This article originally appeared on Climbing
This feature was originally published in Climbing in 2012. It’s been republished here for free as fuel for dreams, while the North American winter drags on.—Ed.
Soaking wet but still upright, we were spit out of a smooth, fast rapid into a wave train trucking headlong into yet another blind bend. I spun us into an upstream ferry and called a hard “Forward!”, hoping to buy another second or two to pick a line through the next drop, but the fast-approaching rapid was so steep that all I could see were occasional splashes cresting the horizon line. I chose a random notch between boulders and spun us downstream.
We shot through the rocks below, busted through a wave at the bottom of a trough, and when I wiped the spray from my eyes, I saw that we were bearing down fast on a big boat-flipper of a wave coming off the right wall. The Little Nahanni seemed determined to be the most exciting part of our trip.
Pat Goodman, James Q Martin, and I were plunging headlong down this remote northern river not because we were expert boaters–we were not–but because we were climbers, and the river was snaking to the base of the Vampire Peaks, a group of granite spires in the vast, rugged wilderness along Canada’s Northwest Territories/Yukon border. This loaded-down 10-foot raft was taking us climbing.
I had vaguely recalled reading about “the Vamps” years ago in an issue of this very magazine. They were somewhere near the famed Lotus Flower Tower, right? Details were fuzzy, but if I recalled correctly, the climbing scenario there was somewhat less than ideal, involving mosquito clouds, grizzly bears, and ascending long, moss-filled cracks in the rain. Only about a dozen climbing parties had ever visited. That’s about all I could conjure up when Pat invited me on an expedition to claim a first ascent on the area’s most prominent tower.
For Goodman, the Vampires were practically home (this would be his sixth trip), and the difficulties of climbing there were part of the area’s charm. He sent me enticing photos of our main objective–all taken in sunny weather–noting that it was probably the greatest free-climbing prize in the area. I’d met Pat about five years back in the New River Gorge, West Virginia, where he now resides. He was a North Carolina climber at the time, and before that, hailed from Farmington, New Mexico. This background plus his brawling Irish temperament had made him a strong and scrappy climber drawn to a variety of masochistic disciplines: soft-rock hoodoo soloing, offwidth roofs, 5.13 X headpointing, and gnarly alpine big walls. He was the expedition leader, and had secured an American Alpine Club grant that would pay for much of the trip. It didn’t take much to convince me to join the team.
The Vampires are part of a large granite intrusion in the middle of the Mackenzie Mountains, a vast, mostly sedimentary- rock range that forms the divide between the west flowing Yukon and east- and north-flowing Mackenzie, two of the North’s largest rivers. The Cirque of the Unclimbables, a much better-known area that includes Lotus Flower Tower and Proboscis, is nearby, about 15 air miles to the southeast.
The expedition’s main objective was to establish a free route on the 2,500-foot northeast prow of the Phoenix, probably the most striking climbing feature in all the sub-valleys that make up the Vamps. Goodman had already made the first free ascents of both Vampire Spire and the Fortress; he considered these and the Phoenix to be the “top three” in the area, and the Phoenix was the biggest. The only previous party to top out the buttress had not attempted the icy and steep scramble up the final ridge, so the true summit of the peak had never been reached. It was hard to imagine a more enticing target.
The river component actually makes sense. Approaching the Cirque or the Vampires requires air support from a floatplane, a helicopter, or both. Planes carry more and airtime is less expensive, but they are limited in where they can land: You need a lake or a wide, straight stretch of slow-moving river. Choppers can pick you up and drop you off almost anywhere, but they are more expensive. Our solution? Raft the river to get that much closer to the climbing, and save on costs. But we would get an airlift from the water to our high base camp, sparing us an epic load-ferrying effort up the steep, wild Vampires valley.
Nahanni National Park–where the Vampires lay–is much better known for its rivers than its climbing anyway. Lower down, closer to where it empties into the huge Laird River just above Fort Simpson on the Mackenzie, the South Nahanni surges through several limestone gorges, eventually plunging 300 vertical feet over the stunning, Niagara-like Virginia Falls, one of the most impressive waterfalls in North America. The whole Nahanni valley was an area of some mystique during Gold Rush times. Several grisly, unsolved murders befell some early prospectors, and local place names bear witness: The Broken Skull River, Deadmen Valley, Hell’s Gate, Headless Creek, the Funeral Range, Vampire Peaks. The Nahanni was referred to as “The Valley of No Return.”
The Vampires and Cirque of the Unclimbables were high up in the river basin, so we’d be stopping well above the main gorges and falls, in the rugged heart of the mountains. We started on the river’s southernmost tributary, the Little Nahanni, which we accessed by floatplane at its source, a remote place called Flat Lakes.
Getting to Flat Lakes, however, took some doing in itself. It’s possible to fly to Whitehorse, the only place in the Yukon with an international airport, but like the majority of climbers who visit the area, Goodman and I made a marathon drive to a point where we could be picked up by bush plane. We all-nighted from Colorado across Wyoming and Montana, then continued up through Alberta. Past the rolling fields of Edmonton we crossed into British Columbia, soon reaching Dawson Creek, the official start of the Alaska Highway, or the Al-Can, as the locals call it. Beyond there, the country became distinctly wilder. Towns disappeared, the highway twisted through spectacular river canyons and over high passes, and the few-and-far-between gas stops came to look more like logging camps. After 50 driving hours we reached the last settlement we’d see on our journey, Watson Lake.
Watson Lake is a rough-around-the-edges way station for tungsten miners, loggers, and Al-Can tourists. Its best known attraction is the “Sign Post Forest,” a small park just off main street featuring thousands of street signs from all over the world. Go figure. Just behind the Forest we found the community center, with its one-room Greyhound station, where we picked up “Q”–photographer James Q Martin–thus assembling the complete river team (our fourth climber, Jeremy Collins, would meet us in the mountains).
From Watson Lake, we had another four-hour drive, to Finlayson Lake where Warren LaFave would pick us up by plane. This last stretch of driving followed the Robert Campbell “Highway,” a gravel spur off the Al-Can that had us bottoming out violently on a regular basis, but paid us back with caribou, moose, bear, and wolf sightings.
Finlayson Lake is the main fuel-depot and passenger pick-up point for Warren La Fave’s Kluane Airways. Its rustic quarters hardly prepared us for the poshness on the other end of the flight, the Inconnu Lodge, a high-end fishing resort run by Warren and his wife Anita. Inconnu is the jumping-off place for most climbing trips into the Vampires or the Cirque. Late the next morning, Warren picked us up in his vintage Havilland Beaver and flew us in. The Inconnu is a self-sufficient timber-framed lodge, and the only habitation on McEvoy Lake, a seven-mile long fisher’s dream packed with grayling and 50-pound lake trout. Anglers pay $1,000 a night, but Warren seems to like climbers and never begrudges a few free nights in the guide cabins pre- and post-climb as part of the deal.
From the Inconnu we flew about 50 miles over tundra-covered peaks and vast expanses of scraggly-treed flats to a velvety landing on Flat Lake to wade our loads ashore. When the Beaver disappeared we suddenly found ourselves all alone, in total silence. We blinked at each other, then got to work inflating and rigging the raft to began our 100-mile paddle to the Vampires.
Our raft bore down broadside on this ominous lateral wave, and there was nothing to do but paddle like hell. The boat was heavy with gear and slow to change direction– good for punching through waves but in this case, our possible undoing. As impact seemed imminent, I could imagine two possible scenarios: We’d be flipped immediately by the curling wave and sent upside down into the rapid below, or else pulled into the seething eddy on the upstream side of the wave and thrashed against sharp rocks until the raft ripped. My teammates, however, dug in with previously unseen vigor, and we just barely got enough momentum to bump the wave and spin off.
When we finally reached a stretch of relative calm, I reflected on how different climbing is from boating. When you reach a crux spot on the rock, you can stop the action, step back to a stance, hang on gear if you have to, and take your time to make a decision. If you pause in a rapid, the action keeps going. Hesitate, and the river decides for you–and there’s no such thing as rapping off.
It’s also true that in climbing, you never get anywhere except by your own exertions, while on the river, bar disaster, the current will bring you where you want to go. You can sit back and float. Despite a few adrenaline high-water marks along the way, most of the Nahanni was significantly more mellow.
Which is not to say boring–our four days on the Nahanni alone would have been worth the journey. The river had started out small, with bony rock gardens and places where we had to wade the gravel bars and drag our raft. Small tributaries flowed in from both sides and the river quickly gained power, with waves that splashed over our dry bags. There was not a sign of human presence anywhere: no footprints or fire rings on the gravel bars, no trails, no camps. There were a few cabins marked on the map, but we didn’t see them. We drank the clear water directly from the river. The nights were starry and short.
On the next-to-last river day, the Little Nahanni joined the main (“South”) Nahanni, and the water changed character, becoming much bigger and lazier, cloudy blue-green instead of clear, with widely braided channels and only the occasional run of straightforward standing waves. The river was placid, and we paddled hard to cover the miles.
As we got closer to the Vampires, a squall moved through with rain and thunder, the first weather we’d seen since arriving, and the mountains above took on an ominous look. Goodman watched the shoreline on river-right, consulting the map, waiting for a flash of recognition from his last time here. It was big country, and when viewed from the river, the broad valleys all looked quite similar. I was glad he was in charge of figuring out where we were.
Suddenly, we drifted into an alignment with a side valley that triggered a six-year-old memory, and Goodman announced that we had arrived at our pickup point. At just that moment we heard the faint twhack-thwack-thwack of the chopper–descending from Phoenix basecamp after dropping off our final team member, Jeremy Collins. We beached on a gravel bar and scrambled to get ready, derigging and deflating the raft and quickly separating gear. The helicopter landed on the gravel bar, we loaded up, and, just like that, we were flying into the face of a gray and gusty rainstorm, into the Vampires.
We came in low, under the clouds, up a steep, rugged valley, and when we suddenly crested a rise we got our first view into the upper cirque. There was Vampires Lake, site of an incident where a grizzly had once trashed a team’s camp while they were on the wall, rendering them without food for over a week. And there, looming beyond the lake, was a massive rock peak that I recognized immediately–the Phoenix– looking significantly bigger than in the pictures Goodman had shown me.
Rain pelted the helicopter’s windshield, and beyond the buttress, partly obscured by mist, was a hanging glacier with a monstrous hole like a gaping mouth. I’d never seen anything like it, in person or in pictures, and I thought about the Nahanni region’s spooky history, wondering if perhaps there wasn’t a legitimate supernatural force at work here that had generated the plethora of sinister occurrences and myths.
We were above 60 degrees north latitude, at an altitude just over 5,000 feet now, and on all sides lay cirques and sub-cirques filled with small glaciers and tall granite walls, many untouched. The 2,500-foot Phoenix prow was the most impressive. It had one completed mixed free and aid line, Freebird, done in 1998, which went to the top of the peak’s “big-wall” section, and another route, After School Special, done a few years later, whose complete ascent had been thwarted by ice just a few pitches from the top. Two other visiting parties had also been stopped short.
Few of the prow’s key features matched the hand-scrawled topo we had, but it was pretty obvious that the discontinuous cracks in the vicinity of After School Special promised the most feasible start for a free climb. Every possible route up the lower wall, however, was crossed by long, black water streaks and involved significant blank sections that looked improbable even through binoculars. We had only a handful of pins and bolts for protecting any sketchy face climbing.
Goodman seemed unconcerned with the terrain; his doubts revolved solely around the weather. We’d already had five near-perfect days in a row, and he surely felt like we’d used up our share. We all felt an urgency to get started, while at the same time an uncertainty about where the route would go.
The sound of our high camp was a river sound, a soft roar coming from a glacial cascade a half-mile above, and when I closed my eyes as I lay in the tent on that first night, I saw water: sparkling water tumbling over dark rocks, glassy tongues ending in V-waves that crashed over on themselves, turquoise eddies running upstream against undercut banks. Riverside images floated past at river speed: a grizzly among the willows standing up to sniff the air, a grayling finning in the shallows, an osprey wheeling above the water, moose tracks on the sand bars. Swirling water.
But now it was time to rock, and the next morning, we went up on the wall for a recon. We scampered up two easy pitches on low-angled slabs to the base of the main prow, where a series of overhanging cracks offered several options. The first steep pitch fell into place as I led up. Many sections of crack were filled with grass, but the rock was generously featured with knobs, ideal for free climbing. After 150 feet, I pulled a final overhang and arrived at a weathered rappel anchor, our first concrete evidence of After School Special.
Despite the steepness, the pitch had gone onsight at mid 5.10, and the black water streaks had been dry–an auspicious start, but the real business was yet to come. Collins headed up into thinner terrain, jamming in a couple of small cams, then fingered the opening moves of a steep and committing-looking seam. Feeling the flash pump and seeing nothing to go for, he hung on his top piece–which immediately ripped, along with the one below it, sending him for an alarmingly long fall that left him wide-eyed and level with me. Hanging from his sole piece of pro remaining in the rock, he looked over and chortled. I smiled back, saying nothing, but I couldn’t help thinking to myself, “Dude, we are a long way from anywhere.”
Knowing I’d done my lead for the day, and seeing that this might take a while, I handed off the belay to Goodman and began descending to camp. When Collins headed back up he chose an easier line, up an angling dihedral. Then he busted across a line of edges that drifted back left, pioneering the first strategic traverse, across one of the route’s biggest blank sections. The effort took several hours, which used up most of the daylight, and at 8 p.m. Collins and Goodman rapped from the high point, leaving four ropes fixed.
And so it went, for four days, Collins and me teaming up, then Goodman and Q, ferreting out pitches that gradually found a way up and left across the first thousand feet of the wall, occasionally finding and sometimes using the belay/rappel anchors of After School Special. Usually, two of us would work on the route while the other two hiked, bouldered, or rested in camp. The leader would almost always need a few points of aid to clean grass from the cracks, which would then go free the next day at some kind of 5.10. We placed one bolt and a couple of knifeblades, but otherwise found adequate pro from cams and nuts. The cracks ran from fingers to offwidth, connected by sections of face climbing, plus the occasional scary flake or moss-hummock mantel. It was stellar alpine rock climbing, and we became increasingly psyched about our line.
Any ethical concerns I had about our siege style were outweighed by the obvious benefit: precious time to wander and explore the pristine Vampires wilderness. On one of my off-wall days I took a long hike up onto the glaciers above camp. There was no sign of human passage. On the way up I had a face-off with a smallish caribou, who snorted and advanced with head lowered until I made a good threat display with my trekking poles. Higher, I found canid tracks in the snow leading up and over the col that led into the next valley: a lone wolf.
I eventually summitted a peak that was one of the highest in our cirque, earning a stunning 360-degree view. To the south were gigantic ice fields and the backsides of Cirque of the Unclimbables. Somewhere in that same general direction was the highpoint of Northwest Territories, a rugged granite peak known to climbers as “Nirvana” but officially unnamed. It was just a few hundred feet higher than where I stood. To the north, I had a sweeping view of the Phoenix and the other arm of our valley that contained Vampire Spire and the Fortress. To the northeast were the deep canyons of the Nahanni and the Broken Skull rivers, with countless peaks on the horizon beyond. So much country. So much water and rock. So many possibilities.
Finally we had fixed all our ropes and it was time to make a decision, so back in camp, talk turned to tactics. All of us would have preferred a light-and-fast ascent, but with ropes already strung, four climbers, and a single lead rack, a “disaster-style” assault made little sense. When no one proposed a specific plan, and a chilly evening drizzle put a damper on the next day’s free climbing prospects, I started loading up a haulbag to add to the one already stashed at the base of the wall, and announced that I would spend the next day hauling two modest bags to the top of the lines.
The weather cleared, the hauling went smoothly, and I returned to camp with daylight to spare. The following morning we committed to a summit push. It took us a good part of the day to pack the remaining essentials, get out of camp, and establish the four of us at the top of the fixed lines, but by late afternoon, Goodman finally began racking up for a free attempt on pitch eight. Everything had gone free at 5.10 to this point, and the weather was holding.
Thirty feet up lay a highly questionable crack switch, the last blank spot on the lower wall. The After School Special team had aided through here by penduluming from a bolt, and the rock between cracks was steep and smooth. True to the route, however, a perfectly positioned cluster of knobs appeared, and Goodman lurched across the blankness at 5.10+. He then fired up a steep hand crack, which widened to fist and then offwidth, but never slowed him down.
The pitch ended at the base of a striking, 150-foot dihedral that our topo called the Dixie Crystal Corner, a “four star” pitch we’d been admiring since we first glassed the wall. Beautiful as it was from afar, up close the Dixie was a beast–the first 100 feet of crack tapered gradually from seven inches to five, one of the most strenuous possible sizes to contend with. The left wall was smooth and dead vertical and the right only a degree or two less. It looked like it would be a fight, and it was my lead. Life was suddenly very simple. My job was to lead this pitch, quickly, free, and onsight. Nothing else mattered.
I swung the rack onto my left side, rigged our two biggest cams on full-length runners clipped to the lead rope, shoved one into the crack, and began chugging. Bingo! Protruding crystals on the right wall allowed me to stand with one foot out of the crack, shaving full number grades off the difficulty. It was strenuous offwidth climbing, and went on forever, but never got really hard.
The crack finally thinned to hands, leading into a series of small ledges. By now it was almost dusk, and the most pressing task was to find a bivi spot. Forty feet higher I could see what appeared to be a ledge, but I was out of rope. We had a set of small two-way radios, and I called down for Collins to follow the pitch. He did, then put me back on belay, and I scrambled up onto the grassy, sloping terraces that would be our camp for the night.
Stretching my lead beyond a rope length created a small hassle for hauling, so while the team sorted it out, I worked on our night’s quarters. The grassy shelf sloped badly, but by peeling back the grass, leveling the dirt and gravel beneath, and then replacing the turf on the flattened terrace, I fashioned what I thought was a pretty fair sitting bivi.
A gentle rain settled in as the team arrived, and we huddled under our hardware-store tarp and cooked up a warming stew. A few remarks circulated about my choice of bivi ledge, but everyone made the best of it–except Collins, who dealt the ultimate insult by rapping down 50 feet to a lower ledge, where he found an even more miserable perch to pass the brief but rainy Northwest Territories night.
The next morning dawned clear, and we went for the top. The climbing was the stuff of dreams, with steep and continuous cracks, challenging but never desperate. Everyone onsighted his pitches. Very near the top, an intimidating squeeze chimney cast some serious doubt on our success, but Collins dispatched it with aplomb. As the pitches went by, one by one, we became ever more hopeful and elated. This thing was going down, today!
We hit the summit ridge, and the vista opened up into a world of swirling clouds, with glimpses of ice-clad peaks. Only the Freebird party had reached this point before us. They had called it good here, and we might have too, but finding dry, late-season conditions, we were able to continue. Climbing alone, occasionally waiting for each other, we scrambled unroped and in approach shoes, up the last 2,000 feet of knife edge. Pat, in the lead, waited before the final rise, and we scrambled together onto to the untouched, tabletop summit slab of the Phoenix.
In 35 years of rock climbing I’ve been privileged to participate in many fine first ascents, from New Hampshire and Maine to Canyonlands and the Black Canyon, but our route on the Phoenix was one of the very best– sort of the Naked Edge of the Northwest Territories, if you will. More classics await future parties on the flanks of the Phoenix itself, and on nearby formations–but if the Vamps ever get more popular, this one will surely get repeated, due to its Half Dome stature, superb and textured rock, elegance of line. Not to mention climbing that is so much more reasonable in difficulty than it had any right to be.
Yet at least for Pat, Q, and me, the route will always be entwined with the river. I will think back to this Vampires adventure as a time when we moved through the unknown as good adventurers should: solid on the water, and fluid on the rock.
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