Logistics -- Cirque of the Unclimbables

Copyright 1994 George Bell

Written May 1991, Last revised 1/2003


Keep in mind that this was written in 1991, and phone numbers and prices may have changed. Whitehorse has become a more popular starting point than Watson Lake.

Getting In and Out

Most climbers fly into Glacier Lake from the town of Watson Lake, but it is equally feasible to fly in from Fort Simpson or Fort Liard. The drive from Seattle to any of these outposts is nearly 1500 miles. As you drive north, road quality decreases while gas prices increase (overall, gas prices triple along the route). Alternatively, Canadian Airlines International (in 1991) offered daily service from Vancouver to Watson Lake and Fort Simpson (via a connecting flight). It is wise to bring most of your food with you, as it is expensive at Watson Lake and Fort Simpson, and very limited at Fort Liard.

A small float plane may be charted for the flight into Glacier Lake (see list of flight services). The charge depends on the number of miles flown by the pilot, and the rate per mile varies with the size of the plane and the particular flight service. Approximate air distance is 160 miles from Watson Lake and 200 miles from Fort Simpson or Liard. Since you will normally be paying for the pilot to fly out an empty plane, you can cut your cost in half by arranging to fly in at the same time that another party flies out. This is well worth inquiring about as it will save you several hundred dollars, but is rarely accomplished in both directions. In any case you can expect to fork over a sizable sum, ranging from $400 to $600 (US) per person round trip into and out of Glacier Lake. Bad weather can delay flights for several days, but this is much less common here than in the Alaska Range.

Historically, another way to enter The Cirque has been to drive 180 miles of gravel north from Watson Lake to the mining town of Tungsten. Tungsten is 25 miles SW of the Cirque of the Unclimbables. If the mine is open and it's helicopter is operating, one may be able to charter it for the short (and cheap) 30 mile hop directly to Fairy Meadows or the SE face of the Proboscis. Around 1991, the mine closed down but as of 2002 it was reopened. One can also walk in from this road, although it takes at least a week with heavy loads.

One may be able to charter a helicopter from Whitehorse, Watson Lake or Fort Simpson, but the cost is at least three times larger than for the float plane. Because of the difficulty of travel between Glacier Lake and the SE face of Mt. Proboscis, many climbers are choppering in for climbs on this face.

If you have the time and experience, the most adventurous exit from Glacier Lake is by raft or canoe. A grueling six mile portage leads to the Nahanni River (or, better: fly or float your raft into this point, and then hike the six miles up to Glacier Lake, or fly there). Ahead lies 220 miles of wilderness whitewater, through the spectacular gorges of Nahanni National Park and ending at the Nahanni Butte Warden Station. Much of the river is easy, however, rapids up to class III or IV will be encountered (depending on water levels) and another (easier) portage is necessary to bypass the thundering, 300 foot Virginia Falls. This trip in itself is the envy of many a whitewater rafter, and takes 7 to 14 days. For more information contact (address updated 1/22/99):

Superintendent, Nahanni National Park Reserve
P.O. Box 348
Fort Simpson, NT X0E 0N0
(867) 695-3151
(867) 695-2446 FAX

The trip from Glacier Lake to Fairy Meadows is a short day even heavily laden, provided you do not lose the route. Be sure to cross the major stream exiting The Cirque before heading uphill and onto the talus below Mt. Harrison Smith (see schematic map). Everyone (including myself) seems to get the brilliant idea of taking a more direct route. Take my word for it: DON'T DO IT! Talus is infinitely preferable to the vegetable nightmare your party will soon become enmeshed in.

"What Notch", shown in the schematic map of The Cirque, is the traditional foot travel route from Fairy Meadows to Mt. Proboscis. An ice axe and crampons are required to cross this difficult pass. Most other climbs in The Cirque can be approached in sneakers (in August), but you would be wise to at least take your ice axe along in case snow is encountered at the base of a route. There are several "pocket glaciers" in the area but generally they can be avoided and they do not have serious crevasses. However, exercise caution at all times! If you get in any trouble, help is a long ways off. This is not Yosemite!

Animal Concerns

Both black and grizzly bears are found in the area around Glacier Lake. If you leave a food cache make sure it is bear proof. Bears have also been known to destroy cached rafts. Apparently the rubber smells tasty to them. The bears never seem to venture above timberline (most importantly to Fairy Meadows), but if they realize what goodies are up there we are all in big trouble. Marmots and smaller rodents are currently the only food thiefs in Fairy Meadows. [Expect nasty mosquitoes at Glacier Lake, and possibly in Fairy Meadows too]


Late June to the end of August are best. Deep snow may be encountered as late as mid June. Torrential rains occur frequently throughout the summer, bringing snow to the summits and occasionally all the way down to Fairy Meadows. Fortunately, spells of excellent weather often last three to five days. In addition, the 18 hour days allow one to take maximum advantage of good weather. September brings shorter days and snow which lingers on the faces longer.


The 1:250,000 scale map 95L (`Glacier Lake') encloses The Cirque, but is of limited value because of its large scale and 200 meter contour interval. More useful is the 1:50,000 scale map, 95L/4. For availability of either map contact:
Northwest Map Service
W. 713 Spokane Falls Blvd
Spokane, WA 99201
(509) 455-6981

Climbing Potential

The Lotus Flower Tower has eclipsed all other climbs in the region, to the extent that nearly every climbing party concentrates all their efforts on it. Climbers come to The Cirque to escape the crowds, only to become part of the Lotus traffic jam. Meanwhile, surrounding them are a dozen equally beautiful monoliths, most of which have not been climbed in the past ten years. It must be admitted, however, that the quality of the climbing varies considerably from wall to wall. Many a climber has launched himself onto a seemingly beautiful face only to find cracks crammed with moss and mud, dripping water during the longest of dry spells. Fortunately, there is a simple rule for avoiding most such nightmares: north facing means grunge. The cleanest walls have at least a partial southern exposure, and these have yielded the highest quality routes. In the 90's, there has been considerable action on the Proboscis and other stunning walls. It's not so easy to find a new line now. Baffin Island seems to be the current "in site" for big wall first ascents.

It is important to emphasize that every party in The Cirque of the Unclimbables should be completely self supporting. In 1973, Jim McCarthy had a gallstone attack in Fairy Meadow and his companions realized there was little they could do to bring help. It is a rough three day bushwhack to the nearest “habitation” (the now closed Tungsten mine). The best they could do was to send someone down to Glacier Lake to wait for the next plane. Fortunately a miracle occurred when an inquisitive helicopter pilot spotted the glint off a cooking pot and decided to investigate. Future climbers may not be so lucky, and it is wise to fly in a radio to Glacier Lake in the event of just such an emergency.


George Bell
5040 Ingersoll Pl.
Boulder, CO 80303
(303) 473-9927