Torngak’s Lair

I wake, inspired, in the same excitable state as last night. A slight route change is in order however: we will go through the heart of Torngak’s Lair as indicated on Forbes’ map, instead of following our initial planned route thus avoid battling through the knife edge valley. It makes more logical sense anyhow but something greater than practicality draws us this way. The maps come out, the distance is slightly longer but no less challenging. We can’t see around the corner and are mentally prepared to traverse difficult scree slopes. But that is in the ‘future’ (this afternoon?) and throwing caution to the wind, we only care about the now. Ha! Torngak watches our departure…

Lenticular clouds criss cross the sky. It’s a cool 8C. With one last look at Sennerkitte Lake, the packs are loaded and hoisted to our backs. We climb up and successfully make our way cross the treacherous creek, boulder hopping with fingers crossed against accidental slippage and any ankle turning.

There is really no vegetation at all. A small snow field drips, droplets disappearing between rock cracks. Crystal clear ponds, each feeding the next, blue opals on a string, quenching Torngak’s thirst.

At the end of the valley, we run out of room. The slopes are a mix of scree and cliff. Cursing, we backtrack and descend, crossing at the east side of the lakes. I’m getting tired as the footing required complete concentration on uneven rocks. It is somewhat discouraging to descend, knowing the same and more elevation must be regained. But after a break for lunch, my energy returns and I’m game to continue.

The afternoon starts off well. We intend to ‘thread the needle’, following a slender blue line on the map out of from Torngak’s Lair. The faint thread of a caribou path suggests the best route, a pounded trail that heads in the right direction. With black cliffs on one side, white granite scree on the other, we reach the pass itself and look down.

The route looks terrible. It’s a rocky wasteland, bounded by sliding scree slopes with tiny ponds soaking the valley floor. The caribou path has vapourized into thin air, hooves leaving no mark on rock. But there is nothing to do but slowly start down a hair raising pitch, crossing 5 contour lines in less than a half a kilometer. As a ‘flat lander’ who is used to hiking along marked paths that are level as a side walk, it’s an intimidating challenge.

With Alfred’s encouragement, I pick my way down, hiking poles clattering against the rock, arms outstretched for balance and carefully placing each step. My knees ache and heart pounds with the effort of concentration. The inevitable happens, my heel catches on a downward step, the rock rolls out from under my foot.

Bing bang bash, down I go! I land on my right side, the pack cushioning the worst of the fall. My upper arm is badly bruised, the skin abraided, the shirt sleeve torn. With throbbing baby finger, hip and shin bone,  I’m shaken and in slight shock. ‘Could have been worse’ I consol myself ‘ could have bashed my head, broken something’. As well, despite being on the exterior of the pack, the camera and tripod are undamaged. Confidence in shreds, there is nothing to do but load my pack up again and go on.

It seems like eternity until I reach the end of the loose rock. With feet firmly planted on the valley floor, I can’t believe the scene before us. It’s a huge boulder field, ranging from house size to basketball size. Nothing is sorted, there is no level grassy terrace or caribou trail to follow. Rolled off the mountain slopes, rocks lie helter skelter in the crack of the narrow valley still unsoftened by the embrace of soil. I’m speechless.

This is one of those challenges where the body wants to give up and the spirit fights to keep going. With body bruised and aching, feet smarting, I want to sit down and cry. How much further must we go? Carefully, Alfred scopes out the best routes, some times scrambling over, sometimes squeezing around but always with a pack, the weight pulling, we fight to maintain balance. Eventually, I disconnect from my body as the majesty of the mountains distract, pulling my gaze up and outward. Jagged peaks, rock spirals and turrets grace our way, lining the summits with animal rock minarets along this lofty crack. It’s truly the entrance to Torngak’s Lair.

Numbly, we continue. Eventually the boulders give way to more gentle terrain, meaning smaller rocks. A caribou trail appears once again. At the end of a tiny pond, the valley widens slightly. There, in the shelter of a huge boulder, we find enough level area to set up the small tent. I chose to ignore the possibility of rock fall, instead hoping that Torngak will smile upon us. It has clouded over again and winds grow in intensity. Not a good omen but too tired to care, I flake out in the tent. It’s been the longest hiking day of my life, but I did it, meeting the worst of some wickedly difficult terrain. Abandoning Alfred and the fate our tent poles to increasing gale force winds, I sleep deep and instantly.