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An 11pm sunset meant we were near the end of our drive

A Long way from LaLaLand
It started when I was 18 years old—the dream of climbing in the Cirque of the Unclimbables in Canada’s Northwest Territories. It wasn’t until I was 35 that I made it happen with Brian, a friend of mine from California, and Dean, an affable stranger from New Zealand.

Over the years I’ve developed a love of getting places under my own power, so from the outset, this trip wasn’t going to be easy, and it certainly wasn’t going to be the “base camp” style expedition that many climbing adventures entail.

The best way into the Cirque if not by air is definitely by water—and that’s after we’d driven the 42 hours from Los Angeles to Fort Simpson, then hopped in a float plane to the source of the Little Nahanni River. From there on out, it was the three of us and our packrafts resembling burly pool toys. Eighty-five pounds of climbing and camping gear was strapped to the spray deck in front of us, along with what we hoped would be enough food to last us the 24 days it would take to paddle to the Cirque, climb the Lotus Flower Tower, and paddle back to civilization.

Thor our pilot gave us a preview of the mountains we would be paddling into.

Thor our pilot gave us a preview of the mountains we would be paddling into.

Baptism By Fire

Most people choose to get familiar with their gear before being dumped in the wilderness. A lack of time beforehand meant that none of us had any experience in packrafts. Instead we’d read an “idiots guide” and purloined enough lifesaving gear to keep us warm and dry in the event of a likely spill. Brian was a fireman, I had a camera and Dean had a good sense of humor. What could go wrong?

For a few hours that first day after the plane banked out of view, we had silence. But as we paddled across Flat Lake, the sound of the river grew ahead of us. I glanced at the others as we learned to maneuver our rafts through grade II and III rapids. Like me, they were giggling as the heavy dry bags lashed to the spray decks punched through holes we didn’t yet have the skills to avoid.

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Tying things down well at the beginning of each day could mean the difference between enjoying ourselves and being left without essential gear.

All Change
It took 6 days, a few non-lethal spills, one lost paddle and some dozing to reach a muddy scrape on the riverbank that marked the trailhead to the Cirque. We hung our rafts and the food we needed for the paddle out to prevent the wildlife from nibbling. The rest went on our backs—a rude awakening after days of essentially sitting down. But while the swampy hike through muskeg (swatting at sluggish mosquitoes) was draining, the view that slowly emerged above the stunted spruce had my palms sweating with excitement.

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The beginning of the hike from Glacier Lake up to Fairy Meadows.

It was hard not to want to keep moving forward once we could see where we were headed.

It was hard not to want to keep moving forward once we could see where we were headed.

Lotus Flower Tower
For Dean, anxiety the night before the climb was at an all-time high. He’d done very little climbing before, so a degree of nerves seemed like a sensible biological response. There was little chance that we’d be setting any speed records, so we brought our sleeping bags with us, and enough water for a night on the wall.

After camping in Fairy Meadows—the hanging valley that resembles a small corner of Middle Earth—we reached the base of the route at first light, the echo of small stones spinning down the faces around us. The first two steep pitches were enough to have Dean questioning the wisdom of learning to climb on something with this level of commitment. Instead of venturing above an easy bail-out point, Dean left us to it after 300 feet, rappelling down and walking back to camp to binge on a stash of cheese and chocolate.

After 2 pitches, Dean felt he should learn to climb on something a little smaller.

After 2 pitches, Dean felt he should learn to climb on something a little smaller.

Annoyingly, Brian and I didn’t accelerate much. We were sluggish and Brian felt nauseous. We’d hiked in quickly the day before and skipped a rest day to take advantage of what looked like a closing weather window. In hindsight, that rest day might have been the key to success.

It was spitting rain and all but dark by the time we arrived at a cramped bivi ledge halfway up the face. We were tired but relieved we’d at least brought the means to keep warm and dry for the night.

Brian and I cozied up, slipping slowly downhill in our intimate sleeping quarters.

Brian and I cozied up, slipping slowly downhill in our intimate sleeping quarters.

The Destination vs. the Journey
The next morning, with cracked fingers and clouds clinging to the granite, we too decided to bail. For a few hours as we rappelled, I felt as if my dream that had taken shape over half a lifetime had died.

Once we’d arrived back at our boats and the familiar sound of the South Nahanni River two days later, that feeling of failure dissolved as I looked around me. Few people ever get to fly over this wilderness let alone float and scramble through it. For nearly three weeks, the gravel bars and the forests and the mountains above them had been our home. The old adage “life is about the journey, not the destination” rang true as we paddled the last few days out of the Nahanni National Park, embraced by canyon walls and hemmed in at night by a dancing ceiling of northern lights.

The South Nahanni grew more majestic as we paddled towards its mouth.

The South Nahanni grew more majestic as we paddled towards its mouth.

The end of summer meant cool nights, but not without an accompanying light show.

The end of summer meant cool nights, but not without an accompanying light show.