Sometimes climbing is like Art. And before you groan and stop reading I bet my comparison is not what you think, so bear with me for a paragraph or two. There are some routes that are like photo-realistic paintings, that require high levels of skill to accomplish and this is instantly obvious to the creator and the voyeur and this is the appeal of them. On the other hand there are others that, by modern day standards at least, are not so impressive in their grade and don’t instantly project the high level of skill required to create them – maybe like some examples of modern abstract Art (depending on your thoughts and depth of understanding of Art of course). We used to visit galleries as kids a lot as my Dad was an artist but it took me a long time to appreciate the subtleties of some forms of Art that I now really enjoy – my eight year old self often lamenting at the likes of a Rothko or Jackson Pollock painting ‘I don’t get it, anyone can paint a square, this is not Art’ and my Dad’s reply would always be ‘..but you didn’t though did you, that’s the whole point’. I never really understood what he meant and to be honest I’m not totally sure I do now but if I go back to my comparison of Art to climbing I think I can apply this to the types of climbing I’m sometimes drawn to.
Abstract art by Jackson Pollock – Art?
For me the Lotus Tower had always looked to be an exceptionally cool challenge. A big tower of rock in a remote part of Northern Canada that was only accessible either by boat or float plane. The grade of the climb is rather modest and the length of the route not too ridiculous either, making it theoretically accessible to most ‘average’ climbers. The logistics of the Lotus flower tower are however not so easy. With a 3 hour drive from the largest town in the Yukon to arrive at a flight post where you either helicopter right into base camp or float plane into the nearest accessible body of water before embarking on a 4 hour hike with all your kit, even getting into the cirque of mountains where the Lotus Flower Tower sits is complicated, before you even begin delving into the issues with the weather, the camping logistics and the strategy for the climb itself. For me, the shear beauty of the route itself combined with the sense of adventure that all these logistics add up to is what is so alluring about an undertaking such as the Lotus flower tower. The seemingly pedestrian grade of the crux pitch of nineteen goes at anywhere between 10c and 11a depending on who you ask, so it does not require the upmost in skill like some routes, or indeed paintings, but is alluring in its bold aesthetic – a steep and clean tapering tower with endless crack systems that is also dotted with chicken head features unusual to granite. Much like the Rothko paintings of this comparison and how my Dad understands them to be art, to be stood on top of the Lotus Flower Tower would not take unpresidented climbing ability – ‘anybody could do it’, but it did require the effort to go and do it, to figure all the logistics, wait out the bad weather and go get that magical beast.
Paul knew I had an interest in the Lotus Flower Tower and when he mentioned about us going to do it in the summer of 2016 I nearly bit his hand off, he was definitely the ideal partner to pull this kind of mission off and I knew this was an offer I couldn’t afford to decline.
We spent the winter and spring formulating a plan and when we realised how expensive the float plane alone would be (sure a helicopter ride right to base camp would be nice but even as working professionals the cost was out of our ballpark) we were on the look out for another unsuspecting pair of enthusiastic climbers to join us on the trip and split the fare. Luckily it didn’t take much to convince our Squamish climbing friends Ross and Travis to get on board with our plans.
Logistics of getting to the Cirque
After much long term preparation that, as is now all too familiar, only seemed to come together in a frantic last few days before the trip, we piled all our kit into Paul’s van and hit the road at 5am on a mid July Saturday morning. Our strategy was, as there were 4 of us on rotation, to drive non-stop to Finlayson lake, the out-post where Kluane airways would pick us up in the Beaver float plane. Finlayson Lake is 3 hours of driving on an exciting dirt road highway North of Watson Lake (2340km from Vancouver). Having never been further North in BC than Lillooet I was excited even by the drive which in itself would be an epic undertaking with our schedule of rotation and lack of any real sleep.
Twenty six hours later, two live Wolverine, one dead Wolverine and hundreds of Bison, we arrived in the bizarre town of Watson Lake at 7am on Sunday morning. I say bizarre because although I’m no stranger to the quirkiness of small remote towns in the UK, small remote towns in North America are a totally different kettle of fish however. Watson like was essentially a highway with a gas station, a grocery store, a few pubs, motels, a half decent breakfast joint and the sign post forest. The sign post forest is something my friend had mentioned before and it literally exists of thousands of retired registration plates, road signs off all types of nature and basically anything that people can think of pinning to the wood posts to leave their mark on the town. Since we were in plenty of time to make an evening flight out of Finlayson Lake we grabbed a hearty breakfast at Wendy’s and checked out the forest.
Bison hanging about in the middle of the road as seemed pretty typical in these parts.
The sign post forest in Watson Lake
We called Warren, the man behind Kluane, to arrange our flight time before we hit the road again and lost contact with the real world due to lack of cell reception.
Robert Campbell ‘highway’ – 3 hours of dirt road driving North of Watson lake to get to Finlayson Lake at the float plane pick up point.
Our flight was scheduled for 4pm and upon arriving in the parking lot at Finlayson we saw a few others cars parked from parties who were probably already in the Cirque. We had a couple of hours to spare and the sun was shining so we embarked on some last minute re-packing, final panicking about how much over or under we were with our estimations on food rations and then finally ventured inside the hut that was there to catch some much needed zz’s after our taxing journey. No one seemed to care much about the damp mustly smell of the bed linen, we were all just so happy to be in a prone position after hours of trying steal some shut eye flopping around in car seats.
The out-post at Finlayson Lake where we did a last minute pack up of our stuff and left the van
Veging out in the cabin at the lake – it has a stove and a sink and other facilities as well as some smelly old beds – but we weren’t complaining!
When the float plane came we piled our luggage (which mostly consisted of a pack each to carry into the cirque and an extra pack/duffel each that we would leave at the tan shed at Glacier lake with extra food supplies, dry clean clothes as emergency back ups or for luxury when returning to Inconnu Lodge on the way out and beer) into the back of the plane. We had all weighed our packs with Paulie’s luggage hanger right before the plane landed and each pack weighed between 60 and 70 pounds and our spare duffels were each around the same so we were under the allowable weight restrictions of the plane.
The Beaver coming in to land at Finlayson Lake for our pick up.
Getting ready to load the plane at Finlayson Lake
Travis took the front seat and Paul, Ross and I piled into the back. Even though float plane rides are fairly common around Vancouver and neighboring islands, I had never been in anything smaller than a boeing 747 before let alone a float plane into the mountains so I was pretty damn excited. We wore ear defenders as the plane was pretty loud and mostly sat silently for the hour duration on the flight enjoying the magnificent views and occasionally pointing and nudging each other when something particularly cool came into view, like when Warren circled around the cirque before dropping to Glacier lake.
Views from the float plane
It was hot and sunny when we arrived at Glacier lake and we were greeted by half a dozen Kayakers sat out enjoying the sun and a beer at the shore side. After some last minute bag faffing we left our extra supplies in the tan shed and prepped for our long hike in.
The hike heads North West adjacent to the water on a brutally flat trail for about an hour before gaining any kind of elevation. Without a pack on you could romp this section but with a heavy load the time passing without any elevation gain seemed like a soul destroying robbery. After a few swampy trudges, a log crossing, a near miss with a porcupine and many ungainly hops over fallen trees across the sometimes worn out trail we made it to the start of the steep terrain. And by steep I mean – holeeey! The switch backs were on good solid ground but the elevation quickly made up for all that flat and with our big bags it made for a real test of quad strength.
A quick snack break at the turning point where the flat trail hit the steep steep switch backs
My shoulders felt weak and the only thing that kept me going was that it was just as painful and tiring to stop with the big load on as it was to keep burning the legs and keep plodding on.
After about another hour passed we made it to the section of the trail that pops out of the forest into the open boulder field. Looking back down at the scree-fall I was super grateful that the new, switch-backy forest trail had been put in so we didn’t have to do as those before us did and slog up the loose scree which looked like it would be a real ass kicker not to mention dangerous with all the rock fall coming off Mt Harrison Smith.
Hike in map from Glacier lake to fairy meadows base camp in the Cirque
The rest of the trail continued to be a slog and on slightly less solid terrain as we picked our way through the boulder field but the path was still pretty great and easy to follow. As snippets of rock towers and bigger boulders came into view I knew we were getting close and finally I spotted the infamous ‘Penguin’ feature and was relieved to be in the base camp. I dropped my pack off under a boulder as it had started to rain and took shelter as I waited for the boys. My pack was the lightest so I was a little faster but they were only 10 mins or so behind.
We then set about finding camp quickly as rain seemed imminent. With all the primo boulders taken by parties already in the Cirque ahead of us, this was easier said than done. It was getting late and we were all pretty wiped from our travelling and hiking so we resolved to pitch the tents in an open flat spot for the time being and figure something better out for the long term in the morning.
First night location of pitched tents in the Fairy meadows camp
There had been vague talk of going to do a siege on the LFT the very next day as the weather looked like it might be OK but I was dreading this as I felt way too tired and under prepared for the required early start so was glad to hear that everybody was on the same page later that it wasn’t a good idea.
Thankfully the next day’s shitty weather ratified our decision not to climb. We slept in until around 10am when we’re woken by the sounds of Ross chasing after a marmot that was taking off with his trekking pole!! It was pretty funny!
These beefy little guys were a real nuisance and would eat anything!
We spent the day searching for a good camp spot, the extent of the base camp is actually quite big with a few varied options for setting up a temporary home. Nevertheless it was still quite hard to find a boulder left over that was big and flat enough for us to fit two 2-person tents under and still have enough room to cook under. In the end we settled on a variation where Paul and I had our tent under half of our chosen boulder with enough room to hang out and cook for all four of us under shelter of the rock. Travis and Ross put their tent up a few meters from our boulder, taking exposure to the elements as the cost of finding a flat spot. We even found a good place to rig a washing line and spent the afternoon nesting and setting up.
Our new little home – mine and Paul’s tent was sheltered and we had enough room to cook and even hang some clothes to dry!
The next day Paul and I decided we were going to dive right in and go and attempt the Lotus Flower Tower. Travis and Paul were skeptical about the conditions but couldn’t not meet our psyche levels and decided they were game too. We decide they would be the faster party on the rock so we figured we’d stay in bed for an extra 30mins upon hearing their planned departure time – to give them chance to get ahead.
When we woke up there were no signs that the guys had already been awake but Paul and I hiked in in a soggy mist anyway, assuming they must have just been up and at ’em quickly and efficiently. The LFT was socked in for the duration of the approach and started raining a little as we hit the base of the route. Reluctantly we decided to pull the plug before we racked up as we’d experienced how cold and miserable and ultimately ineffective trying to quickly climb big routes in those conditions could be.
Paul and I eating dehydrated meals and wasting time in camp
We retreated and got back in our tent once we hit base camp. Awaking again around 8.30am and chatting to the guys to find out they didn’t even bother to get out of the tent when they peeked out and saw the weather. In hindsight they were smarter but Paul and I decided our aborted mission still had some benefits as we now knew where to go on the approach. Paul and I spent the rest of the day dicking about in camp, drinking beer and chatting. The boys went for a hike to the Mount Proboscis side of the valley. The sun came out for a little while in the late morning/early afternoon but the heavens opened later that afternoon.
Things were pretty wet when we awoke the next day although it wasn’t actually raining. We decided we’d all go and do a scramble on Mount Sir James McBain for something to do – thinking of it as a cruisy few hours out to play in the mountains. Seven and a half hours after setting out we returned to camp wet to the bones after an arduous summit, encountering route fining difficulties, dangerously loose rock at times, abseils, sketchy exposed traverses and even some gnarly hailstorms. We were all stoked to have had an adventure despite the lack of climbing and went to bed satiated and happy.
Descending in a hail storm after sumitting Mt SJMcB
A more sketchy section of the scramble ascent on Mt Sir James McBain
Although we had enough supplies to see us through until the end of Friday, it looked like their might be a break in the weather coming so we opted to head down and hit the tan shed at Glacier lake to resupply our stocks. We had a leisurely breakfast and after attempting to dry our kit from the day before when the sun came out (around 10am) we started hiking out with virtually empty packs. The weather was hot and sunny for a few hours from late morning into the mid afternoon and with some coffee in my system and music for the hiking I was feeling stoked and psyched that Friday could be the day we would send the LFT.
A rare moment of sunshine where we try to dry stuff out in camp – East Huey Spire in the background.
When we were returning from our resupply we ran into the group from Alberta (who were previously inhabiting one of the two big boulders) hiking out to leave – unfortunately they hadn’t got to send the LFT during their trip despite a few washed out attempts. I pondered how bad that would suck but they were keeping up a good rouse of positivity. When we got back to camp after hiking back up with our packs filled again we were greeted with rain, shock horror! We prepped for an alpine start regardless.
Jaded by our previous experiences, this time when we awoke at 3.30am and peeked out of the tent to see grey and moody skies and wet drizzle we zipped up the tent and went back to sleep.
We decided to use the rest of the day to move our camp, now that a more luxurious abode was vacant and since it didn’t look like we could spend the day doing much else. The move killed a few hours and whilst we were stoked to have more spacious quarters to hang out in, it was a small consolation to going climbing. In the afternoon the boredom had returned and morale seemed generally a bit low . We found a short window of passable weather and I belayed Paul on the penguin for a bit before it chucked it down again.
Camp number II under the big boulder
Belaying Paul on the Penguin in camp.
A guy from the other party occupying the other big camp came over to chat to us – they had an In-Reach device which they were able to get weather updates on and he told us that the weather was looking pretty shitty through til Sunday – but that there might be a chance to go for the LFT after that on the Monday. Feeling bummed out and a bit stir crazy we opted for a game of scrabble before turning in around 9pm.
Scrabble in camp – one of the many games we had to pass the time.
I woke up around 8am. My mood and the colour of the skies were on par. Pretty damn grey. It was raining lightly and everything looked soggy and damp out. I stayed in bed and read some more to kill the time. I managed to pass the rest of the hours in the day by taking a leisurely breakfast, washing in the river, doing a short workout under the boulder with therabands and a yoga mat, reading some more and going to bed around 8pm. My diary entry for that day reads ‘today sucked balls!’.
A typical grey day in the Cirque
The shite weather prevails and its getting pretty frustrating. Ross has found himself a smooth rock under the boulder that we deemed ‘the throne’. He sets himself up for a day of reading on the throne with his sleeping bag. I’m pretty jealous as with no sign of the sun for a few days I feel pretty cold in camp. I contemplate bringing my sleeping bag out of the tent but decide against risking it getting dirty and wet. I have all my layers on and the jet boil is on constant cycles – for something to do as much as for keeping warm! We play more games and read a shit tonne. We go to bed as early as we can justify appropriate – around 7pm.
Ross hanging out on his ‘throne’ whilst the bad weather prevails.
Whittling away the days in camp under the shelter of the boulder.
The weather is looking slightly better and we even catch a glimpse of the sun at some points. We continue to fester in camp though as nothing is really dry enough to climb and the psyche to go for a damp hike is low. The other group report that the weather looks like it will be steadily improving over the next couple of days and although know the weather doesn’t look like it will be good enough to allow for a send, we prep for an alpine start for the LFT anyway, too scared to give up any glimpse of an opportunity at this point.
We woke up at around 5.30am and left camp within 30mins. We had gotten pretty good at the approach at this point and were at the base after just over an hour. We figured it was so cold the last time we got to the base at alpine start o’clock that there wasn’t much point leaving that early again. The first few pitches looked pretty wet and miserable when we reached the LFT, but it wasn’t actually raining and we were a little warmer than the previous time we’d reached the same point so we decided to have a go at the first pitch. More to familiarize ourselves with the terrain than a belief that we would send the thing in these conditions and honestly because we were really desperate to do some climbing at this point!
Paul took the lead and found the going hard for a pitch graded 5.8. It was pretty blocky climbing but all the foot holds were pointing the wrong way and relying on smears and stems on the wet rock was not an option. It was also painfully cold and all this added up to some really slow climbing on what should have been easy terrain for us. I was just as wet and miserable when I reached the belay as Paul had seemed and we decided it wasn’t worth continuing up the rest of the route. The 5.9 corner pitch above was sopping wet, and whilst I resolved that it would be possible to get up it, by hook or by crook, was it really worth it just to get another pitch in? We deliberated this for a while which shows just how desperate we were to climb, before eventually throwing the ropes and abseiling off. Second mission aborted.
By the time we had reached camp the boys were up and about to leave to go climb a route on Terrace Tower – they’d opted not to commit to the LFT with us as the weather looked too rubbish. We re-packed our bags and decided to go try get some climbing in on Terrace also.
It took us about an hour to get to the base of the route on Terrace with some sketchy dirty slope scrambling to get to a flat platform where we could flake the ropes. The route was 6 pitches long with 4 pitches of 5.10 followed by 2 pitches of 5.11+. At the top of the 3rd pitch was a rap station but beyond that it was hard to bail according to the topo.
Paul set off first and led a fairly broken chossy crack pitch. At this point we were pleased to just be climbing anything so we weren’t complaining. I took over and got a solid 40m of similar climbing in with some run-out sections – finally a bit of excitement. Just before the belay station I encountered the ‘exciting mantle’ the topo was talking about and after spending a few minutes clearing mud out from the only feasible crimps I was almost ready to commit to the move – I was about 3m above and left of my last piece, a rusty looking peg tied off to a stuck nut – here I go. Just as I was mid mantle and feeling a little sketchy Ross had appeared from above and let me know that he had a loop of rope I could grab if I wanted. It was hard to make the decision not to – I pulled up on the safety of the loop – thanks Ross – perfect timing!
Digging in to hold is the grass preparing for a mantle.
Paul got good and pumped on the next 10+ pitch and despite being a little annoyed at going the wrong way at one point we both seemed pretty happy to be climbing. It was getting late in the day and committing to the next pitch would mean committing to thhe next 3 pitches, 2 of which were graded 11+. The weather had been dry all day except for a few small showers and so we made the decision to go down, based on the fact that we wanted to get back to camp early enough to prep the gear for another go at the Lotus flower tower the next day.
Descending from the route on Terrace
We set off on the all too familiar hike in at around 5.30am and were at the base to see Ross and Travis at the first belay station a pitch up. We started the climbing at around 7am and although the first pitch went quicker than the day before, it was still wet and cold and we were still slower than we liked. I lead the next 5.9 pitch which felt burly, thuggy, wide in places and still running with water. My small fists struggled to stay in the wet crack despite my best efforts and I resorted to pulling through on peices at the top to try and make the pitch go a little quicker. My arms and legs were dripping with water everytime they came out of the crack. It was a soggy mess and the climbing was far from delicate. I lost us a lot of time on this pitch and was annoyed that what I hoped would be much more cruisy climbing turned out to be such an epic pitch.
Arriving at the base of the route to find it still seeping with rain.
Paul had an exciting time leading out around the roof of the next pitch but thankfully it was short and didn’t take too long. By this point Ross and Travis were way ahead on the easier terrain of the chimneys and moving much faster than us.
The climbing eased back for a bunch of pitches now and we were hoping to make up for some lost time but the terrain was still pretty rugged and wet and I didn’t feel secure enough to run it out as much as I would have liked to in order to simul-climb. The chimney was very featured and the climbing certainly easy enough, but I was cautious of loose rock, the uncertainty of gear placements coming above and the insecurity of standing on slick mossy ledges.
Climbing in the chimneys
We continued in this slow and slightly frustrating manner under moody skies until a pitch before the bivi ledge where the rock deteriorated further into grassy slopes and we ended up going the wrong way, getting sketched out and losing even more time. We hit the ledge after about 8 hours since we left the ground and instead of the relief we were hoping to feel at being able to stand up, walk around and even take our harnesses off to pee, we just felt pretty deflated and down beat about how slow we were going and how tired we already were. We still had about 8 or 9 pitches left to go and it was already around 3.30pm – how was it that we were going so slow?? On the up side we still had plently of daylight left however and after wolfing down some quick snacks we both resolved that despite our frustration there was no real reason to give up just yet, if we could keep just trucking away at the pitches, no matter how long it took, we would make it to the top eventually and whilst we were both feeling more tired than we’d like, there was still reserves in the tank.
The awesome corner pitch off the bivi ledge – pretty pumpy for a 10a!
Just being on the head wall pitches lifted our spirits a little, partly with the feeling that we were on the home straight but mostly because it is just such a fucking cool feature! The climbing was pretty incredible, less straight forward and more technical than the lower pitches but it also held a higher reward. We still encountered some annoyingly sticky situations by perhaps not picking the easiest line of chicken heads and crack systems to follow, or not quite stopping at the right places to belay, which accumulated time that we did not have, but when Travis and Ross passed us on their way down with words of encouragement to just keep going, I started to believe for the first time since we’d been climbing that day that we might actually have a glimmer of hope to get to the top.
Travis and Ross on their way back down after summiting as we truck on on the head-wall pitches
‘Just keep going up’ I kept telling myself and around the 14th pitch I realised that I had, for the first time that day, climbed a whole 60m pitch with a huge smile on my face. The climbing was flowy and mega fun, I was loving hauling on juggy chicken heads and trusting my feet on those greasy knobs which made it much easier to put together metres of climbing without stopping to wiggle in an awkward nut or small cam into the often shallow and nonparallel cracks. I was only concerned with execution of every fun move at that point and had somehow separated that from any angst about the time we were taking, if we’d make it to the top or not if we would encounter a storm and run into an epic – I was just enjoying climbing.
Enjoying the spectacular climbing on chicken heads on the steep head-wall
No sooner had I set the belay and shouted down to Paul to start climbing than did the weather gods move in to crush my spirit. Just great!!! I had just begun staring up at the crux roof a few metres above me thinking it didn’t look too bad and then we’d only have 2 more proper pitches after that to hit the summit – then rain drops fell into my face.
By the time Paul managed to make it to join me on the belay we were both pretty soaked and certain this meant we had to go down. Slowly picking away at wet cracks in the rain was one thing, but climbing on these slick face holds was just not an option, besides the storm looked like it would be pretty persistent. We utilized our tag line and got to work making rap after rap in the rain until we hit the ledge again. We hadn’t said much to each other at this point beyond the essential communication needed for a safe descent but it was clear just how gutted we both were. It was around 9pm when we started bailing from our high point at pitch 15. We’d been going for about 15 hours in total and had worked hard to keep going to where we were, even if our time wasn’t very commendable, we had put in a lot of effort, so to have to bail with three pitches left was pretty wounding.
Once we hit the Ledge again we got out our waterproof pants and searched for the head torches, This is when we realised mine was still in my pack on the ground. Shit!! We’d have to descend with just one.
We had read that the raps from the ledge could be real rope traps with big hungry cracks for them to get stuck in so we were aware we needed to be extra cautious executing the descent in the falling light, rain and with a good level of exhaustion. The first rap off the ledge went to climbers right up a steeper, unclimbed section of rock so as to avoid trying to rap the chimney sections we’d climbed previously where there was a high chance our rope would get stuck.
We had threaded the rope through the rap rings at the ledge and set off down to the next station, Paulie lead the rappels as he had our only light source. But the worst happened when we tried to pull our ropes, the end of the tag line had got stuck on something around the last station and no matter what we did we could not free it!! At this point we were beyond exhaustion and getting cold and really really frustrated. We weighed up our options;
1. Untying the two ropes since we had been able to pull one and hoping we could get down by doing 30m raps.
2. Untying the ropes, rappelling back into the chimney system on one rope and climbing back to the ledge up the chimney pitches in order to free our rope,
3. Attempting to lead up the un-chartered terrain which we had just rapped or…
4. Potentially the simplest but most scary of all our options – prussiking back up the stuck line which we had just rapped.
After attempting to lead the first few meters in the dark and wet we decided it was faar to dangerous and possibly not even doable to free climb back up to the stuck rope. Untying the ropes and hoping for the best with only 30m rap potential was just too uncertain, leaving us with the only real solution to prusik the stuck rope. We both knew how potentially dangerous this was since we didn’t know what our rope was caught up on and if it were to come loose as we prusiked the results could very bad – besides our lead attempt proved how hard it was to find good gear up the pitch so it was a pretty frightening prospect. Thankfully Paulie proved to be an absolute hero and offered to give it a shot, I felt confident that if he hadn’t I would have stepped in and gone for it, but at the same time, holding his free rope whilst he ascended the stuck one wasn’t really an option that felt like I was ‘let off the hook’. It was now around midnight, still raining and dark out, I was exhausted and I had to find it in me to not get scared or panicked, to keep calm and pragmatic and support Paulie with every push of the knot up the stuck rope, hoping and praying that it would stay stuck and he wasn’t about to come crashing down and fall on the belay.
I could write another 3 paragraphs on our epic at that point on the descent because it felt like a life time passed before Paul was getting to the ledge again – hours of sitting in a cold hanging belay, shivering my ass off trying to stay awake and control my fear that my climbing partner was going to come crashing down past me in a factor 2 fall as our stuck rope dislodged and I would have to come up with a way to get us both of the wall before hypothermia set in. Thankfully I was able suppress my fears and exhaustion and continue giving Paul encouragement as he got closer to the stuck end. Oh shit he shouted as I could just pick out him pulling on the grass to reach the rap. I later learned that just as he was pulling up and over to safe terrain the rope magically just slipped through the rap rings and became unstuck – holy fuck!!!
Thank god Paul had made it to the ledge and was extending the anchor and re-threading the ropes. This time the ropes pulled just fine on the rap and to say we were relieved to be back on our way with relative ease was a total understatement.
We still had to perform about 10 more rappels however and we didn’t hit terra-firma until at least 2.30am. We pulled back on our boots, chugged some water and started back down the scree towards our camp. I can only recall a couple of times where I have even felt close to the all consuming fatigue that I was experiencing as I hobbled with excruciating pain back to camp. After almost 20hrs in climbing shoes my feet were mangled and my alpine boots were exacerbating that, my balance was abysmal because my leg muscles couldn’t function anymore, my brain had shut off once we reached the ground, not to mention my blurry vision from dried up contact lenses.
Once we reached the boulder I was in too much pain to just get in the tent and go to sleep, I sat for a while trying to nurse back the feeling in my feet and Paul joined me with a bottle of whiskey. As we sat and drank the booze the sun was rising again and there was no need to speak, you could tell we both shared the same feelings about what had gone down that day. Some things to be proud of for sure – our ability to keep pushing through against all odds, for putting up a big fight, thankful that we got off relatively unharmed in a situation that could have turned out much worse, but over-ridding that was an overwhelming sadness and incredible disappointment that all that effort and all that suffering had got us so close to success but ultimately it still hadn’t got us a summit!
We rise in the late morning after crawling into bed around 4am, more than 22 hours since we’d awoken the day before. I was feeling incredibly beat up and perplexed at how sore my feet were. We tried to stay up beat to show our congratulations to Ross and Travis for sending but it was hard not to be really bummed out and I could tell Paul was feeling pretty negative about how slow we were. I know he was mostly hyper-critical of himself in these situations but it was hard not to take it personally when he beat ‘us’ up on our slowness, after all I was a 50% part of ‘us’, our team, and I wanted to feel good about all our hard work on some level despite the obvious downfalls. I tried to take it on the chin though as I could see how hard it was too be positive – I was struggling myself.
We hung out around camp and rested, ate a lot of our remaining food in an attempt to recover and talked about our game plan, if there was one – if we could even face trying again with just two more days left . I felt utterly broken and admitted that I honestly couldn’t imagine that I’d have the physical ability to give it a good honest go again on the Friday, but that if Saturday’s weather played ball the yes I was totally up for trying again.
We continue to fester around camp, everyone seems to be OK with hanging around and resting even though Paul and I are obviously less content with this than Travis and Ross, rest seemed pretty imperative to me. Irritatingly the weather is on and off which once again endorsed my decision to rest, but we were hyper aware that we were desperately running out of time and if we had any hopes of getting back on the route on Saturday, Friday has to stay reasonably dry.
Thankfully the sun came out in the afternoon and the forecast looked optimistic. The boys played around on a roof crack they found in base camp that looked pretty cool while I tried to get some cool shots of them. I didn’t want to climb as I wanted to give myself the best chance of feeling good if we were able to get back on the route the next day.
Travis dispatching the roof crack easily.
With the sun warming our backs and some fun low commitment climbing happening as a group, our spirits were lifted slightly and we began to let in glimmers of optimism that we might be able to send on the next day – our very last full day. We joked around that if we were in a climbing movie right there then we would definitely still send the route. All the parties staying in fairy meadows had all now finally summited except for us and I could feel the whole camp were routing for us, it was encouraging.
We continued to ride the roller coaster of the Cirque as we woke at 3.00am to another grey mist, I had the alarm and I went outside for a look before waking Paul. I’d had a sleepless night, probably due to nerves and I when I saw the weather I went back to bed, resetting the alarm for 5.00am for a final look. This time the weather had improved a little but was still grey and dismal. I was feeling exhausted and disheartened and figured the route would be wet again, just like the handful of times before that we’d tried and failed in similar conditions. I concluded that it just wasn’t meant to be and went back to bed for the second time knowing we had no more chances.
Around 9am we arose and began moping around camp, the reality was now upon us that we weren’t going to send the Lotus flower tower on this trip. We were clearly really bummed and Ross and Travis started to nag at us, basically telling us that we shouldn’t be negative, that we had still got the full experience by getting to pitch 15 and trying really hard, they were just trying to make us feel better, it was a nice gesture, but Paul and I explained that it didn’t feel like much of a consolation , that nearly getting to the top wasn’t even close to the same as getting to the top and with all the effort required to get to the Cirque, the logistics and the time and expenses, we were feeling really shitty about going home without the LFT in the bag.
They didn’t let us off that easily however, “Well” they said, “the sun is out and the day looks good now, stop moping and go get ‘er”. We giggled at first thinking that it was a nice idea but too ridiculous to start in at such a late time. But then we gave each other a knowing sideways glance as we wrapped our heads around what that would actually mean. Counting backwards we justified that as long as we were off the route by say 5am the next day we could be back at camp by 7am at the very latest and start packing up in order to hike out and catch our float plane back out, which we had arranged for Midday on the Sunday. “Fuck it! We don’t have anything to lose!” we agreed. We figured it didn’t get dark til around midnight we’d have more than 12 hours of daylight to climb in and as long as the weather held off long enough for s and we weren’t any slower than last time, we could have a real shot.
We quickly re-packed the last of our stuff and started hiking just before 10am. We were off the ground and climbing by a comically late time of 11am and with a slightly different strategy than the last time we’d knocked off the first 3 pitches in almost half the time that we did previously. This time we stuffed the tag line into the pack for the second to carry instead of the leader tagging it and having to deal with stacking it each time they reached the belay. This seemed to work well and saved us a bit of time at each station. We also decided that we would lead the first half of the route in blocks. Paulie was much better at climbing stuff like the wider 2nd pitch than me and would be much faster, if he could get us out of the starting gate faster it would be a good morale booster and a good start.
For the easier chimney pitches and the face climbing leading up to it I would take over the sharp end and we wold simul-climb as much as we could. Each time I set off from the previous belay I could get us through about 80m of climbing before running out of gear and needing to build a belay. It meant we did this section of the route in about 3 or 4 pitches instead of 7 or 8. The familiarity of the route really helped and gave us both the confidence to move much quicker, but what was also a major factor in our ability to climb quicker was the dryness of the rock. There was a significant difference in the saturation of the route compared to the first time we got this far. Most of the cracks were dry with only some limited damp spots that were easy to avoid – it was really satisfying realising how much this must have played a part in hindering us before.
We made it to the ledge in approximately 4 hours – less than half the time we had before and earlier in the day despite the difference in our start times! For the most part we had been climbing under blue skies and even felt some warmth from the sun too. We knew all too well how little this meant about the likelihood of the weather staying dry as we continued upward but we couldn’t help but feel positive about our situation even though we didn’t dare address it openly to each other.
Onwards we went with faster more confident climbing, smoother transitions and generally less faffage. It was great to really start to enjoy the climbing again as we hit the head wall proper and were once again positioned under the roof that formed the crux moves of the route. The skies had now changed and grown greyer as I continued to inwardly obsess over if it was because the sun had simply gone down behind the peaks and it was slowly getting darker or if it was because bad weather was rolling in. ‘Please just dont rain’ I muttered to myself over and over again as over head clouds would roll in and out.
Getting back to our previous high point having climbed the first overlap before the roof
Seconding on the amazing head wall through the crux roof – spectacular!
Paulie dispatched the crux moves like a boss and kept us moving in an upward motion. A couple of loose pitches later and unbelievably we found ourselves on the summit – was this even real!!??
An unreal feeling to be on the summit on the very last day with hours to spare!
It was around 9.30pm, we’d climbed the whole route in around 10hrs, it took us 8hrs just to do the ‘easier’ first half last time. We stuck around long enough on the summit to capture a couple of shots, take in the utterly spectacular views and exclaim how absurd the whole thing felt. With hours left of our trip – let alone days we had somehow managed to turn our epic story of failure into an epic story of success. It felt pretty fucking brilliant I must say!
Views from the summit as the sun starts to go down
However, given our previous experience getting off the route, we knew the hardest bit of the day was yet to come and we didn’t waste too much time reveling in the glory before we set to work getting our assess back down to the ground.
Thankfully, much like the climbing, the descending also went much more smoothly this time around and feeling slightly less exhausted with more daylight and more awareness of the potential pitfalls, our ropes whipped down passed us with every pull. Every single time my heart would sink though praying I wouldn’t feel any resistance as I yanked down on the end of the rope.
If my memory serves me right we hit Terra-firma this time at about midnight or perhaps 12.30am, the rappels only took us a few hours when they went off without a hitch and what was even better was it was only just getting to be completely dark out and we were bone dry – what a wholly different experience this time around. We leisurely repacked our stuff at the base of the route, eating some snacks and taking on some water, still exhausted after a long day, but with a much, much more rewarding outcome for our efforts this time and feeling much more jovial.
Rolling into camp around 2am we couldn’t resist sitting up to finish off the rest of the whiskey – no point in carrying it out and at least this time we were celebrating and not commiserating.
In the morning we awoke around 7am feeling really tired but super happy and began taking down the camp and packing all our stuff up. It was fun regaling the stories to the boys and being able to share the success that all four of us felt.
Celebrating with our last beer in camp before packing up and heading out
The walk out felt gruesome in my body’s tired state and although my pack was lighter, it was still pretty heavy. My shoulders ached and it was tough to make it through the last hour, I guess it was much easier to swallow having climbed the LFT though.
Once we got back to the tan shed we had some time to kill before the float plane came in and we dropped our packs, bathed in the lake, drank the rest of the cheap lager that was left over and napped at the banks of Glacier Lake feeling very content and merrily reflective.
Nap time at the lake after beers.
Enjoying some tranquil time after washing at the lake.
Unfortunately, as with every long and drawn out adventure story the antics did not end there, but you’ve done so well sticking with me as I blabber on this far, so i’ll save that part of the story for another rainy day. Lets just say the float plane arrival time allowed us to sit and reflect for a worrying amount of time at the lake until finally a different pilot showed up to pick us up and the first we knew of the fact that we were not going to get to stay in Innconu lodge for a night and enjoy a proper shower, a beer and the first proper cooked meal in two weeks, was when we landed straight back at Finlayson Lake rather than Inconnu lake. I’m more thankful now than I was then that events unfolded as they did in order to keep the adventure factor high but any pain felt at the time was definitely sweetened by the fact that we had successfully dispatched the Lotus Flower Tower. Im so grateful to have been able to experience such an amazing place and such a spectacular adventure but that said, I’m very happy not be going back next year to go through it all again!
Loading up to leave the Cirque. The end of an amazing experience.