Nearly two weeks into their expedition to the Cirque of the Unclimbables in the Northwest Territories, Maureen Beck and Jim Ewing were finally climbing after overcoming many logistical challenges. The two had come to the Cirque with the intention of making the first unassisted adaptive climb of The Lotus Flower Tower (5.10+). But, midway through the climb, “shit went wrong,” Ewing remembers. “I started throwing up, feeling weak and feverish. I was a mess. I finally just stopped and said ‘I can’t do this, I can’t continue.’” With the climb in jeopardy and Ewing’s health in question, Beck and Ewing were caught at a crossroads with an important choice to make: continue towards the summit or retreat.
Mo Beck and Jim Ewing are both adaptive climbers with a propensity for climbing hard. Beck was born without her left hand but has never let it slow her down. Since she first began climbing at age 12, Beck has competed in Paraclimbing World Cups and World Championships throughout the world. In 2017, she placed first in the Paraclimbing National Championship, solidifying her reputation as a fierce competitor.
Ewing has been climbing for over 40 years and his resume includes impressive ascents across the globe in virtually every discipline, from bouldering (“For practice,” he said) to alpine big walls. In 2014, Ewing suffered a climbing accident when he fell over 60 feet to the ground in Cayman Brac that resulted in the amputation of his left leg.
Ewing lives and works just outside of Portland, Maine, while Beck, originally from Maine, has traded Vacationland for a spot on the Front Range in Colorado. Apart from these more superficial similarities—both Mainers, both missing a limb—Ewing and Beck share a connection that, for them, matters on a much deeper level: they are climbers. Ewing stressed, “I’m new to this whole thing”—referring to his recent amputation—“and I’m not sure about the labels I agree or disagree with yet. But I view myself as a climber first and foremost. I was a climber before my accident, that is what I identified as. After amputation, I didn’t want that to change.” Beck said, “This is definitely something I’ve struggled with. I mean, I am disabled, I am missing a limb. If I get called disabled or an adaptive climber, sure, fine. We have to call it something. But my best days on the rock are the days when people say, ‘I forgot you didn’t have a hand.’”
So, a few months back when Ewing asked Beck to attempt the first unassisted adaptive climb of The Lotus Flower Tower in the Cirque of the Unclimbables, she accepted without hesitation. Despite not knowing Ewing beforehand, their nearly twenty year age difference, and the rather intimidating location name—”unclimbable” is not the most welcoming word when planning a remote alpine expedition—Beck was all in. “When opportunity comes knocking, it knocks for a reason,” Beck said in an interview on the “Freedom to Focus” podcast.
With 18 pitches of alpine granite set in the beautiful Northwest Territories backcountry, towering above the aptly named Fairy Meadows, it is easy to understand why The Lotus Flower Tower is often billed as one of the greatest climbs in the world. But, like most good things, The Lotus Flower Tower doesn’t come without a price. Even before the actual climbing begins, The Lotus Flower Tower is a serious objective, to put it mildly.
“Getting there was kind of a junk show,” Ewing commented with a laugh. “We had everything from broken airplanes to helicopters that didn’t show up to lost bags…We booked the helicopter two or three months in advance but when we arrived, we found that a lot of the helicopters were booked to fight forest fires.”
“It’s classic Yukon,” Beck interjected, “$4,000 down for a helicopter doesn’t actually mean you are going to get the helicopter!”
Beck, as a competition climber with a naturally high level of fitness already, focused on her technical skills leading up to the expedition. “We trained differently. I’ve been a competitive climber and athlete for almost five years now. For me, it was more that I need to get out of project mode and learn how to place gear in something that’s not an Indian Creek Splitter. I needed to learn how to route find, how to manage ropes, what to wear in the alpine.”
Ewing, on the other hand, with plenty of alpine experience, felt technically sound but lacking in fitness. “For me, being a lifetime climber, the rope management and those technical skills were already there. I had to focus more on continuing to recover from my amputation, on getting stronger and on climbing as much as I could at the climbing gym. Basically getting in mileage and trying to condition myself to climb a 2,000 foot wall.”
Ewing and Beck, for the most part, have different personalities. Beck refers to Ewing as “Mr. Bubbles” because, as Ewing put it (rather flatly), “I am not usually bubbly.” But, as if trading personalities for a brief moment, when Beck and Ewing got their first glimpse of the tower, Beck admitted that she “felt a little nervous” gazing upon the “moody and foreboding” landscape. Ewing, on the other hand, was “incredibly excited and giddy!” He said, “I was running around, jumping all over the place! Just super excited. I couldn’t wait to get on the climb!”
After over ten days of waiting, Ewing and Mo finally touched rock and began their attempt at the first unassisted adaptive ascent of The Lotus Flower Tower. Ewing admitted, “It was a harsh awakening… but we just chipped away at it.”
The team set off to climb the first few pitches of the tower purely for exercise with the intention of reclimbing the pitches later for their one day push. After nearly two weeks of waiting around in the woods, time on the rock was needed. However, after the first few pitches provided stiffer resistance than Beck or Ewing originally anticipated, they changed tactics. “We gave up on the idea of climbing it in one day and decided to just fix the first couple of pitches. It was a let down or at least a harsh reality.” Beck added bluntly, “It was so heinous we were just like, let’s fix it.” After fixing the first three pitches, the group retreated back to Base Camp to wait out a coming storm.
“When we actually went out to climb the entire thing on go day, we jugged those first three pitches and went straight into a number of pitches of 5.7 chimneys. Because we decided that we were going to bivy on the bivy ledge, we didn’t have a haul bag, we had to climb while wearing backpacks. Those ten pitches to the bivy ledge were physical, with lots of choss and moss. By the time we got to the ledge, all we wanted to do was sleep,” Ewing remembered.
The pair thought that they would get a good night’s rest on the bivy ledge and wake up the next morning ready to take on the rest of the tower. But the tower had other ideas. Ewing fell ill that night and in the morning was hardly able to move, much less climb.
The team talked over the situation for a few critical moments and decided to swap their goal of the first unassisted adaptive ascent of the tower for the more modest goal of simply achieving the summit. They enlisted the help of their film crew and the team to get to the top. Despite his illness, Ewing summited.
“It was a blow to my pride,” he said, “but I wanted to do the route… that was the main idea of the trip. It was certainly, even with the assistance, pretty challenging for me to make it to the top. I don’t know where I got the energy.”
Beck and Ewing’s epic on The Lotus Flower Tower is something they won’t soon forget. As Beck headed off to Innsbruck to compete in the Paraclimbing World Championship and Ewing got back to work, the two were already talking about returning next year. As Beck put it, “We have to go back, we have unfinished business… Crap, now I like alpine climbing!”
For more on Jim Ewing, Maureen Beck and their attempt at the first unassisted adaptive ascent of The Lotus Flower Tower, keep an eye out for a film called Adaptive, sponsored by Sterling Rope Company, coming out next Spring.