By Dave Olesen
Photos by Liv and Dave Olesen
On July 22, 1963, I was a five-year-old boy in small-town Illinois. Of course at this half-century distance I have no memory of what I was doing on that particular summer day. Fishing for sunfish, swimming, and swatting at a baseball are all pretty good bets. I do know that on that day in the eastern Yukon an American mountain climber named Arnold Wexler, along with two other climbers, Don Hubbard and Mike Banks, boarded the floatplane they had chartered at Watson Lake – for$60 an hour, including fuel. They had made a flight the previous day, but had been turned back by poor visibility and low cloud. The bush pilot was confident that conditions had improved, and the weather proved him out. About mid-morning the heavily loaded Cessna 180 skimmed the surface of the “inner lake” perched above Hole-in-the-Wall Lake, on the steep ramparts of the southern Ragged Range in the Northwest Territories.
On that day 50 years ago, only a few mountaineers had ventured into the southern Ragged Range. John Milton had logged some first ascents there in 1960, and Wexler had researched some of Milton’s accounts in the Canadian Alpine Journal. Eight years earlier, in 1955, Wexler had climbed in the Cirque of the Unclimbables, which lies about 40 kilometres to the north. As the plane lifted off from Lonely Lake, to return one more time the next day with a load of gear and another climber, Sterling Hendricks, a glorious 25-day adventure began. Most of the peaks were un-named, and almost every possible route to their summits was unknown and untested. Wexler and his three companions were in their element. On August 26, 2013, half a century after Wexler and his buddies flew in from Watson Lake, the floats of my little two-passenger Aviat Husky splashed down on the inner lake, now named Lonely Lake or Lost Lake.
I fly small bush-planes for a living, based at our home northeast of Yellowknife, so my own “charter” was easy to arrange, but even as a non-revenue flight it certainly dented the bank account for a lot more than those long-ago rates of 60 dollars an hour. In the passenger seat behind me was my 14-year-old daughter Liv. Crammed into the plane’s small baggage compartments and float hatches was a somewhat comical overload of camping, hiking and basic climbing gear, along with plenty of extra fuel for camp stove and airplane.
Right behind Liv’s seat, stuffed into a bear-proof metal keg (for safe storage at our base camp) was a supply of food for at least nine days, and longer than that if we stretched it. I had flown in and out of these mountains a few times before, up at Glacier Lake and the more famous Cirque, and I knew that a week-long trip at the onset of autumn could easily become much longer than anticipated. Already at the start of the trip we had been delayed by weather and had whiled away most of the first two days in Yellowknife and Fort Simpson. When at last the more experienced mountain pilots of Fort Simpson starting taking off and heading west, we followed suit.
Say the word “Nahanni” and most people immediately think “river.” For me the word conjures images of high peaks, breathtaking ridges, thick stiff boots and funny round-topped orange helmets. I have yet to dip a paddle into the Nahanni River itself. Perhaps I never will, and that would be all right too — life is short, and in what remains of mine I suspect I will continue my love affair with the high country above the river’s alpine tributaries.
Tucked away among the glaciers, cirques, and passes of the NWT’s border with Yukon are hundreds of magnificent peaks. Mount Sir James MacBrian (named for an officer of the R.C.M.P.), which towers as part of the wall ringing the famous Cirque of the Unclimbables, was for decades thought to be the highest peak in the NWT. (Mt. Logan is of course the highest peak in the Yukon, and in Canada.) In recent years it has been confirmed that a wickedly steep ice-flanked summit called Nirvana, rising about 10 miles due west of Lonely Lake, is actually 50 feet higher than MacBrian. Both summits are just over 9,000 feet above sea level, but if that doesn’t sound very impressive one must consider that they rise almost a mile vertically from the cirques and passes surrounding them.
From my journal that first night:
“Once we had tied up the plane and secured it for the week, Liv used the satellite phone to leave a brief ‘safe arrival’ message at home. We shuttled loads up to our chosen tent site, and cached some of the gear beneath a huge overhanging boulder. After a brief but frenzied search for the binoculars we found them hiding in the cook pot bag and settled in to our dinner of home-baked Cowboy Calzones followed by cookies. We took turns scanning the mountainsides and revelling in the view. After supper as we sipped our tea we heard the approaching grunt of a bull moose very nearby, and then spotted him in the willows of the creek just north of us. He paused and gave us a long look at him, and at one of the biggest racks of antlers I have seen in a long time. Simply a magnificent animal. He quickened his pace for a while after spotting the airplane tied up on shore, and splashed across the shallows into shoreline brush on the north side of Lonely Lake. Now it is raining more steadily and we may be in for a soaker. Good to be here after all of the weather delays and our miles of flying… we now will have only six nights here, but we will make the most of it.”
The next morning we woke to a steady downpour, and we both took another look through some of Wexler’s 1963 journal, re-copied by a friend of ours from the archives of the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies in Banff. Now that we were actually on the ground, Liv and I tried to sleuth out Wexler’s names for the various prominent features of the landscape — peaks, creeks, cirques, and ridges. Any further reconnaissance would have to wait until we could see more than a few hundred yards through the fog and drizzle. We were itching to get going, but it was no day for a real climb. In mid-morning we convinced ourselves that the rain had eased a little, and ventured out for a three-hour ramble. The rain proved once again that there truly is no such thing as “rain gear.” Soaked and shivering as we took a lunch snack and the rain turned to wet snow, we retreated downhill like a couple of wet puppies. Liv wrote in her journal:
“After a final desperate push through knotted willows, creeks, and potholes, we arrived back at the tent… it was a relief to peel off the layers of soppy clothing and get dry once more. Sat back and drank a rich cup of cocoa while engaged in an intense game of chess. I was victorious…”
Even in the low cloud and steady rain we had seen plenty of choices for the coming days, but we would need to wait until the rocks and slopes dried a little bit. We had no aspirations for any technical climbing, with rappel descents and lead climbs, and in fact I had sworn a solemn oath to my dear wife that there would be no such vertical gymnastics on this trip. In such terrain the line between prudence and risk is always vague, though, and some risk is always there. There is no help at hand and for me that is one of the profound spiritual pleasures of it all, especially in this misbegotten modern era of safety briefings, lawsuits and policy manuals.
Fifty years ago on Wexler’s 1963 trip there was no such thing as a satellite telephone, a Personal Locator Beacon, a Spot Tracker or any of the other communication gee-gaws of today’s back-country traveller. Wexler’s itemized equipment list makes no mention at all of outside communication, not even an HF “bush radio” for base camp. They assessed their options, made their ambitious forays and ascents, backpacked heavy loads of re-supplies up to high camps away from their base, climbed and backed down when they felt it was wise to do so. After 25 days they returned to the lake and awaited the sound of the incoming plane. What marvellous simplicity! It strikes me that many of the northern canoeists and adventurers I meet and drop off as a part of my own air charter work could take a valuable lesson from that bygone era.
Don Hubbard, one the four climbers in Wexler’s group, injured a rib on the first big climb of their expedition, on day two, and put himself right out of the climbing picture for the duration. Wexler makes sporadic offhand references to him in his journal with entries including “Don was still unable to join us in action. He remained in camp all day, walking along the lakeshore, observing the beavers, ducks, and fish… He says he can hear and feel his rib popping in and out of place…” and on day Seven: “Don is in fine spirits and is fishing for trout with a piton as a sinker. The fish display more interest in the piton than in the baited hook.” So fifty years later I have to wonder — if a satellite phone from the future had suddenly been time-warped into Wexler’s base camp gear, would Don have called for that $120 charter flight back out to Watson Lake? Not sure, and we cannot know. But in those days he did the logical thing; he simply opted out of the strenuous climbing and — from the sounds of it — ended up thoroughly enjoying his three weeks of low-key rambling, which included at least two long walks downstream to a hot springs on Hole-in-the-Wall Creek.
As days stretched into weeks, Arnold and Mike and Sterling continued an ambitious program of coming and going from base camp on reconnaissance and first ascents, naming peaks and features as they went. Their climbing was not extremely technical, by the sounds of Wexler’s journal, but having been in the area now, I have much respect for what they did. It was all untried, as his journal from August 10 reflects:
“Our first possible route was a forty foot finger tip layback in a shallow vertical crack. Examination convinced us that we would have difficulty both with the climbing and security. So we retreated, traversed right, found a broken chimney-like pitch for twenty feet and traversed back to the left to another twenty-foot chimney. A few more feet and we were on top of a fine peak with a fine view. The weather still near perfect. Nahanni and Savage and other Rabbitkettle peaks loomed large and impressive.” — Arnold Wexler
On August 28, the real day two of our trip, the sun crested the steep V of the valley below us and quickly shredded the thick dawn fog. A light snow had fallen overnight, dusting our camp and all the high peaks. Camp was soon melted clean by the sun but the peaks shimmered fresh and white all day. We were speechless with awe as the first full 360° sweep of our surroundings was bathed in the rich warm light of our wonderful star. Sodden clothing quickly festooned our climbing rope strung between trees, and by mid-morning we were away up the steep slope north of camp, aiming for the towering west ridge of Wolf ’s Fang. As the climb progressed we tried to follow the most obvious route clues. We were soon both wearing our rock-fall helmets. At one narrow gully just under the ridge, a short pitch seemed to demand a quick around-the waist rope, at least to allay my fatherly instincts. Liv appreciated the short belay but assured me that we were not breaking the covenant of “no technical stuff.” In her journal she wrote that night “The sturdy ground slipped away to unsteady rocks and clumps of plants. The further we climbed, the more my nerves fluttered. I reached the point where I just had to focus on the immediate task and not worry about what lay ahead or behind.”
“Wolf ’s Molar” was the name we gave our high point that day, a prominent lump along the granite jawbone which sweeps up to the sharp pinnacle of Wolf ’s Fang. We both had the urge to climb higher but at the same time we were keenly aware of our isolation and we knew that we were already approaching the bounds of our abilities. We descended, and in its lower reaches the descent became a different sort of challenge. Angling east across the broad slope we chose a route down through a steep gully choked with willow and dwarf birch, culminating in a stripped-down skivvies-only wading of the icy creek just north of camp.
The weather was clear and blue again the next day. We were keen to visit Wexler’s “Cirque of the Tarns” and to follow the little creek drainage up to the southwest. There was nothing remotely resembling a trail, and some very thick low brush of willow and dwarf birch made the going tough as the creek tumbled past an ancient beaver lodge and a 20’ waterfall. It was a steep ascent with heavy packs, but nothing more than a steep walk, and by evening we had found a lovely tent site high up in the cradle of the cirque, on soft dry moss well past all the underbrush. Like Wexler and friends the extremely wet and spongy lichen had amazed us at our Lonely Lake base camp and we were glad to make camp on drier terrain. Very fresh grizzly sign had kept us on the lookout all the way up, but the largest mammals we caught sight of were two nimble mountain goats high on the prow of the knob called Peak Wex, after Wexler himself. We also sighted and heard two of my favourite Ragged Range critters, the Hoary Marmot and the Rock Pica, scampering in and out of the boulders, whistling and peeping at us as we passed.
From that camp high in the Cirque of the Tarns we climbed for another full day, scrambling up to the easy but satisfying summit of Peak Wex, and then climbing and prudently retreating from the south approach to Mount Aries. Our time was already ticking away, and with our weather delay at the start of the trip my return to work commitments was looming all too near. After two nights up high, we descended again to the lake and the plane.
On the morning of September 1, we knew that we needed to fly out, but the weather seemed to have other ideas. At mid-afternoon the clouds broke open enough for us to see east down the valley to Hole in the Wall creek, and in showers of cold rain we loaded the plane and taxied down to the far end of the lake for our lift-off. A steep circle over our campsite, and we were climbing past Storm Dome to the drainage of Pass Creek and the Flat River. A few hours later we were out of the mountains for another year… but the mountains were not out of us.