Does the Northwest Territories have the world’s greatest climb?
“We could see hundreds of miles and we decided to just spend the night up there. We saw the northern lights in the middle of the night. I’m glad we didn’t go down.”
Deep in the NWT’s Nahanni National Park Reserve stands a peak that, to climbers, appears crafted by a higher power: the Lotus Flower Tower. If you’re lucky, when you set up camp at the summit and rest among the stars, the aurora will trace a path in green and purple as your body resets for the descent.
Few people get that lucky, but many dream of the prospect. This corner of the NWT, barely known among the territory’s residents, holds legendary status among climbers.
In 1979, the Lotus Flower Tower appeared in a book that quickly became a bible for climbers: 50 Classic Climbs of North America, by Steve Roper and Allen Steck. Due to the sheer remoteness and cost of the climb, neither author summited the tower, though Roper attempted it in August 1969 after reading about it that same year.
“When I and my friends saw photos of the LFT in the 1969 American Alpine Journal, we went nuts and laid plans to go there,” said Roper, now 81, in an email.
“In August 1969, we drove to the roadhead and prepared to get choppered in, but the weather was horrible, and the chopper fees were also horrible. After two or three days, we were headed back south. That’s the closest I’ve ever been to the LFT.
“Steck never got close.”
Of the 50 climbs in the book, Roper and Steck managed to climb about 35. Why did the Lotus Flower Tower warrant inclusion? Roper said it was an obvious choice.
“It’s a beautiful hunk of rock. Remote – yes – and no history to speak of, but a climber simply salivates looking at a photo.”
Welcome to Nahʔą Dehé
Nahʔą Dehé, or Nahanni, is a 30,000 sq km park reserve and Unesco heritage site in the Dehcho region of the Northwest Territories. It is a land of peaks, plateaus and wild rivers that beckons to adventurers of all kinds.
In the reserve lies a portion of the Logan Mountains – the Ragged Range – that include the Cirque of the Unclimbables. There, the Vampire Spires, Mount Proboscis, and Lotus Flower Tower await.
The 2570m of granite that makes up the LFT looms over Fairy Meadows, an alpine meadow to which optimistic climbers hike for hours with gear-laden packs, usually from Glacier Lake beneath.
If the weather permits, they hike again to the base of the Lotus Flower Tower to begin their climb.
Use this 360-degree viewer to stand in Fairy Meadows, surrounded by the Cirque of the Unclimbables.
The road to the Cirque, however, ordinarily starts thousands of kilometres away.
For many, the trip begins with a long drive to Watson Lake, Yukon, or to Fort Simpson in the Dehcho. Either drive involves rough, unpaved roads. Float planes deliver adventurers to Glacier Lake and into the unpredictable arms of the Nahanni.
The name of Warren LaFave, owner of Kluane Air in the Yukon, routinely crops up among climbers who have been to the Cirque. He is known for flying planeloads of climbers into the area long before it achieved Unesco status in 1989.
Today, operations have passed to his son. Throughout his years of flying, LaFave says he never got tired of the Cirque of the Unclimbables, even taking a helicopter to haul out garbage, build the first toilet in Fairy Meadows, and upgrade the bolts and hooks that make up the climbing pitches (sections of the wall climbers must scale, of which the Lotus Flower Tower has 19).
When asked if he climbed himself, LaFave responded in complete earnestness: “Nope. No, I just dragged them around the sky.”
The ideal climbing months are July and August and, in a normal year, Kluane Air takes six to eight groups of climbers. You can also go by helicopter – if you can afford it.
“I think with a helicopter, you could go right into Fairy Meadows and that, that’s the Cadillac of routes,” laughed George Bell, referring to the luxury of being flown directly to your camp.
Bell first climbed the Lotus Flower Tower in 1988 and has since built an extensive online guide, treasured for its topographic map of the tower, which Bell constructed through hours poring over pictures.
Bell, the son of climber and physicist George Irving Bell, spent years climbing all over the world but only visited the Cirque once.
When it came to his attempt at the Lotus Flower Tower, Bell was one of the lucky ones.
“We got to the top at sunset and I remember it was absolutely gorgeous, because the weather was perfect. We could see hundreds of miles and we decided to spend the night up there – because we had brought our gear – and it was just incredible to spend the night on top of,” Bell reminisced, laughing at the cold temperatures and his lack of water at the top.
“We saw the northern lights in the middle of the night and, I don’t know, it was just really wonderful. I’m glad we didn’t go down.”
Why is this tower so good?
Every climber we reached, Bell included, said the Lotus Flower Tower’s granite face, with innumerable footholds and cracks like railway tracks to the top, is unique and almost perfect.
“I’ve never seen anything like it in the world,” said Bell.
“As far as pure rock climbing, it’s probably the best one in the world or, in my view, certainly among the top 10 that I’ve done.”
Part of the attraction is that the Lotus Flower Tower, for all of the adventure involved in reaching it, is a challenge accessible to weekend climbers who’ve put in some work.
The tower holds a ranking of 5.8 to 5.10+ using the Yosemite Decimal System, which assesses climbing difficulty.
A class-five climb is technical and requires belayed roping and protection. In the words of one guide, “a dedicated weekend climber might attain this level.” The Lotus Flower Tower’s knobs, sometimes called chicken heads, offer plenty of footholds to help along the way.
Halfway up lies a ledge that provides the only place – albeit a near-perfect one – to set up camp for the night before tackling the summit.
One of the largest challenges of climbing the Lotus Flower Tower is the unpredictable weather within the Nahanni National Park Reserve.
There are plenty of tales of climbers spending weeks tent-locked by the weather in Fairy Meadows while nearby peaks mock them through the clouds. Even once the rain passes, the rock needs time to dry and climbers need time to mount an attempt before the next mountain storm rolls through, meaning summit-seekers conduct a touch-and-go dance of climbing and retreating to make it to the top.
Some scorned adventurers simply turn back to Glacier Lake without ever finding a window to attempt the climb. They may never have a chance to return and tackle the most remote of the 50 classic climbs of North America.
Even among Northwest Territories residents, who start from the closest possible point to the Cirque, we could not find anyone who has scaled the Lotus Flower Tower.
There are few big wall climbers in the territory, despite the NWT possessing one of the best alpine climbs in the world. Money, practice and time are a big barrier to northerners taking up the sport.
“It’s just really hard to find places that are suitable for climbing [in the North], particularly trying to look for actual stable rock to climb on,” said Noel Cockney, an NWT climber who grew up in Tuktoyaktuk and Inuvik.
“It’s also just a foreign thing on the Arctic Ocean and in the tundra.”
Cockney didn’t have the opportunity to take up climbing until he attended university in the United States. If it weren’t for his time down south, he says, he probably would never have discovered climbing.
“Being an Indigenous person who does big wall climbing and stuff like that … there are not a lot of us who actually do it, and it’s very much catered and available to people who either live in cities or white people who are used to being able to do so,” he said.
“A lot of other cultures just have a lot more on our plates. For me, having had the ability and availability to do a lot of climbing has been very rewarding and it feels really good to get to do that as well.”
Cockney says the Lotus Flower Tower is on the bucket list.
“From all the videos and pictures that I see, it looks like an amazing place that I eventually want to get to,” he said.
“It’s just a matter of finding the time and the partners that are available.”
The long way home
For their return, battered and exhausted climbers can either retreat by air or tackle the route out by raft and canoe. Climbers like Bronwyn Hodgins, the first female Canadian to free climb Yosemite’s El Capitan, decided paddling back down the Nahanni River was a must.
Tim Emmett, a world-renowned British big wall climber now residing in Squamish, BC, chose to paddle for part of his trip.
“It’s a very humbling experience,” he said of seeing the tower for the first time.
“The aura created by the steep, jagged peak is really quite special. When you first see the Lotus Flower Tower … it is immense and it’s a very striking line.”
Some climbers, like Emmett, can do the climb in a day. But even then, the complete adventure often takes upward of two weeks to a month.
“It is incredibly remote,” said Emmett. “It was a total mission to get out there. It’s the most remote wilderness I’ve ever been anywhere in the world.
“You spend days and days and days without seeing anyone at all, and it was really cool. It’s really special.”
For all his extensive knowledge of the area, Bell – who expressed a desire to return to the iconic tower – has a short summary of the Lotus Flower Tower’s appeal.
“It is truly a classic climb of North America.”