Thunder Mountain (Mt Nirvana) Expedition 2015

Mt Nirvana/Thunder Mountain and the Ragged Range of the Northwest Territories

June-August 2015

Author: Eric Gilbertson

Link to the writeup in the American Alpine Journal 2016

In the summer of 1965 Bill Buckingham and Lew Surdam visited the Southern Logan Mountains, making the first ascent of Mt Nirvana/Thunder Mountain, the highest mountain in the Northwest Territories. (The mountain’s name is currently being officially changed to Thunder Mountain by the Canadian Government to reflect the local Deh Cho First Nation name.) While scouting for a possible ascent route they first viewed the southwest face, but decided “clearly any route here would be more of an undertaking than we were prepared for.” (AAJ 1966). They proceeded to hike to the north side and make the first ascent via the north face and north ridge.

The southwest face has been largely forgotten since then. There were no published pictures from Buckingham’s trip, and the only description of the face in Buckingham’s account was that it had “great exfoliated slabs.” There was only documentation of one other climbing party seeing the face since 1965, and that was Pete Ford and Bob Howell in 1971 (CAJ 1972) from the next valley south glimpsing just the upper section of the face.

However, researching topographic maps and google earth images revealed the face could be potentially 3,000 vertical feet of granite and a mile wide at the base. Could such a huge rock face on the tallest mountain in the territory really have gone unclimbed and unattempted for so long? Perhaps with the popularity of the Cirque of the Unclimbables and the Vampire Spires relatively close by to the north this section of the Ragged Range was overlooked.

On June 28, 2015 Dave, Susan and I helicoptered from Watson Lake to the edge of the small unnamed lake at the base of the southwest face of Thunder Mountain. After setting up camp, that afternoon Dave and I set out on a scouting mission to get the best possible photographs of the entire face so we could plan our attack. We scrambled up the crumbling northeast slopes to Peak A on the gargoyle ridge, then proceeded along the ridge to Peak B, before dropping back to our camp at the lake’s edge. (Peak names refer to the map below.)

Map of peaks climbed, route, and camps. Based on map from Buckingham, AAJ 1966

Map of peaks climbed, route, and camps. Based on map from Buckingham, AAJ 1966

 

The southwest face of Thunder Mountain was a complex system of gullies, arêtes, and horizontal ledges. Large patches of snow hid stubbornly in the upper shaded recesses of the mountain, ensuring that the faces and gullies below would likely be wet from runoff.  Slabs on the lower half of the face gave way to vertical, broken faces on the upper half. A curious system of horizontal ledges appeared to split the face across the middle. Studying our pictures in camp, we hatched a plan to gain the summit ridge just north of Peak 33 by climbing a gully system, and from there traverse north to the summit of Thunder Mountain.

The following morning we scrambled to the base of the gully system, but rain developed and we retreated, caching our ropes and gear at the base. We stayed in camp all the next day waiting for a break in the weather. On July 1st we returned to our gear cache and began our ascent, trading leads for three pitches of moderate rock to the base of a third class ramp. The rock was initially hand-numbingly cold, but warmed up as the sun finally hit our climb.

Surprisingly, we were able to ascend the ramp unroped all the way to the ridge crest. We peered north along the ridge to Thunder Mountain, with high hopes that we were almost there. However, we’d misjudged how far away we actually were based on pictures only looking up at the mountain, and there was still a lot of terrain between us and the summit. Moreover, that terrain looked very technical. The ridge was like a sawtooth pattern, which would require many tough ascents and rappels, and was more than we were ready for.

Attempted routes on the southwest face of Thunder Mountain/Nirvana, and successful ascent route of Peak 33. Dots indicate belay stations. (Name refers to map from Buckingham, AAJ 1966). Photo credit: Mike Fischesser.

Attempted routes on the southwest face of Thunder Mountain/Nirvana, and successful ascent route of Peak 33. Dots indicate belay stations. (Name refers to map from Buckingham, AAJ 1966). Photo credit: Mike Fischesser.

 

 We instead turned our gaze south, eyeing Peak 33 as a possible consolation prize. The peak to our knowledge had no documented ascents, and there appeared to be a climbable crack system on the north ridge. We descended back down the third class ramp several hundred feet, then climbed diagonally back up and right for three pitches, following Dave’s lead, to a flat area on the ridge.

The summit of Peak 33 from north along the ridge to Thunder Mountain.

From here Dave led up a fine crack pitch, then a short final pitch to reach the small, airy summit. We were surprised to find a cairn carefully balanced on the top, and a worn webbing rappel anchor leading off the northeast face to a glacier below. We estimated the anchor to be at least 20 years old, but later reviews of AAJ and CAJ journals show no documented ascents of this peak. We also consulted with Ragged Range historian Mike Fischesser, and he had no record of anyone attempting Peak 33.

 

We descended the same route of our ascent, and staggered back into camp at 2am for a tiring 19-hour day. Rain set in again that night and continued for the next three days, occasionally mixing with snow. As we would find out over the next month, sunny weather is hard to come by in the Ragged Range, and there’s a good reason the moss is so thick on most of the rocks.

Susan descending from Peak 33 with the east face of Thunder Mountain in the background.

We spent the rainy days pouring over pictures of the face, trying to plan our next move. With what was turning out to be only one or two 18-hour weather windows per week, we had to be careful to choose the best possible route. By noon on July 4th the rain let up and we hiked to the base of Gully 4 for a new attempt. A wet/mossy slab pitch led to a low-angle ramp, and then a large granite bowl. Five more pitches alternated between solid rock, waterfalls, snow ramps, a boulder tunnel, and a horrendous wet chute. By 10pm we reached the horizontal ledge system and it started to rain. We knew the rain could potentially last for days, so we began a long retreat back, reaching our base camp by 8am the next morning.

The next few rainy days provided us with much-needed resting and reading time. We washed clothes in the small lake and even took some lightning-fast swims in the frigid water. We also studied our pictures of the cliff, and realized the horizontal ledge system was likely continuous from our previous highpoint all the way to the base of our route up Peak 33.

Eric leading with Dave belaying during an attempt up Gully 4 on the southwest face of Thunder Mountain. Photo by Susan Ruff.

Early on July 7th the weather dawned clear and we set off to explore this ledge system. Past the base of our route up Peak 33 the ledges were mostly third and fourth class, with just a few narrow sections to belay and one short 5.6 pitch. We simulclimbed most of the ledge system and by midday reached a snow field just 50 ft above our previous high point. This traversing route was considerably longer distance-wise, but much faster and more pleasant. It would also offer a relatively safe retreat in the rain, with numerous sheltered overhangs.

 

Dave leading one of the many wet chimney pitches on the southwest face of Thunder Mountain. The highpoint of 2600m was reached five pitches above this chimney.

Above the snowfield Dave led four pitches up wet chimneys with tricky chock stones, until we were halted yet again by another rain storm. We retreated back across the ledge system and down to camp, but planned to return to this route. It looked like the chimneys and cracks provided a climbable route all the way to the summit.

The next four days were rainy, and I took the chance to do some scouting hikes in the area, scrambling up Peak C on July 11, and visiting the north cirque of Thunder Mountain, where two of the five documented ascents have been made. In the evening of July 12th the skies cleared again, and we returned to the ledge system. This time we brought bivy gear, and slept for a few hours on a nice wide area midway across the face.

The next morning we climbed past our previous high point, past some wet cracks requiring aid. Dave led for seven pitches above the ledges, to within a rope-length of the ridge crest on a right-diagonaling ramp, when the rock suddenly turned chossy and unprotectable. A system of overhanging cracks directly above us looked like it continued to the summit, but it looked quite difficult with water oozing through from an unseen snow bank higher up. My GPS showed us to be around 2600m, meaning we were probably only a couple rope lengths from the summit, but this was as high as we could safely get in those conditions.

We retreated again, reusing some rappel stations from previous retreats. It was late in the day by the time we reached our bivy site on the ledges, so we spent another night on the face before returning to camp the next morning in pouring rain.

As usual, the rain lasted the next few days. I took this opportunity to scout a potential route up Gully 1, and to scramble to the summit of Peak D via the southeast rock and snow couloir.

Thunder Mountain allowed us one final weather window for a summit attempt. Based on our pictures, it looked like the ledge system actually cut across the mountain all the way to the top of Gully 2, site of the “slender needle” Buckingham and Surdam skirted on their first ascent climb. If we could reach the slender needle, perhaps we could repeat their ascent route of the north ridge and reach the summit.

Dave and I embarked a final time up the ledge system as the last rain squalls pulled away on the evening of July 16th. Climbing through the night, we passed the large snowfield from our previous attempt and made it two more rope lengths along the ledge by 5am. As we rounded an arête in the middle of the face, however, a large section of the ledge in front of us was missing. It looked like it had fallen off the mountain, leaving just a blank face. Dave tried to scout above and below, but any passage would require some difficult and time-consuming climbing. We had assumed this ledge section would be easy and fast like the rest of the ledge system, and indeed our ascent plan depended on this to beat the next wave of rain predicted that afternoon. We reluctantly retreated again, reaching camp with a few hours to spare before the weather turned bad again.

We now had only two days left allotted for the southwest face, and with both days predicted to be rainy we began preparing for the next phase of the expedition. In between packing up and reorganizing gear, I managed to scramble up Peak E and Peak F on July 18. A brief window of clear skies on July 19 let us all climb several rock spires between Peak D and Thunder Mountain. A small cairn atop one spire led us to believe it was one of the “grotesque spires” climbed by Embick et al (AAJ 1976).

Our plan was to rendezvous with another climbing party on July 20th on the east face of Thunder Mountain, to attempt the more standard climbing route pioneered by Bennett et al (AAJ 1997). However, four days of solid rain prevented the helicopter from bringing the other party in, and the rendezvous plan was aborted. Over many hours of card games in camp, and satellite texting with other members of the climbing party at Rabbit Kettle Lake, we decided on a new plan.

On July 23th the weather cleared enough for a helicopter to pick up Dave and Susan and transport them to the Cirque of the Unclimbables. They would go on to climb the Lotus Flower Tower. I decided to hike out solo to Hole In The Wall Lake, and from there take a float plane to Rabbit Kettle Lake and paddle out the Nahanni River with part of the other climbing team.

I loaded my pack with 10 days of food, overnight and glacier gear, and set off following in the footsteps of Buckingham and Surdam. I dropped briefly into the trees while rounding Gargoyle Ridge, then passed by a deep shale canyon and back above treeline. I had no particular plan beyond roughly following Buckingham’s route to Hole In The Wall Valley, and scrambling up interesting peaks I passed on the way.

Peak G caught my eye after I crossed a river near one of Buckingham’s camps, so I dropped my heavy pack and scrambled up the steep, loose northwest ridge to the summit. I descended down the north scree slopes as it started raining, and found shelter under an overhanging boulder to cook some dinner. When the rain let up I decided to explore the valley just south of Gargoyle Ridge, and ended up scrambling higher and higher until I crossed a small glacier and reached the ridge crest between Peak 31 and Eurydice. Peak 31 looked too technical to solo, but Eurydice seemed possible. I made to within about 50 ft of the summit of Eurydice before turning back at a section of wet lichen-covered steep rock. The lichen in the Ragged Range are tricky beasts – when dry [a rare occurrence] they’ve been sharp enough to literally slice a hole in my pants, but when wet [the usual case] they’re extremely slippery.

I camped beneath the Gargoyle ridge that night, and the next day left camp with a daypack to explore some more peaks. I followed a faint caribou trail through the scree around the base of Peak G, and up the north ridge to the summit of Peak H. Here I was enveloped in clouds and it started to snow. Wanting to climb more peaks, I waited for a brief clearing and spied a doable route up the glacier between peaks I and J. I descended to the edge of the glacier, waited under a rock overhang for an hour for the rain to let up, then donned crampons and got on the glacier.

By now the clouds had lifted and visibility was pretty good. I reached the rocky col between Peak I and Peak J, and scrambled along the knife-edge ridge north to the small summit block of Peak I. After retracing my steps I dropped back onto the glacier and climbed snow slopes to near the summit of Peak J. The final 100 ft were another knife-edge rock ridge, with stunning views through gaps in the fog of caribou in a valley below, and jagged peaks in the distance to the east.

I returned to my previous camp that night, accompanied by the sounds of chirping ground squirrels and white marmots as I cooked dinner. The next morning, July 25th, I set out with all my gear for the pass between Peak J and Peak 45, and dropped down to the edge of a pristine alpine lake. I set up camp next to a large overhanging boulder, anticipating the usual rain that tended to interrupt my cooking every night. I briefly studied peaks 45 and 46 from camp, but they appeared too technical for me to climb solo. Several mountains due west looked appealing though. I packed my daypack with glacier gear and set off across the sprawling unnamed glacier to the east of peaks K and L. The glacier only had a few small crevasses, all exposed and visible this time of the summer, so solo travel was relatively safe.

View west from the pass between peaks I and J. Peak letters and numbers refer to map.

View west from the pass between peaks I and J. Peak letters and numbers refer to map.

At the head of the glacier I crossed a small moat, then scrambled a talus slope to the summit of Peak K. I saw far down to the west the Flat River meandering through a lush valley, with more imposing mountains on the opposite side. Strangely, I observed a small rain squall to my left marching up the Flat River valley, and a larger rain squall to my right marching the opposite direction down the valley. Eventually the two squalls collided, and both moved together as one large mass back down the valley. Luckily, neither squall approached my position.

I soon dropped down the south ridge of Peak K, crossed briefly back onto the glacier, and then scrambled up the north ridge to the summit of Peak L. By now a new rain squall had finally caught up to me, and I started feeling hail hitting my helmet. This was slightly alarming because I knew thunderstorms often produce hail, so I quickly scurried down the east scree slope and back onto the glacier. I returned back to my small camp, cooked a delicious meal of ramen noodles, and finished the day with a quick swim in the alpine lake.

The next morning, July 26th I rose early at 4am in order to get a final climb in before some anticipated afternoon weather. With my daypack I descended to another lake just below mine, and traversed to a series of small granite spires on the east spur of Peak M. I climbed three of these spires before continuing scrambling up the spur to meet the southeast ridge of Peak M. A short 4th class ridge traverse led to the narrow summit blocks, with excellent views of the upper reaches of Thunder Mountain to the northeast.

I returned to camp by noon, and packed up to continue my journey. By now my pack was finally feeling a little bit lighter, having gone through four days of food. I descended east to below the lakes, roughly following Buckingham’s route, but instead of dropping into the trees I stayed just at the edge of treeline, and turned left into a remote valley at the base of peaks H and J. The weather rapidly deteriorated as I reached the head of this valley, with snow visibly falling on the upper mountains, rain pounding the valley, and loud claps of thunder sounding dangerously close. By this point in my journey, at any given moment I was keeping track of the closest overhanging boulders, and had gotten pretty good at keeping dry. This valley was no exception, with excellent shelter options.

I spent a relaxing night in the valley, and the next morning retraced my steps to the valley inlet, then continued east hugging the treeline. I cut up the next valley left, diverging from Buckingham’s route and finding a pleasant camp at the edge of a dried up tarn. I briefly considered climbing one of the peaks next to camp, but decided instead to take a half-rest day and enjoy the scenery.

On July 28th I crossed the talus pass above my camp to the east and dropped to the next valley at the headwaters of Nightwind creek. I descended into the valley following fleeting goat trails, before turning east toward Peak 8. In this valley a herd of seven caribou bolted away when I rounded a corner, then two young ones returned back to me, curious like they’d never seen a person before. I scrambled up and over a tricky rock pass at the head of this valley, and made camp above Beaver Lake. On July 29th, after a bit of bushwhacking along the lake edge and following some well-established moose trails, I at last met up with my other climbing partners Len and Ron at Hole In The Wall Lake.

Over the next two weeks we flew by float plane to Rabbit Kettle Lake, then paddled down the Nahanni River back to civilization at Fort Simpson.

Summary of Statistics

Area: Southern Logan Mountains, Ragged Range, Northwest Territories, Canada

Ascents: All first ascents except noted. Peak names refer to map in this article.

A – east slope, June 28, 2015 (Custer, Gilbertson)
B – southeast ridge, June 28, 2015 (Custer, Gilbertson)
Peak 33 – second ascent, new route on southwest gully and north ridge (5.8, 8 roped pitches), July 1, 2015 (Custer, Ruff, Gilbertson)
C – northeast ridge, July 11, 2015 (Gilbertson)
Thunder Mountain/Nirvana (attempt) – new rock and snow route to 2600m on southwest face (5.9 C1, 16 roped pitches), July 13, 2015 (Custer, Ruff, Gilbertson)
D – southeast couloir, July 15, 2015 (Gilbertson)
E – north ridge, July 18, 2015 (Gilbertson)
F – north ridge, July 18, 2015 (Gilbertson)
Grotesque Spires – three 1-pitch spires on the ridge between D and Nirvana (lower 5th class), July 19, 2015 (Custer, Ruff, Gilbertson)
G – northwest ridge, July 23, 2015 (Gilbertson)
H – west ridge, July 24, 2015 (Gilbertson)
I – northeast glacier and southeast ridge, July 24, 2015 (Gilbertson)
J – north glacier and north ridge, July 24, 2015 (Gilbertson)
K – east glacier and north ridge, July 25, 2015 (Gilbertson)
L – east glacier and north ridge, July 25, 2015 (Gilbertson)
Granite Spires – three 4th class spires on ridge southeast of Peak M, July 26, 2015 (Gilbertson)
M – south ridge, July 26, 2015 (Gilbertson)

Personnel: Dave Custer, Eric Gilbertson, Susan Ruff