Photography by Jim Martinello
A team of Sea to Sky adventurers paddleboard deep into the wild NorthWest Territories with big plans for even bigger mountains. Amidst grizzly bears, white-knuckle floatplane missions and hundreds of kilometres of wild river, Tim Emmet, Sean Leary, Jimmy Martinello and Trevor McDonald shuffle the deck and deal out a Rock, Air, and Water adventure for the ages.
There was something about the Cirque of the Unclimbables that fired my imagination. It sounded magical — the infamous base camp is called Fairy Meadows, with huge boulders scattered across the valley floor and jagged peaks towering above. I heard the chances of seeing a grizzly bear were one hundred per cent. And as far as I could tell, nobody had ever BASE jumped in the area before.
When Tim Emmett asked if I wanted to go on a trip to the Vampire Spires and Cirque of the Unclimbables, I immediately said yes. I had to. The Cirque had flirted with my imagination since I first read about it in high school and the Vamps, well… the near-complete absence of Internet information and photos was like a calling card for adventure. Rumours of the Vampire Spires’excellent granite and hidden remote towers wisp through climbing publications like ghosts. And the Lotus Flower Tower at the Cirque? Well, it is one of the 50 classic climbs in North America.
The initial mission was to climb and jump the Lotus Flower Tower. It seemed the headwall might be steep enough to jump with a wing-suit, and even if it wasn’t I wanted to find out. Then I bumped into two of Squamish’s most vivacious characters — Jimmy Martinello and Trevor McDonald. These amigos are a bundle of mischief, effervescent with spirit and adventure, and it turned out they were also planning to head into the Cirque but with a whole new dimension — they wanted to access the area using stand up paddleboards and paddle down the Little Nahanni River to link the same mountains I wanted to climb. This had also never been done before, so it made perfect sense to join forces. With a new team of wild cards in play, the ante was upped considerably.
I first met Tim Emmett right after he landed a wingsuit jump off the Stawamus Chief and I knew right away that we would get up to some serious shenanigans and wild adventures together. I had already heard a lot about Tim and Sean from friends, and reading about them in magazines. It seemed these guys were superheroes that could climb up pretty much anything like Spider-Man, and then fly off the top like Superman. It didn’t take long before a plan started brewing. We wanted to combine our passions and go after something R.A.W. style (Rock, Air, and Water). The Northwest Territories seemed the perfect arena.
Stand up paddleboard? I’d never seriously considered doing this. I mean we’ve all seen people paddling around on lakes, and really good surfers taking them out on the ocean where other really good surfers make fun of them. I guess I’ve thought SUP would be a nice activity to take up when I get old and can’t do fun stuff anymore — a way to get out and serenely take in nature. But an actual sport? Trevy and Jimmy were fully psyched, however. They’ve been pioneering the sport of whitewater SUP over the last couple of years, running local rapids up to Class IV and fully going for it expedition-style on multi-day descents of BC’s best rivers, paddling with everything strapped to the boards in dry bags.
Trevor had put in solid ten-hour plus days finishing a stonemason job right up until we left and enthusiastically cracked a 9:00 a.m. beer on the way to the airport. “I’m so stoked to be going on a trip with the boys,” he said with a smile as we all toasted the happy days ahead.
I met Tim one day out cragging in Squamish. He had just moved here from the UK and I could see right away that he was a character, but what I didn’t know was how bloody strong he was. His friendly Chuckles-the-Clown demeanor disappeared as soon as the climbing began – he very quickly got down to business.
I didn’t meet Sean until we had already started this trip. And his relaxed, Northern California vibe was really tested in those first few hours when Air Canada suddenly had major issues with our film equipment and required an extra thousand bucks in fees. Plus, we still had another eight hours waiting for the next flight, so we spent the lost day drinking and storytelling in a park in East Vancouver.
The plan was optimistic. We had a total of two and a half weeks, which is less than most parties would allow to do any one of the three objectives we had: paddle the Little Nahanni, climb and jump in the Vampire Spires, paddle the South Nahanni to the Cirque of the Unclimbables, then climb and jump there. Every account I’d seen chronicling climbs done in that area involved weeks of rain, punctuated by short windows of stable weather. If that happened to us, we’d be done — at least the climbing part. It’d be fine for the river though.
We were to put in at Flat Lakes — the headwaters of the Little Nahanni River right where the Yukon and NWT meet. Steve Brewis is a total legend and true adventurer who lives in Whitehorse with his wife Corine and son Jan — all super outdoor athletes. Steve committed to drop us at the put-in without ever having met us. He drives an F150, not exactly known for its fuel efficiency, and it was an 11-hour trip each way. That’s a small mission by Yukon standards though — everything’s bigger there – the mosquitoes, the wilderness, the bears and the personalities.
Beta, on the upper section of the Little Nahanni, was hard to find. The one person I personally knew who had run it was James Q Martin, a badass climber and photographer from Flagstaff, Arizona who had rafted the Little Nahanni en route to the Vamps in 2012. Just as we were leaving Whitehorse, about to go out of mobile phone range for the next three weeks, I got a text from Q with his thoughts on our quest.
JAMES Q MARTIN (VIA TEXT)
“Paddle board – um yeah u might be screwed?… Class IV read and run – tight canyons – there is one canyon that’s for real! I would not paddleboard it and portaging would be a nightmare… It’ll be beautiful though!”
The first day out on the boards, the river was far too shallow. Biking armour and helmets protected us from shattered bones, but not from bruising. We bounced off boulders for 11 straight hours and Tim took a huge hit to the hip halfway through the day. If paddling were a game of pinball though, Sean would definitely have taken the high score. I thought I’d gotten away unscathed until the next morning when I limped from my tent with every bone and muscle aching and all of us staring down another ten-hour day (at least) on the water.
I started calling it “fall-down” paddleboarding. Or really, “fall-down-andget-pummeled-by-rocks” paddleboarding. This is how it went: You’d begin by standing up confidently, and after having successfully navigated some cool rapids, you’re feeling like a pro, expertly bracing and paddling, taking sweet lines. Then suddenly the board hits an eddy line or the fins catch on a rock and with very little warning you karroom off the board and into the churning, freezing waves.
Dragging/bouncing across boulders in the river, you’re also swimming away from the sweeping ends of dead trees reaching out into the water, while clinging to your upside down board and trying to flip it back over. The large drybag with all your kit that’s strapped to the deck surprisingly helps with the leverage. Now you’ve got the board turned over, and gasping with exertion because it’s the fortieth time you’ve done this today, you pull yourself onto the deck like a beached whale.
At the end of that first day I felt like I’d been in a kickboxing match against about ten ninjas, and I definitely hadn’t won. Tim fared only slightly better, but Trevor and Jimmy were seasoned pros. They finessed down the rapids with great style. Even when they fell off, it was with a controlled grace and composure that was nothing like my technique of rolling down the windows with my arms as I penciled off into the rapids like a broken tree limb. The next day actually became fun, once the Ibuprofen kicked in.
The second day on the Little Nahanni delivered some of the funniest rides any of us had ever experienced. Deep water, wild canyons and endless roller-coaster waves brought the smiles, laughs and fine times that come with feeling totally immersed in the journey.
Over those first two days we covered about 100 kilometres of exhilarating whitewater. The South Nahanni was much calmer and we were able to relax and paddle into the evening in a state of bliss, surrounded by endless mountains and untouched pristine forest wilderness — so incredibly alive with beauty. We slept well that night and paddled off in the morning for the next magical day, heading for a prearranged spot on the map where we’d meet Warren LaFavre to get bumped up to the mysterious Vampire Spires.
Warren is an absolute legend. He’s hugely accommodating and has developed a fondness for climbers, which is great because he operates a De Havilland Beaver floatplane with the precision of a Samurai. Warren took time away from flying clients into his high-end fishing lodges to help shuttle us climbers around the mountains.
Supposedly it takes 10,000 hours of practice to truly master something. Since 1979, Warren has logged 15,000 hours in his Beaver. I realized how crucial that experience was as we approached Vampire Lake. “I’m the only pilot who lands and takes off here,” Warren mentioned calmly over the intercom as we flew up the canyon.
“When was the last time you did that?” somebody asked.
“Oh, let’s see. In the helicopter it was last year. In the airplane, 2001 I think. It’s a real short lake. None of the pilots I fly with land here.”
Sean and I opted for the VIP entrance to the Vampire Spires and jumped out of the plane. We thought it would be more fun and possibly safer than landing on the tiny lake. Warren pulled it off though and we set up camp, cracked some cold beers and marvelled at the surrounding beauty. Sean and I were forced to wear mosquito-mesh body suits as we packed our parachutes — it would have been torture without them.
After a slow approach hike through perhaps the most beautiful valley I have ever seen, we hit the base of Vampire Spire and decided to climb The Dark Side, a 5.11+ up the north face that was the only free route on the spire. Climbing in a group of four often takes longer than expected, and Sean and I were carrying backpacks with BASE rigs and wingsuits, so by the time we got to the top, light was fading.
We still had to find a suitable exit point. Checking the altitude on my watch, I realized our climb had been shorter than we expected — if we were going to jump it would be the lowest wingsuit jump I had ever done. It was marginal, one of those jumps requiring perfect execution. We had no room for error and rushing that kind of jump in fading light is a bad idea so we decided to stay put until morning.
We set up for a “shiver bivy” on a small flat gap on the ledge — just wide enough to fit all four of us. Tim busily lined our future nest with clumps of moss and soon we were all wedged in close for shared warmth. Tim and I wore our wingsuits on top of all our clothes, and Trev and Jimmy were wrapped together in a single space blanket, clutching each other like newlyweds.
These types of sleeping arrangements start off pleasantly enough. You spoon and are spooned, and if you’re lucky enough to be in the middle, you’re almost comfortable. If someone turns over, everyone turns over. Farts are funny, at first.
If things got truly grim we knew we could pull out the parachutes and wrap everyone in a silky cocoon, but that also means having to pack them back up first thing in the morning while you’re cold and stiff. So you try to tough it out
Everyone falls asleep for a while, but a couple hours later, there’s always a shivering cacophony of dental percussion as everybody’s teeth chatter at the same time. It’s so absolutely grim that you find it hilarious and laugh. If you’re with the right crew, with equally morbid senses of humour, everyone will laugh and that warms you up a bit. Still, the final couple of hours stretch on endlessly and it takes forever for the sun to come up.
Daybreak found the four of us perched cold on the side of the spire just below the summit with stunning Northwest Territories landscape dropping endlessly around us. In the grand scheme of things, we were high up, nestled between kick-ass spires and giant walls with names like The Fortress and The Canine, but in reality we were only 800 feet off the talus, and that’s a generous estimate.
Tim and Sean thought it a bit spicy, but were confident there was enough air for them to fly. And they did, jumping into the void together without hesitation. They had perfect flights until Tim opened his chute and experienced a line twist that caused him to corkscrew hard into the talus. He landed backwards in a patch of grass and boulders (and good luck). Jim and I rappelled the wall with our minds totally blown at what we had just seen.
Warren picked us up at camp and returned us to the Nahanni. His take-off on that tiny lake was straight-up maverick flying — Sean was in tears at one point and everyone (except Warren) thought we were going down. Warren liked this tremendously and it made him smile.
Tim returned to Warren’s lodge with an angry ankle, while Sean, Jimmy and I pressed on down the Nahanni. The river was long and slow, but eventually we arrived at Britnell Creek, the take out for our next mission into the Cirque of the Unclimbables.
Knowing full well that Tim was enjoying a comfy bed and lots of drinks at Warren’s Inconnu Lodge, we camped by the water only to be awakened at dawn by the sound of a paddleboard being punctured. A lone grizzly had found the ultimate chew toy with a surprise, pressurized-air ending. We heard his hasty retreat but didn’t bother poking our heads out to investigate.
The plane arrived with Tim and bumped us up to our second alpine playground: the Cirque of the Unclimbables. What can be said of this place that has not already been said before? Big walls, turquoise lakes, monolithic campsites and verdant meadows with prime boulders…even the outhouse is made from granite and hangs off a cliff. Paradise.
Then it finally came; rain. Occasionally the clouds would rip away from the towers and briefly expose enormous granite walls. We took advantage of these dry(ish) windows to sport climb and boulder near camp. But with each wet, passing hour, we could feel our final objective of climbing the Lotus Flower Tower slipping away. With one day left, we went for it.
In the Cirque, most ascent parties start just before dawn and if things go well they can be back to camp before dark. In true West Coast fashion, we set off at two o’clock in the afternoon.
Looking more closely at Lotus Flower Tower, Sean and I realized it wasn’t steep enough to jump and we were running late anyhow so we decided to take minimal gear and “simul-climb” the route together, with both of us roped up but climbing at the same time. Sean holds the record for the fastest ascent of El Capitan in Yosemite, so having him as a partner for this style of climbing was a true luxury. We climbed the 17-pitch route in three pitches and made it to the top in four and half hours. After soaking up the spectacular views from the summit we abseiled down, meeting Trev, Jimmy and Scott Adamson at the halfway ledge.
Jim and I had picked up a hitchhiker — Scott didn’t have a partner so he joined us — but because we were a trio and also not superhuman, our ascent took much longer than Tim and Sean’s. We climbed many pitches inside a headlamp bubble after darkness fell while the northern lights danced in the background. We summated just before dawn and rappelled with the sun chasing us down the wall and a bluebird day unfolding into natural perfection.
The story after this is familiar to anyone who has ever adventured with their friends in the wilderness — laughter, high fives, beers and comrades. It’s that moment right after accomplishing what you’ve set out to do, but are not yet home. For that brief moment, it could even be called a vacation.
Sadly, seven months after our journey in the N.W.T., Sean Leary passed away in a BASE jumping accident in Zion National Park. This hit us pretty hard because he was such a passionate and gifted spirit with so much to give and share, so much love and drive for life. After his passing, I put these words on paper while thinking of Sean’s incredible spirit and life’s forever changing moments.
Our calling, our passions, to live our deepest desires.
Adventure, risks, highs that fill our souls with devotion.
We jump, we fly, we ride the tide — the waves of controlled and uncontrolled emotions.
What it feels, the sensations of breaking free, the breaths of exhilaration.
Hold back, let free. Only then can we see reflection, shadow, a mirror of our true desires, where and when it takes us.
Each day and moment one to another may we cherish.
Within an instant come and gone, blink of an eye, Tears falling from the sky.
Why one must die, for you have been chosen, why it is, love and support so strong.
Closing eyes, friendship, family, the circle spirals on.
Sean you are with us and inspire us all along.
Your will, your happiness, your passion shine on through the cloudy skies, within the shadow and the light.
For Sean (Stanley) Leary, may you forever take flight.
The Childhood spirit shine on…