Home > Profiles

The Wild North Pillar Direct on B.C.’s MacDonald

North Pillar on Mount MacDonald

Back in 2005, Calgary climber Jon Walsh and West Coaster Bruce Kay made the first ascent of The North Pillar on Mount MacDonald in Rogers Pass, B.C. Read about the first ascent here.

Two years later, he returned with Jeff Relph and completed the first ascent of the more direct line called The North Pillar Direct.

This is a big and wild climb taller than most sections of El Capitan with a more serious approach and Walsh climbed it twice from car to car. The direct line goes at 5.11c A0 for 1.000 metres.

The following is Walsh’s trip report from back in 2010.

The North Pillar Direct

Mount MacDonald’s 1,000-metre high alpine big wall is about as close to the road as you’ll find a true grade VI rock-climb in North America. Simply park your car on the side of the Trans Canada Highway, cross the creek on a log conveniently located 50 metres from the parking, and slog uphill for 600 metres with some minor bushwacking and scrambling.

Within two hours, you have up to 25 pitches of amazing in-cut quartzite to that will keep you on your toes for many hours of good clean fun. I had been wondering for some time if this was my personal mountain face, as I’ve visited it six times in seven years, without hearing of anyone else making any effort, despite there being no shortage of talk about it.

Finally this summer, I heard for the first time of three other attempts made on the first route I did on the face with Colin Moorhead, that we named Prime Rib (2004, 550m 5.11b). One party made it halfway up, but a run-out pitch proved to be too much for them (they forgot their pitons and we had only left the most important ones fixed), and heli-rescues ensued for the other two parties. One of the unique features of MacDonald that it shares with very little other alpine terrain in Canada is that it has cell service. Fortunately, the injuries sustained by the two climbers that took falls were minor, and these did not occur on the one pitch that required the run-out face climbing with piton work.

In 2005, I went back with Bruce Kay and climbed the North Pillar, a prominent pillar of sustained 5.10 and 5.11 cracks, sandwiched between two deep gullies. After 11 pitches, we ventured left onto easier ground on the upper headwall and completed the 19-pitch adventure in a 30-hour car-to-car push calling it 5.11 and A0 because of two hangs.

On July 8th, 2010, Jeff Relph and I were back at the face for the second time together, with intentions of starting up the North Pillar Route, then continuing up virgin ground for a direct finish. This was the more aesthetic looking line from the ground that I had envisioned climbing with Bruce, but we had taken too much time on the first half of the route, and the line of least resistance to the left made more sense at the time.

This time, we left the car at 3 a.m., a little earlier than Bruce and I had, and with some prior route knowledge, we made good time climbing the first 11 pitches in eight. I freed the first crux at 5.11b thanks to having the knifeblades already in place on the crimpy face climbing, but unfortunately, the next crux wasn’t solved before the pump overcame Jeff on lead.

As it came nearly 50 metres into the pitch, we didn’t bother to lower and try and re-send the pitch. I found the secret foothold seconding, which allowed me to rest enough to free it, and we both agreed it was 5.11c. However the A0 grade still remains. Something for the next suitors to try and remove.

Instead of traversing left to easier simul-climbing terrain at the first chance, we continued straight up the pillar staying on or as close to the ridge line as possible, and many more pitches of 5.10 and 5.11- ensued. Eventually, the angle of the face relented, but there were always moves of 5.9 or harder on every pitch, and sometimes on wet rock due to the melting snow bands left over from a deep winter snow pack.

Just before dark we topped out on the summit ridge about 200 metres away from the summit. We didn’t bother to hit it for multiple reasons, but mainly we didn’t feel like 15 minutes of 4th class scrambling in the wrong direction would add anything of value to our day, and with 15 minutes of light left, the time would be better spent finding our way down the West Ridge.

While transitioning to from climbing mode to descending mode, we soaked in the impressive views from Mt. Columbia to the North Howser Tower, and all the immediate peaks and glaciers that lay before us in Glacier Nation Park, in profile against the glowing sky.

Then under a clear but moonless sky, we down-climbed and rappelling the west ridge. Fortunately there was no overnight freeze so the snow was perfectly soft for kicking secure steps for down the 50-degree the couloirs that lead into the Herdman bowl, as we had only one ice-axe between us.

Good boot-skiing conditions saved us a time and energy as opposed to pounding down the scree, which I descended in 2005 with Bruce. It got light as we finally found the log to cross the raging Connaught Creek and our car-to-car time was 26 hours.

All said and done, we figured we’d climbed the face in about 23-25 pitches, with very little simul-climbing, and I thought it was significantly harder than the North Pillar route I had previously climbed with Bruce. It was also of the same good quality, although on Aug. 19, Bruce and I had found much drier conditions.

That being said, I think it was easier overall to climb a bit of wet rock and have more snow to aid the approach and descent. It was definitely a wild and committing route, with a ton of good rock climbing on it. The option is there for future repeats: easier on the left, or more sustained on the right.

We brought a standard double rack with single micro cams, single #3 and #4 camelots, and one regular set of nuts. We only placed one piton, which we left fixed. I’d recommend future parties to bring the same and leave the pitons behind.

Rappelling from high on the face would be sketchy and dangerous as chances of getting ropes stuck, chopped and pulling stacked blocks onto you would not be in your favor. In comparison, both the Seventh Rifle and the Watchtower on the North Howser Tower felt shorter, easier and less committing than the north face of MacDonald.

Heading up The North Pillar Photo Jon Walsh