South Nahanni River
Cirque of The Unclimbables and the South Nahanni River - July 2022 by Elizabeth Hand and photos by Alex Eggermont
Last summer, 7 of us - Kenn, Rebecca, Nash, Alex, Tom, Shira, and myself (Elizabeth), all from Squamish BC, squeezed our gear into a heavily overloaded Prius and Subaru Forester and drove North for three days heading for the Cirque of the Unclimbables and the South Nahanni River. For most of us it was a climbing-paddling trip that we had been trying to organize for a few years and were excited for it to come together.
It took several weeks of pre-trip planning, gear organizing, and dehydrating food to get ready. For me, as a self-diagnosed over-thinker, the hardest part was all the decisions; how much food will I eat in 4 weeks? Will my group meals be enough to feed everyone? Should I buy an e-reader or carry books? How likely are we to bivy on the wall? How many pairs of socks do I need? Warm ones or lightweight summer ones? It felt endless and kind of a relief when we were finally flying in and what we had was what we had!
We flew from Watson Lake in the Yukon to the remote Glacier Lake in two 90 minute trips in a small float plane. The first flight through the stunning mountain landscapes went smoothly. But on my trip, later in the afternoon, we were dodging rain and black clouds. I emptied my stomach into a sick bag and hoped the pilot knew what he was doing whilst the group already at the lake gave up on us flying in that day. They were packing to head up to the cirque without us when they spotted our tiny plane coming in amidst the thunderstorms!
Our plan had been to spend the first night at the lake organizing gear, stowing our packrafts, and relaxing, but the thousands of mosquitoes immediately surrounding us made us keen to get out of there. I had a bug jacket, bug head net and hat, long pants tucked into thick socks, and gloves on and I was still getting bitten. I was so sweaty and hot and really wanted to take all the layers off but that would have been madness. It was hard at times to remain calm; I wanted to yell at them to just leave me alone but it didn’t seem up for negotiation! Every few minutes I would hear the high-pitched whine of a mosquito in my ear and realize another one had somehow gotten inside my head net. I built up quite a collection of squished mosquitoes in the sag of my bug net and had to frequently empty out the graveyard so I didn’t feel quite so morbid.
The 5 hour trail to the cirque had a fair amount of deadfall to negotiate and a few overgrown sections but was much better than expected and the views were incredible. It’s always such a treat to climb up through the changing vegetation as you gain elevation into the alpine with the forests giving way to shrubs and grasslands, and the rocky towers emerging above. We had seen on satellite images that the cirque had been under snow only 2 weeks prior; the streams were raging with fresh melt water and plants were just putting out their flower buds.
Climbing the classic Lotus Flower Tower was our main climbing objective. We had read reports that some years people had only 1 or 2 days without rain in the cirque, so even though we had just arrived, when day 1 promised a good forecast, we couldn’t resist going for it! We’d slept in after our late hike up and another afternoon storm rolled in but my partner Alex and I gave it 30 minutes to dry off a little and started up the 20 pitch alpine climb at 5pm!
The first 3 pitches had super fun, steep cracks. Alex led all of them and although I didn’t need to hang on the rope, I found them hard and started to doubt myself. I was supposed to lead the next pitch but it looked tricky to protect and I was in my head. Alex offered to lead it but said he wasn’t keen to lead everything. That was exactly the help and kick-up-the-butt I needed to get out of my head. I led most of the chimney pitches and found them super fun and we traded in blocks on the headwall. There's a giant ledge halfway up and Alex and I arrived thinking the others would be waiting there for an evening dance party but instead we found the four cuddled together napping. It was 24 hour daylight but I guess you still get tired! I hacked some of the ice on the ledge into our water bottles and we lay down sharing a survival bivy for a few hours sleep.
Climbing on the head wall was tricky, interesting, and unique. We were climbing on small chicken heads that stuck out of the rock but protected with gear in the many cracks. This made it feel more insecure than normal trad climbing and you had to pick your line up the least slippery looking chicken heads! We had just gotten to the top of pitch 14 when a huge hail storm suddenly started. I looked down and my shoes were white with hail piling up on top. The temperature dropped and we started yelling about whether to bail or wait it out. The consensus was to bail and so after Alex had heroically brought the rope up in the hail, we started the descent. As the sun inevitably reappeared on our way down we debated if we'd made the right choice. But the rock up high was wet, we were tired, and it was only the second day!
Perhaps appropriately, we didn't manage to come back and finish the route until our second last day! We climbed as a full team bringing a tent, stove, and pads for the bivy. It rained for the first few hours, we climbed into the darkness, and some pitches were more like waterfalls but by then we were a little more accustomed to the ways of the cirque and after a sleepless night with 7 in a small tent, we managed to get to the top in good spirits. The second to last pitch was one of my favourite ever in the alpine - a 50m perfect splitter hand crack.
Overall we spent an incredible 17 days in the Cirque of the Unclimbables. We explored the various valleys, made friends with the local marmots, frenemies with the ground squirrels, climbed and scrambled the huge boulders in the meadow, quested up the starts of several potential new routes, and topped out 3 long routes on the towers (Lotus Flower, Riders on the Storm, Brent’s Hammer). We also whittled a chess set, played games, intensely negotiated snack trades, read endless books, attempted crosswords, and debated each day as to what time it would start raining!?
On day 18 we bid farewell to the cirque and headed off on part 2 of the adventure. First we descended to Glacier lake and repacked our gear. There are canoes on the lake which groups can borrow for return trips up to the cirque end. As we were doing a one-way trip, there were just 2 spare ones we could use. Luckily we could inflate a couple of packrafts and load them up with our gear to tow behind. My job was to constantly bail out the water coming in through the many holes in the old canoe!
The next morning we packed all our paddling and camping gear, and 11 days worth of food into our packs for a 9km hike to the river. Our bags were brutally heavy! Combined with the heat and mosquitos, it was a super tough day. I think it took about 6 hours for us all to get to the river and most of us were mentally and physically exhausted; we quickly discarded our plans to start paddling that same day.
The upper section of the Nahanni above Virginia Falls is flat and fairly calm with stunning views of the cirque receding behind us. We paddled, floated, and in a smart move Nash and Alex rigged a sail to catch the tailwind. We had a long second day on the water and arrived around 10pm as the sun was beginning to set. I remember there was an amazing pine smell, as if the warmth of the day was now being released by the forest.
It was so lovely to have a full rest day at Virginia and lots of time to admire the huge falls. Being in awe of nature feels to me like something I want to just sit with all day and keep experiencing. I think maybe that's one of the reasons so many of us are drawn to wild landscapes.
Below the falls the canyons began. The huge walls were stunning to paddle past and we kept spotting potential climbing lines. The flow stepped up and the whitewater was fun and bouncy and felt great to be in some rapids. George's Riffle, just before 5* camp had a big eddy which meant we could run it several times. Two of the group hit a drop river right before the rapid which looked fun but might have been bigger than expected!
The packrafts worked really well. They felt stable in the waves and comfy for lying back and enjoying floating in the calm water. It was really easy to clip them together and raft up as a group. It was a little tight but all of our gear and food fit inside the tubes in the TiZip storage zipper which meant we had room to stretch out without bags up top.
We had brought books about the history of exploration in the Nahanni valley, the native people, legends, and myths. The list of characters was a little long and confusing, but it was a fun daily thing for one of us to read a story aloud to the group, floating on the river.
For me, learning the stories made a deeper connection to the area. It was easy to envision people heading up river looking for food, spirits, gold, or sights of wild beasts. They must have been incredibly hardy. Made me feel like a quite tame adventurer.
Some nights we camped in recommended spots where others had cleared flat areas and sourced rocks to tie down the tents. Some nights we just found a reasonable looking beach and pitched tents wherever we could. We had a fire-pan and cooked dinner in a big pot over logs each night. We never found trees tall enough for a bear hang and had no barrels with us so our strategy was to pile all our food under a tarp near one of our tents hoping our menacing snores would keep the bears away. It seemed to work!
The bugs were a feature our whole trip. There were fewer in the cirque and in the canyons part of the river however I was glad we had brought a group bug tent big enough for us all to hang out in. Before the trip I had envisioned us lounging or exploring in the meadow on rest days or playing games on the beaches each night but often we escaped to the bug tent for relief. There were certainly days we happily hung out outside but it felt like a mental adjustment I needed to make. We had read a story before we left about a dog that had died from mosquito bites in Nahanni Butte, a village low down the river and that seemed not so far fetched. Everyone had different strategies but in our tent, Shira and I would only unzip the doors once. We’d throw our things in, dive in ourselves, then spend 15 minutes squishing the mosquitos which followed us in. If we needed to pee we either held it or used a bottle! All night we could hear the hum of mosquitos waiting for us outside.
The lower part of the Nahanni is known as the flats. The river becomes wider, more braided, and much slower. We had envisioned some long days of hard paddling but found there was enough flow and minimal headwind so we could relax and float many sections. We were still on the river for a lot of hours, but the boats were stable enough that we could read, do crosswords, pee, even boil water and make food. Being on the river also avoided the bugs! At one point the river makes a 6km horseshoe bend. We attempted to shortcut and bushwhack the 100m across but it was thick vegetation and we quickly retreated.
The flats were the best spot to see wildlife. We were lucky enough to see bears and bison on the shores and one even swam across the river in front of us. I was really hoping to see a moose but guess I’ll have to come back!
We paddled into Blackstone Landing - the first spot where the river meets a road in over 400km - late afternoon on August 3rd. It was surreal to back in semi-civilization and I was hesitant to be reaching cell service but I also felt ready to be in clean clothes, away from the bugs, and to take a shower. It was an incredible trip and certainly a piece of my heart will be with the Nahanni Valley for a long long time.
River Day by Day
Hike to Britnell Creek; 9km; 6 hours
Britnell Creek to Camp 25; 38km; 6 ¾ hours; avg flow 5-6km/hr. Plus Tufa mounds hike
Camp 25 to Virginia Falls; 85km; 13 ¾ hours; avg flow 4km/hr
Layover at Virginia; Hike to base of falls with gear.
Virginia Falls to Camp 28; 32km; 5 hours
Camp 28 to Painted Canyon Camp; 50km; 5 hours. Plus hike up The Gate.
Painted Canyon Camp to 5* Camp; 29km; 3 hours. Plus hike up painted canyon.
5* Camp to Kraus hot springs; 17km; 1.5 hours. Plus hike up Lafferty Canyon.
Kraus hot springs to Last Chance Camp; 47km; 7 hours
Last Chance Camp to Blackstone Landing; km; 9 ½ hours