On July 20, Chris Van Leuven and I were dropped off in the Cirque of the Unclimbables in Canada’s Northwest Territories. We spent 11 days in the Cirque, during which we climbed the Lotus Flower Tower, before we were flown into the Ragged Range for some exploratory climbing.
On August 2, Chris and I were picked up from the Cirque. Our first attempt to find the east sanctuary of Mt. Nirvana brought us to an area to the east with no flat ground to land on and a distinct lack of appetizing peaks. We would later learn that this area was aptly called “Valley of Chaos.” After aborting that flight, we went back the next day with better directions. We landed on an incredible alpine meadow on the east side of Mt. Nirvana, the highest peak in the Northwest Territories.
According to Jack Bennett’s 1997 AAJ report, Buckingham and Surdam were the first to climb in this area, summiting Nirvana in 1965, and a couple of parties have since climbed in the region. Still, the area is rarely visited. Our objective stood out like a beacon in a storm. The untouched south face of the Minotaur rose dramatically out of the glacier for almost 2,000 feet. We were experiencing the best weather of the trip at this point and immediately began humping loads. There was a beautiful line that split the south face and continued to the summit corner systems. After a five-hour approach, we fixed the first two pitches of the route. We returned the next day with plans to blast the wall in two days. The climbing turned out to be a frightening/loose/awesome mixture of free and aid. The steepness of the wall dictated hanging belays when the rope ran out. We bivied about 1,000 feet up the climb after the first day. That night the temperatures plummeted and a storm dumped over a foot of snow on us, forcing retreat the next day.
After we gathered our wits and rested for two days, the weather finally looked like it would give us a shot. Being familiar with the terrain allowed us to gain our high point earlier and get one more pitch in before dark. As we were setting up the portaledge, snow began to fall again, but we woke up to a cold, clear morning. We hightailed it out of camp and raced for the summit, gaining a chimney and corner system that split the upper wall. The climbing was consistently loose with iced-up wide cracks that were often unprotectable. Chris continued to step up with bold free climbing as we aimed for the top. The weather was alternating snow and sun all day. As I pulled the summit mantle it was dumping snow, but by the time I set up the anchor the weather had cleared. The summit offered a brilliant view of Mt. Nirvana and the surrounding peaks. We rapped the route and touched the ground without placing any holes on the entire route. We named the route Run for Cover (V 5.10 A2).
*Recipient of an AAC Lyman Spitzer Climbing Grant and an AAC Mountaineering Fellowship Fund award