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Diving into the Unknown

Posted on: January 17, 2017


The expansive east face of Hall Peak spread before us, a blank pallet of steep granite with only four established routes on the kilometer-wide wall of grey and golden rock. My good friends, Alix Morris, Jenny Abegg and Forest Woodward sat quietly amid our cluster of tents. Rambling mountain streams and knobby krummholz trees surrounded us. Ridges and walls of granite and ice wove across the horizon.

Jenny Abegg and Alix Morris look on as Forest Woodward gets enthusiastic about his morning coffee in basecamp. [Photo] Graham ZimmermanJenny Abegg and Alix Morris look on as Forest Woodward gets enthusiastic about his morning coffee in basecamp. [Photo] Graham Zimmerman

"How do you choose what route to attempt?" Alix asked. She craned her neck to study the steep granite, searching for potential lines. I realized that none of my partners had experienced the pleasures and trepidations of opening new routes in mountains such as these. Looking back to the face, I thought they might never have a better opportunity: multiple unclimbed crack systems slashed through the granite on the right-hand side of the wall.

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While I contemplated how to answer Alix's question, I thought of the valuable guidance passed down to me from my mentors. My own first new route was a 600-foot gash of ice and dark stone rising off the Franz Josef Glacier on Matenga Peak in New Zealand. I was there with one of my oldest climbing partners, Andrew Rennie. I remembered the sense of discovery as each pitch came together and allowed us access to the next. The sounds of upward progress: scraping picks digging through hard snow, sharp inhales of deep breaths in the cool air, the long awaited call of "Off belay."

I could still visualize the climbing on the final mixed pitch. As I rocked onto a high foothold, the tip of my crampon dug into an edge, and I liebacked on tools torqued in a dihedral. I experienced an unparalleled delight knowing that my climbing was moving into a new phase, one of exploration. Now, I fancied the idea that my three companions might get their first experience of ascending into the unknown.

Hall Peak (9,975') is in the Leaning Towers, a group of granite spires that lurks deep in the Purcell Wilderness of British Columbia. The few climbers who have visited this area have shared stories of long approaches, steep and dense bushwhacking, extended rainstorms, and steep sound rock akin to the Bugaboos, fifty miles to the north. My three companions and I traveled there August 8-18, 2016, with little expectation beyond a longing for adventure and the sight of new mountains. On our rainy first day in base camp, we pulled down a weather report. It appeared as though we might be in for more than I had anticipated. The following week's forecast was entirely clear.

Morris climbs through the sea of granite on the East face of Hall Peak (9,975') during the first ascent of Heart Like A Hippo (5.10b, 800'). [Photo] Graham ZimmermanMorris climbs through the sea of granite on the East face of Hall Peak (9,975') during the first ascent of Heart Like A Hippo (5.10b, 800'). [Photo] Graham Zimmerman

The next day, I stood at the base of Hall Peak on the right side of East Face holding the rope while Forest climbed into the yet-unrevealed terrain. The route was a short one, a mere 400 feet and a perfect starting point. Blocky roofs hung over us, square-cut from nearly flawless stone. A wide crack wound into the blue sky.

As Forest made steady progress upward, I looked out to where Jenny and Alix were engaged in their own unclimbed crack system. Framed beautifully against the curving lines in the granite, they stemmed, jammed and whooped as they ascended.

Eventually, I heard the call of "Off belay" from Forest, and the rope came taut on my waist. Forest had limited experience leading. When I arrived at his first piece of gear, a medium-sized wire, I was happy to find it placed correctly and extended properly to avoid rope drag. Higher up the pitch, the protection continued to be nicely spaced with the rope drag well managed.

At the belay, I gave him a high-five. "Partner, you perfectly executed that pitch. Fabulous work." Forest giggled with excitement as he handed me the rack. The angle of the next pitch quickly relented, leading to the summit ridge. We could hear more shouts of "off belay" as Alix and Jenny topping out farther along its spine, and we looked out toward the steep east faces of Block Tower (ca. 9,300') and Wall Tower (9,560'), an imposing and steep grayscale of fissured granite. We drew lines with our fingers along the visible cracks and imagined them in the blank spaces between.

"Forest," I said to my friend, "before now, I was unconvinced that it would be wise to attempt one of those lines. But after your performance on those pitches below, I think we should absolutely see about slaying one of them."

He looked at me from behind his long hair and said, with a mischievous grin, "Man, I am really excited to hear you say that."

Just then, Jenny and Alix came walking down the ridge. They were all smiles as they regaled us with the story of their new route, established onsight and free. Beautiful parallel cracks and chimneys had carried them up the wall. As we all walked down the ridge towards the rappel that would take us back to the base of the wall, our discussion shifted to Block and Wall, the ominous grey masses that rose to our left, steep and austere as skyscrapers.

Woodward leads beautiful some cracks that led to rather runout slab climbing on the first ascent of Drinking Pink Rabbits (5.11 A2, 1,400'), which he did with Zimmerman. The name comes from one of their favorite tracks by the band The National. [Photo] Graham ZimmermanWoodward leads beautiful some cracks that led to rather runout slab climbing on the first ascent of Drinking Pink Rabbits (5.11 A2, 1,400'), which he did with Zimmerman. The name comes from one of their favorite tracks by the band The National. [Photo] Graham Zimmerman

Three days later under a brilliant blue sky, Forest and I hung below the second pitch of the unclimbed northeastern buttress of Block Tower. I cursed at myself as I realized I had forgotten one of the classic rules of new routing on large walls, one that I had shared with Alix earlier in the trip: "If you're looking at a big route and can see a crack clearly it is probably going to be wide."

That distinct crack that Forest and I had spied from afar and pictured as perfect hands leading through the blank buttress, now reared above us as a sustained five-inch offwidth that wound upward through a small roof for 60 feet. I looked down at the single No. 4 cam on my waist, settled my mind, chalked my hands, and cast off.

Having cleared the roof, I locked my knee into the crack and gazed down at Forest and the No. 4 cam nestled just above him. The rope waved in the air between the cam and my waist.

Whoops of encouragement from Alix and Jenny reached us from the adjacent Wall Tower where they were attempting a variation of an existing line. They had heard me grunting upward as I thrutched up the crack, shoving my appendages in at odd angles. Forest whooped back for both of us, while I panted and caught my breath. Forty-five feet into the runout, I was pleased when a seam appeared that would take gear and doubly pleased when the offwidth relented to a wide-hands crack. As I built a belay, I looked up to the roofs that represented our major question mark on the route—the reason we were carrying aiders and a small rack of iron. From this angle, the roofs showed more edges and cracks, a sign that they might not be as challenging as we had anticipated. I glanced over at Alix, who was engaged in one of the cruxes of State of Wonder (5.11 C1). She moved steadily with confidence and elegance through a blocky roof on beautiful grey stone. Their planned variation loomed above.

The higher Forest and I got, the slower our progress became. The roofs were either climbable or avoidable without too much difficulty, but the route above them wasn't obvious. Folds in the stone hid the way upward; perfect finger cracks led around corners to blank stone. A steady stream of dirt and vegetation poured over me while I sat at the belay—a strange form of organic spindrift. The sun was getting lower in the sky. Later we learned that Alix and Jenny been thwarted by similar vegetation and had to bail from their new variation. When they reached their earlier deviation point from State of Wonder, they stopped rappelling and started upward on the established route.

Hours later, the clock ticked past midnight as I stood in aiders and placed another beak into the seam before hammering it in. Darkness had fallen, and we had encountered a dead end. For hours, we had expected to reach the upper face, which appeared to lean back into a ramp indicating easier climbing, but the angle had remained unrelenting, and now the crack system had disappeared in the midst of a headwall.

Farther left, a ledge appeared out of the inky darkness in the beam of my headlamp. After a few moves, I lowered out and tensioned twenty feet, grasped the ledge and stepped onto it. The horizontal ground, no matter how small, offered a welcome relief to my hips and back. I breathed deeply while setting up the belay and making the traverses safe for Forest to follow.

While I yelled instructions to Forest about how to lower out from the anchor, I watched Alix's and Jenny's headlamps as they emerged from the final chimney on Wall Tower, and they reached the summit in a brilliant glow of moonlight.

On the ledge, Forest looked up to the steep and dirt-filled cracks that rose above us into the night. We decided to wait out the dark hours on the park bench-sized ledge. As we snuggled under our single emergency blanket, we could see Alix and Jenny's headlamps as they also settled in for the night on top of Wall Tower.

We woke as the sun crested the horizon, and steep cracks winded up toward the skyline. Downward, the wall fell away steeply, suggesting the prospect of hundreds of feet of rappelling. Forest only glanced below for a quick second before looking at with a twinkle in his eye. "I really think we should head up," he said.

Once again, I sat under a steady shower of moss and gravel. Before me, the mountains of southeastern British Columbia, stood severe and jagged. Their ridgelines and summits revealed some sheer faces, but I knew other secrets lay hidden in their folds.

Alix and Jenny had disappeared from our view on Wall Tower and we assumed they had dropped over the far side seeking the descent. Before long, Forest yelled that he could see the path to the top. I soon cast off on the long final pitch of wide climbing to reach the ridge. Though still tired from the unplanned bivy, I focused on each move and each breath. Soon I was out of rope and just below the low-angle ridge that marked the end of the wall.

Forest led us to the summit by way of an easy pitch up the ridge. It was there on the apex of the peak that I found Forest sitting and looking both exhausted and delighted.

"Great job, my man," I said.

Forest smiled widely through his dark sunglasses and gazed out over the horizon. Mountains spread before us, enticing walls and winding ridges in every direction. Quietly, almost as to himself, he said, "The possibilities out here are nearly endless, aren't they?"

Back in base camp, we all once again looked toward the walls. The view now brought recent memories of exertion and excitement: the relief of reaching a good hand jam, the fear of wondering where the next piece of protection might present itself and the joy of resting our weight onto an anchor with another pitch completed. I noted a new excitement in my partners' eyes. I remain curious to witness what comes next.

During our ten days in the Leaning Towers, the team made three first ascents on Hall Peak: Heart Like a Hippo (5.10b, 800' Abegg-Morris), Shoeless Solidarity (5.10a, 400' Zimmerman-Woodward) and Afternoon Affirmations (5.10b, 800' Woodward-Zimmerman,) and one first ascent on Block Tower: Drinking Pink Rabbits (5.11 A2, 1,400' Woodward-Zimmerman). Additionally they repeated The Direct East Buttress (5.9+, 2,000' Moriss-Ramos 2015) and Post Credit Cookie (5.10a, 450' Moriss-Ramos) on Hall Peak and State of Wonder (5.11- C1, 1000' Caton-Rutherford). Huge thanks to Jenny Abegg for doing the bulk of the planning.

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