The first challenge in climbing a northern mountain is to get there.
Many communities are hard enough to reach in the territories, let alone a peak immersed in wilderness. After possible days of travel by car, ferry, and cross-country plane trips—which will likely only bring a hopeful climber to a nearby town that isn’t very nearby at all—climbers must then tackle the national parks that surround their prize. Maybe they’ll need a seat on a bush plane, or will choose to undergo a days-long ski trip. Maybe they’ll river raft part of the way and then complete the journey with an arduous hike. Maybe they won’t get there at all.
But, how does the cliché go? It’s about the journey, not the destination. After all, a mountain is more than its summit, particularly in the North. Just getting to base camp can be an adventure in itself.
And yet, people come from all over the world to try and scale our peaks. Whether it’s breathing in the incomparable altitudes of Mount Logan or experiencing the midnight sun’s helping hand on Mount Thor, they say a northern climb is like no other. Which is exactly why it’s a thrill.
Daunting and Deadly
Mount Logan, found in the Yukon’s Kluane National Park and Reserve, is like a winter wonderland for giants. There are ice blocks the size of apartment buildings, crevasses that could swallow a bus, and the constant rumble of avalanches sound as if some behemoth were taking massive steps along the surrounding slopes.
The scale of the place certainly left an impression on Naomi Prohaska. “On the one hand, it was really cool seeing how big the mountains were,” says the climber, “but also really scary because the glaciers there were just so big, and thinking about how small we were compared to everything around us.”
In 2017, at age 15, Prohaska made history as the youngest person to successfully summit Mount Logan. It’s an impressive feat, and not just because of her age: Mount Logan, at nearly 6,000 metres, is the tallest peak in Canada and in North America is second only to Alaska’s Denali. Climbing it is no easy task, but that ambitious goal was exactly what Prohaska wanted. “For me, I think a big part of wanting to do it was having something to work towards… I think that was just something that I could use to be really driven about something.”
It’s what kept the teenage climber going during the hard times in her 20-day quest up Mount Logan. The most challenging parts of the climb fuelled her to reach farther.
“Something that I think is really powerful is just setting really big goals for yourself,” adds Prohaska. “And just knowing that even if you don’t reach the summit, if you set big goals yourself, the stuff you’re going [to] learn along the way, it’s going be so much better than if you set a goal that you know 100 per cent you can do.”
It’s a mindset that led Prohaska through a number of climbing experiences in preparation for the Yukon peak. But, while she had seen crevasses before during her expeditions in British Columbia’s Garibaldi Park, those coastal offerings were dwarfed by what she found at Mount Logan. Navigating that was made even more difficult by the way ice shifts on glaciers.
“Crevasses can just open, like huge crevasses… [they] could just open up right next to our camp. And that’s something that you have totally no control over,” Prohaska says. “So that was definitely intimidating.”
Mount Logan is intimidating in other ways, too. The year-round winter conditions leave climbers battling extreme cold, high winds of up to 160 kilometres an hour, and heavy snowfalls that leave you feeling “like you’re sort of being buried on site if you have a camp set up,” says Scott Stewart, visitor safety coordinator for Kluane National Park and Reserve. Time is really what it takes to overcome the mountain’s challenges, he says.
“Time to wait out storms, time to let your body adjust, time to let the snow settle after a storm. The time to be able to choose to head out from camp and start climbing at one in the morning if conditions are right, or the time to be able to sit in your tent and play crib for three days on end.”
And of course, plan to have extra time to wait it out if something goes wrong. “Even with proper preparation accidents do happen,” Stewart says, “and so I would say that it’s essential that visitors have a good safety plan and are able to be self-reliant.”
But the most dangerous aspects of Mount Logan are also its draw. The unpredictable environment is both hazardous and an irresistible challenge. The mountain’s remote home in Kluane National Park and Reserve presents major risks, but also makes the climb feel intimate and special. And the elevation, unmatched in Canada and Mount Logan’s claim to fame, is an aspect that climbers can’t easily prepare for. For Prohaska, the highest altitude of her training on Garibaldi only reached the base camp of Mount Logan.
At that height, climbing becomes even more of a daunting task. The effects of altitude past 3,000 metres can impact breathing, digestion, physical ability, and more, and it’s unknown how a person’s body will respond to that environment until they get there. Even experienced climbers who’ve been at high altitudes before may find their body reacts differently on a particular trip. All a climber can do when faced with altitude is move slowly and give their bodies as much time as possible to adjust.
With all these obstacles, it’s no wonder climbers so rarely reach the top. Of Mount Logan’s approximately 100 visitors in a year, fewer than half reach that summit. But that doesn’t mean climbers are doomed to heartbreak.
“I would say to try as much as you can to just focus on the day that’s ahead of you,” Prohaska says. “If I was thinking about the summit the whole time, it would have made it a lot harder if I hadn’t made it. So I think definitely trying to just enjoy everything that you can in the moment is something that’s just going to make the whole experience way better.”
That way, she adds, you’ll be able to value the experience on the mountain aside from reaching the summit.
Climbing the Unclimbable
How far would you travel for a chance at redemption? For Charlie Nuttelman, the answer involves multiple plane trips and about a seven-hour car ride. In 2018, the University of Colorado Boulder senior instructor travelled from the United States to Whitehorse, then drove from the Yukon capital into the Northwest Territories. Once in the territory, he and his climbing partner hopped on a float plane into Nahanni National Park and Reserve in pursuit of a second shot at the Lotus Flower Tower’s summit.
While Nuttelman is no stranger to the region, he’d never been as far north as the Nahanni before 2017. Nuttelman, who’s been climbing for over 28 years, has been to Alaska on all sorts of adventures, such as backpacking through Denali National Park, climbing the mountain of the same name, and biking for two weeks across the state. But the difference between his adventures in the NWT and Alaska goes beyond latitude.
“The [Lotus Flower Tower] trip was far more wild,” Nuttelman says to Up Here over email. “Climbing and adventuring in the NWT was far more adventurous than anywhere I’ve ever been.”
Part of that wildness comes from the remoteness of the park. The Lotus Flower Tower sits at an altitude of 2,500-metres, consisting of sheer rock walls surrounded by the equally daunting mountains that make up the NWT’s famed Cirque of the Unclimbables. Located in the heart of the Nahanni, reaching the Cirque requires substantial effort even before setting up base camp. That also means the terrain is less marked by human visitors. More popular climbing arenas will be “cleaned” by the climbing community, meaning potentially hazardous detritus is removed on the way up. But that doesn’t happen on the Lotus Flower Tower, or any other mountains in the Cirque of Unclimbables.
“You’ll see in places that aren’t climbed nearly as often a lot more detritus on the wall,” says Visitor Safety and Fire Operations Coordinator Nick Bergen. “You’ll see moss and vegetation growing. You’ll see dirt. You’ll see holds that may or may not break off.”
Then there’s the weather factor. Bergen says that possibly the most challenging aspect of climbing in the NWT, and the Cirque of Unclimbables in particular, is the possibility of a snow storm at any moment, in any month of the year. Precipitation, whether it’s snow or rain, is a major hazard. Rain will catch on the top of the mountain and spill down the rock, making for a much more slippery climbing surface. The tower won’t be dry even after a few days of sunshine, Bergen says. Snow and ice, meanwhile, will form along cliff edges and, as the days get warmer, that collection of icicles, snowpacks, and rock will come tumbling down towards anyone below.
Luckily, the Lotus Flower Tower isn’t, in a technical sense, extraordinarily challenging. “There aren’t really any super difficult moves on the tower,” says Nuttelman. “Otherwise I wouldn’t be able to climb it!” The true challenge is having the patience and energy to hustle up its peak in a short amount of time. “You want to go as fast as you can to take advantage of the narrow weather windows available.”
In Nuttelman’s case, it was that weather window, in addition to food resupply issues, that thwarted him and his partner in 2017. On their first trip, the pair were dropped off further from the Lotus Flower Tower, opting to land at the headwaters of the South Nahanni and paddle on pack rafts towards the mountain. About 10 days in, they reached Glacier Lake, where they had arranged for a food supply.
But when the pair arrived, the resupply wasn’t there. They were forced to wait. And then, the weather turned.
“We literally sat around for a week in the rain—played lots of games and read lots and listened to a lot of audio books,” he says.
Nuttelman’s experience was similar to many other climbing teams, says Vanessa Murtsell, Nahanni’s visitor experience manager. “Often when these groups come in, whether they’re a group of two or a group of six, they’ll be on their own most of the time and they’re waiting for that perfect weather window… They’ll get up at 3 am and hike out to the approach and it starts pouring rain, or it starts snowing, and they can’t climb that day.” So often climbers are stuck in place for a really long time.
When the weather finally cleared for Nuttelman back in 2017, he and his climbing partner had just one shot at the tower. “We had no weather forecast whatsoever and had no idea if we were experiencing just a lull in the storm, but we headed up anyway.” The clouds soon reappeared and the pair decided to stop. But it wasn’t all heartbreak. “As we were rappelling down the route, the clouds broke and there was the most amazing sunset I’ve seen in my life.”
It’s that appreciation for the experience itself that Bergen suggests other prospective climbers adopt. “The reality is you might wake up at 3 am every morning for your Lotus Flower climb and it might not work out… So just accepting that maybe the journey to the Fairy Meadows and to the Cirque might have to be enough in the case of your adventure.”
On Nuttelman’s second trip, the pair took a different tactic by flying directly to Glacier Lake instead. That, combined with good weather, saw Nuttelman reach the Lotus Flower Tower summit a few days later. But he admits now that, while reaching the summit was great, the lack of effort required to get to the tower made the second trip feel less special.
“Even though we did not summit on that first attempt, the first trip to me was way more enjoyable and adventurous because of the magnitude of our journey,” he says.
There’s another cliché for you: nothing worth having comes easy. The Lotus Flower Tower is ready to teach that lesson at every opportunity.
Fun in the Midnight Sun
It’s a summer evening in Auyuittuq National Park on Baffin Island. The sun has just dipped below the mountains, the world is cast in a purple glow, and at the top of Mount Asgard’s north and south towers, two teams of climbers holler at each other from across a wide chasm. It’s a fantastic moment as each pair—Bronwyn Hodgins and her husband in one team, and their two friends in the other—reach their respective summits at almost the exact same time.
“We’re kind of whooping back and forth on the radios and waving arms,” says Hodgins, “and we can actually just make out the other team across the way. And it’s moments like that that are pretty special.”
It was the first climb of a six-week trip, which saw the group paddle up Weasel River from Pangnirtung towards Mount Thor and Mount Asgard, scaling five other mountains while travelling there and back. While the team was initially drawn to Mount Asgard when planning the trip—it’s famous among big-wall climbers for its two towers with large, steep faces—they soon discovered that Mount Thor, home to the world’s tallest vertical drop, sat about 20 kilometres across the river. Hodgins and her group couldn’t pass up the opportunity to climb both on the same expedition.
“You’re making all these risk calculating decisions and really focused and trying to move quickly and you kind of get lost in all the decision making,” she says, “and then you arrive on the summit and it was just like this relief and this beautiful thing that we suddenly were not only sharing in our small team partnership, but we were sharing that same moment with the other pair.”
The mountains on Baffin Island are perfect for Hodgins’ favourite way of ascending, called free climbing, where people scale rock faces like a climbing wall rather than walking up a mountain. Auyuittuq has some incredible offerings for free climbers.
The adventure wasn’t just limited to mountains, either. In addition to climbing, the group also rafted down Weasel River, a glacier-fed river that runs down the valley. Mount Asgard and Mount Thor sit on either side of the river, which Hodgins says sparked the idea of paddling down. The rafting part of their trip served as both transportation and a change of pace, since climbing in that area can leave a person mentally fried.
Luckily, Hodgins isn’t new to northern climbs. A few years ago, she travelled through the Nahanni to try her hand at the Lotus Flower Tower. But one difference between the Cirque and Auyuittuq’s mountains is that, in the Nunavut national park, there are more opportunities to explore new routes up a mountain—known as a first ascent. Hodgins says that was part of what enticed her and her team. A big goal for her and her husband was to make a first ascent on Mount Asgard. “Obviously there’s a whole new bag of tools that you need to use [for first ascents] and a lot more unknowns,” she says. “And it’s a little bit of a different game, I guess, in that sense.”
But the trip wasn’t just about technical achievements. They were out there to have fun. One of the four team members on the expedition was named Thor, and so a major goal for the trip became Thor climbing Mount Thor. It was a joke, but one that speaks to a deeper motivation Hodgins has in climbing.
“The way that my husband and I tend to go about our climbing, and especially with bigger trips, there’s a lot of emphasis on having fun out there,” she says. “What is the purpose of being here? To enjoy ourselves and to often share these experiences, whether it’s just the two of us shared with each other or whether we have some friends along as well. I think that we do try and make that a priority.”
That meant Hodgins, who has worked as a river guide, would also bring the group to some of the less dangerous rapids for some fun, silly river days as a way to de-stress between climbs. “We had [an] inflatable flamingo and we would run the rapids in the pack raft first, and then decide to run it again on the flamingo.”
In addition to flamingo-assisted breather days, the team also had a helping hand from the midnight sun in their climbing. Hodgins does Alpine style climbing, which favours a fast push up a mountain over making multiple stops along a route. Instead of slowly ascending portions of the route and setting up camps in between, Alpine-style climbers keep going until they finish, says Hodgins, and then keep going until they get down. So, having 24-hour daylight was convenient.
“Because it was one less hazard that we were worried about. We weren’t trying to race the daylight to get past a certain more challenging section or trying to time our day to make sure we started at a certain time [and] were in this particular, most challenging or most dangerous section before darkness fell.”
Beyond that, the group’s biggest method of avoiding disaster was time and preparedness. Hodgins says they started to plan the trip a year in advance, which included doing research on the area, applying for grants and sponsorships to cover costs, and shipping a lot of their food and equipment to Pangnirtung ahead of time, where one of the locals took their supplies up the valley. Then the team took precautions on expeditions by climbing in teams of two, staying close to each other, and radioing in every hour to check in. This is a really big environment with a lot of hazards, Hodgins says, and you need to be as ready as possible before heading out.
But don’t let the to-do list overwhelm you. Hodgins’ expedition to Mount Asgard and Mount Thor was a dream trip, and she says you shouldn’t be afraid to dream big and make such a trip happen for yourself.
“It can be pretty special and life changing.”
So long as you don’t forget to enjoy yourself while you achieve the impossible. I suppose that brings us to our final cliché: life is too short to not have fun.