A few days before our trip into the Cirque of the Unclimbables was scheduled to begin, I saw a physiotherapist for the first time in my life. I’d been on standby for a week, hoping that someone would cancel on an appointment and I could sneak in at the last minute. In late July last year, sometime during a three-day hike, I had hurt my left knee. I was following in the footsteps of a young German hiker who had died on that same trail three years earlier — hoping to see what he’d seen and to get a sense of the terrain he’d covered before his still-unexplained death. But my hiking partner and I never made it to the mountain pass where the hiker’s pack and his scattered, scavenged remains had eventually been found, collected, and then returned to his friends and family far away. By the end of the second day, for no reason I could discern, my knee was on fire, pain shivering up my leg with each step. We camped a couple miles short of our goal and I went to bed early, hoping I was just sore and tired and that my leg would be better the next day.
It wasn’t. In a heavy drizzle, we packed up and started the 12-mile trek back to the trailhead. I settled into a slow, steady limp, sometimes not even managing to cover a mile in an hour, and Mike took charge: reminding me to eat at regular intervals whether I felt hungry or not, and transferring more weight from my pack to his each time we stopped. By the time we made it back to the car — by then, he was carrying both packs while I hobbled along — my knee was throwing heat like a nasty sunburn, radiating warmth that I could feel on the palm of my hand when I held it inches away.
After we’d driven the three hours home, I swallowed a handful of ibuprofen and collapsed into bed. The next morning, my knee felt fine. But over the next few days, if I walked for more than 10 or 15 minutes, a slow burn started up again. It was early August, and I had a dream 10-day backcountry hiking trip coming up — a true once-in-a-lifetime excursion. Only my knee could stop me.
The physiotherapist bent my leg this way and that, then had me duck-walk back and forth on the tiled floors of his clinic in a squat, questioning me the whole time about what hurt, and diagnosed me with a stress fracture on the tibial plateau — the top of my shinbone, just below the kneecap. I needed to stay off it for at least a month, maybe two, he said, to give the bone time to heal. And if I didn’t? In a worst-case scenario, the fracture would creep through my tibia until I had a truly broken leg. But, he added, because I was relatively young and healthy, that outcome was unlikely.
At a group meeting hours later, I told my friends the news. We had two options: I could bow out of the trip entirely, letting the three of them go without me. Or, if they were willing, I could go along, with a lightened pack, leaning heavily on my trekking poles to minimize the impact on my bad leg, and try to manage the long, steep hike in and out of our base camp as best I could, an extra burden on them, and a different sort of liability to myself. Once there, I would opt out of the day hikes and scrambles we had planned. I would accept some pain, a delay in the start of my healing, and the frustration of grounding myself at base camp — along with some additional rounds of dish duty — if they were willing to accept some excess weight in their packs and the risk that they might, just maybe, have to carry me out. They were willing, and agreed.
Thousands of miles south, while I was duck-walking around a physiotherapist’s office, three close friends were preparing for their own expedition. Hannah Trim, Mareya Becker, and Lauren Hebert — all 22 years old, all freshly graduated from Colorado College — had received a grant from the school’s Ritt Kellogg Memorial Fund to travel to Nahanni National Park, in Canada’s Northwest Territories, for a rock climbing trip into the park’s famed Cirque of the Unclimbables: a remote bowl in the mountains along the Yukon-Northwest Territories border, lined by sheer rock walls and endless possibilities — despite the name — for scrambling, bouldering and climbing.
Ritt Kellogg was a Colorado College graduate, class of 1990, who died in an avalanche on Alaska’s Mount Foraker in 1992. Ever since, the fund established in his name has offered Colorado College students an annual shot at a grant to support “responsible and conscientious pursuit of wilderness expeditions.” Eligible trips take place within North America, last a minimum of 12 days, include a heavy emphasis on the safe development of backcountry skills, and must offer students a challenge that is “thoughtful and inspiring.”
This was the second time the trio had received the grant. The year before, they’d been part of a larger group that traveled to Wyoming’s Wind River Range, where they climbed, among other routes, the East Ridge route on Wolf’s Head, immortalized in Steve Roper and Allen Steck’s “Fifty Classic Climbs of North America” (a guidebook that was first published in 1979 and still serves as a sort of bucket list for many of this continent’s climbers).
Long rock-climbing routes are divided into stages, called pitches. There is no rigid set distance for a pitch, they vary climb by climb, but can’t exceed 60 meters, the length of a standard climbing rope. The Wolf’s Head climb had been demanding: 10 pitches, and 1,000 feet of vertical climbing. The trio hadn’t really expected to receive the Kellogg funding a second time, and so when they wrote their application they agreed to try for the craziest, Hail Mary trip they could imagine. The isolated Cirque of the Unclimbables, far to the north, and its signature 18-pitch, 2,000-foot climb to the peak of Lotus Flower Tower, another entry in “Fifty Classic Climbs,” was it.
All three had spent their summer in the woods, working as instructors with the Colorado Outward Bound School, backpacking and hiking with students. They’d been climbing and traveling together for three years, ever since Mareya had transferred to Colorado College and Lauren had taken up climbing, both as sophomores. If the group had a leader — and they were so well balanced, and so familiar with each other’s strengths, that they hardly needed one — it was probably Hannah. A tiny 5’1, dark-haired and dark-eyed with a smile that took over her face, Hannah was the most experienced climber of the bunch: she’d started at age 13, on a visit to an indoor climbing wall with her mother, and had been hooked from there. While in high school she worked at a climbing wall back home in Chicago — “belaying for birthday parties,” as she puts it — and had gotten work at the climbing gym after she arrived at Colorado College, too. That’s how she met the other two.
Lauren was the quiet one, most likely to fade into the background in a crowd of strangers. Taller, 5’6, with red hair and a nose ring, she was the newest to climbing: after growing up riding horses, running, cycling and playing lacrosse, she first climbed in the summer after her freshman year. A boyfriend had taken her out on a climbing date, and she’d strapped on a bike helmet for her first-ever climb. Now, Hannah and Mareya would both describe her as the strongest climber of the three of them, but Lauren herself wasn’t always convinced of that.
Mareya, with short, curly, brownish-blond hair, and — like the others — a big, quick smile, rounded out the trio. As a kid, she’d resisted family camping trips, but later, in high school, she’d eventually started climbing at a gym near her home in Marin County, Calif. When she was 18, the friend who’d gotten her hooked on climbing died in a fall from a cliff. Instead of chasing her away from the outdoor world, the accident only made her more invested in the wilderness. She had already made plans to attend Northeastern University, in Boston, but didn’t enjoy her first year. She then transferred to Colorado College and quickly found her people in the climbing community there, including Hannah and Lauren.
Another member of their circle of climbers was Cole Kennedy, one year ahead of them in school. Cole had grown up in Castle Rock, Colo., skiing and climbing. He was a role model, a believer in ambitious adventures: His life philosophy, as Lauren puts it, was to “do big awesome things.” A year earlier, he had also been the recipient of a Kellogg grant to climb in the Cirque of the Unclimbables.
With just a couple of weeks left in his senior year, Cole and some friends had engineered an impromptu fireworks display: building the array, adding a timer system and setting it up on top of the science building, timed to coincide with Llamapalooza, a campus music festival. (Cole, a physics major, was in charge of building the detonator.) The rogue fireworks were an annual tradition, and the 2013 display went off flawlessly. But it came just days after the Boston marathon bombing, and though no damage was done, the school’s administration was not amused. Cole’s Kellogg grant was revoked, and a year later, as Hannah, Mareya and Lauren prepared for their own trip to the Cirque, Cole was in Peru, with another friend of the group, John, in a high, glacier-covered mountain range popular with climbers, the Andes’ Cordillera Blanca.
In mid-July, a little less than a month before their trip to the Cirque was set to begin, Mareya picked up her phone and saw a series of missed calls from Cole’s girlfriend. Instinctively, she knew that could only mean bad news, and she was right: The pair had been struck by an ice avalanche while climbing on Piramide de Garcilaso, a pyramid-shaped peak more than 19,000 feet high. John had escaped with relatively minor injuries — scrapes, bruises, cracked ribs — when the ice rained down on them, but Cole had taken a more catastrophic hit. He’d been killed.
Karen Kennedy is a trauma nurse, and her husband Jim a ski instructor. Between them, they had an intimate understanding of the risks Cole took and the damage that could result. After their son’s cremation, they made an offer to Cole’s closest friends, a grieving community of adventurers with half a summer of expeditions — and, hopefully, many seasons more after that — still ahead of them. If they wished, they could take a small portion of Cole’s remains with them on their travels, and scatter his memory across peaks around the world.
When I spoke to her, nearly 10 months after her son’s death, I said that I thought I’d probably be angry at climbing, at climbers, at the whole world of outdoor adventure. But she isn’t, she said. She deals with death every day in the hospital. “I’ve seen it happen a million times,” she told me. “And it happens so randomly. It can happen when you’re crossing the street and it can happen in Peru. So you might as well live, you know?”
She paused. “And that’s what he loved” — the mountains, climbing, disappearing on an adventure, taking on some new challenge with his friends. “Now of course, in retrospect, I wish he’d gone to a different school and been a total nerd and never done any of that, but then he wouldn’t have been him.”
In the months after his death Cole’s ashes have been spread both in places he loved and places he one day hoped to visit: in Jackson Hole and Whistler, in Aspen and on Mount Rainier and in Muir Woods. They’ve traveled to Indian Creek, in Utah, a favorite climbing spot, and to the Cho La pass in Nepal. “It just seemed the right thing to do,” Karen told me.
Mareya, Hannah and Lauren were deeply upset by his death, and shaken by how it had happened: Being so graphically confronted with the risks of their sport, on the eve of the toughest climbing challenge any of them had ever attempted, was unexpected, and daunting. It was something else to dwell on, another mental hurdle to overcome. But there was no question of quitting. “It wasn’t like I heard about it and was like, ‘Oh, I’m going to stop climbing,’” Mareya told me later. “We all accept the different amounts of risk that we take.” Lauren had never lost a friend to climbing before, and didn’t even tell her parents about Cole’s death before the trip. “It both scared me and threw me off a little,” she said, thinking back, “because it makes you question why you’re doing what you’re doing.” At the same time, she was inspired by the way Cole had lived his life, his bold approach to climbing.
So when they packed up Mareya’s silver Subaru Forester in Colorado, loading up ropes and harnesses and racks of gear, a tent and sleeping bags and ThermaRests and a camping stove and a bag of quinoa and a huge stack of corn tortillas, they also carried a tiny, round, plastic Ziploc container, with a blue lid. Safe inside was a plastic baggie of ashes: Cole. As they drove north to tackle a Cole-esque obstacle, a climb that he had once planned to make himself, Lauren said, “Having him along was nice.” They would carry Cole to Lotus Flower Tower, to the top of 2,000 feet of vertical granite, then scatter his ashes in a place he’d dreamed of seeing. But first, they had to get there.
They drove 18 hours a day for three days, taking shifts at the wheel, through Colorado and Wyoming and Montana, north across the whole length of Alberta and British Columbia, and along the Alaska Highway into the southeastern corner of the Yukon Territory. There, they caught a floatplane into the park — and 48 hours later, so did I.
I need to tell you about the Cirque of the Unclimbables. Ever since I went there, I’ve tried to describe it to friends and family, tried to explain its power and its perfection. It is, I tell people, the best natural campsite I have ever visited. It’s also among the most beautiful eyefuls of landscape I’ve ever seen — its rock walls more overpowering than Zion’s, in Utah, its evening light more perfect than Hawaii’s, its peaks more menacing than Denali, and its stillness more complete than the deep rainforests of the Olympic Peninsula. It’s a place that forces me to reach for comparisons from fiction: It’s “Lord of the Rings,” I tell people. It’s Mordor crossed with the Shire.
It lies in the remote sub-Arctic mountains along the border between the Yukon and the Northwest Territories, just barely on the NWT side. To get there from the west, like we did, you drive along the Yukon’s narrow, two-lane Robert Campbell Highway until the pavement ends, and then you drive on gravel until you reach a side road that leads to a small lake and an aging wooden dock. You wait on the dock until a pilot, who owns a nearby fly-in fishing lodge, appears out of the clouds and lands on the lake in his yellow five-seater floatplane to pick you up. You climb in, push off from the dock and take off from the lake, and fly for an hour or so, until the flat forested land pushes up into toothy gray mountains, glaciers peeking around the sharp edges of the spires, and the pilot cheerily reminds you that any mistake out here will result in all of your deaths. You skim over the sheer gravelly slopes, trying not to think too hard about the plane slamming into them and crumpling like a beer can crushed under a boot heel, and then you descend rapidly and land, so smoothly that you can’t say for sure exactly when the floats touch water, on a milky-blue lake under a looming, blocky monolith, Mount Harrison-Smith. You camp that night in the rain-damp forest on the edge of the lake, and in the morning you notice what you’d missed in the wet evening dusk: bear diggings all around your tents.
You strap your packs on tight and hike along a well-worn trail, skirting the water, and then at the end of the lake you begin to climb, switch-backing higher and higher, leaving the forest behind, picking your way through boulder fields on one side of a plunging stream, listening to the occasional thunder of rocks calving off Harrison-Smith and crashing downhill on the other side, covering in seconds the hundreds of feet you’ve just spent hours climbing.
Finally, you reach the top of the trail, and emerge into a wide, grassy meadow strewn with house-sized granite boulders, the valley circumscribed by sheer rock walls climbing to ragged mountain peaks, and the stream you’d followed uphill all day meandering through the middle of it all. This is the Cirque of the Unclimbables, a remote, isolated ring of mountains that’s sacred to serious rock climbers but rarely visited by anyone else. And this, here below those steep gray Mordor walls, is Fairy Meadows, a place whose name you thought was cheesy as hell until you got here, footsore and tired and covered in the fine white powder of your own dried sweat, and laid down in the cool green grass to rest.
There is no bear sign here — you left all the large carnivores behind sometime during the day’s climb. Fat black-and-gray marmots roam the meadow fearlessly, indifferent to your presence, occasionally sending out their long, high warning whistles to each other and then vanishing into the rocks, alert to the eagle overhead. The giant boulders scattered through the meadow, disgorged from the surrounding mountains decades or centuries earlier, have landed tilted on edge more often than not, which creates dry, sheltered overhangs big enough to pitch a tent under, if you like, to dodge the rain that keeps the meadow grass so green. Under one especially large, deep overhang, some earlier generation of climbers has drilled bolts into the slanted rock wall — rig a rope up there, strung between them, and you have a place to hang your gear to dry after even the worst mountain storm.
The stream that bisects the meadow is clear, not silty, and it runs fast in places and pools deep enough in others that you could submerge yourself in a quick, cold bath if you wanted to. The only human touch, besides the occasional climber’s bolt glinting in the sun, and the faint footpaths from boulder to boulder through the meadow, is a brand new Parks Canada-installed outhouse that sits on the crest of the short slope that separates the Lower Meadow from the Upper Meadow, a throne with a sweeping view of the Cirque. And that view is largely empty of people: the place sees an average of just two dozen visitors each year.
Like I said: It’s perfect.
We arrived in Fairy Meadows in the late afternoon, in plenty of time to set up camp, rehydrate some freeze-dried dinner, and get to know our neighbors. “We” meant me, my close friend and de facto climbing instructor, Ryan, and our friends Gary and Brianne Bremner, a married couple who’d been among Ryan’s go-to climbing buddies a few years earlier, back before I knew them all. These days, the Bremners had less time for climbing: They had both quit their day jobs to run a creative photography business full time. We all lived in Whitehorse, the Yukon Territory’s small capital city, and were members of the Alpine Club of Canada’s Yukon chapter — Ryan a founding board member.
The Cirque of the Unclimbables had been on all of our life lists. So when representatives of the Nahanni National Park Reserve, which includes the Cirque, approached the club about a collaboration — the park would support a handful of Alpine Club trips into its more remote regions, in exchange for the club members who went in undertaking an assessment of infrastructure, trails and possibilities for backcountry visitors — we were all quick to sign up. Ryan, who’d written and published a guidebook on Yukon climbing, was armed with various tools to measure and monitor the terrain the group would cover on hikes and climbs. Gary and Brianne, not wanting to miss anything, hauled no less than 80 pounds of camera gear up into the Cirque. I had much less in my pack: Besides some clothes, a sleeping bag and a ThermaRest, I carried in a pair of blank notebooks and enough pens to last for six months.
Waiting for us in the park were Scott and Melissa, two Parks Canada staffers who would be joining us for the trip. When we got there, they had already laid claim to the large overhang we nicknamed Kitchen Cave, where we’d make and eat our meals, and spend most of our down time. They’d pitched their tents in the open air, across the stream and maybe a hundred yards into the meadow; ours joined them. Not far downstream, the Colorado College team had pitched their lone Megamid tent in the shadow of a huge boulder when they arrived the night before, and upstream, nearly out of sight at the far end of the meadow, three older men — amateur photographers who had hired a helicopter to fly them and their gear in but were sleeping on the ground like the rest of us — were hunkered down, too. Privately, we dubbed the neighboring camps Girl Cave and Old Man Cave.
Hannah, Mareya and Lauren came up to Kitchen Cave to say hello, but they didn’t linger. They were planning to begin their attempt on Lotus Flower Tower that night, with a departure from their tent by 2 a.m. and a headlamp-lit hike to the base of the route so that they could start climbing with dawn’s first light. The climb would take them up 2,000 feet of vertical granite, much of it a big, open wall that looked from a distance like it had been cleanly sliced by a sharp knife — the kind of rock that draws climbers from around the world. They hoped to catch at least a partial night’s sleep first.
The next morning, we lingered over coffee while we waited for the fog to burn off the surrounding mountains. Eventually, Ryan, Scott and Melissa made plans for a scramble up to a ridgeline hike, and Gary, Brianne and I planned a much more modest walk to the far side of the meadow, where we’d be able to see the lower stretches of Lotus Flower Tower, maybe try to lay eyes on the girls as they climbed, as the upper portions were visible from our cave. We ambled between boulders and lounged on the meadow’s spongy moss, and I found that while I’d only been able to walk for a few minutes on pavement without pain in my knee, here on soft ground I felt fine for nearly an hour.
By dinnertime, the six of us had regrouped, and realized that over the course of the day none of us had spotted the three Colorado College climbers. Scott scanned the rock face with his binoculars every few minutes, and we ate our boiled-in-a-bag backcountry meals under the weight of a growing tension. As far as we could figure, they should have either been clearly visible up high on the route, or back in their tent by now.
Once we’d finished eating, we were out of excuses. It had been nearly 18 hours since the climbers set out. Maybe the trio was fine, maybe they had been delayed for some harmless reason we would all laugh about later. Or maybe they were in deep shit, and we were the only help to be had. I squatted by the creek and distractedly did our dinner dishes while Ryan, Melissa and Scott packed up first-aid supplies, a stove, a package of soup, rope and a radio. The plan was for them to head toward the base of Lotus Flower Tower, an hour’s hike away. Gary, Brianne and I stayed back in Kitchen Cave with the other radio and a sickening sense of helplessness. If anything was seriously wrong, medical attention was a half-day hike, an hour’s flight, and a long drive on gravel roads away.
An hour leaked by, then another. I wished that I could help, that I could load up a pack and power-hike down the valley, too. But I was, I reminded myself, not going to be playing the role of rescuer on this trip. I was just another potential rescuee.
Finally, six silhouettes appeared on the far side of the meadow, and the three climbers trudged to Girl Cave with shoulders slumped — visibly exhausted, even from where I sat hundreds of yards away, but uninjured.
It turned out they’d had a hell of a day, starting with an approach hike through the early morning darkness that was trickier than they’d expected. Then, when they’d reached the rock face, they’d found it soaked and running with water from an earlier rain — like a “waterfall,” Lauren told me later. It was, she said, “pretty gnar.”
Soon they were wet and cold, but they struggled slowly upward anyway, losing all track of time as they managed one pitch, then two, then three: handhold, foothold, handhold, foothold, jamming their rubberized climbing shoes against the nubs in the wet rock for traction, fingers searching the rock face for cracks, little ripples or ledges, anything to get a firm grip on.
On the fourth pitch, Lauren was leading, her two partners below. Climbing lead is no different, in terms of handholds and footholds, than any other climbing: the difference is in the amount of protection you have if you fall. In traditional climbing, “trad” as it’s known, lead climbers place pieces of gear of varying sizes into cracks in the rock as they climb with a rope trailing below them. Then they secure their rope, clipping into each piece, creating a chain of protection intended to stop a fall. When you’re climbing second, you’re on a rope that’s already secured above you, seriously limiting the scope of any tumble. But when you’re leading, you’re sometimes climbing well above your last piece before you’re able to place the next one, and a bad enough fall can rip the gear out below you.
The fourth pitch was well within Lauren’s skill level, but she was numb with cold by now and the rock was wet. Too numb, too wet: partway up, she lost her grip, a gecko come unstuck, and dropped through the air for a few feet before being jerked to a stop. Her gear had held. She dangled on the rope from her harness for a moment before her friends lowered her back down to where they waited. It was a routine enough fall, a “nice little whip,” she told me, but under the circumstances, she was shaken up. Hannah took over lead and finished the pitch, and then the three conferred. Hours had passed since they’d left the ground below: they would never make the climb’s halfway point, a ledge where they could spend the night, before darkness fell — even with the sub-Arctic’s long August light.
“It felt like a pretty easy decision to make,” Hannah told me later. They abandoned the climb and prepared to rappel back down to the base of the route. They made it back to solid ground, and were hiking back to camp when Ryan, Scott and Melissa found them.
They knew they’d made the right call, they all told me later, but that didn’t mean they were happy about it. Mareya wasn’t proud of her effort on the climb. Whether they completed the route or not, she wanted to be able to say she’d tried her hardest, and she didn’t feel she had. Hannah, for her part, had felt better, less terrified, than she’d expected — she’d spent a lot of time in the lead-up to the trip pretty deep in her own head, but her nerves had vanished once she was on the rock. She could handle this climb, she’d realized. That made her hopeful about the potential for a second attempt.
When they told me about Cole, they were matter-of-fact. Their friend had died while climbing, they said, and now here they were: climbing. They weren’t here because of his death, and they weren’t here despite it. They would continue to live their lives in the face of risk, just as he had lived his. But it was clear that the avalanche that had taken Cole’s life added another emotional layer to their journey, another bit of weight on their shoulders as they climbed.
“He was totally a guy who just went for it all the time,” Hannah said. “He wouldn’t come up here and do four pitches and say, ‘Oh, I’m tired, I’m going to leave.’”
I’d never spoken to a group of 22-year-olds who were so self-aware, so keenly attuned to their own feelings and motivations and those of their teammates. Really, I thought, most adults of any age could envy the trio’s ability to reflect on their own choices and the emotions behind them. All three were thoughtful, and unblinkingly honest about their fears, their insecurities, their sense of failure or accomplishment. They looked young, maybe younger even than they were, but they spoke with the calm confidence, even wisdom, I might expect in someone much older.
I tried to imagine having to make life-and-death decisions under the weight of all the burdens they were carrying on this trip: wanting to prove themselves to the climbers back home, at least some of whom thought they were in over their heads; wanting to support each other, no single climber wanting to be the one who held the team back; wanting to satisfy their own natures, their own sense of pride as athletes; and wanting to honor Cole, to have an adventure worthy of him.
I couldn’t imagine it.
The next afternoon, Hannah tagged along with Brianne and me while we helped Gary with a stock photo shoot: tramping back and forth in front of his camera with daypacks and hiking boots on, gazing solemnly into the distance. She and Mareya and Lauren had agreed to take an hour apart to consider their next move, whether they wanted to attempt Lotus Flower Tower again. At one point, as we sat on the bank of the stream, lounging while Gary snapped away, Hannah showed us the backs of her hands: bold block-lettered words in black Sharpie: COURAGE, on her left, and HUMILITY, on her right. Whenever she reached for her next handhold during a climb, she couldn’t help but see them.
She had spent the lead-up to the trip believing that courage would be the hard part, she told us. She had worried about keeping her head together, about pushing herself forward, about not quitting. She hadn’t thought as much about her right hand: about the humility needed to know when to stop and reconsider, when to rappel down instead of climbing higher — when to accept that she’d done enough. When to walk away.
After each of them had taken some time to think, the girls decided on a plan: Hannah and Mareya would try Lotus Flower Tower again, while Lauren opted to stay back in camp.
“It feels like letting other people down,” she told me when we chatted after her friends had ventured out again, “but it can’t be about that. It has to be about how I’m feeling.” Although, she admitted, it didn’t hurt that there were some advantages, some efficiency to be gained, in a two-woman team returning instead of a trio. It might have been harder to respect her own feelings if backing out had meant making it impossible for Hannah and Mareya to try again, rather than, in some small ways, helping them.
“I feel like a lot of times when I’ve gone on climbs that were maybe a little over my head, it’s just somehow worked out,” she said later. “Either circumstance, who I’m with, my own gumption, maybe luck with weather. It’s always just somehow worked.” This time, though, things hadn’t come together for her. “I was like, this objective is far too challenging for me. After having gone up there and seen it, how tall it is and the challenges of the climbing and the trickiness of the conditions up there, I was just humbled.”
Was it awkward, telling her friends she was bowing out? Was it hard? I imagined feeling guilty, or feeling obliged to carry on — feeling all sorts of feelings, really. But Lauren shrugged at the question. “These are some of my best friends,” she said. “We’ve been through a lot together, we’re very open with each other.”
In her spare time, Lauren had been working on the back side of Girl Cave on a bouldering problem — bouldering means climbing without ropes, sometimes with a crash pad below you and generally on a much smaller objective, like a large boulder (hence the name). In climber-speak, you climb a route, while a bouldering objective is called a problem, approached more like a puzzle to be solved rather than a linear track to follow. In either case, completion of the task is known as “sending” it.
She had turned her back on Lotus Flower Tower, for this trip at least. But if she could send her boulder problem before they left the Cirque, she told me, she’d be happy.
Hannah and Mareya got up in the blackness of the very early morning, again, and shouldered their packs for the trek back to Lotus Flower Tower: two ropes, a full rack of gear, warm layers, harnesses, helmets and climbing shoes, a satellite phone, plenty of food and 7 liters of water, to last them at least 24 hours. Cole’s ashes rode in Mareya’s pack, in their plastic bag inside its protective plastic shell. By dawn, they were climbing, and this time the work felt better, more efficient. They had the measure of those early stretches now, and it helped that the rock was no longer soaked with running water. Soon enough they were clear of the first four pitches where they’d spent those hellish hours on their first attempt.
After nine pitches, they knew they were on schedule to make it to the bivy ledge, one pitch up, well before darkness came down. It’s the only place on the route where climbers have enough room to sleep, on a rock outcrop maybe the size of a minivan, and the approximate halfway point of the climb. Their plan was to wait out the scant hours of darkness there and then tackle the final eight pitches at first light. Their objective — to stand on top of Lotus Flower Tower — was within reach.
But then they ran into trouble on the 10th pitch. They could see two possible ways to approach it, and they weren’t sure which one was the correct path. One of them looked like a continuation of the route they had followed through the ninth pitch — it was the logical, conservative choice — but as Hannah led the way up, she realized they’d made the wrong call. The rock was loose, unreliable, coming apart in her hands and sometimes falling down toward Mareya below, and soon she realized she had climbed up into a very risky situation. She couldn’t find anywhere to place her next piece of gear, and she didn’t know, given the sketchiness of the rock, whether she could trust the pieces she’d already placed below her to hold her weight if she fell. In a worst-case scenario, they could come loose and drop with her, the climber and her whole protective apparatus in freefall.
As the rock crumbled under her fingers, she thought about Cole, his ashes riding in Mareya’s pack down below. Here she was, on a trip paid for by a fund set up in the name of a young climber who’d died, and with the recent loss of another young friend to remind her harshly, in case she ever forgot, of the price her sport sometimes exacted. “This is not worth it,” she thought. “This little bit of climbing is not worth dying for.”
Finally she was able to escape the trap, climbing higher into the mess until she found a safe enough spot to place a piece and, in a last resort, rappelling off it, back down to Mareya, abandoning the gear to the mountain.
Belaying from below, Mareya could see that Hannah was in a bad spot. It terrified her to watch, seeing Hannah grab onto the rock only to have it come away in her hands. But her friend looked calm and confident as she extricated herself, and Mareya only realized how tense and frightened Hannah had been once she made it back down: As soon as she had clipped herself into safety, she burst into tears.
Mareya offered to lead as they re-oriented themselves and set out to complete the 10th pitch once more. But Hannah wanted to keep going, and as she climbed, her recent fear washed away. She actually had fun, she realized, during that last stretch. By 8 p.m., they had reached the ledge.
When they got there, they saw rainclouds coming in toward Lotus Flower Tower hard and fast. They were tired, and they realized that even if they spent a cold, restless night on the ledge, the rock above them might still be soaked and impossible to climb safely come morning.
Courage. Humility. Again, as it had been on their first attempt, the right choice was obvious: They decided to call halfway good enough and begin their descent during the last of the daylight, before the rain arrived. First, though, they had something to do.
Mareya retrieved the container from where it had ridden in her pack throughout the long climb up. She and Hannah looked out over the Cirque from their 1,000-foot perch, at the soft grassy meadow far below and the clouds chasing each other across the granite tops of the mountains all around. They opened the container, reached into the plastic bag, and scattered the ashes in front of them the way a flower girl might spread the petals coming down the aisle. They cried as the wind took Cole’s ashes and carried them away.
They were nearly finished when a gust of wind pulled a u-turn, doubled back, and flung a sprinkling of ashes into Mareya’s face as she stood on the ledge. And in the shock of the moment, their grief and ceremony interrupted, they both started to laugh, shoulders shaking even as their tears kept coming — because they had to, because Cole would have, because he, always a joker, always ready with a sarcastic quip, would’ve never let Mareya live it down if he’d been there to see it. Because laughter, even more than climbing, might have been the best way to remember him, and now he had somehow given them that.
They rappelled down the mountain in the pouring rain, pitch by pitch, and then staggered back to camp, wrung out with exhaustion, going slow, taking twice as long to complete the hike home as they had on the outbound leg. The rain stopped, the skies cleared, and as they neared Girl Cave the Northern Lights swirled high above them, white streaks feathered in purple and green. They crawled into their tent in the early morning, 28 hours after they’d set out.
The next morning we found a note from Lauren waiting for us, pinned under a rock in Kitchen Cave, letting us know that Hannah and Mareya had come back safe. That was a relief: The night before, we’d sat up chatting over tea in our little cavern, watching rain squalls come and go. A thick fog had rolled in to cover Lotus Flower Tower, and this time we’d known that the girls had made it as far as the bivy ledge — we’d spotted them through the binos before the clouds arrived. I’d been picturing them up there overnight, huddled together in a silver emergency survival blanket and layers of Gore-Tex and down, waiting for first light to keep climbing. I was glad to hear that they were just down the meadow instead, safe in their sleeping bags.
It was our last full day in the Cirque. We would retrace our steps down the trail to Glacier Lake to meet our plane the next day — I’d been dreading the descent, the pain and the possible consequences, all trip. The others were planning one last full-day hike, an ambitious scramble up the steep, scree-covered slope of Crescent Peak, the mountain that loomed directly over our camp. They laced up their hiking boots and packed harnesses and ropes, lunch and snacks. Soon after 10 a.m. they were gone, vanished into the ebbing and flowing morning fog, and I was left with a day all to myself.
I drank a mug of tea, and then another. I did some half-hearted yoga, sun salutations on the cold ground under a sunless sky, and sat on a rock with my notebook open. I paced from boulder to boulder, shifted the angle of Gary’s solar battery charger in hopes of helping it soak up any rays leaking through the cloud cover. I watched for signs of life from the girls’ blue-and-gray striped tent down the meadow. I boiled yet more water for tea, an herbal blend of peppermint, fennel and ginger called, aspirationally, “Feeling Soothed.”
I was not feeling soothed.
I was in love with the Cirque. I loved the way wisps of fog raced across the face of East Huey, the mountain that watched us from across the meadow. I loved passing a flask around in Kitchen Cave, and the way a lithe, barely-seen ermine lurked in the shadows waiting for us to abandon a scrap of food. I loved how the light, when the sun came out, glinted off the bolts that marked the sport-climbing routes past generations of climbers had drilled into the mansion-sized boulders on the far side of the meadow.
I paced from Kitchen Cave to the stream to the boulder I’d been sitting on and back again. I wondered if I should be braver, less cautious — if I was wasting my chance to experience this place because I was afraid of a little temporary pain, of an unlikely worst-case scenario. I felt ridiculous, sitting still on a rock in this perfect playground. In the years I’d spent longing to visit this place, I had never imagined myself as such an inert visitor.
By my third cup of Feeling Soothed, though, my frustration had begun to leak away. I settled in with my notebook and binos, turning my back on East Huey and Lotus Flower Tower, and on Girl Cave below me, where Lauren had emerged from the tent to curl up on a rock with a notebook of her own. I watched the fog thicken quickly and cover the slopes of Crescent above me before dissipating just as fast. When it was gone, I scanned the mountain for my friends, catching glimpses of them as they worked their way higher. I listened to the sounds of the passing stream bouncing off the cave wall, and the occasional rockfall crashing down from Mount Harrison-Smith, and the marmots whistling in relay along the length of the meadow. Every so often, my friends’ voices drifted down to me in wind-torn bits and pieces — Gary’s loud laugh, mostly.
I thought about the three young women in the meadow below me, Lauren on her rock and the other two still sound asleep. I thought not just about the strength required to even attempt a climb like Lotus Flower Tower, but also about the strength it takes to turn away. I admired the three climbers for a lot of things I’d seen in the few days I’d known them: for their self-possession, and their thoughtfulness; for their comfort with each other, with climbing and its risks, and with the wilderness.
But I was most impressed, I realized, with their ability to make the right call, to walk off and to live with those choices. When I asked Lauren about her decision not to try again the second time, she told me simply, “I came to a peaceful conclusion that I didn’t need to.”
Courage. Humility. I was not going to stride up and down the length and breadth of the Cirque of the Unclimbables on this trip; I wasn’t going to try to summit Crescent Peak with the others. That was out of reach. My bouldering problem was more modest, but no less important.
In the meantime, I could sit here with my notebook and pen, in the alternating sun and fog, listening and watching, soaking up all the secrets that the Cirque was willing to share.
On our last morning in the Cirque, a helicopter came to fetch the photographers from Old Man Cave. We disassembled our tents, loaded our packs — mine was filled with everyone’s lightest items, nothing but ThermaRests and sleeping bags, and I had a baggie filled with extra-strength ibuprofen in my pocket — and soon followed them downhill.
As I hiked, awkwardly forcing myself to put my good foot forward each time I stepped down, I remembered something Hannah had said to me the night before. She had expected the Cirque to drive her to her physical limits, she told me, that she would be forced to push through the pain, and that would be the breakthrough, the lesson of the trip.
But that hadn’t happened, that hadn’t been the point at all. “I think we all learned more from this than we expected,” she said.
After we left, Lauren sent her boulder problem, and soon after that, the girls packed up and left too. The Cirque of the Unclimbables was empty of humans once again. The marmots carried on whistling to each other up and down the length of Fairy Meadows, and the stream kept tumbling by. Rocks sheared off Mount Harrison-Smith and crashed down its slopes, echoing through the valley, and as August wound into September, during each lengthening night, the Aurora Borealis dimmed the stars’ light. The clouds rolled in suddenly to cover the mountains — East Huey, Proboscis, Lotus Flower Tower and all the rest. And then, just as quickly, they melted away again.