Does the Northwest Territories have the highest rise in the world?

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“We could see for hundreds of miles and we decided to 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 Nahanni National Park Reserve in the Northwest Territories stands a peak that, to climbers, seems shaped by a higher power: the Tower of the Lotus Flower. If you’re lucky, when you set up camp at the top and rest among the stars, the aurora will make a path in green and purple as your body resets for the descent.

Few people have this chance, but many dream of it. This corner of the Northwest Territories, little known to residents of the territory, holds legendary status among climbers.

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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 remoteness and cost of the climb, neither author reached the top of the tower, although Roper attempted it in August 1969 after reading about it that same year.

The Lotus Flower Tower, on the right, in July 2022
The Lotus Flower Tower, right, in July 2022. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio

“When my friends and I saw pictures of the LFT in the American Alpine Journal from 1969, we went crazy and planned to go,” Roper, now 81, said in an email. mail.

“In August 1969 we drove to the starting point and prepared to be airlifted, but the weather was horrible and the helicopter costs were also horrible. After two or three days we were heading south again. This is the closest I’ve ever been to the LFT.

“Steck never got close.”

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Of the 50 climbs in the book, Roper and Steck managed to climb about 35. Why does the Lotus Flower Tower justify its inclusion? Roper said it was an obvious choice.

“It’s a nice piece of rock. Remote – yes – and no story to speak of, but a climber salivating just looking at a photo.

Welcome to Nahʔą Dehé

Nahʔą Dehé, or Nahanni, is a 30,000 km2 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 invites adventurers of all kinds.

Within the reserve is a portion of the Logan Mountains – the Ragged Range – which includes the Cirque of the Unclimbables. There, the Vampire Spiers, Mount Proboscis and the Lotus Flower Tower await you.

The 2,570m of granite that make up the LFT tower over Fairy Meadows, an alpine meadow towards which optimistic climbers trek for hours with packs laden with gear, usually from Glacier Lake below.

If time permits, they walk again to the foot of the Lotus Flower Tower to begin their ascent.


Use this 360 degree viewer to stand in Fairy Meadows, surrounded by the Circus of Unclimbables.


A map shows the location of the Cirque des Inescaladeurs in the Dehcho.

The road to the Circus, however, usually starts thousands of miles away.

For many, the journey begins with a long drive to Watson Lake, Yukon, or Fort Simpson, Dehcho. Both routes involve rough, unpaved roads. Seaplanes ferry adventurers to Glacier Lake and the unpredictable arms of the Nahanni.

The name of Warren LaFave, owner of Kluane Air in the Yukon, comes up regularly among climbers who have gone to Cirque. He is known for flying planes full of climbers to the area long before it was granted Unesco status in 1989.

Today, the operations have passed to his son. Throughout his years of flying, LaFave says he never got tired of the Circus of Unclimbables, even taking a helicopter to transport trash, build the first toilets at Fairy Meadows, and improve the bolts and hooks that make up the climbing grounds (sections of the wall that climbers must scale, of which the Lotus Flower Tower has 19).

When asked if he climbs himself, LaFave answered in all sincerity, “No. No, I just dragged them through the sky.

The ideal climbing months are July and August and in a normal year Kluane Air hosts six to eight groups of climbers. You can also go there by helicopter – if you can afford it.

“I think with a helicopter you could go straight to Fairy Meadows and that’s the Cadillac of routes,” laughed George Bell, referring to the luxury of being transported straight to your camp.

Bell first climbed the Lotus Flower Tower in 1988 and has since builds a comprehensive online guideprized for his topographical map of the tower, which Bell built for hours by poring over images.

A topographic map of the Lotus Flower Tower created by George Bell.

Bell, the son of mountaineer and physicist George Irving Bell, has spent years climbing all over the world but has 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 beautiful because the weather was perfect. We could see for hundreds of miles and we decided to spend the night up there – because we had brought our gear – and it was just amazing to spend the night on it,” Bell recalled, 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 really wonderful. I’m glad we didn’t go down.

Why is this tower so good?

Every climber we reached, including Bell, said that the granite face of the Lotus Flower Tower, with countless support points and cracks like train tracks to the top, is unique and almost perfect.

“I’ve never seen anything like it in the world,” Bell said.

“As far as pure climbing goes, this is probably the best in the world or in my opinion definitely in the top 10 I’ve done.”

Climbing Lot 13 of the Lotus Flower Tower after camping on the ledge in 1988. Photo: George Bell

Part of the attraction is that the Lotus Flower Tower, despite all the adventure involved in reaching it, is an accessible challenge for weekend climbers who have worked a bit.

The tower holds a rating of 5.8 to 5.10+ using the Yosemite decimal system, which rates climbing difficulty.

A class five climb is technical and requires a secure rope and protection. In the words of a guide, “a dedicated weekend climber could reach this level.” The Lotus Flower Tower’s knobs, sometimes referred to as chicken heads, provide plenty of support points to help you along the way.

Halfway up is a ledge that provides the only – albeit near perfect – place to set up camp for the night before tackling the summit.

One of the biggest challenges of climbing the Lotus Flower Tower is the unpredictable weather in Nahanni National Park Reserve.

There are full of tales mountaineers spend weeks cooped up in a tent in the weather at Fairy Meadows while nearby peaks laugh at them through the clouds. Even after the rain has passed, the rock needs time to dry out and climbers need time to mount an attempt before the next mountain storm hits, which means summit seekers lead a dance of climbing and retreating to reach the top. .

Some despised adventurers turn back to Glacier Lake without ever finding a window to attempt the ascent. They may never get the chance to come back and tackle the furthest of North America’s 50 classic climbs.

Even among residents of the Northwest Territories, who start from the closest possible point to the Circus, we have not found anyone who has climbed the Lotus Flower Tower.

There are few climbers in the territory, although the Northwest Territories boasts some of the best alpine climbing in the world. Money, practice and time are a big obstacle for people in the North who take up this sport.

“It’s just very difficult to find places suitable for climbing [in the North]especially trying to find real stable rock to climb on,” said Noel Cockney, a NWT climber who grew up in Tuktoyaktuk and Inuvik.

“It’s also a foreign thing to the Arctic Ocean and the tundra.”

Cockney didn’t have the opportunity to take up rock climbing until he went to college in the United States. If he hadn’t spent his time in the south, he says, he probably never would have discovered rock climbing.

“Being an aboriginal person who does big wall climbing and stuff like that…not a lot of us do that, and it’s very popular and available to people who live in cities or white people who are used to being able to do it,” he said.

“A lot of other cultures just have a lot more on our plates. For me to have had the ability and the availability to do a lot of climbing has been very rewarding and it’s really nice to be able to do that too.

Cockney says the Lotus Flower Tower is on the bucket list.

“From all the videos and photos I see, it looks like an amazing place I want to go to eventually,” he said.

“It’s just a matter of finding the time and the available partners.

The long way back

For their return, beaten and exhausted climbers can either retreat by plane or tackle the route by raft and canoe. Climbers like Bronwyn Hodginsthe first Canadian to free climb Yosemite’s El Capitan, decided that descending the Nahanni River was a must.

Tim Emmett, a world famous British 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.

Tim Emmett climbed the Lotus Flower Tower in 2013.

“The aura created by the steep and jagged peak is really very special. When you see the lotus flower tower for the first time… it is huge and it is a very striking line.

Some climbers, like Emmett, can do the climb in a day. But even then, the full adventure often takes more than two weeks to a month.

“It’s incredibly remote,” Emmett said. “It was a total mission to get out there. This is the most remote wilderness area I have ever seen in the world.

“You go days and days and days without seeing anyone at all, and that was really cool. It’s really special.

For all his in-depth knowledge of the area, Bell – who has expressed a desire to return to the iconic tower – has a brief summary of the Lotus Flower Tower’s appeal.

“It really is a classic North American climb.”

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