The Success in Failure – Climbing the Lotus Flower Tower

The Success in Failure – Climbing the Lotus Flower Tower

  • Posted by Kaleigh
  • On August 27, 2018
  • Comments

What defines success in a climb? Do you have to send your project/route? Or is it just coming back home safe? In truth, alpine climbing is about the process as much as it is about the adventure itself. The phone calls and emails to your climbing partners as you prepare logistically and mentally for something terrifying is somehow fun! The anticipation of the climb becomes all-consuming.

Ten years ago, the Lotus Flower Tower (LFT) was the climb that started it all for me. I hadn’t been climbing more than a couple months when I saw a photo of the LFT in the Cirque of the Unclimbables, and bought a trad rack the next week. I would become the climber that could ascend such a route. If you look at the technical difficulty of the LFT, it’s easy to downplay it. Most of the pitches are 5.8 or 5.9, with only a few 5.10s and one 5.11 pitch. But there is so much more debauchery that goes into alpine climbing that even 5.8s become difficult. 

Planning a trip to the NW Territories of Canada could be considered a logistical nightmare. Do you choose to fly, spend more money, but not suffer 70+ hrs of time behind the wheel? Or do you drive and keep your schedule flexible? Either way it’s an impossible 2400 miles away from Salt Lake City. The weather is so temperamental in that part of Canada that if you do fly, there is a good chance you’ll have to change your flight for the return voyage. Thus, after back and forth we opted to drive. The LFT is so far north that during July the suns glow never leaves the Earth in any kind of darkness. Headlamps are worthless weight in your pack. The stars never show their face and you can lay awake until 1am without being tired. It’s really quite a trip.

When you look at the LFT, you see perfect stone and perfect climbing. What you don’t see is the bad weather that constantly barrages the Cirque, the loose death blocks, and the thick dripping wet moss that is growing out of every crack of rock. While aiding up a slimy wet 11th pitch I couldn’t help but think, “Huh, this is why people like sport climbing and bouldering… It took us 3 days just to get up the first 3 pitches of rock on a wall that is over 2000’ high of technical climbing.” The rain would spit us off time and time again. By the time we finally were on route, every puff of cloud or breeze would make me worried that at any moment we would be in for a torrential deluge.

On our third attempt, we finally started getting up the wall. Because of the rain we hadn’t started climbing until 3pm in the afternoon so we planned on bivying on the 10th pitch and trying to get some rest. After 9 hours of slogging on the wall we got to the bivy ledge. When you are trying to be a cool lightweight alpine climber but actually suck at climbing you never bring enough gear, but you bring too much to actually travel fast. We shivered and didn’t sleep a wink through the twilight night. By morning a thick layer of smoke had surrounded the Cirque so the sun was late to warm the wall, it became much more difficult to motivate to climb. Along with our sleep deprivation, my partner and I only had 1 liter of water left between the two of us. We had been told that between melting snow and dripping water there would be opportunities to refill our bottles en route. But alas the rock was just wet, not dripping, and the snow was frozen nearly solid.

As we peered up from our bivy the summit looks within reach, even though it is towering nearly 1000 ft above you. It seemed like we had only one option – to go up. I took the first lead up the headwall. This is, after all, what we came for. The headwall on LFT is a perfect face with train track cracks that run unbroken all the way to the summit. The face itself is surprisingly small, maybe only 40-50’ wide, but so massive in height you can see it from almost any point in the Cirque. The climbing itself is completely unique. Hundreds of chunks of diorite protrude out from the granite face creating holds to climb, and the crack system is so thin and full of moss that you almost never use it. By the end of the 15th pitch I was spent. Long out of water and looking at 4 more pitches to the summit and the crux of the route seemed too much to chance. Even as I sit comfortably at home I can feel my parched mouth and throat. We had been on route already for almost 24 hours and had been awake for 36. After dry mouthing a Snickers to death and trying to boost our energy my partner and I decided to retreat.

We had been defeated. I was so delusional on the rap, my partner had to keep a close watch on me and was tying me into every anchor point on the way down. Somehow luck was with us and we never had a rope get stuck on the rap. By the time we were grounded it was late in the day and after 2 hours of stumbling through talus, we made it back to camp. I fell asleep twice while eating and drinking my fill while the mosquitos pecked at my exposed skin.

Type 2 fun is often described by climbers as fun after the fact. So what is Type 3 fun? Could we have stayed another week to give LFT another try? Yes. But we had been sorely beaten. Its only now that I’ve returned to the comfort of my home that I yearn to be back in the Cirque among the Unclimbables.