Grotte Mickey, Nahanni National Park, Part 1

It was the summer of 1980 and my second year as a seasonal park warden at Nahanni National Park. I was joined by fellow seasonal Joe Buker and our Chief Park Warden Lou Comin in an adventure to put into practice the climbing skills we learned from alpine specialist Willie Pfister at Hole in the Wall Lake the previous summer. Our goal was to climb up to, into and through Grotte Mickey a cave discovered in First Canyon Caves, NNP1970 by Frenchman Jean Poirel.

Nahanni’s first canyon was known for its limestone karst topography, left untouched by the scouring effects of the last continental ice sheets. The canyon had several underground caves, the most well known being Grotte Valerie with its 2 kilometers of galleries and home to the skeletal remains of more than 80 dall sheep. Grotte Mickey was lesser known, but considerably larger and much more inaccessible. It had over 3 kilometers of galleries located close to 400 meters above the Nahanni river. These caves comprised part of National Geographic’s September 1981 featured article on Nahanni National Park. Karst geomorphologists Derek Ford (McMaster University) and Jacques Schroeder (University of Montreal) explored, mapped and photographed these caves as part of their PhD research in the early 70s

Our plan was to spent 2 or 3 days as needed, climbing up to the Grotte Mickey’s  entrance about 30 metres from the top of first canyon. Joe had spent his seasonal lay-off after Willie’s school, climbing on his own and expanding his skills. He was our lead climber. Lou Comin, had previous mountaineering skills and experience from his years in Jasper. He would climb second, followed by me, the novice of the group. We got an early start and traveled up river by jet boat from the Nahanni Butte warden office and operations base. We moored our boat in a quiet back eddy just above Lafferty’s riffle.

The objective of day 1 was to fix rope up the canyon wall below the cave as far as we could get, before rappelling back down to the boat where we’d camp overnight.  We expected to reach the cave entrance and explore Grotte Mickey on day 2. We would follow the map of Grotte Mickey’s galleries made by Jacques Schroeder. On completion of our explore we’d rappel back to the boat again for the night returning to the Butte on day 3. Collectively, we had the self rescue skills required to get us out of trouble if we ran into any problems. Brimming with confidence and youthful exuberance, we did not expect any to encounter any difficulties. Looking back a few years later, after several additional mountaineering schools, and a climb up Grassi Ridge in Yoho (lead by Claire Isrealson on my rope and Brad White on Kevin Mclaughlin’s rope), I realized I was probably in a little over my  head with the climb up first canyon we were taking on.

Things went pretty well according to plan on day one. Progress was slower than anticipated as we knocked the rust off our skills. As anticipated, we encountered no problems other than flakey Nahanni 01rock. I did have a interesting moment when both my “thank god” hand-holds on an exposed pitch pulled away from the wall. Luckily I was one a good ledge and able to maintain my balance. It did make for a heart stopping “WTF adrenalin rush” I never did share with Joe and Lou.

Day 2 started early and found us again in good spirits. We quickly made it to day one’s high point using yesterdays fixed line and protection. Progress from there was much slower. I’m not sure at what point we realized we weren’t going to achieve our overall objective. We continued to push on deciding to forgo the cave exploration and at least achieve the summit of the canyon wall. Being mid June, we had the benefit of near 24 hour day light which enabled us to continue on well into the evening. We finally reached the canyon wall summit, but by then it was close to midnight. Since we had expected to have plenty of time to rappel back down to our boat to for supper and to camp, we had only our warm jackets, rain gear and remnants of our lunch and snacks. Being non smokers and not having an Optimus stove, not one of us had matches – so much for being prepared for all contingencies.

Lucky for us it wasn’t that cold, and the ground was soft and mossy. We stood around and laughed at our predicament, swapping lies about our adventure thus far. As it went further into the night it eventually did start to cool. It had been a long day and with the adrenalin long gone, I was the first to lie down and curl up in the cushiony moss. The mosquitoes weren’t that bad but it only takes one to keep you awake. I tucked my face and exposed skin into my warden jacket as best I could and tried to get some sleep. A short time later Lou did the same. It must have been getting colder than I thought because I was a little surprised when Lou cosied up close to me for warmth.

“Well this is awkward and more than a little bit uncomfortable” I was thinking, but Lou was the boss and I was too tired to say anything. I could only imagine what must have been going through Joe’s mind. We were rough tough “north of sixty” park wardens after all. At some point Joe must have figured “what the hey” and joined Lou and I on the ground. It must have been something to see, the three of us snuggled together in the soft moss. I will admit it was the only time in my 33+ year career I ever spooned with any park wardens. I spent many a night in tents on patrol with my peers, but there was always the “personal space” provided by each others sleeping bags, assorted books, boots, clothing and packs etc.

Tom and LouWhat happens on patrol, generally stays on patrol except if it is a really good story. After 35 years I figured this was a pretty good story to share. As I think about it now, Lou was the smart one of us snagging the middle position to have warmth on both sides. While Joe and I each had one cold side, I don’t recall too much re-positioning by either of us through the night to move the cold side in. It was probably the “stillest” night sleep Joe and I ever had.

We awoke early the next morning and quickly found our way down to the boat for a hearty combined supper and breakfast. Our unplanned overnight made for a few more good stories. It no doubt made us better prepared in the future with matches, bivy bags, an improved supply of emergency rations and light weight backpackers stove. Our unplanned for night on the rim, did not dampen Lou’s quest to reach our goal. As soon as we got back to the Butte, he immediately went into action looking for room in the summer river patrol schedule for Grotte Mickey part 2.