Cirque of the Unclimbables
Northwest Territories, Canada
Warren LaFave, our cowboy bush pilot screams over the loud radial engine of his custom De-Havilland Beaver aircraft, "My boys won't make this run anymore because it scares the heck out of them". We’re in a hard-left, descending-dive over the notorious Fairy Meadows; a majestic area of the Cirque of Unclimbables located in the heart of the Nahanni National Park Reserve of Canada’s Northwest Territories. The massive scale of the towering granite monoliths has not yet hit me because as a pilot, my focus is on our overweight, over-speeding aircraft.
Landing at Glacier Lake brings a sense of relief but the approach to Fairy Meadows is not complete. I still have 5 miles of rugged terrain where at one point I will gain one mile of altitude for every 1.1 miles hiked. Along the way, I encountered a timber wolf den, a sick juvenile brown bear, a fresh hatch of thousands of mosquitos and a vast talus field. The information I previously read about the hike outlined 12 exhausting hours and a definite path to take. Yet, tossing all logic I decided to follow a newly cut trail through the vegetation that also kept me close to a stream. 10 hours after landing I arrive at the majestic Fairy Meadows. Dropping my engorged pack, full of camera gear, enough batteries and food to last 8 days, I took in the meadow’s dreamy look while the sunset and rays of light painted the blades of grass and granite towers.
Joining me at base camp are Sean Leary and Tim Emmett. Professional rock climbers and wingsuit pilots whom Epic TV hired as athletes in a 4-part series. They had just spent a week floating 200 miles of the Little Nahanni River on stand up paddleboards and then climbed in an area of granite towers called the Vampire Spires. Their B.A.S.E. Jump at that location nearly took Tim’s life. Later, I watched the GoPro helmet camera footage and the two were visibly nervous prior to the jump because it was the shortest distance from the ground below that either had ever wingsuited from. Shortly after jumping, Tim pulled his parachute, which became twisted as he descended quickly into the boulder littered earth at full force. Sean, watching as his friend spin uncontrollably toward the ground, aimed for the best landing zone he could find and crashed. Upon impact, his GoPro helmet camera angled down revealing his face and body showing him quickly unzipping his wingsuit and screaming over to Tim "Are you ok? Tim... Tim...".
Sitting in base camp, I laugh as both men cram into Tim's new Mountain Hardware sleeping bag to test it out for the overnight bivouac on the Lotus Flower Towers first ledge. "The lighter the better" Sean exclaims! Their goal is to climb Lotus and be the first people to B.A.S.E. Jump off with Wingsuites. It's 1900 hours, now fully packed; we start our 1.5-mile approach to the base of the tower.
Half way through the approach things begin to go wrong. While crossing an active talus field, it gave way and I found myself surfing a flat talus rock the size of a truck, downhill and directly toward Tim. "Move" I screamed! He hits a full sprint at 90 degrees from my path as the rest of the talus gives way. Naturally, I'm holding the camera above my head trying not to break it. Jumping off at this point means serious injury or death. We're no closer than 2000 rugged miles to the nearest trauma center and any poor decisions are surly fatal. A long scratching sound ends my alpine wave with no injuries.
Reaching the base of the Lotus Flower Tower, I filmed one last interview before leaving the team. My vantage point was from an adjacent wall and it was getting dark. Moving quickly through the haunted talus field alone and at night brought thoughts of home. “This is too dangerous” I mumbled. 45 minutes later I tied into my vantage point. Looking back at “Lotus”, I could see head torches burning silhouettes of two men on the exposed tower while I set up my long lens and camera. Having our team’s only satellite phone, I stayed up throughout the cold night watching over them. If Lotus were jumpable, they would EXIT first thing in the morning. Trying to jump after 9:00 am would not be possible due to strong developing winds.
My radio cracks as warm light paints the tops of the enigmatic cliffs. "Summit team to base" it's Tim Emmitt's British voice full of energy and excitement. "We've summited mate, but we've discovered it's not jumpable" The chance for a historical first in the Cirque of Unclimbables crumbles.
Walking back to high camp, coffee and breakfast fills my mind when suddenly; an overwhelming feeling comes over me. The hair on the back of my neck stands as I notice air filling my lungs and I stop moving. Adrenaline is blasting through my veins as my eyes scan the Cirque; I hear a sound off to my right. Slowly looking over I meet the eyes of a massive brown bear standing at the edge of a marsh. I scale onto the nearest boulder and watch as the bear runs past and up into the cirque toward the unexpecting climbers where fog now forces it's way vertically into the gothic towers. 30 minutes later I’m making coffee when the sound of an explosion echo’s through camp... Looking West towards Mount Harrison Smith, the tallest monolithic tower of granite, I see a boulder the size of a commercial airliner rolling down the hill crushing massive rocks along the way. We hear rock falls day and night here.
A day later and all of us reunited, sounds of a helicopter burr off the granite walls. We watch as it circles around and touches down below our camp. Three women and a male pilot step out of the 6-passenger jet engine helicopter. I approached the pilot and ask him what's going on. With a thick Canadian accent "We're a geological survey crew". I told him about our attempt to jump from one of the towers and that we had to abort due to the conditions. After some negotiation, the pilot agreed to take Sean, Tim and I up to skydive over the cliffs. Climbing out of 6,500 for 12,000 feet we flew over the lightly cloud covered mountaintops of the Cirque revealing the most northern end of the Rocky Mountains.
Entering the drop zone the pilot yells "I can't hold it anymore!" and signals to exit. Tim and Sean scramble out of the back of the helicopter and on to the skid. 3, 2, 1, GO! The jump team departs the aircraft headfirst. It takes about 4 seconds of descent before a wingsuit is flyable. I signal to the pilot that the jumpers are clear and to return to land. The feeling around camp that night was of accomplishment and excitement as we reviewed the previous days and turned in for a much-needed night of rest.
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A personal thank you to Scott Adamson for all of his work behind the scenes on this assignment.