Sunday, September 1, 2013

Trip Report: A First Ascent on Hall Peak in the Purcell Range of British Columbia

WARNING: Long post. Feel free to skim for pictures, you lazy bum (bonus photos at bottom)

Summary: 7 days, 6 nights, 2 ascents of Hall peak, 1 first ascent of the east face (IV, 5.9 A1, 1700'), buttloads of fun and adventure
Ryan Leary slyly mentioned the trip to me many moons ago when my girlfriend and I visited him in Tucson for a weekend getaway. He had gotten a Mountaineering Fellowship Grant from the American Alpine Club to try and establish a new route on the East Face of Hall Peak, park of the "Leaning Towers" but his planned partner Matthew Morriss couldn't make it because he was starting grad school. At the time I said, "Heck yeah dude! Keep me in the loop and I'll see what I can do." What I was thinking was more along the lines of, "I be dreamin'." I mean, it was a dreamy idea, but it just seemed nearly impossible to pull off, being in the middle of my term position's field season, and knowing I already was going to be taking a bunch of other time off, it just didn't seem like a 10 day trip in the middle of August would fly. 

Not to mention, I have pretty little trad climbing experience. And I've only climbed multipitch a couple times, ever, and they were sport climbs. Meh?

Come early summer, Ryan harassed me again, and I thought, "what the hell?" and I looked at some plane tickets. When I saw they weren't overly expensive, I stewed on it for a couple days, and then pulled the trigger. B.C. here I come! My line of reasoning, that I often like to employ, was asking myself what I would regret more later- missing a week of work for climbing on remote, beautiful mountains in British Columbia, or working that week, maybe getting a project wrapped up, and thinking about how I could be in the mountains? Pretty easy decision that way, and that is despite loving the work I do!

Now I just had to get into climbing shape without climbing? Meh? 

We both flew into Spokane, WA- Ryan a week or so earlier to do some climbing in WA. He rented a car, and picked my ass up from my sketchy hotel in downtown Spokanistan (Spokompton?), and we hit up several grocery stores for food provisions. We both seem to not be much of the "planner" types, so we just roamed the grocery store and bought food that sounded tasty. Good to go.

We made good time getting up toward the trail head, until we made a wrong turn in the dark on some dirt roads and drove for forever up the wrong valley. Oops.

You should have seen the shitshow that was packing about 20 minutes before this picture was taken...
We packed by the car the next morning with another wrench thrown in the plans a bridge was washed out some 9 miles or so from the trail head we planned to use. The adventure was already growing... The packs felt pretty damn heavy, and with the extra road walk and late start (noonish?) we ended up just camping at the actual trail head that night.
This bridge and several others had apparently fallen victim to a spring flood event.
The next day we hiked up to the hot springs, though we opted to save our stop for the way out so that we could maximize potential climbing time, crossed the river, and began a pretty brutal bushwhack steeply up to a pass some 2000 feet above us. 
We had yet to even see the peaks we planned to climb until we reached the top of the pass that evening, and we were absolutely blown away by the view of our climbing objective. It felt like a strange mix of excitement and terror. Such stark and imposing features on the landscape!
And they also still looked pretty far away, with a seemingly impossibly deep valley between us and the Leaning Towers
We camped on top of the pass that night, our task feeling equal parts exciting and daunting. 

Cookin' dinner with a view, and a little bug protection. I was amazed at the diversity of biting insects that relentlessly plagued us.
The next day we made pretty good time contouring around the massive valley, below the cirque of glaciers and sheer peaks that lead to the Leaning Towers. Well, there was some frustration crossing the conifer-willow jungle on what felt like a nearly vertical slope. I'd say that was one of Ryan's low points. I actually enjoyed it a little bit, swinging around on bunches of willow branches like a boreal version of Tarzan. I didn't tell him that at the time though. We used a snow bridge to cross the glacier-fed river that was making its way down center of the valley (our view from camp later showed us that the snow bridge had collapsed sometime after we crossed it).
View as we traversed around toward the base of Hall Peak
Polished slabs below the glacier
There are about 30 more photos of this view. Too much to handle.
We set up camp on the shoulder right below the east face of Hall Peak, and did a short snow climb/hike up to scout our route to climb the north face the next morning. We were at first dismayed to find a granite and metamorphic ridge separating us from our route up the north face (and what would be our descent route should we nail the first ascent up the east face) but we quickly found what looked like an easy single pitch, if chossy, climb to get over it. We hiked back down the snow as the sun set, talking about potential routes of the east face.
Just incredible.
We left camp around 8 the next day, gear laden and ready to give the north face a whirl. As expected, it was one easy pitch to top out the ridge, and we even found an old rappel anchor at the top. We opted to climb the snow and glacier straight up the middle of the north face for a little adventure. The most exciting part was probably crossing the bergschrund, with a very short pitch of 80 degree ice to get over the upslope side of it- fun! and we were glad we had reason to use the ice screws and pickets we had carried in. It was then a pretty straightforward, but pretty steep, snow climb and scramble to the top. It was probably steep enough to warrant pro and a rope, but it felt unnecessary with the quality of the snow, and it would have slowed us down an awful lot.
Block and Tower Peaks looking very sheer and imposing. I'll come back for you, my pretties!
Stoke level high.
Cruising up some perfect late summer BC snow!

Summit! Such an amazing area, I would love to go back there someday.

Gosh I love glaciers. Couldn't get enough of that cirque...
On the way down we did a little scouting for our "walk-off" descent should we summit the next day. We did one rappel with some downclimbing/scrambling and traversing a snowfield or two along the NE ridge. It would be relatively easy to repeat, though we would still need our mountaineering boots, crampons, and ice axes for the snowfields. We speculated that a double rope rappel would help us bypass one of the steeper and more exposed snowfields on the way down.

On the way back to camp we detoured to kick steps up to where we would attempt the start of our climb up the east face the next day, and eyeballed the start of the route a bit more. The roof in the first pitch didn't look too promising!

The next day we left camp around 7 am (enough time for the sun to warm up the rock a bit!), and struggled up the first pitch. Ryan led (the whole day), and we ended up having to haul the packs midway through the first pitch, because there was just no way we were going to fit through the top of the roof/chimney with packs on our backs. I had the much larger pack, and I was following, so I ended up carrying a lot of the gear for the descent. That things was pretty brutally heavy, so we hauled it a couple more times on a couple of the steeper pitches. Damn thing was trying to pull me off the wall!
Ryan finding our way up toward the upper ramp
Probably 4 or 5 pitches in we came to what would be one of the crux pitches, and my lowest point of the trip. We ended up aiding the pitch, but it was pretty steep to top it out, and it ended with a traverse to the belay position that required first pulling around sizeable bulge that was just not as featured as I would have liked. Sure I was on top rope, but falling there would have given me a pretty good swing, and it just felt like a no-fall type of situation. My left foot was smeared on a featureless, vertical slab of granite, and when I went to move around my feet cut and I was left hanging on a rounded knob by both hands, feet dangling in the air. I managed to pull back on and make it around the damn thing, but it had given me a bit of a scare, and I was not stoked when I finally made it to the belay. And it was a pretty exposed and uncomfortable belay, so it did little to relieve tension. Half way up the next pitch, I realized I had to poop.

Luckily, the next belay was a large shelf and the start of the upper ramp that would take us to the ridge. It gave new hope to make the ramp. That and I ate some food, and took a big ole poop once Ryan topped out at the next belay. I felt a 100% better after that. It was actually amazing, I literally felt like a new man.

The other crux pitch was either that first one on the ramp or the one after, but it involved some extremely exposed and difficult-to-protect steep slab climbing. Ryan unleashed some expletives, but powered through it. The tiny gear he was able to place would almost certainly not have held a fall, and it was definitely a stout lead on his part.

When we hit the ridge the sun was getting noticeably low in the sky, but we knew we were nearing the top, and it made for some very nice views from the belays. It was mostly 4th class and low 5th class from there on up, but we stayed roped because the take-your-breath-away view to the cirque below also meant high consequence in the event of a mishap. That, and the ridge had some very large but surprisingly loose boulders. Better safe than (really) sorry!
Belayer's view from the ridge to the summit
I followed Ryan up to the top of the route just as the sun was setting, making for a perfect end to a huge climb. We reveled in the sunset and the stoke of putting up a first ascent, and ate some delicious almond butter wraps. We started down as twilight and darkness descended on us. After a short down climb we reached the rappel we had set up the day before, and rigged up a double rope rappel that put us down nicely on the ridge past the steepest part of the snow fields. The rest of the descent was slow but easy as we cautiously made our way back down. As I waited at the top of the last rappel to drop down from the ridge to the snowfield that led to camp, an enormous rat-like rodent (ROUS??!!) popped out of the rocks unnervingly close to the cordelette of our anchor. I strongly told him to GTFO, and after I was sure he obliged, I rappelled down (quickly, just in case). 

Sunset from the top of Hall Peak
MISSION ACCOMPLISHED. We had a pretty late dinner back at camp, not getting to bed until 1 or 2 am. The next day we slowly (wearily) packed up camp, said our goodbyes to the incredible views of the Leaning Towers, the glacial cirque, and the sweeping valleys and jagged peaks surrounding us, and started the trudge out. We made it over the pass that day, the worst part being the steep, bushwhack descent down to the camp near the hotsprings that night. 
I was at first determined to go for a dip in the springs, but after dinner, the thought of putting our mountaineering boots on and hiking the half a kilometer in the cold, wet darkness to the springs was too much to bear. Maybe next time? We finished the hike out to the car the next day, the 9 mile road walk taking forever and a day. On reaching the car, Ryan excitedly shouted as he opened the trunk, "Dude! We have chips and salsa!" And I exclaimed, "And BEER!"
Ryan looking stoked to get off the trail and walk 9 more miles on the road (sarcasm)
And everything was right in the world again. 

We drove back and ended up staying with a great friend Ryan Crowe in Spokanistan, who fed us well and helped us to properly recover and celebrate our trip. Thanks again, Crowe!!

I made it back to Nevada City by 4am Sunday night, and still made it to work by 10 am the next day. I think I'm still recovering from the traveling, hiking, climbing, and traveling. I read a book for about 10 hours yesterday, and damn did that feel good.

Huge thanks to the American Alpine Club for making this trip and first ascent possible!

And thanks to John Scurlock for providing the incredible photography that helped Ryan conceive of this silly idea in the first place. Not only did his photography inspire, but when we were planning the trip, he ever so generously supplied a ton of bonus, high-res photos to help us virtually-scout the route.

And last but certainly not least, thanks to climbing partner Ryan Leary for getting my ass out there on one hell of an adventure!

Ryan's map of the route. (Photo cred Ryan Leary)
A side shot of the lower and upper ramps from the North (ish).
Looking down the north face glacier
From the summit of Hall Peak after the north face climb

Last views of the Leaning Towers


  1. AWESOME GUYS! Man am I happy for you. We're gonna have to make some adventuring work out next summer for all three of us (sierras? Canada, alaska maybe?)

    Where in that jungle did you guys end up camping? I don't see a single flat spot.

    Take care evan,
    Matthew M.

  2. My two 'men', (sons) just finished a climb up Hall Peak this fall (2013) through the 'jungles' of the south west side! But they made it!

    1. That's awesome! And I know what you mean by "jungle." Ha! I'm sure they had a great time, it is one heck of a summit.

  3. Also, if anyone else climbs Hall Peak, I accidentally left my pocket knife in the bergschrund of the north face's glacier. You can mail it to me any time- thanks! ;)

  4. So I think I'm one of the "men" referred to above... My brother and I ascended Hall from the west side about two weeks after you were up there. We didn't make the summit, as we had no climbing gear, just crampons for the glacier, but we did get to the bergschrund. Sorry, didn't find your knife :(