Friday, October 26, 2012

Thursday Adventure: Cirque of the Unclimbables (Northwest Territory, Canada)

I've had a few readers ask me if the main mountain location featured in The Tainted City, the Cirque of the Knives - a high alpine basin encircled by formidable jagged peaks - was based on any real-life mountain valleys.  The answer is yes!  And I didn't just have one spot in mind, but three, all in different real-world mountain ranges.  One valley I've visited; the other two, I haven't yet, though they are high on my climbing/backpacking wishlist.  I thought I'd do one Thursday Adventure post for each of these three inspirational places, so I can share them with you.

First up is one of the locations I haven't yet had the pleasure of seeing in person, though I've drooled over many a photo: the Cirque of the Unclimbables, in the Ragged Range near the border of Canada's Northwest and Yukon territories.  Check it out:

Cirque of the Unclimbables, with major peaks marked.  (Photo courtesy of
Just the name is enough to spark a climber's imagination!  Though of course the peaks aren't unclimbable, at least with modern techniques.  Ever since Lotus Flower Tower was featured in Steck and Roper's "Fifty Classic Climbs of North America," climbers have been flocking to the cirque to pit themselves against sheer granite walls, despite the difficulty of access.  (Reaching the cirque requires either chartering a float plane, or spending several weeks paddling rivers and hiking strenuous canyons.)  Access isn't the only problem; the weather is notoriously horrendous, even in high summer.  I read one trip report in which torrential freezing rains made climbing impossible for all but 2 of the 25 (25!!!) days the climbers spent in the cirque.  That's a hell of a long time to be stuck in your tent!  But if the trade-off is views like this, it's probably worth it:

Lotus Flower Tower (in background) and the Cirque of the Unclimbables (photo courtesy of
A few more links to trip reports, pics and pages, for anyone interested:

And lest you think the Cirque is remote...some 15 miles NW of the Cirque of the Unclimbables lie the Vampire Spires.  They are so difficult to reach, hardly anyone has climbed them.  When climbers summit, it makes the news: check out this report from last month of a brand new 5.11 route on Mount Dracula, put up by an expedition funded by the Copp-Dash Inspire Award.  Even pics of the Vampire Peaks are scarce.  But just look at this one:

Vampire Spire (photo from
How awesome is that?  And as a fan of fantasy & horror, how can you resist the allure of a climb named "Lair of the White Worm" on the Vampire Spire?  Of course, I'd have to get a hell of a lot better at climbing before I could tackle a 5.11 A.2+ big wall route...but hey, I can dream.  


  1. Never heard of the place, which is hard to believe since it's so stunning.

    And The Gate in the Cirque trip report - when I saw it, I was like, "That's from Lord of the Rings!" And then I read what he wrote: "This was very reminiscent of the gates of Argonath from the Lord of the Rings."

    It seems fantasy lives well in the minds of mountain climbers. :-)

    1. It kind of comforts me to know that even in our crowded modern era North America still has stunning sites like the Cirque (and especially the Vampire Peaks) that are so under the radar that hardly anyone outside of the climbing community has heard of them, let alone visited.

      And yeah, so cool about the Gate (and the trip report writer seeing the LotR similarity!). There's definitely a nice overlap of fantasy readers and mountain climbers...after all, both sets enjoy exploring strange and dangerous worlds far removed from mundane life! (Also, the best way to keep yourself sane when spending 25 days stuck in your tent waiting out stormy weather is to read.)