Articles - Big wall free climbing - Lotus Flower Tower
Photo: Adam Long.
by Lucinda Hughes
Another evening of food and not much else to do but go to bed. The alarms were set again as a matter of course in case the weather was good. But most mornings I slept through till 10am as the wake-up call never came and often you could hardly see one foot in front of the other in the mist. Noddy was the only one with a charged mobile so it was set for 4am for the obligatory peek out of the tent.
This particular morning I got a knock on the tent and “Lu we’re good to go!” It was the news 50% of me was eager to hear – great, we get to go climbing today up that big amazing tower – but the other 50% of me was dreading this moment, knowing I had one of the toughest climbing days of my life ahead of me. The weather was so changeable; we might get half way and have to come down.
And so it begins...
Toby and I began the walk, I being the slowest walker of the team, especially with a large pack, knew it would not take one hour, more like two. But Toby never minded, he just strolled along, enjoying the walk. Noddy and Adam sped off at a pace that I would have had to run to keep up with, but that was their style and in just under 2 hours we arrived at the foot of the climb. An American couple had set off at 2am and were well on with the wall. Adam and Noddy climbed next and then there was another male American team. They went ahead of us and we were the last in the queue. I never imagined climbing a big wall would involve queuing!
The first three pitches were wet, as was typical with the Tower, but there were fixed lines to ascend. “No problem,” I thought “that jugging practice I did yesterday on that little slab felt fine.” Well, this jugging was horrible, free-hanging and at 6am in the morning. Not what I was used to. At this point I thought “what am I doing up here?” I really did not believe we could do it. But the jugging was all over before it had begun and we were on the route proper.
The chimney section was interesting – still damp from all those days of rain, a bit muddy, a bit loose in places and I suddenly wished I’d had more chimneying practice on Stanage. During these chimney sections you were so involved in the climbing and in cracks that you could not see up to the headwall. But eventually after some very careful climbing we arrived at the half way ledge.
Winnebago Ledge. “So big you can park a Winnebago on it,” Noddy kept telling me. Well it was big. It was great. Time for lunch. We were feeling drained, I looked over at Toby and he was pale and a little nervous about what lay above us. If I was completely honest, so was I, especially when I looked up. The headwall looked steep and massive. I could see Noddy and Adam about to attempt the crux pitch. I knew that it was slabby up there, everything I had read about the route said it was slab climbing. But it looked so steep. So we had lunch on the ledge. We had caught up with the American team just as they were setting off from the ledge. The pitch looked like a thin crack and smearing in a corner.
The American guy fell off. I suddenly became a bit nervous because it was my lead. Once they had cleared the pitch we set off, concerned that they were starting to climb a lot more slowly. As we negotiated the beginning of the headwall they ground to a complete halt. Toby and I knew we had to get past them otherwise our attempt on the Tower that day would fail. As I climbed past the American guys both hung on a rap station shivering, they were shattered and put off by the face climbing that looked really steep. I explained it was just a weird optical illusion and that they should keep going. I tried to give them some psyche, but it was to no avail and as Toby joined me, they decided to go down. We didn’t say anything but just pushed on and then we were beneath the crux. It was Toby’s lead. At this point I knew we were climbing on borrowed time. Noddy and Adam had already summited and were rapping towards us. Noddy reached my stance and I read his mind. “We are not going down,” I told him, “I’m not climbing all this again, we are pushing on, we are getting to the top even if we have to sleep on Winnebago Ledge tonight.” They offered to leave their left over food and water on the ledge and resumed their descent, and soon we were alone on the Tower, which felt good.
A happy ending?
When I joined Toby at the crux belay I lost it mentally. The tears came from sheer exhaustion and the prospect of a cold night. Toby just said: “Lu, your lead, 10c crack,” and like a machine I clicked back into action, happy to be climbing again, not sat on the belay worrying about the weather and the time.
As we reached the summit the relief was great, but as our eyes had grown accustomed to the light we had not really noticed the growing darkness. So after a few photos, we started the decent. We reached the first rap station and pulled the ropes. No rope. It was snagged badly and almost at the same time the light clicked off. We were suspended in darkness. Luckily we had head-torches so we switched on. We were both stumped, what was the best plan of action?
Suddenly my reality gene clicked into place. “Toby, we could be trying to do something really stupid here. It’s dark, we both have people to go home to, we need to re-lead this pitch on a single rope, free up the other rope and spend the night on top – it’s only 6 hours ’till daylight. There’s no way we will find the rap stations on the headwall in the dark.” I didn’t know how Toby would take this suggestion and I was really hoping that he did not want to keep going. I was mentally drained as well as physically tired. I needed a break. To my surprise Toby just looked at me and said “You are absolutely right – let’s get back on top. My lead.”
We found some shelter on the top – three boulders fashioning a bit of a cave, we laid the ropes out, shared the emergency blanket and tried to sleep. It was a strange sleep. 10 minutes of shivering then 20 minutes of sleep, then ten minutes of shivering and so the cycle continued until it came light. No food, no water – but rested. Unbeknown to us, Noddy and Adam didn’t sleep very well either. They saw the headlamps go on through the binos and saw one of the lamps drop down the headwall (Toby was looking down, which looked like we had fallen!).
Off we went down – take two, it went really well this time. The sun came out – no weather change. Thankfully. There were no snags and we reached the ledge to some food and water. Nearing the foot of the wall, I heard shouts: “Tea or coffee, Lu? Porridge or bangers and mash?” Nods and Adam had hiked back up with stoves and food. “Everything!” I replied.
We feasted on bangers and mash with sweet tea and, with the gear split between four, slowly walked back, proud that we had done it, that we had made the right decisions at the right time and that we knew ourselves that little bit better.
Summary: A personal account of an ascent of the South Face of Lotus Flower Tower, Canadian Yukon, by Lucinda Hughes, with Adam Long, Dave ‘Noddy’ Noddings, and Toby Wilson, 6th-22nd August 2006.
Lotus Flower Tower Fact File
Lotus Flower Tower – South-east Face (5.10c/ E3 5c), 2,200 ft/ 800m
~19 pitches, take 60m ropes. Abseil descent down route.
Cirque of the Unclimbables, Mackenzie Mountains on the border of Yukon and North-West Territories, Canada.
Getting to the Cirque
Many miles from the nearest road, access to the Tower is either by helicopter, direct to Fairy Meadows base camp, or floatplane to Glacier Lake from where a strenuous three to four hour hike gains the Meadows. The base of the Lotus Flower Tower is then a steady hour’s walk from camp, take care on the final section over loose moraine.
The remote location makes getting there complicated and expensive. Heli access via the nearby tungsten mine is no longer available, but the nearest town, Watson Lake, has an air-taxi floatplane base. A far better option would be Warren LaFave’s Kluane Airways, from their heli-fishing lodge 80 miles west of The Cirque, who also run shuttle buses from the main Airport at Whitehorse. For the last fifteen years or so, Warren has been the unofficial Cirque caretaker, installing a toilet, providing climbers with a satellite phone and helping with very occasional rescues. Their float plane is probably the cheapest option at around £2400 for four climbers and gear. The helicopter ride costs about £3000 but can only fit in two climbers plus gear… ouch! Warren is however very flexible and will ferry gear and climbers up from Glacier Lake for no extra charge if he happens to be in the area which is surprisingly often – check kluaneairways.com and inconnulodge.com Warren LaFave’s flying and lodge sites respectively, for details.
Getting to The Yukon
Fly to Whitehorse, the Yukon’s capital, via Vancouver. For early bookings expect to pay £500-700 return. Both AirNorth and Air Canada fly the internal connection to Whitehorse for around £300 return. Our total transport costs were about £1600 p.p., and the whole trip can be done comfortably for £2000 each (assuming four sharing the floatplane). For UK citizens Canada is a hassle-free destination, no visas are required and customs are considerably friendlier than The States!
July and August, but climbers occasionally visit in late June and early September but the chances of snow are high. Temperatures are cool, similar to British late autumn or early spring, expect a frost some nights. Much is made of the poor weather; weeks of cloud and drizzle are common and good days often create thunderstorms, however in our experience it was no worse than the west coast of Scotland! As a general rule the south faces of all the towers are the cleanest, with moss and lichen being a problem elsewhere. No exotic health precautions are required, we drank water straight from the streams.
George Bell’s excellent website geocities.com/gibell.geo/cirque/index.html contains a wealth of useful information, and is currently the nearest thing The Cirque has to a guidebook.
There are around fifty routes listed, on more than fifteen spires, though by most standards The Cirque remains quite undeveloped. The most spectacular peak in the area is Mount Proboscis, often quoted as the hardest summit in North America to reach, with the easiest free route being 5.12. The South Face is the biggest cliff in the area; big wall tactics required.
If you enojyed this feature then check out the Alpine Climber supplement, telling you all you need to know about climbing in the Alps, technique, training and gear.