Skip to content
Home » Features » A Backyard Big Wall Expedition

A Backyard Big Wall Expedition

The drone of mosquitoes is punctuated by the odd accent of one that frantically accelerates as it becomes entangled in my hair. Sweat runs out from under my baseball cap and stings the cuts on my forehead. A foot slips, shifting the weight of my pack off center and twisting me off balance. I grab for the closest bush to keep from going over. The waist belt bites into the raw place on my hips where it’s been chafing since the hike began. I try to ignore the pain and press on up the steepening hillside.

Paul Bonnell crosses Dewar Creek on the approach to The Leaning Towers, Purcell Wilderness, British Columbia. [Photo] Aaron Hanson

Paul Bonnell crosses Dewar Creek on the approach to The Leaning Towers, Purcell Wilderness, British Columbia. [Photo] Aaron Hanson

I’m in British Columbia’s Purcell Wilderness with a group of friends from North Idaho, including Paul Bonnell, Kale Semar and Vince Ryglis. Our goal is to ascend a line first attempted on Wall Tower (9,560′) in 1986 by Fred Beckey, Carl Dietrich and Bill Ruch. Their attempt ended in frustration, Dietrich tells me, when they were forced to bail after three pitches of poorly protected knifeblade seams.

As we slog up the Dewar Creek trail and clamber over patches of snow and slide alder, I feel my confidence waning. Hall Peak (9,975′), an intimidating, gray fortress of rock, looms over hanging glaciers. Thousand-foot cascading waterfalls and near-vertical brush slopes provide a dizzying foreground. Beyond Hall Peak is our objective, Wall Tower, hazy in the distance.

Wall Tower as viewed from the north shoulder of Hall Peak. The group climbed a line just left of the prominent arete in the center of the frame. [Photo] Kale Semar

Wall Tower as viewed from the north shoulder of Hall Peak. The group climbed a line just left of the prominent arete in the center of the frame. [Photo] Kale Semar

June 27, 2016: We are two days into the approach and still far from touching rock. Peaks and spires rise out of sweeping valleys with an abruptness and majesty that is uncharacteristic of the Idaho Purcells back home. Ironically, the trailhead is practically in our backyard–a mere three-and-a-half hours from our hometown of Sandpoint, Idaho. We have each been here before, but this time our goal holds a special significance to us. Dietrich is a local hero and friend, and I have always greatly admired his legacy of hard alpine climbing and first ascents. To finish this climb from nearly thirty years ago will mean that we are finally capable of rising to a challenge set forth by the previous generation, and, for us, the realization of a decade-long dream.

More than ten years before this trip, Kale, Paul and I had made the soggy approach along Dewar creek and up the overgrown slopes to the ridge that overlooks Hall Peak. Tales of Carl’s adventures in the area, and legends of Fred’s run-ins with bears and swarms of mosquitos had somehow inspired us. Awaking from a stormy bivy, we found bear tracks in the snow fifteen feet from where we had slept. We gazed across the snow slopes and dreamed of a day when we would have the opportunity to take on the challenge of the sheer granite faces of these towers. Now, more than a decade later, we are back, with more experience, and with the help of years of preparation.

After navigating loose gullies and thick brush for nearly three full days, we arrive on the glacier below Wall Tower. Steep, loose glacier-carved ribs of rock slash the landscape, making travel slow, tedious and dangerous. One misstep on the slick talus and our over-sized packs could wrench us off balance, sending us careening down the hillside. Open crevasses and steep moraines tumble toward a tarn glistening with emerald glacial runoff. We crane our necks to get a glimpse of the looming headwall of our objective.

For the next two days, we climb thin cracks to fix lines on the first four pitches. The climbing is bold and dirty. It forces me to focus on the task at hand, and I forget how far we are from civilization. I reach high for a mossy handhold and commit my body weight, hoping my fingers can hold the full weight of my body. I pull up and commit, pausing to look down toward the last piece of gear and convince myself I will not fall. “Take it easy Tiger Pup!” Vince yells from below. Vince, 20 years my elder, is an experienced wall climber and his words remind me of where we are. I pause to steady myself and then continue upward, aware of each movement.

Vince Ryglis follows Pitch 5. [Photo] Aaron Hanson

Vince Ryglis follows Pitch 5. [Photo] Aaron Hanson

The line we all saw in Carl Dietrich’s photographs is a large dihedral system that dominates the east face of Wall Tower. But on our second day of climbing, a series of parallel cracks catches our attention. They split the headwall and lead into a steeper, cleaner corner system slightly to the left of our intended line. We decide that the thrilling exposure and free-climbing opportunities are too enticing to pass up even though the cracks deviate from the original route.

At the fourth belay, I spot a weathered anchor across the face: the 1986 team’s highpoint. The sun-bleached webbing hangs stiffly from two rusty, quarter-inch bolts. A relic from another era, I think. As I look upward at the next few pitches, I am overcome with a sense of excitement. From this point on, whatever knowledge we uncover about this wall is our own.

We descend our lines and head back to camp, where the tent walls take on a vibrant pink glow as the sun dips below the mountains, plunging the glacier into shadow.

On the sixth day of the trip, we decide to push to the summit from the highpoint on the wall, knowing that we won’t have time for a second attempt.

Raindrops lightly pepper my helmet while Vince spends several hours aiding past a giant teetering block and up the corner. I take over the lead as twilight deepens and storm clouds gather. I switch on my headlamp at a belay. Illuminated granite surrounds me, and the darkness beyond shuts out the dizzying exposure. I force my bloodied hands into the crack and move upward.

I scramble to the ridge a few feet below the summit, expecting to find a bivy site. Instead, the other side of the knife-edge ridge drops away in the darkness. I anchor the rope, and we descend back onto the east face where we crawl like marmots into cracks behind car-sized blocks. I sit cold and sleepless on a mess of ropes and gear as lightning flashes across the sky and raindrops wet my face.

Morning comes with the first gray steaks of light on a horizon of thunderheads. The clouds are low and thick, and moisture still hangs heavy in the air. I organize our disheveled rack and set up the first rappel anchor.

We race the storm, descending toward the glacier. We see Paul and Kale, tiny specs of color below, crossing the glacier to meet us with full water bottles and food. As we descend toward our tents the wall glows white. The unique black streaks that characterize the portion of the wall we had ascended are highlighted like massive tiger stripes. We deemed it fitting to name our route The White Tiger (VI 5.11 A3, 1,600′).

Looking up at Wall and Block Towers as the sun sets on Day 6. [Photo] Aaron Hanson

Looking up at Wall and Block Towers as the sun sets on Day 6. [Photo] Aaron Hanson

Back at camp we celebrated by drinking the remainder of our whisky and listening to Vince sing raucous Lithuanian folk songs. I glance over the top of our tents to the wall I had so often dreamed of and savor the moment. Although we had set out to follow the line envisioned by Dietrich et al, we were given a unique experience, one with surprises and challenges around every corner, but the majestic nature of the area that Carl spoke of was there every step of the way. These mountains so close to home revealed a grandeur far more than we had previously known in the area. The scale and quality of the climbing had caused me to go beyond what I had thought possible of myself. I was already planning my return as we made the tired steps back to civilization.

[This expedition received support from the Live Your Dream Grant from the American Alpine Club.–Ed.]