Thunder Mountain (Mt Nirvana) Overland Expedition 2016
Human-Powered Trip Without Air Support
Eric Gilbertson and Len Vanderstar
Assisted by Luke Weyman and Ron Vanderstar
June 10-July 5, 2016
June 10 – Eric departs Seattle on Greyhound bus
June 11 – Greyhound bus to Smithers
June 12 – Drive to Simpson Lake, Yukon
June 13 – Drive to Tungsten, NWT, start paddling from near Divide Lake
June 14 – Paddle
June 15 – Paddle to takeout, bushwhack up unnamed valley
June 16 – Bushwhack past valley of chaos, camp in the woods
June 17 – Hike through third pass, camp in valley below
June 18 – Hike to East Face base camp
June 19 – Climb to base of upper snowfield, retreat after avalanches
June 20 – Start 12:45am when snow firm, climb to summit ridge
June 21 – 7:00am Eric and Len reach summit, rappel down, wait for night for snow to stabilize. Ron and Luke depart
June 22 – Eric and Len arrive in camp at 5am, rest day
June 23 – Eric scouts escape couloir to North Cirque
June 24 – Eric climbs Peak 1941 south of camp
June 25 – Eric and Len climb couloir to North Cirque, camp at nearby lake
June 26 – Hike to base camp at SW face of Nirvana/Thunder Mtn
June 27 – Hike west, climb Peak 46 (first ascent), camp near glacier at base
June 28 – Cross pass near Mt Wollaga, drop down to Flat River Valley
June 29 – Bushwhack along Flat River. 13 hrs to progress 5 miles
June 30 – Bushwhack along Flat River, reach hunters cabin for night
July 1 – Hike along ATV trail to Tungsten, reach truck, drive 8 hours to Liard Hot Springs
July 2 – Drive 7hrs to Blackstone Landing, pick up Ron and Luke, drive back to Liard Hot Springs
July 3 – Drive 15 hrs to Smithers, BC
July 4 – Eric departs Smithers on Greyhound bus
July 5 – Eric arrives in Seattle 27 hours later
“Watch out!” I yelled, curling up in a ball under the rock face behind me. I had just heard a low rumble that meant something was letting loose right above us. Len ducked under the rock just as a wave of sliding snow blasted over the rock protecting us, splashed the cliff below, and fell into the bergschrund at the base of the cliff.
We were both fine, other than a small bit of snow that managed to splash us. But Len’s gloves that had been laying on the rock were long gone.
“The mountain gives and the mountain takes,” I said. “The mountain gave us that booty gear down below, but I guess it took your gloves in return.”
The gloves weren’t our biggest concern, though. The problem was that we needed to get past the snowfield above us to reach solid rock, but small wet avalanches had been ripping down for the past few hours in the heat of the sun. If we tried to climb that snow, an avalanche could easily knock us off our feet and back over the cliff below. But we didn’t want to retreat – the weather was so nice and we might lose our summit window in that area where sunny days are rare.
We were trying to get up the East Face of Thunder Mountain (Mt Nirvana), the highest mountain in the Northwest Territories, Canada. (The name is in the process of officially being recognized by the Deh Cho first nation name of Thunder Mountain/Nahteni Idih, instead of Nirvana). We had both failed on previous expeditions to the area to reach the summit: I had attempted to climb the southwest face in 2015 and my group turned back a rope-length from the summit ridge when we encountered unprotectable rotten rock, and Len had turned back in 2013 and 2015 from the East Face due to bad weather. We hoped this year would be better.
Our strategy this time was to give ourselves a summit window of 10 days to hold out for good weather, and to attempt the East Face, which we knew had been successfully climbed several times before. We would go in June (when I was available) and save money by approaching and exiting the mountain under human power instead of using expensive helicopters or airplanes.
Thunder Mountain/Nirvana had only six documented ascents (1965, 1975, 1996, 2013, and 2013), all using air support, so there was a bit of uncertainty how difficult it would be to get all our gear in and out by human power. Our plan was to drive to the end of the Nahanni Range road at the Cantung mine in NWT, paddle down the Flat River to a broad valley southwest of Thunder Mountain, then hike our gear in from there. We knew there existed a feasible pass through the mountains here to the East Face base camp because Len had hiked through the area in 2013 (approaching the mountain from a float plane landing at Hole in the Wall Lake).
Ron and Luke would help us carry gear in, then return to the boats and continue paddling down the Flat River to the next road crossing at Blackstone Landing. Len and I would paddle Packrafts, which could be rolled up and easily transported down river with Ron and Luke. For the hike out we planned to hike all our climbing gear and remaining food west from Thunder Mountain to a pass discovered by Buckingham in 1965 that gave access to the Flat River. We would then either bushwhack a few days back to the truck at Tungsten, or take a high glacier traverse back if the weather permitted.
We knew of three parties that had ascended the East Face, and gathered information from each of them about the route. Len talked to John Furneaux on the phone about his July 2013 ascent, I talked to Brian Haslam about his August 2013 ascent, and we photocopied pages from Jack Bennett’s book about his 1996 ascent. All the cards were in place for a successful expedition, we just needed the weather window to make it happen.
On Friday June 10, after driving around Seattle frantically to pick up a last-minute poster-size laminated topo map of the Ragged Range I had made, I submitted the final grades for my classes at 6:30pm, and was free for the summer and ready for the expedition. Katie dropped me off at the Greyhound bus station at 8:30pm and I was soon headed north. The rest of the team was based out of Smithers, British Columbia, which was conveniently serviced by the bus. I could have flown there and back, but with two big bags to check (climbing and paddling gear plus 3 weeks of food), and an uncertain return schedule (depending on weather on the mountain), it was a lot cheaper to bite the bullet and take the 29hr bus ride.
After the usual inconveniences of Greyhound, including a 5 hour night layover in Vancouver where the station was closed and I had to wait outside in the rain, I arrived in Smithers at 3am Sunday morning, just as the first hints of dawn were showing. Len drove me to his house for a few hours of sleep before the team rendezvoused at 7am to start heading farther north.
We piled all our gear into Len’s truck and Ron’s jeep and started driving up the Cassiar highway. The towns got farther and farther apart until we were mostly driving through wilderness. We stopped briefly for gas at Dease Lake, then pushed all the way to Watson Lake in the Yukon. This was the last gas station on our journey, so we stopped here to top off, including
filling a few extra fuel tanks (our put-in near Tungsten was far enough away that one tank of gas wouldn’t quite be sufficient). We dropped off Ron’s jeep at a friend’s house in Watson Lake to watch over it for the next 3 weeks, then crammed all the gear and riders into the truck. From there we pushed on another hour or so up the Campbell highway, camping at Simpson Lake for the night.
We left camp early, soon reaching the Nahanni Range Road. A visitor center person in Whitehorse had once told me to stay away from this road since it’s “just a rough atv track” but it’s actually in great shape. The road exists to service the Cantung tungsten mine just across the border in NWT, and even though the mine is currently just in maintenance state, they still keep good care of the road to be ready for the mine to reopen.
Four hours later we crossed the border into NWT and soon reached the locked gate of the Cantung mine. We had hoped to put in at the mine, but with nobody around and no luck contacting anyone there in advance we turned around and looked for the nearest put-in. It turned out there was a nice lake about 3km back up the road where we could park the truck and easily access the water.
It was around 1pm by then, and we soon had all our gear sorted and the boats packed up, just as it started to rain. Ron had a sleek yellow hardshell kayak, while Luke was paddling a big inflatable 2-man duckie. This was the cargo ship of the trip, and we loaded it down heavily with bulky things like ice axes, climbing gear, and a big blue food barrel. Len and I each used packrafts, and loaded as much gear as possible into the cargo zips, leaving our packs and remaining gear to be strapped on the front.
Len and I had opted to leave behind our spray skirts and life jackets, a decision we would later regret, in order to save space for Ron and Luke when paddling all our gear out. I had taken a picture of the Flat River from a helicopter in 2015 and it looked like it meandered a lot with very few rapids. We assumed the paddle would be mostly a lazy float based on that picture, and why else would the river have a name like the Flat River? Unfortunately that picture didn’t quite capture the more exciting stretches of the river we would soon encounter.
By 3pm we pushed off, with Ron leading the way as the scout for rapids and log jams, and the rest of us following behind in single file. The river started out very narrow, weaving through the trees and eventually passing by the Tungsten mine. We passed a group of 3 guys doing some sort of drilling near the edge of the water (they looked pretty surprised to see us), and that would be our last human contact for the next few weeks.
The river started out tame, but within an hour we encountered a long stretch of class 3/4 rapids that needed to be scouted. I decided to pack up and portage rather than risk being swamped without a spray skirt. Ron and Luke ran the rapids, and Len ran them without gear, then hiked back to get his gear.
Shortly after this section we reached another tricky portage section, and this slowed us down considerably. The rain hadn’t stopped since we’d been paddling, so by 6pm, all drenched, we decided to stop for the night at a nice gravel bar. The Flat River wasn’t actually so flat, and we hoped to make better progress the next day.
Luckily Len had taken a small tarp, which we strung up to cook under during the rain. The sun never really set that night we were so far north, and I went to sleep next to the river’s edge to the peaceful sound of the rapids mixed with mosquito buzz.
The rain let up overnight and we soon put in the water under sunny skies. But within ten minutes we reached another, even nastier long stretch of class 4 rapids. Even Ron portaged this one, which involved a long trek through the brush along the river. By this stage, we would have probably covered more distance just bushwhacking from the truck instead of paddling with all the portaging.
The river was more forgiving later in the day, with just one final portage required. We actually saw half of a canoe sticking out of a log jam next to the rapids! That was certainly a good motivator to be cautious.
By the afternoon we rounded a corner and saw a small building on the river’s edge. This was very surprising. My map did show a road going here, but I assumed it was an old mine road that had been abandoned. Apparently it had not been abandoned. We pulled over to check it out.
On the front porch a porcupine was trying to get in the door past a big wooden board with nails sticking out, and he waddled away once he saw us. The door was unlocked, and inside we saw what looked like a hunter’s cabin, with big racks of moose antlers mounted
on the wall. There was a guest sign-in book on a table, and we signed ourselves in. It looked like about one or two parties used the cabin every year, mostly for moose hunts in the fall. Len and I kept this in mind for the hike out.
Outside we spotted an ATV trail leading back towards Tungsten, and we knew if we could make it to that cabin we would be done with the bushwhacking. I carefully marked the cabin on my GPS before starting back down the river.
Downriver we ran a series of class 2 rapids with no problem, then started the slow meandering section. All was smooth until we rounded a corner and saw what looked like a flooded area, with dead trees standing in the water. Ron and Len were instinctively cautious, and indeed a landslide up ahead had created a sort of dam with a tough stretch of class 4 rapids.
We all portaged, with Ron putting in high enough to run most of the rapids. The rest of the river was mellow, and we stopped at a gravel bar around 7pm for the night. I noted that we were camped just below peak 48 on the Buckingham map of the Ragged Range.
Our final day on the Flat River was finally the section I’d seen from the helicopter that was actually flat. The river meandered through the forest and all the rapids were runnable, with nothing higher than class 2. We stopped in one back channel where Len made a moose calf call and coaxed a female moose out of the swamp. The moose was pretty surprised to see our crew instead of a moose calf, and quickly bolted back into the swamp.
By early afternoon we reached the takeout location I had marked on my GPS, at the inlet of a stream heading down from a broad S-shaped valley southwest of Thunder Mountain. We dragged the boats into
the woods at a gravel bar just downstream of the inlet, packed up the gear we didn’t need, hung the duckie in the tree, and saddled up for the next leg of our journey, the bushwhack.
Our packs were all very heavy with the climbing gear and food, and it was a big help to have Ron and Luke help ferry the gear in. Since they weren’t climbing and were only going in for a few days, they could help carry the climbing gear and distribute the load.
Ron led the way, as we initially followed moose trails along the streambed. We soon got cliffed out and started heading up into the woods through an old burn zone. Old burn zones are tough bushwhacking because of all the fallen trees, and no real game trails to help. We managed to push on for a few hours and set up camp on the opposite side of a big canyon, crossing easily just above a waterfall at its head.
We awoke to frost on our tents in the morning, and luckily the cold was enough to slow down the
mosquitoes temporarily. We continued up the slope, alternating through good forests with moose trails and tough burns, until we popped out at the edge of treeline on a large shoulder. Here we picked up an excellent moose/caribou trail through the buckbrush, and got our first good glimpse of the granite peaks of the Ragged Range.
I recognized the lake-filled alpine valley to the left where I’d hiked out solo last summer, climbing many of the surrounding peaks. We also saw third pass, our planned route through the impenetrable range of mountains. In the distance I glimpsed what I thought was the Ziggurat, a mountain just south of Thunder Mountain along Gargoyle Ridge. We couldn’t quite see Thunder Mountain yet, but were getting closer.
The trails continued through the buck brush for a good ways, until we started getting worried they would take us up the valley of chaos to our right (named by Buckingham in 1965). We decided to drop back down to the main drainage and take our chance bushwhacking through the forest instead of the buckbrush. (In hindsight, as Ron and Luke discovered on their hike out, the moose trails actually continue all the way through the buckbrush to the alpine meadows near third pass, potentially saving future travelers a lot of time!).
We cut through the dense brush back down into the
trees, crossed a tricky tributary on a wet sketchy log, then hiked on mossbeds through pleasant, open forest for a few more hours. By 6pm we were tired out and stopped for the night at a small stream crossing.
From camp the next morning a short bushwhack brought us back up to the edge of treeline in the alpine meadow below third pass. We followed caribou trails through the meadows, and actually saw a group of 4 caribou grazing on the opposite side of the valley. Len brought us to the spot where he had camped three years
previously, and we snacked at a small waterfall overlooking the valley.
From a distance the pass we were aiming for looked impossibly steep, but as we approached it we realized it was actually quite manageable. The snow had mostly melted out, and we carefully picked our way up through the scree and talus to the top of the slope.
Cresting the pass we were greeted by a classic Ragged Range scene of impossibly steep granite spires protruding from glaciers. It looked like Yosemite, but only a handful of climbers had ever seen it. Almost everything we saw was unclimbed, and a climber could spend a lifetime in there and not get bored.
The north side of the pass was covered in snow, but Len assured us that when he hiked through in late July 2013 the snow was all melted down to bare ice, and there were no major crevasses. A set of wolverine tracks led down the snowfield, and we would discover that every high pass similarly had a set of wolverine tracks passing through.
Len led the way down the snowfield and the rest of the crew followed. Luke decided to be adventurous, inflating his sleeping pad and sledding down as far as possible.
We soon reached a small alpine lake, and here took our first baths of the trip. It might not actually make you clean to jump in water for just a few seconds without soap, but I like to think that the coldness in the
water acts as a cleansing agent, and the colder it is, that faster you get clean.
Just below the lake we found a pleasant alpine meadow to set up camp, above treeline and away from the hordes of mosquitoes that had welcomed us lower down near the Flat. We were treated here to our first views of Thunder Mountain, barely peeking out around the corner. I had been looking at pictures of the East Face for months before the trip, and it was thrilling to finally see it in person. Just like the pictures, it was an intimidating rock pyramid, with the east and south ridges spreading aside, and the clean East Face staring straight at us. The rock looked mostly snow-free, unlike when Len helicoptered out in 2013 at the end of a 5-day storm when the whole face looked like a giant ice/snow climb. If the weather would hold, I thought, we could get up that face.
We left camp early at 5am, dropping down into the mossy talus and buckbrush of the valley below, then climbing back up heather slopes to the east face valley. Within a few hours we had reached our base camp, a pleasant alpine meadow just below the tarn at the base of the east face.
A small stream trickled through camp, with the odd caribou track along its bank. The flat grass along the shore looked like excellent camping, but Len warned us that the area gets flooded in heavy rain, as he had encountered in 2013. Accordingly, we all pitched our tents slightly uphill.
My brother Matthew was satellite texting me on my Delorme Inreach weather forecasts from mountain-forecast.com (which, surprisingly, has forecasts for Thunder Mtn/Nirvana!). The outlook was for rain that night, followed by sunny warm days the next three days. The summit high was 41F,
which is extremely warm! It looked like the perfect weather window we’d been hoping for. The past year, I had spent 3 weeks at the SW face and rarely got more than a 24hr weather window per week, and Len had spent a week at the base of the East face with no weather window long enough to climb. We were definitely lucky this time.
The weather was sunny, but we trusted the forecast and made a plan to rest up that day and start up the next morning. The three previous ascents of the East face had taken between 18 hours and 41 hours, and Len wanted to break up the climb into two more manageable days, with a bivouc in between. Our plan
then was to hike up to the top of the glacier the next day (June 19), camp at the base of the cliff, then start the climb early June 20.
We spent the rest of the day setting up camp, sorting gear, and drying out our feet.
At 5:30am we got out of our tents and the weather was clear and sunny just like the previous day. It actually didn’t appear to have even rained the previous night.
Ron came over with an idea – what if he and Luke carried all our gear up to the base of the climb and we hiked up with nothing? Then perhaps we would be rested enough to start the climb today. This had the advantage of using the good weather window we currently had, in case the weather forecast deteriorated the next day.
“I’m game,” I said. “It could easily start raining tomorrow, the weather here is so hard to predict. I would feel pretty bad if we spent our only sunny day sitting in a tent at the base of the climb. Plus, we know we’ll be doing at least a 24hr push no matter what so it doesn’t really matter what time of day we start.”
Len thought about it for minute, then agreed to go for the mountain in one push. It would help a lot not to have to carry weight to the base of the climb.
We quickly packed up, gave Ron and Luke our gear, and started hiking toward the glacier. We climbed up a scree slope to the lake above camp, skirted the lake on the right, then headed to some smooth granite slabs at the base of the glacier. We traversed a small scree ledge to the middle of the slab, then scrambled up the
steep slab to another scree field. We followed the scree field to the base of the Minotaur, then cramponed and roped up for the glacier.
I led the way, and the snow was surprisingly soft. A few times I sunk in up to my thigh and quickly changed course, suspecting a snow bridge. When we got to the base of the bergschrund Len and I took all the gear back, and Ron and Luke headed back down. They followed exactly in our tracks, so even though they were unroped on the glacier it was reasonably safe, since nobody fell through a crevasse on the way up.
I had heard conflicting reports about this bergschrund. Jack Bennett reported it to be an easy crossing in July 1996, but Bryan Haslam reported significant difficulties in August 2013. Luckily for us there was a small bridge on the right side of the bergschrund, but the rest of the opening spanned most of the width of the glacier. Later in the season this may be a tricky crossing indeed, and the only solution may be to start the rock climbing early, down to the right of the schrund.
The route ahead of us consisted of a short rock band, followed by a steep upper snow slope, then more low-angle rock and snow mixture before the crux of the rock climbing began. I knew the route generally aimed for the left edge of a ledge high up on the cliff, and it was exciting to finally see it up close and try to piece together how to get up to that ledge. But first we had to get off the snow.
It was 9:30am by now, and it had taken us about 2 hours to get to the bergschrund. We roped up, I took all the rock gear, and headed off on belay. I quickly passed the bergschrund and climbed onto the rock. Curiously, there was an old rusty pin on the lowest section of rock, and I suspect this was from Pete Ford’s trip to the area in 1972 (CAJ 1972). I scavenged a caribeaner from the pin (likely left by a party in 2013), and continued to the end of the ropes, belaying at a slung rock horn.
Len followed easily, and I then switched out of my crampons to lead another pitch of low 5th class rock up to the base of the upper snowfield. Here I chose a sight sheltered behind a large boulder from anything that might fall from above, and belayed Len up.
It was 10:30am now, and the sun had fully hit the upper snow slope. As we were finishing the pitch we heard several wet avalanches let loose from the far end of the slope, and started to get concerned.
Up above I could clearly see the higher rock band at the base of the cliff, but it looked like at least 1.5 rope lengths away, meaning if we climbed it both Len and I would have to be on the slope at the same time with no protection in between. And the slope was very steep – at least 50 degrees. Unfortunately the snow was so slushy now that an ice axe would be useless in self arresting if one started to fall. It was dubious if it would even help much in self belay mode plunging into the slush.
All of this wouldn’t be too troubling if there were a clean runout, but if a climber fell on that slope, or were knocked over by an avalanche, he would first get sent tumbling over the middle rock band, and then land in the bergschrund below.
We both agreed it would be unwise to proceed right then. That was such a frustrating situation! Those conditions were perfect for rock climbing, with the hot, sunny, windless weather, and the rocks were just 1.5 rope lengths away! However, I knew from the previous day that the slope was in the shade starting at 2:30pm, so perhaps the snow would firm up by then? We were reluctant to turn around since we had already gotten so far, so decided to wait it out.
Every 20 minutes or so a new slide would rip off the mountain, and eventually one slid right on top of us. I had chosen the belay site carefully, though, and the only casualty was Len’s pair or climbing gloves. He had an extra pair, though, so it wasn’t a big deal.
We passed the time eating snacks, talking about the route, and taking in the scenery. It was actually a pretty amazing place to sit for a few hours, and I didn’t even need to put on my poofy jacket, it was so warm.
A second slide went over us, but this time we were prepared and didn’t lose anything. I kept counting out the time every 20 minutes, and eventually 2:30pm rolled around.
“We haven’t heard a slide in the last hour. Maybe it’s over?” I said, looking up at the slope.
“The snow’s in the shade now, but let’s give it a little bit longer to firm up,” Len replied.
Within 5 minutes I heard another low rumble.
“Watch out!” I yelled, and we both ducked behind the rock as a third slide passed over us.
It was clear that it was probably going to take a while before the snow firmed up enough to climb on safely.
“Why don’t we just go back to camp and come back up tonight when we know the snow will be the coldest?” Len asked. “Then we can be climbing the rock in the sun when it’s warm. If we wait this out, it’ll be a few more hours, and we’ll be starting our climb in the dark.”
I hesitated a bit, still reluctant to back off fearing that this might be our only weather window, but in the end agreed.
We rapped off a solid rock horn and two cams – I left the cams as extra incentive to come back. We then rapped a second time off another cam anchor back to below the bergschrund, and quietly walked back into camp, arriving at 6pm.
Ron and Luke were surprised and confused to see us back so soon, but understood the situation. We had taken all our gear back down with us, reluctant to let it get chewed on by mountain goats or marmots if we stashed it up there, and Ron and Luke volunteered again to help haul our gear up the next day.
Knowing that the sun first hit the upper snowfield at 5am, we decided we wanted to be climbing the snowfield at its coldest, between 3-4am, so working backwards that meant we would get up at midnight.
We quickly cooked some dinner and got in our tents at 8pm to try to squeeze in a few hours of sleep. Matthew’s forecast was still for good weather Monday and Tuesday, so we still had a chance.
As the only one with a watch in the group I got up with my alarm at midnight and quickly went around rousing everyone else. We were back hiking at 12:45am, this time picking a more optimal route through the scree and talus up to the glacier. Ron and Luke turned back before the glacier this time, wisely avoiding any crevasse risks and Len and I followed our tracks back up.
The snow was still slushy, but a bit firmer than the previous day down on the glacier. The darkest time of day was around 1:30am, but it was still twilight, and didn’t require headlamps.
We crossed the glacier, and I led back up the rocks, retrieving my cam anchors along the way until we were back at the base of the upper snowfield. Miraculously, Len found the pair of gloves he’d lost the previous day at our perch. By now it was 3:30am, and the snow was at its coldest. I tested the snowpack with my ice axe, and there was a firm icy crust on top, with softer snow about 8 inches down. These conditions were perfect for kicking steps, and there was no risk of any loose wet slides.
I led the way, taking Len’s ice axe to pound in as protection halfway up. I eventually reached the end of the rope, still in the snowfield, stomped out a platform, and belayed Len up off my ice axe.
Len passed and continued climbing all the way to the lower right edge of the upper rock band. He slung a boulder and belayed me up from there. As I passed on the right, the sun was just starting to hit the snow, and it was starting to get a bit softer. But we had passed the crux and now had protection in the upper rock band, so were safe.
I stayed in the snow as high as possible before cutting left into the rock band and building an anchor to belay Len up. At this point we were nearing the top of the low-angle rock-snow mixture, and I took off my crampons. I led up one more short pitch to the very top of the snow, and belayed Len up to a nice wide rocky ledge. I actually
recognized this spot from a picture in Jack Bennett’s book where he said his group started the real rock climbing. It was comforting to see a familiar place on this mountain, and to know the route would probably work from here.
By this point we were completely basking in the sun, and enjoying the warmth. I remembered in 2015 climbing on the SW face in the morning, and my hands were numb by the end of the first pitch! Today I didn’t even need to wear all my layers, and the only concern was sunburn, not cold.
For the first real pitch of climbing I changed to rock shoes and led up a left-trending flake system to a horizontal ledge, then traversed 20 feet to the right to a wide belay stance below an overhanging flake system.
I knew I had to generally aim for the left edge of a wide ledge high up on the route, but from there it was up to me to figure out the way. I wanted to keep the route as easy as possible since Len was carrying the pack full of our hiking boots and crampons, and it looked kind of heavy and awkward to do any tricky moves with.
From the belay ledge I reached a narrow ledge 10 feet above the belay and traversed left 30’ to its end. Here I encountered a seemingly blank face, with a good flake 15’ to the left. I put in good protection before the face, then carefully and delicately traversed on small features on the face.
“That’s how you do it!” I yelled down to Len once I’d put solid gear in the next crack. I then climbed up a short slippery slab to an awkward ledge angling up and to the left and belayed in a right-facing corner. Unfortunately this was a leaning belay and not very comfortable, but I had run out of gear.
The next pitch was short, climbing up the corner to a wide belay ledge at the bottom of a wide gully with water running out. We took a break here to eat some food and slurp some water off the cliff. (We had each only brought one liter, and were relying on running water on the cliff from snowmelt to drink.)
Above and left I saw a gulley with a nice crack leading all the way to the upper ledge, but the crack looked like 5.8 or 5.9 and wet. Directly above, though, I noticed a rappel anchor in a left-facing corner, and aimed for that. I angled up and left on wet mossy ledges, then made an unprotected traverse right to the anchor on narrow
footholds. It looked like an anchor from one of the 2013 climbs with a nice cam and nut. I kept this in mind to aim for on the rappel.
From here (another leaning belay) I climbed straight up on loose flakes, then cut right to belay on a big ledge under a huge arete with a right facing corner. Surprisingly there was a small pile of rodent poop on the ledge, likely from a pika. I’m amazed what sort of terrain those critters can climb up.
The crack in the corner directly above the belay was a bit tricky, but at the top of the crack I traversed left to find another rappel anchor with an old piton in it. It appears that somebody at least 30 years ago made it at least this high, though there is no documentation (possibly another trip by Pete Ford in the ’70s?).
I traversed left 15’ from the piton to gain the big gully, then climbed straight up the gully. This was my favorite pitch of the climb, cruiser 5.6 climbing that was well protected. I slung a rock horn when I ran out of gear to belay Len up, and I could see the huge ledge just a short pitch above.
The last 50’ I led up an awkward 5.7 crack with good gear all the way to the ledge, though the terrain was a bit easier to the right (albeit without gear).
I had finally reached the large ledge system and breathed a big sigh of relief. The terrain was supposedly very easy from here. The summit was looking more and more feasible!
Unfortunately our ropes somehow got twisted up on this pitch, and we lost at least an hour untangling them. Len reached the ledge, and we both switched to boots and crampons. The ledge was completely full of snow, as expected for our early-season climb.
I led across with my ice axe, periodically putting in rock pro until I reached the end of the rope and slung a big rock horn. The next pitch was snow free, so I left the crampons with Len and led out on a 4th class ledge to the end of the rope. Here I saw another ledge system angling up and left to a large detached flake on the summit ridge.
I aimed for the flake, following a wide low-5th class ledge for several more pitches. I squeezed through the flake, then squirmed up a short awkward chimney and popped out on the summit ridge. I clipped a big piece of webbing around a boulder, backed it up with some cams, and sat down to belay Len.
It was midnight now and I was exhausted. It was all I could do to keep from dozing off, but I diligently
kept Len on belay. When he got to the chimney he found it was too awkward with the pack, so got out the ascenders to climb the rope.
It took a few tries to get the ascenders working properly, but eventually Len made it to the summit ridge. There was no turning back now. It looked like an almost trivial walk to the summit.
I took out my Delorme to text Ron and Luke that we were on the summit ridge, and wouldn’t be back til later that day. They had planned to hike out that morning, so we would definitely be back later than that.
The summit ridge was snowed over and possibly corniced, so we decided to belay it. I led out most of a rope length to a big rock outcrop and belayed Len up. One and a half more snow pitches led me to the narrowest section of the summit ridge – a 5ft wide rock knife edge with cliffs on both sides.
I was so used to exposure by now that I easily cruised through in my crampons and belayed Len over when I ran out of rope. Now we were just a short snow pitch from the summit. I kicked steps up the gently sloping
summit pyramid until there was no more mountain left. Well, I stopped just short of that point because I knew from below that there was a huge cornice hanging over the north face, and I didn’t want to knock that off with me on it.
So, while still on belay, I laid on my stomach and carefully reached out my hand to tag the highest point on the cornice, and quickly went back to a safer location. I had hoped to find the summit register, but the top was covered in 6 feet of snow, so that was out of the question.
I belayed Len up with my ice axe and we basked in the glory of the highest point in the Northwest Territories. It was 6:30am, June 21, and the low sun illuminated all the mountains around us, without a cloud in the sky. We could pick out the Cirque of the Unclimbables to the north, the slightly shorter Mt Savage to the east, and what appeared to be the Nahanni River valley in the distance. To the southwest we gazed over the snowy mountains that guarded our escape route to Tungsten. But that was days away, and nothing to worry about quite yet.
Len had completed his second to last summit of the
Canadian Provinces and Territories, and now just needed to climb Barbeau Peak in Nunavut. I had a bit farther to go on the Canadian summits, but this was still a big milestone.
We snapped some pictures, took some movies, and enjoyed the scenery for about an hour, then started heading down. (Click here to see a video tour of the summit).I had thought about taking a nap on the summit, but with the snow and cornices it was a bit too exposed to go off belay.
Len boot-axe belayed me down to the next rocks, and I belayed him down. We retraced our steps back along the summit ridge to the huge slung boulder and started planning our rappel.
“How about a quick power nap, eh?” Len asked. “We’ve been operating on just 4 hours of sleep over the past 48 hours, and we really want to be on our game rappelling down.”
“That’s an excellent idea,” I replied. I was exhausted, the weather was great, and we were in no hurry. Plus, if we were slow enough, we could hit the upper snowfield when it was in the shade and not avalanching.
I sat down on a ledge, leaned back, and was asleep within 30 seconds. I woke up a half hour later, probably from thirst, and quickly slurped up a handful of slushy snow.
“I’m pretty alert now. I think we should start heading down,” I said. Len agreed. Len had brought lots of webbing for the rappel, and we slung a bigger boulder to back up the existing webbing rappel.
I rapped down the face, and the rope just barely reached the ledge, but there was nowhere to build an anchor there. So I climbed back up 15’ and slung a big flake. We rappelled diagonally left from the flake about 30’ to the top of our gully, then slung a big boulder there to rap straight down the gully. From here we used the piton anchor down a full rope length, then I slung a horn with more red webbing.
Another rope length got us to an old 2-nut anchor, which I added a nut to, and a final rope length got us to a nice horn under an overhang. Pulling the ropes down had been easy thus far, but our luck ran out. No matter how hard we tried the ropes wouldn’t budge. I was mentally exhausted from leading every pitch and rappel, and was happy that Len volunteered to climb up the ropes and sort out the situation. He rigged up the ascenders, climbed up, undid a pesky twist in the rope that was causing the problem, then came back down. This time the ropes came through no problem, but we found ourselves in another dilemma.
The sun had set on the upper snow slope, but it was still very slushy and we didn’t quite trust it. We knew one rope length wouldn’t reach from all the way to the middle rock band, but it looked like if we could diagonally rappel we might reach an intermediate rock band and not have to downclimb the sketchy snow.
I rapped down to a boulder at the very edge of the upper rock band, then rapped down diagonally left through the snow. It was tough going through the slush. I had a tendancy to pendulum back directly under the rap anchor, but if I tried very hard kicking steps in the slush I could make some progress left.
Eventually I reached the rock outcrop, and found a good crack system on the bottom to make a 2-nut anchor. Interestingly, I found an old 2-nut anchor here with very worn black webbing (probably from the Bennett climb in 1996).
From here I rapped diagonally back right all the way to the middle rock band, and built another 2-nut anchor in a crack at the end of the rope. The cracks here required a bit of gardening to find, and I made good use of my nut tool and fingers to get good anchor locations. Unfortunately my hands would be hurting the next few days, but that wasn’t my concern at the moment.
In one more rap I built another 2-nut anchor, and was now out of nuts and webbing. We were, luckily, just above the bergschrund now and the final rap got us safely onto the glacier.
We carefully traveled back over the glacier, roped up, then down the scree to the granite slab. The slab was easy, but we were tired so I set up a final rap anchor hear, leaving my last piece of cordelette on the mountain.
By 5am I staggered into camp and plopped my butt on the grass. It had been 51 hours since we left camp, with only a 1hr nap on the summit ridge. Somehow we had stayed alert the whole time, and I think the 24 hr daylight definitely helped.
I crawled into my tent, with Len coming back shortly later.
I don’t remember anything until 2:30pm that afternoon, when I woke up extremely hot from the sun hitting the tent. I staggered outside to go to the bathroom, and decided to eat some food. Len was out airing his feet. He had climbed with a nasty blister the whole way, but never complained. It looked pretty bad, and he’d definitely need a few rest days before hiking out on it.
Ron and Luke had left the previous morning to paddle, trying to stay on schedule to meet us for the pickup when we hiked out.
I lounged around the rest of the day taking pictures, then cooked some dinner at 6pm and went back to sleep. It rained that night, heralding the end of the amazing summit window we had stumbled upon.
The next morning dawned rainy, and we planned to spend at least two more days in camp letting Len’s feet heal. I felt well rested, so decided to go on a scouting mission to plan our hike out. We had originally planned to follow the route of Pete Ford from 1972, through a gully between Medusa and Charon peaks, but I spied another intriguing gully to the north that might lead to the North Cirque of Thunder Mountain. After comparing my view of the gully to a picture taken by Jack Bennett from the North Cirque, Len and I concluded that the gully led to gentle snow slopes on the other side.
I knew from my rest-day hikes in 2015 that it was possible to get from the north cirque to the SW base camp, and from there to meet up with the exit pass near Mt Wollaga. So if we could just get up that gully, we would have an awesome hike in store for us seeing all sides of Thunder Mountain.
I spent a few hours scrambling high up into the gully just right of the Minotaur, and found no unsurmountable difficulties, just a few scrambly sections. I turned around near the top when it got snowy, but was confident we could reach the top. If it required roping up for a pitch or two, we were well-equipped to do that, having most of our mountain gear still.
Len was pleased to hear the news, and agreed on the route out.
The next day was rainy again, and that was fine because Len needed another day for his feet to heal
anyways. I decided on a short hike to the south of camp, scrambling up a few peaks beside a small tarn, including Peak 1941 just west of the tarn. After a bit of 4th class scrambling I found a small cairn on the top, then turned around. I started to climb another peak, then a torrential rain began and I sought shelter under a big overhanging boulder next to the lake.
I started back for the peak when the rain let up, but the rain started again soon, mixing with hail, and I quickly retreated to the boulder again. When the rain let up it was getting close to dinner time, so I headed back to
camp and cooked up my usual meal of cous cous.
June 25 dawned sunny, at we rose early, packing up and leaving camp by 5am. Our packs were huge, with a week+ of food and full climbing equipment and we moved slowly. I led the way up the gully, and we carefully scrambled up the rocks and snow to my previous high point. From here we put on crampons and felt it prudent to rope up, given the heavy packs and the sketchy terrain.
I led a ropelength of rock and snow, and then we simulclimbed the remaining two ropelengths to the ridgecrest. As I rounded a huge 10ft tall cornice and peered over the other side, I was delighted to see a gentle screes slope leading to an open easy snow slope. Our route worked!
To be safe we rapped down two ropelengths until the angle eased, then plunge stepped all the way down to the icy glacier. The view of the north face was amazing. I walked up as close as I dared on the melted out glacier and got tons of pictures. The north face actually looks like perhaps the easiest face to me, having seen all sides of the mountain. It looks like snow gullies lead to within a couple pitches of the summit. This is probably why the first two ascents of Thunder Mountain/Nirvana in 1965 and 1975 were from the north.
We descended down the glacier as a heavy rain set in, crossed a moraine, then climbed up left to a pleasant alpine lake. A few mountain goats scurried across the ledges above us, while a mother and kid ate grass in a meadow below.
We pitched our tents on a flat grassy meadow at the edge of the lake, venturing outside only briefly during a letup in the rain to cook dinner.
The next morning we traversed the south side of the lake, then climbed a snow slope (with more wolverine tracks!) up to the pass I had become familiar with from last summer. Rain loomed in the distance, and we got an excellent view of the route ahead of us.
I plunged stepped down the scree, then scurried down to the lake, just making it under an overhanging boulder on the north side when the next rain storm hit. The SW face of Thunder mountain loomed ominously above my small abode. Last year Dave, Susan and I had spent many days on that face trying unsuccessfully to find a way up, and I was very familiar with this view.
I also remembered that the first helicopter shuttle in had scared a few grizzly bears out of this valley, and it occurred to me that there might be one in there now. Sure enough, when I looked carefully across the lake there was a big brown mass trundling along the meadows. Another grizzly!
I watched the grizzly tromp around, digging up something in the dirt. Len came down the hill and rested near the lake, but the grizzly still didn’t notice us. We sat for about 20 minutes watching it, until finally he looked over, then turned around and sprinted up to a small hill. The wind must have changed direction and he caught our scent.
He then stood on his hind legs, paused, and then bolted around the lake heading straight for me! The valley was a dead end, and the only way out was back around the lake. I grabbed a hiking pole, stood up and tried to make myself large and visible. He
immediately changed course, running higher up the scree slope to avoid me, then got past me and continued down the valley.
That bear must have had a negative experience with humans before, because he was terrified of us!
We decided to camp there that evening to give Len’s feet a break, and get an early start the next day. I hiked around the lake, checking out our old base camp, then returned to my tent for the night.
We left camp at 5am, dropped down briefly into some buckbrush, then rounded the west end of gargoyle ridge and headed back up the valley. After climbing a steep scree slope we entered a gentle valley and hiked up to the edge of the glacier coming down from peaks 45 and 46 (referring to the Buckingham map, AAJ 1966).
It was only noon, and with plenty of time left in the day and a sunny forecast we decided to get a first ascent in. As far as I knew peak 46 had no documented ascents, and was one of the tallest mountains this side of Thunder Mountain, so we decided to go for it.
Len led the way up the glacier, making steps in the slushy snow. We passed more wolverine tracks, then climbed up to the east end of a ridge emanating from the peak. We followed the ridge, then climbed steeply up a snow slope to reach what we thought was the summit.
“I can see the summit from here,” Len said, “but you’re not going to like it.
I reached the small shoulder above the snow slope, and the summit was a knife-edge rock ridge, slightly higher than us, with tremendous exposure on both sides. We had a rope, though, so I decided I might as well give it a try.
Len put me on belay and I started out, weaving the rope around rock horns as protection. I traversed a snowy notch, then climbed up to the summit. It wasn’t actually as hard as it looked from below, but was still 30’ of low 5th class climbing and I was happy to have the rope.
I saw no evidence of other ascents, so am fairly certain we got the first ascent. Len was satisfied with his high point, and we soon retreated back down the glacier, reaching camp by 7pm.
We left camp the next morning following Buckingham’s exit route from 1965, up the glacier to the pass just south of Mt Wollaga. The snow was still slushy, but Len plowed a good trail and we were soon at the pass.
Buckingham’s route followed the ridge to Mt Wollaga then descended, but we decided the valley below us looked pretty benign, and would only add about 5km of bushwhacking to the route, so we descended from the pass.
A gentle snow slope led us down to a meadow with a nice little lake. A group of caribou were resting in a snow patch in the distance and didn’t seem to mind (or notice) our presence.
With a brief bit of sun overhead we took a quick dip in the lake and washed some clothes. We knew once we pushed below treeline the bugs would likely make us reluctant to take any swims.
Soon after we finished swimming a rainstorm came, forcing us to pack up and get down the valley. We followed pleasant meadows, then good moose trails all the way to near the bottom of the valley. We finally stopped for the night on a moose trail just after crossing the main stream. We knew the next few days could be tough bushwhacking, and made sure to get a good night’s sleep.
Len led the way through the bush, following the moose trail as far as possible until it disappeared in an old burn. The burn was tough going, crawling over and under all the deadfall. We hoped to stay high and find good moose trails, but a deep canyon forced us down until we reached the edge of the Flat River.
The walking, we found, tended to be easiest right on the shore of the river, until we inevitably hit a swampy backchannel and were forced up high.
By the end of the day 13 hours of bushwhacking gave us only 5 miles of progress towards Tungsten, and we were exhausted. We camped next to a small stream, in what I feel might be the heart of mosquito country in the Northwest Territories. I have never seen bugs that bad before.
In the morning, somehow the mosquitoes had accumulated so much in between my tent fly and tent that they looked like a beehive. They were literally 3 or 4 deep in some places. I actually set a new personal best of 300 mosquitoes in one slap, though some hardcore Canadians may contest this figure because it was slapped on my tent and not on my leg.
We pushed on through the bush, trying to stay on the river edge, but being forced up high to get around beaver swamps. At some points we followed good moose trails, but they inevitably vanished.
I had an old mining road marked on my GPS, and when we were within 500m of it I noticed what looked like ATV tracks on the river edge. We were close!
We pushed up into the woods, following an odd piece of orange flagging on a tree, before eventually stumbling upon an ATV trail. We knew at that point that the bushwhacking was over, and we were home free.
The hunters cabin was only 2 km away, and we made that our goal for the night. The ATV trail was in good shape, and we followed it eagerly until my GPS said we
were within just 50m of the cabin. At that point rain looked imminent, and as we rounded the last corner the trail was swamped with water. What was probably normally a small stream across the trail was now a raging torrent from the day’s earlier rain. We couldn’t stop now that we were so close, though.
Len powered through the current, which reached his thighs, and I followed behind. Our boots got soaked, but we had been used to that.
Just past the stream we saw the cabin we remembered from the paddle, and at that moment it started to rain. We raced to the cabin, unlatched the door, removed the spikey nail mat, and jumped inside. It was amazing timing that we just barely beat the rain.
The cabin was empty, as before, and we hoped the owners wouldn’t mind if two tired mountaineers spent the night there to ride out the storm.
Len soon got a fire going in the wood stove, and we sat down to relax and dry out all our gear. The rain was fierce outside, and the river got up pretty high, but we were very cozy inside the cabin.
For dinner we finished off my remaining mashed potatoes, since we knew we could make it out the 12 miles to the truck the next day, given that it was certainly on trails and roads.
The rain let up the next morning, and we had an easy hike out the ATV trail back to the Tungsten mine. Just outside the mine a worker drove by in a truck and was nice enough to give us a lift all the way back to Len’s truck.
“Would you guys like some snacks or water or something?,” the worker, Kyle asked after hearing about our epic adventure.
“No thanks,” I replied instinctively.
After Kyle dropped us off, Len asked “Why in the world did we refuse snacks?”
“Yeah, I regretted saying that right after it came out of my mouth,” I replied. “It’s just my gut instinct to refuse help for some reason.”
“We’ll be in Watson Lake in 5 hours anyways and can get all the food we want there,” Len replied.
And with that our hike out was over. It was a fitting end to the trip that it happened to fall on my birthday, July 1 (and Canada day).
I celebrated with a quick swim in the lake, and a change into fresh clothes stashed in the truck. We split a big bag of potato chips Len had left in the truck, ate some tuna, and then were off.
We stocked up on food and gas in Watson Lake, then picked up Ron’s jeep. I drove the jeep while Len drove the truck, and we made it a few hours farther down the Al-Can to stop at Liard Hot Springs for the night. Amazingly (for me) we saw 9 black bears and tons of bison along the way! We somehow managed to get the very last camping spot at 9pm, then took a quick dip in the hotsprings before bed.
The next day was another epic drive, going 7 hours to Blackstone Landing. Ron and Luke had started paddling at 2:30am that morning in order to reach the landing by 8am and have enough time to dry out and pack up gear. By the time we got there they were ready to go, and we were quickly loaded back up.
We made it all the way back to Liard Hot Springs that night, and took another nice dip in the water before bed.
We pushed another long drive, this time making it all the way back to Smithers in 15 hours of driving, arriving by 9pm. Ron and Luke returned home, while I spent the night at Len’s house.
I went to the Greyhound station the next day, switched my ticket to two days earlier than scheduled, and made it safely back to Seattle 27 hours later.
Beta for climbing the East Face route:
Pitch-by-Pitch Description (22 roped pitches up to 5.7)
P1: Bottom of right side of bergschrund to rock band, past old pin on right. Belay at rock horn (low 5th)
P2: Climb loose rock straight up to crack belay at base of upper snowfield (low 5th).
P3: Up steep snowfield to end of rope.
P4: Up snowfield to slung rock belay at lower right corner
P5: Up right side of upper rock band (low 5th)
P6: Diagonal up and left to top of broken rock band. Belay at base of upper left-trending ledge system (low 5th)
P7: Climb ledges up and left to big horizontal ledge. Traverse right 30’ to wide belay area with cracks (5.4)
P8: Climb up 10’ then traverse left on narrow ledge 20’. Cross unprotected face (5.7) to a flake. Diagonal up and left to belay at right-facing corner with sloping ledge at base (5.7)
P9: Climb right-facing corner then follow ledges left to belay at base of big right-facing gully (low 5th)
P10: Climb left of the gully, then up on mossy ledges, then traverse right (no pro) to belay at fixed nut in left-facing corner with cracks (5.7)
P11: Climb left-facing corner up to flakes, then trend right to good belay ledge at base of right-facing corner (5.6)
P12: Climb right-facing corner, moving over left to the arête near the top. At the top of the arête traverse left 20’ on ledge to a fixed piton anchor (5.7).
P13: Traverse left 15’ then ascend obvious gully. Belay at rock horn with fixed webbing (5.6)
P14: Climb right facing corner to reach left edge of broad ledge. Belay off slung boulder and cracks (5.7)
P15: Traverse right on ledge a full rope length. Belay at slung rock horn (4th class)
P16: Traverse right another rope length to beginning of left/up diagonaling ledge system (4th class)
P17-19: Follow ledge up and left aiming for a large detached set of flakes near summit ridge. Either squeeze through the flakes or climb outside (good footholds). Then squirm up a short chock-filled chimney to gain the summit ridge. Belay off slung boulders (5.5).
P20-22: Traverse the summit ridge to the summit. Some parts narrow and exposed (4th class).
Descent (using full 60m rappels)
Downclimb from summit to slung boulder above chock-filled chimney.
R1: Rappel off boulders (red webbing) down and slightly climbers left to slung flake just above broad ledge (red webbing).
R2: Rappel 15’ to ledge, then traverse left 20’ to top of gully.
R3: Rap off slung boulder (red webbing) down gully to fixed piton anchor on ledge just climbers right of gully (watch for loose rock up top).
R4: Fixed piton anchor down and right 60m to slung horn with nut (red webbing)
R5: From the horn straight down and left to 3-nut anchor in right-facing corner (red and blue webbing).
R6: Straight down to slung horn under overhang (red webbing and nut)
R7: Down and left 40m to slung boulder (blue cordelette)
R8: Diagonally down and left 60m to bottom of rock island and 2-nut anchor.
R9: Diagonally down and right full 60m to 2-nut anchor in crack.
R10: Diagonally down and right across snow to 2-nut anchor directly above bergschrund crossing
R11: Straight down across bergschrund and onto glacier