Lotus Flower Tower, SE Face (attempt)
By: Gregory William Frux | Climbers: Greg Frux, Bart Berry, ChrisMcGavock, Rob _?_ |Trip Dates: June 29 - July 8, 1992
Photo: George Bell, Jr.
The sun is still hot, only days beyond the summer solstice, though it is past seven at night. That salty salmon is sitting in my stomach like a rock. I'm sweating profusely. With my mind I'm tracing the delicate moves to the first anchor, picking a stance where I'll be able to remove the protection easily. My mind is clear. My body isn't. My body is having an anxiety attack.I think of Rob, the fourth in our party, who was leading an earlier pitch, when, from exertion, heat and salty salmon, he threw up and then retreated off the climb, "This isn't fun for me today." Once I think of Rob I know what I'm going to do. I'm about to puke. Like a sick dog I splatter the granite about me with pink vomit-- tears in my eyes, dripping sweat, shaking. Now, my mind sharpens, champions the situation, reasoning that I simply have to climb this next bit. I come 'on belay', unclip from the bolts, move out on to the climb. Reaching the first anchor, a camming device, I remove it, hang it on the webbing slung from my shoulder. Continuing, I reach around a blind corner, support myself with underclings and friction. The climbing is delicate, but easy. I move gracefully and without fear across the whole traverse. A thought flickers through my mind momentarily-this is only the warm-up for the expedition ahead.
It was a once in a lifetime offer. Join a professional mountain guide as a friend, to climb a "big wall" in the Canadian wilderness. I'd been rock climbing for about five years, but mainly the short, moderate climbs of New York State's Shawangunks. This ascent, however, was to be up two thousand feet of vertical rock, three days in the doing, so remote we need a private chartered plane to even get close. It brought up issues. I'd never climbed on a route that took longer than a day, never slept on a ledge, never used mechanical ascenders. Would I be able to assimilate all the needed skills, staying steady under the pressure? Bart, who had invited me, must have thought so. In deciding to go, I was guided by a story my architecture teacher had shared with me back in high school. When he was student in France, a beautiful woman had invited him to run off to the Mediterranean Coast with her. It would have meant disrupting his plans, so he didn't go. He'd regretted it ever after, wondering what would have happened. That teacher counseled, "If you ever have a choice, take the adventurous path."
This trip came in the second year of a joyous marriage, on the verge of buying a home-good times. In the weeks before the trip, as the exotic equipment pile grew on my studio floor, as I trained hard, I grew scared. A bad, undermining fear, the kind that makes one seek shelter, hide in bed with wife and cat. It made that fair spring, filled with wonders, a bit sour. A good friend and I drifted into a counseling session without forethought.
"Beth, I'm scared about the trip."
"What's the worst thing that could happen?"
"I could die."
"Is that likely?"
"Well, no. I'm going with a guy who is a mountain guide, someone who solos (with ropes) big climbs like El Capitan. His whole business is safety."
Beth was persistent: "So, what is the worst thing that could happen?"
"I won't get up the climbs. I'll be too scared."
"Then what would happen?"
"My partners might get mad that I'd spoiled the trip for them. My friends might think I was a jerk."
"I think your friends would admire you for trying something hard. So what do you have to gain if you go?"
"A brilliant adventure."
"What will you gain if you don't go?"
"Alright Beth, I'm going."
"So Greg, what are you afraid of?"
It took some time to distill the answer. When it emerged, it was with startling clarity and I found my step was lighter, the weight gone from my chest.
There are many paths to ecstatic experience, some of which are listed in no New Age manual. Flying, for sixteen sleepless hours across the United States in a rhomboidal route, New York, Memphis, Los Angeles, Seattle, then Vancouver, is one such method. Sixteen sleepless hours meditating on fear. On the flight I wrote: "Risks? Life is 100% fatal." I struggled to focus my thoughts, bent to the notebook again, now to write about what mountaineers call "objective risks," those created by the environment, beyond the climber's control: "What about dying on the mountain? Rock fall could kill-not likely at all. Carry (and wear) a helmet. Falls ought to be held by ropes, anchors are designed for that. It would take a mistake, a bad anchor, an untied harness, or rope-probably several mistakes together-most likely during a rappel. I'll have to be careful. Fear helps with that " I thought about our take-off from LaGuardia, how the greenery had slid away under the plane. As always, I found it a beautiful, joyous experience. Reflecting on it, we could have crashed at that moment. Sleep deprived, I tried to imagine my death at that LaGuardia departure. The more I concentrated the more obtuse the subject became. After I crashed, I wouldn't be there, I would no longer exist in the world. I wouldn't care. First on, then, like a light, off. Does a light know it is off? Approaching the glittering jewels of nighttime Vancouver from above more layers of fear sloughed off. My consciousness was grateful for each moment on the planet. I wasn't about to waste another minute worrying about dying.
It seemed like the trip ought to be starting by now, four of us jammed in two-person Formica -clad motel room at Watson Lake, Yukon Territory. Instead I felt vaguely insane. We've been sorting gear for six or seven hours, discarding crampons, extra sweaters, and grizzly-bear-attracting honey, shedding at least ten pounds per person. We were tired and disoriented. The commercial flight that brought us up here made three stops enroute, with more and more extras from Northern Exposure climbing aboard-trappers, Indians, Inuit and sled dogs (perhaps I exaggerate). We'd run up and down Watson Lake's main street four times searching for stove fuel before finding it at a store next to the hotel. The main street was also the Alcan Highway, just turned fifty years old. Once a swampy, penetration level military highway, it is now paved and choked with RVs - retired folks heading 2000 miles from the 48 states to Alaska. Perhaps part of our sense of unreality had to do with that RV crowd, which raised the median age of Watson Lake to 65. Perhaps it was the mute monument at the airport-a twisted, destroyed propeller, planted in a concrete obelisk. Perhaps it was the Soviet World War II fighter plane mounted in front of the visitor's center or the forest of 15,000 destination signs brought here from all over the world. Crazed as we felt, we continued to stuff our large capacity packs: ropes, carabiners, warm clothes, stove, stove fuel, dried foods-- until they weighed 60 or 70 pounds a piece. In addition we stuffed all our soft, non-breakable items into a haul bag, to be dropped from the plane. Bart had spoken with our charter owner and had been assured that "an airdrop wouldn't be a problem." We were glad to eliminate another fifty pounds of hauling.
I'd never been in a "laser-karaoke bar" where Bart dragged the lot of us. This is a bar where a video and sound system provide back-up music and audience members sing along. While a TV scrolled the words over images of exploding cars, buildings and burning motorcycles and the music throbbed, blond, lanky Bart took center stage and sang "Born To Be Wild", which he dedicated to our climbing team. While he sang, the special effects machine blew smoke around the six other patrons and lit them with pulsating red lights. After two beers I staggered out, staring into a Yukon sunset. Finally, I'd figured out what was so weird. It was 11 p.m.
"Bullshit I'm going to throw that out of my plane, I don't care what the owner said. It'll take the tail off."
The pilot was looking at our haul bag. Those were his only words the entire flight. He was one of those guys who are so cool that you aren't certain they are alive.
The best flying is in small planes. Our charter was a Beaver, a powerful single engine seaplane, and a much smoother flier than any commercial flight. We rose in a roar and a wave from the lake, up over forests stretching out in every direction. Below, more lakes, swamps, braided riverbeds and not a road, a power line or a clear-cut anywhere to be seen. No sign of our species below us, except the dancing shadow of our plane, during our one-hour flight north. The forest sprouted ridges, bare rock, then snow-covered bumps. As we droned on, up rose the mountains, first as ripples, then as waves-the Ragged Mountains, an arm of the Canadian Rockies stretching towards the Arctic Ocean, a great unfolding of the earth. Initially they were rounded, with the carved bowls evidence of past glacial erosion. Soon, we were over a huge ice field feeding glaciers. I could feel the 9000-foot altitude in our unpressurized plane, and I could feel the cold.
Suddenly we were above our destination. If the mountain range had been waves, then this place is the pounding surf. Granite cliffs and spires dropped away clear for half a mile. The plane swept a lazy half circle over the peaks. This place, called The Cirque of the Unclimbables, wasn't discovered until 1955. The route we were to try was pioneered in 1968. It was an awesome view, great walls, knife-edges of stone, snow clinging on the few ledges. Was I feeling wonder or disbelief? I hoped my partners knew what they were doing. I could not imagine climbing here: too remote, too exposed. For a brief moment I visualized myself summiting onto a three-inch wide wedge of granite and experienced a wave of vertigo. As the Beaver purred over our two cameras clicked nonstop. Suddenly a loud bang erupted, followed by a blast of cold air. Bart had opened a window for better pictures. We could have murdered him.
We passed beyond the cirque. The pilot had stayed strictly above the highest peaks. How could we ever consider an airdrop? How could they have let us? It would have meant sending things down 2500 feet of freefall. Soon, we passed the verdigris waters of Glacier Lake, and the swampy path our route would take beyond it. We circled to lose altitude, then circled a second time, now only 400 feet over the tree covered hills. A smooth landing down the axis of the lake followed, then the Beaver's pontoons gently butted against the shore.
When we opened the door, evergreen and wild flower aromas flooded in. The landing site was marked with a totem of moose skulls lashed to a timber and the heavy buzzing of mosquitoes. In a moment the plane tore off back up the lake and over the range, out of site.
No one turned to remark on the departure of our only link with the world. The immediate monumental task and adventure beyond crowded any other concerns from our minds. We broke apart the haul bag and redistributed the gear. Wincing, I just managed to hoist my pack, at least 80 pounds worth, to my back. "Big work" I thought, as my heart tried to beat its way out of my rib cage. The hiking was hard from the start and only got worse. We trekked an ad hoc trail paralleling the lake and the swamp, round and through deadfalls, which require hoisting over branch jungles and crawling under toppled trees. I soaked my pants from the knees down from saturated mosses and drenched my shirt with sweat. Mosquitoes dogged us from the start, but swarmed more than bit. My hair was plastered to my head and the pack bit my shoulders and swung out of rhythm to my step. Faced with two stream crossings on single logs-I couldn't summon the nerve to try them with all the extra weight swaying on me. Chris saved the day,
"No problem mate, I've surfed for twenty years."
He shuttled everyone's sacks over, agile above the brook's roar. I considered feeling humiliated and decided it is a good thing to have an estimate of one's limits-A good hard fall could have trashed the trip. On the second stream crossing we had to rig a line across, for everyone's safety, after all.
It was revelation to watch my friends hit their own limits. Gear hauling continued as shitty, tough work. A low point came for me when my glasses broke, while I drank at a stream. I dove for and saved the lens and was able to rewire them latter, but I nearly gave way to despair. I was drenched from exertion, humidity and insect corpses, but the beauty of the wilderness soaked in as well. We traveled the first two miles through dark forest interspersed with wild roses and deep mosses. Pressing along on all fours under jagged trees yielded views of tiny forests under foot. Nor will I forget Australian Chris' excitement at his first view of a beaver dam.
The trail ended beyond the second stream at a log arrow pointing uphill, and we began a 2400 foot ascent of talus slopes to Fairy Meadow, where we were to set up base camp. I climbed on for five, ten, fifteen minutes at a time, then rested. I was working up near my physical limit. To our left and above a dark granite cliff appeared. I moved up slowly, step by step, seemingly forever. My pack would not sit properly, swaying and sawing into my shoulders. I fervently wished for a cessation of this battle with gravity, remembering the cool sheets of my bed at home and the certitude and comfort of my daily routine. Damp air blew up past. The clouds began to build up, providing me with renewed impetus. The boulders required hand and foot concentration and loose rocks required balance and poise.
The team separated, strung out, regrouped. Passing me, Rob reframed the journey, "Maybe it's a ritual." That seemed right: an ordeal to enter a sacred place. No storm struck us, though clouds and rain blew below us and elsewhere. Many hours up the slope Bart call my attention to a noise. Thirty feet away a young white mountain sheep had emerged, bleating plaintively. We studied each other for a moment and then it bounded off.
Thankful for the late light, we staggered on through the pass to a flower filled meadow to set camp by mid-evening. The whole walk had taken us nine hours. Entering Fairy Meadow, a world opened before us. Where we'd been only able to see the rocky pass ahead, now a great amphitheater yawned, with us at its bottom. At our feet was a verdant meadow, laced with streams, while on all sides walls, columns, faces and needles of stone rose steeply for 1500, even 2000 feet, clouds riding their tops. I was fulfilled to have come this far. A raven looking down into the Cirque would have seen two tiny tents in all that wilderness, four tired figures huddled, shivering, waiting for their soup to boil. There was motion enough in that rugged place: clouds, streams, mountain goats, the wind and intermittent rock falls-but precious little of that motion was human.
The next day we reached the base of the climb and fixed rope on the first pitch of the route. Post-holing through knee-deep snow with forty-pound packs to get there was light work compared with the previous day's gear hauling. It was occasionally trying to deal with Bart's can-do enthusiasm, but he did get us up onto our aching legs and going by noon. We got to the start of the route by 3 p.m. Bart and Rob expected to lead most of the climb, so they "volunteered" Chris to set up the first pitches. I belayed him from a precarious snow bridge over an icy crevasse (though anchored to the wall) while Chris swore his way up rotten and dirt filled rock. Occasional chunks came bounding down, but an overhang sheltered me. Chris just got up the first rope length, when lightning cracked nearby. He rapidly anchored the top of the rope and came down via a fast rappel. We glissaded to join Rob and Bart, who'd sheltered under a giant rock. Our team camped on snow, while rivulets of water tracked down the underside of the boulder. From the cocoon of my sleeping bag I watched rain and hail rake the cirque. Dry cliffs sprouted waterfalls in minutes. We drifted off to the hiss of showers in the snow.
Overnight the storm passed and finally I could look up 2000 feet of uninterrupted granite, cracks tracing our route skyward for the entire distance. From directly beneath the monolith it looked like a primitive skyscraper. I found it impossible to believe that we would soon be climbing on it, yet I was willing to be dragged along by my friends' skill and enthusiasm. Bart and Rob took off to start climbing and fixing pitch two while Chris and I hurriedly finished packing. We'd be hauling about five gallons of water plus sleeping bags, warm clothes and the stove. Word came down that the climbing was hard, the guys having to clean and aid long sections. Meantime I was gearing up as if for battle, polypropylene underwear, pile 'Ninja' jacket (warmer than I needed now, but ready for later), harness, gear sling, helmet, Jumars, etriers, spider mitts, fingerless "wall gloves", knee pads, extra slings, carabiners, Sticht plate, Power Bars and trail mix in my pockets, water bottle clipped to my waist. I'd realized that whatever I would need for the entire day had better be on my body. I felt like I was gearing up for a space walk.
Chris and I dragged the haul bag up the snow and tied it in, then ourselves. Setting up awkwardly, we perched on the lip of the crevasse. Soon, we began ascending the rope with our Jumars up a damp inside corner. It required all my concentration, but I was moving upward and soon perched a hundred feet above the snow at the first anchor bolts. The rock was steep, jagged and wet. At each belay station that day we had a real scramble-- Our tasks were to untangle and organize four ropes, haul the gear bag up and keep Bart and Rob climbing-strenuous non-stop action. Either we were using the ascenders, "jugging" or we were at the belay station standing in webbing stirrups-- etriers, hanging from another piece of webbing called a daisy chain, pulling and stacking ropes, sorting gear, reracking it all-keeping track of the rat's nest of things. With the push for speed, it wasn't surprising that I ended up with Chris' daisy chain for pitch two.
Stepping off the anchor to start jugging was daunting as the rope stretched several feet as our weight came on to it. I could tell Chris liked it as little as I did, asking Bart several times whether he had checked the anchors. It was best not to think about the two hundred fifty-foot bounce to the snow below. When I got to the belay station I clipped into the anchor with Chris' homemade daisy chain and backed it up with a sling. What I didn't know was that I'd tied it in at a point that he hadn't meant to be used.
The daisy chain broke.
After falling a foot the backup sling held.
My thought as I went was, "Now, I'll know the joy of freefall." My dispassion surprised me. Hanging from my lone sling, I wondered what had gone wrong. "Well," I thought, "Lets learn from this mistake, and get on with it." Soon I was helping with gear hauling. The bag was hauled up by an arrangement of pulleys and ascenders using a body as counterweight. Hauling was backbreaking work as the bag scraped its way slowly upward. Big wall climbing seemed to be mostly about putting ones body into pain, hour after hour.
Another fumbling start to pitch three, as I set my ascenders poorly. Here the route overhung and I found myself spinning slowly as I climbed. I used way too much arm strength and could feel the skin tearing on my fingers. When I got up to Chris, panting, I told him that maybe I should quit while we were still low enough for them to lower me down. I was in pain all the time and maybe my skills just weren't up to it. Chris, a longtime rugby player, responded,
"It's just pain. Think about all the effort you expended to get this far. Of course it's hard, it's supposed to be hard, at your physical and mental limit. If it weren't hard everyone would do it. This is the opportunity of a lifetime."
That kept me going. The wall grew slightly less steep. I could stand, rather than hang at the belays. I got better with the Jumars. Around pitch four we began to follow a steep natural crack, which continued far upwards. It was filled with washed-down soil and moss and was also loaded with tiny pink and white blooms. Seeing this vertical garden, waves of joy swelled in my guts and washed over me. I guessed that these delicate blossoms had christened this place, 'Lotus Flower Tower.' The diminutive plants hung over the void. Beauty amidst terror-the secret of the Lotus Flower, like life, joys amid mortality.
As I climbed, normal experience ceased. The geography of my mind transmuted the world into a two dimensional surface to be traveled and a vast gulf, punctuated by wind at my back. Experiences flowed from interior senses-- muscles, balance, breathing, and thinking-logical sequences anticipating the next step up, the next anchor point. Stray thoughts and normal vision vanished as extraneous information. The climbing continued upward relentlessly. The four of us became a fantastic, futuristic machine. Rob and Bart led, (aiding a lot), Chris and I gear hauled and jugged.
Higher up the crack widened to a two-foot-wide chimney and the haul bag kept getting stuck. I followed it up, kicking and hauling to free it, glad to be of concrete assistance.
We'd begun climbing at 8:30 a.m. Climbing 11 pitches, we reached the bivouac ledge at 9:30 p.m. The tower, magnificent, still soared another 800 feet above us. I sat at the anchor for fifteen minutes, in a daze, trying to untangle my gear. What a place! Spires all around us in the dusky sky and Lotus above us, most beautiful of all.
9:30 and still sunny. The ledge was about ten feet wide and twenty feet long, a lawn, in fact. Everyone and everything was tied off and clipped in. My friends were in their sleeping bags already. I was filled with nervous energy- I cooked up and distributed the food. Finally I lay down in my sleeping bag/ bivouac bag; wearing my harness-I wouldn't take it off for three full days. At that point, adrenaline wearing off, I realized how badly I'd torn up my hands with nine distinct blisters and tears. They began to hurt like hell. I took two much appreciated aspirin, a miracle drug.
With my hands in that state, I realized that I wasn't going to be able to climb any higher. That was OK, I had gotten what I'd come for. I would have liked to go to the top, but was proud to have come this far. It was great to be here. This journey, the battle with fear, which I'd imagined to be totally internal, I had found, was best done with friends. The experience had not been just bearable; it had been empowering.
I lay awake for a long time under twilight skies. My mind went over and over the working of belay stations, Jumars, tie-ins, daisy chains and etriers.
A day on the ledge. Slept three feet from a 1200-foot drop and slept well at that. The morning dawned sunny at 3 a.m. and my friends organized quickly, when they woke at 7 a.m., to continue climbing. I watched through the morning as they aided their way upward. Even when 500 feet above me I could hear them clearly. Their progress was snail-like against the mass of the cliff. I basked in the sun and melted snow in the sun in aluminum pots. I photographed them against a changing sky and found myself moved by the superhuman effort-this climb was among the greatest athletic accomplishments I'd ever witnessed.
The sun tracked slowly 180 degrees behind serrated peaks. Varied cloud forms threw shadows on the wall. I did the simple ledge chores, melting nine quarts of water, packing all the gear to protect it from storms. Above, progress was slow. At 3 p.m. they reached the smaller overhang and surmounted it. For the next two hours Rob inched upwards towards the second roof. He ran out of gear, then lowered down to take anchors from the bottom of the pitch to reuse at the top. The last portion of the pitch he climbed free, moving rapidly through some radical stems and contortions. He arrived beneath the big roof at 5:20 p.m.
Then, they called to me that they were coming down. Later, they told me they'd calculated that it would take until nine or ten p.m. to reach the summit and that they were too tired to do it safely. It was a good call.
So none of us climbed the Lotus Flower Tower.
All of us got what we'd come for.
They were back down to me in two hours. I threw some water on the stove and helped three profoundly tired climbers settle in. Slept again on the ledge, woke with my arm dangling over the edge. In the morning the sky was orange and threatening. We tossed the soft gear into that haul bag and threw it off the edge to the snow below. Then we rappelled off after it. Three hours of scary work, occasional snarled lines and a bit of rockfall saw us back to the base. As we got finished rappelling it began to rain. The weather relented just a bit as we carried the ropes and gear back toward base camp. Behind us, Lotus Flower Tower glistened black, wreathed in swirling gray clouds. I thought of Kali, the Hindu Goddess-beautiful and terrible at once.
Back at base camp, the next day, a storm hit that kept us pinned in our tents for five days, the balance of our time in the Cirque of the Unclimbables.
Editor's Note: A longer account, with more of the author's paintings, are on the author's web site.