Creatures of Feature
The thought of a 200-pound cougar lurking somewhere in the old-growth cedars injected a spring into my step as I battled up the steep back-side trail on Squamish Chief. This dome-shaped mountain and its gorgeous granite walls loom over the 100-year-old logging town of Squamish, nestled at the head of an inlet on British Columbia's lush West Coast.
The thought of a 200-pound cougar lurking somewhere in the old-growth cedars injected a spring into my step as I battled up the steep back-side trail on Squamish Chief. This dome-shaped mountain and its gorgeous granite walls loom over the 100-year-old logging town of Squamish, nestled at the head of an inlet on British Columbia’s lush West Coast.
The Chief was an unlikely place to go looking for new sport climbs, but after years of scouring the surrounding forests for fresh pitches, I was desperate for first ascents. Crags well-suited to sport climbing are scarce as hen’s teeth in the land of multi-pitch cracks, and all the local spots seemed completely tapped out.
Only days before on this back-side trail, a marauding cougar had snatched two leashed dogs right from the hands of their shrieking owners, tourists out for a pleasant hike in the sun. In a gruesome exhibition, the cougar instantly tore apart each dog in front of the Sunday morning crowd, and subsequent incidents spread cougar paranoia. Parents kept their children safely shut indoors and pets were put on very short leashes.
My fear was that the cougars, starved after an unusually snowy winter, might acquire a taste for sport climbers, gaunt and lean as a rack of spare ribs. I shuddered and, though burdened with 60 pounds of bolting hardware, picked up the pace, heading for the top of a 2,000-foot mountain. All of this was just to explore a cave barely large enough to warrant tying into a rope. If I found a single line worth opening (and didn’t become cat food), it would be a good day.
Ten thousand years ago, the Squamish Valley was locked in a brutal deep freeze, packed with a diamond-hard glacier. As the earth’s temperatures warmed, the frozen behemoth slid into the Pacific, systematically grinding away all protruding features (read: handholds) from the Chief, effectively erasing any hope of a thrilling face climb up one of the glory walls. Mother Nature had done a fine job creating crystalline granite with splitter cracks and corners, but future sport climbers would find themselves inhibited by the buffed walls.
In the mid-1980s, however, a small assortment of climbers from the blue-collar logging town of Squamish, desperate to find new terrain on which to ply their slab-honed face-climbing skills, thrashed through the old growth at Murrin Park, about seven miles south of town. Undeterred by the thick, damp forest, they persisted and eventually bumped up against a sleeping monster, the aptly named Petrifying Wall. Early pioneers, including Dave Lane, Perry Beckham, John Howe and Kevin McLane, couldn’t believe their luck. The Pet is a 35-meter bullet-hard granite anomaly: dead vertical and peppered with a generous assortment of miniscule, polished edges.
“We absolutely loved face climbing and nothing like the Pet existed anywhere in Squamish,” says Lane. “It felt like a whole new climbing area and the start of a great adventure.”
At first, the Pet was literally cloaked in darkness: catching a glimpse of the intimidating upper reaches through the snarled canopy was virtually impossible. Undeterred, and armed with youthful courage and voracious appetites for new face climbs (and big-ass chainsaws), Lane and his tall, lanky cohort Beckham, who was working as a professional logger at the time, set to work prepping the Pet for route development. Like all Squamish route development, this involved laboring through a formidable swath of West Coast vegetation: Big timber fell, slash-piles burned and tempers flared over, in Beckham’s words, the heavy-handed approach that they employed. But the end result was inarguable: an enticing sweep of sun-kissed, glacier-polished granite.
It was the late winter of 1986, and the term sport climbing was only just entering into the North American climbing lexicon. Beckham, perched on the edge of his kitchen counter and sipping tea in his quaint Squamish home, recalls, We had no real uniform approach to developing the cliff and each one of us really grappled with what to do. In the end, the routes we established were influenced by the varying styles of development at other prominent areas during that period — such as Smith Rock, Mount Arapiles in Australia and Gogarth in the U.K. Our backgrounds varied greatly as did the flavors of our first ascents.
Certain climbs sprouted more bolts than others and some, like McLane’s No Surrender (5.12b), were run-out horrors that required pre-modified pro such as filed nuts and were born out of a minimize the bolts philosophy, no doubt a result of McLane’s British heritage. Regardless, pre-inspection was the norm due to the heavy top-down cleaning required to scale the vegetated wall and it was only a matter of time before bolts started to go in on rappel. Although all of the initial climbs required some gear placements, it would be fair to say that Lane’s 100-foot edging marathon Burning Down the Couch (5.11d) and Beckham’s bouldery Flingus Cling (5.12b) were the first sport routes on the wall and likely in all of Squamish.
“Pet was our learning curve,” says Beckham, now working as a rigger in the film industry. “The routes have stood the test of time, and this hopefully sends a message to today’s climbers that there is more than one way to skin a cat.”
Lane says, “Few real conflicts arose over style at Pet Wall.” Two reasons were the small, close-knit character of the Squamish climbing community at the time and the brutal vegetation that needed to be erased before any style of ascent could be contemplated. True ground-up ascents were simply not a viable option.
The development of Pet Wall helped define the styles and characters of the young and determined climbers, but with the long, dreary West Coast winters and persistent weeks of rain during spring and late fall, they lacked an outlet to maintain their hard-earned fitness. In 1988, indoor gyms were non-existent in North America. Desperate to climb, Lane, a keen and talented builder, and his curly-haired, Vancouver-based friend Josh Korman, a student at the time, devised a plan to build an outdoor, wet-weather climbing wall. The idea seemed simple enough: find an overhanging piece of rock well off the beaten path and construct a few routes. Reality, of course, was far more complex.
The climbers settled upon the gently overhanging, rippled south face of the apartment-sized Cacodemon boulder, hidden deep in the forest below the Grand Wall on the Chief. At great expense to themselves they went to work building an outdoor climbing wall, complete with hundreds of Allen bolt inserts, carved pockets and gnarly, first-generation plastic holds. The construction, truly a sight to behold, spiraled out of control, as Lane put it. Ninety feet high by 90 feet wide, the wall eventually sported four climbing routes, an intricate wooden belay platform across the base and a small concrete retaining wall, complete with plastic sheeting across the top for shelter.
“We’d never climbed on anything so steep or pumpy before,” says Korman, now, ironically, an ecological consultant in Vancouver with two teenage kids. Of course not everyone in the small community agreed about the wall, but Korman says he never lost any friends over it, possibly a nod to the closeness of the community at the time and the respect they held for each other.
A core of local climbers trained on the creation with grim determination throughout the following winters, often belaying from sleeping bags to shield them from the bone-chilling damp. But the novelty, and need, wore off as quality indoor walls began sprouting up in Vancouver in the early 1990s, something the climbers simply hadn’t anticipated. Eventually, the plastic sheeting tore and was left twisting in the winter wind. The holds grew mold.
“It was a ridiculous amount of work and a bit short-sighted given the emergence of indoor walls,” says Lane, “but we did have a ton of fun and got really strong in the process.”
No one guessed that the obscure training wall would eventually sit front and center in one of the world’s great bouldering arenas. It remains in place to this day (minus the platform and roof) as an awkward reminder of Squamish’s complex past. Oddly, the wall has found a modern-day use as a mid-winter mixed climbing training facility, complete with new bolts and fresh holds.
“Scratching in the dirt” is how my well-traveled, Vancouver-based friend Dave Vernon once described sport climbing in Western B.C., compared to the dreamy limestone crags of Europe. Dave’s a friendly, outgoing character who works as a Mountain Equipment Co-op buyer. What Dave doesn’t see, however, is that the distinguishing aspect of sport climbing on Squamish granite — its lack of holds — is precisely why the climbing is so great.
This warrants explanation. Granite boulders tend to be smooth and round, and the lines well defined. Granite feature climbing is physical, unobvious and a true art form. Unlike limestone, where there are obvious handholds and a sequence in grabbing them, feature climbing is more about putting yourself into crazy positions and palming, hooking, slapping and squeezing macro features. This unique style is at the heart of Squamish sport climbing and bouldering, and no early pioneer was better at it than Jim Sandford.
Sandford hails from B.C.’s capital, Victoria, a stunning urban center framed by the ink-blue waters of the Pacific and located on the tip of Vancouver Island, about 70 miles due south of Squamish. This “Garden City” has Canada’s mildest climate, which attracts droves of silver-haired retirees annually, and has also inexplicably bred a dozen or so of Canada’s most powerful rock climbers despite its isolation from any quality stone. The sole climbing locale is Flemming Beach, a sad, slabby outcrop of volcanic rock perched above seawall asphalt and dog-walking locals. One look at this crag and you’d be convinced it simply couldn’t produce an actual rock climber of note, but Sandford cut his teeth here, as did a number of other legends such as Greg Foweraker and Hamish Fraser (involved in the first ascent of Squamish’s University Wall (5.12a) with Peter Croft), not to mention the incredibly strong and low-key Nick Gibbs and Tim Doyle, both key figures in the development and progression of Squamish bouldering. Amazingly, Flemming Beach didn’t burn out any of these climbers. Instead, they kept at it and the lure of Squamish granite inevitably pulled them across the icy-cold waters of the Strait of Georgia to set up camp.
Looking at Sandford, you can’t help but think he should be in a UFC cage. At 5’9″ and built like a bulldog, he’s a ripped climbing specimen, earning him the nickname Jim “Saran-wrap” due to his translucent skin and veined musculature. Sandford quickly dispatched the first crimp-infused testpieces at The Pet and shot in a few classics of his own, including the popular and bouldery Animal (5.12c) and its evil next-door neighbor Instinct (5.13a). Beyond the Pet, though, neither Sandford nor any of the other young climbers had the vision (or strength) to really see any alternative sport-climbing options until Sandford spent a winter training on the Cacodemon wall, which served as a “bridge” from one stage of his climbing to the next.
He recalls, “I was hiking out from the training wall one rainy winter day and the clouds parted, giving me a glimpse of Eurasian Eyes, (5.13a; see page 14) an arete on the Chief he would climb later that season. The wall opened my eyes to the possibilities around me. After that, I didn’t go back.”
After the Eurasian Eyes epiphany, the game was on. From 1989 to 1992, Sandford fired up his Hilti and thrutched his way up impressive first ascents such as the confounding feature-climb Presto (5.13a; see page 6) at Murrin Park in 1990. However, the real paradigm shift occurred when he revisited the Cacodemon boulder. He came away with a clutch of impressive first ascents, including Squamish’s hardest route at the time, the bouldery roof Bravado (5.13d), and the spectacular overhanging rib Permanent Waves (5.13d), flanking the remnants of the artificial training wall. These lines added a new dimension to the Squamish sport-climbing experience, but stone rightly suited to face climbing, like limestone, was still more or less absent from the area until a mountain guide from Whistler turned the tide.
The West Coast of British Columbia has long been an attractive location for Hollywood filmmakers. The spectacular scenery combined with favorable currency exchange rates brings many companies north. In the early 1990s, local guide Keith Reid, a suave, easy-talking, multi-sport athlete with notable Squamish sport ascents like the quality Vultures Circling (5.13b) to his name, scouted locations for the film Shoot to Kill in the Cheakamus River canyon, halfway between Whistler and Squamish. As he and his co-workers thrashed down an obscure drainage in search of a good cliff from which to hurl a stuntman (watch the movie and try to spot the scene!), they popped out of the trees and gasped at what they saw: a giant roof overhanging 40 derees, half a pitch off the ground. Keith vowed to return, aid the roof’s most obvious line and attempt a free ascent. Two years later, in the late summer of 1993, his efforts culminated with the first truly steep and physical sport route in the region, Gom Jabbar (5.13b). During the following four years, the roof filled in with Sandford’s Pulse, Canada’s first 5.14a. Jola Sandford (Jim’s wife) sent Freewill (5.13c), the logical finish to Gom Jabbar, and Mike Orr, a climber-turned kayaker-turned golf-pro from Seattle, stuck it to the locals and redpointed Captain America (5.14b), the hardest route on the roof. It wasn’t until 2001 that the Toronto transplant Sonnie Trotter restored national pride by sending Superman, the hardest climb in the region at 5.14c, only recently usurped by Sharma’s brutal and brilliant Dreamcatcher (5.14d), on the Cacodemon boulder. Cheakamus Canyon added a much-needed, gym-friendly dimension to Squamish sport climbing and remains immensely popular with the weekend crowds to this day.
Rock that is featured enough and steep enough to yield brilliant sport climbs remains rare. Yet the search continues, often producing bizarre stories by the modern-day warriors of the wasteland, out bashing through the undergrowth. Ask the Vancouverite Axel Reinhold, famous for his pressure-washing approach to cleaning entire cliffs, about the time he drove into the remote Squamish River valley to work on his new sport wall, the Chuck Chuck crag, and encountered a father and young son, both buck naked except for gumboots, propping shotguns over their shoulders and giving him funny looks.
Or ask the airline pilot and prolific Squamish bolter Peter Winter about the time he trundled a rock off his project at Fern Hill and it landed on a can of bear spray (recommended at remote new crgs, more for cougars than bears), causing an explosion of mace that chased him up the wall, burning his eyes as he frantically climbed.
And me? I already consider the discovery of Horne Lake — limestone reminiscent of Rodellar, Spain — the number one tragedy of my sport-climbing career due to its tempting so-close-but-yet-so-far location on the other side of the Strait of Georgia (very costly ferries discourage regular visits). Bin spite of my pessimism, I’m also convinced that the best Squamish sport cliff, cloaked in vegetation in some obscure canyon, is still waiting to be found and will be found.
Marc Bourdon, a 15-year resident of Squamish, runs Quickdraw Publications in between trips to far-flung sport climbing destinations with his wife and daughter.
Routes: The climbing region around Squamish can loosely be described as stretching from the forested crags at Murrin Park, 7 miles south of town, to the blocky overhangs of the Cheakamus Canyon, 15 miles to the north. Defining sport climbs is no easy task in an area as varied and historic as Squamish. Using the generic definition well-bolted and allowing for the odd piece of gear, there are approximately 500 sport routes (around 30 percent of which are slabs) on 110 crags in the Squamish region, spanning the spectrum from 5.7 to 5.14d. A short selection of must-do sport routes includes No Name Road (5.11b) and Project Grizzly (5.13b) at Petrifying Wall, Permanent Waves (5.13d) at Cacodemon, Kigijiushi (5.10c) and The Fleeing Heifer (5.12c) at Cheakamus Canyon and Yellow Beard (5.12a) at Rogues Gallery.
Guidebook: The most current and useful guide to the sport climbing in Squamish and the Cheakamus Canyon is Squamish Select. Visit www.quickdrawpublications.com to purchase it, download updates and browse a list of local retailers.
When: The climbing season is long, but punctuated by stubborn periods of dreary, West Coast weather (think Seattle). Good sport climbing conditions occur as early as February and as late as November, but the best, driest months are definitely July and August.
Accommodation: There is no organized free camping in Squamish, although Forest Service roads with pull-off options are plentiful. Pay campgrounds abound. The most popular with climbers is the Provincial Park campground at the base of the Squamish Chief, with drainage-friendly tent sites, drive-in camper sites and a covered cooking shelter with food lockers. Showers can be purchased for cheap at the Brennan Park Recreation Centre (closed in September), which also has a great hot tub to soothe weary muscles.
Food and fun: If you visit in the summer, a multitude of freshwater lakes provide heavenly relief from the searing granite edges and physical sport routes. Brohm Lake has a couple of killer rope swings — ask locals for directions. Squamish isn’t called the Recreation Capital of Canada for nothing. Amazing mountain biking, hiking, windsurfing and kayaking are all within spitting distance of town. The Zephyr Cafe, located downtown, has great coffee and provides free Wi-Fi, as does the local library. For food, the Howe Sound Inn and Brewpub is the locals’ choice with weeknight specials and occasional live music. If you want to branch out, the world-famous mountain resort of Whistler is just over half an hour to the north and the cultural melting pot of Vancouver, between the Pacific and the snowcapped Coast Mountains, is the same distance to the south.