Sunshine in Squamish
Ambassador Fallon Rowe shares some stories from her recent trip to Squamish, B.C.
The border agent yelled at me as soon as I pulled my car forward.
“Young lady, don’t you know why the stop sign is set back from this inspection spot?”
“Uh, yes sir, to protect your safety.”
“No. It’s mostly to protect you! Sometimes we get these crazy people here at the border who try to shoot us. It can put you in serious danger! I know you don’t want to get shot!”
I suppressed myself from giggling at the overly serious Canadian guard, and instead I feigned compassion. My father was a police officer for over a decade; the true dangers of service are less foreign to me than the country I was about to enter for the first time.
“Of course, sir. I understand entirely. It won’t happen again. I didn’t even realize I was a tiny bit over the line behind the last car.”
He gave me a chastising glare, and continued with his inspection. When asked, I smiled and told him that climbing in Squamish is what brought me to the wonderful land of Canada. He gave me a suspicious look. He only trusted me after seeing the heaps of gear in the back of my climbing-sticker-covered Suzuki.
Thankfully, I was allowed to proceed without further incident. I cranked up the new Lana Del Ray album and contemplated my goals for the trip.
My friends had tried, and failed, to persuade me not to go through with my plans to climb in Canada: “You don’t have a partner, you have a partially torn tendon in your hand, you have an infected spider bite in your leg so you’re on antibiotics, you don’t have air conditioning in your car, and you’re almost out of money.”
I’ve never been good at listening when other people tell me what I shouldn’t do.
I arrived in Squamish after three days of solo driving, with the Sea to Sky Highway north of Vancouver as the grand finale of the journey. I gawked at the endless evergreens that coated the mountains with dramatic dropoffs and waterfalls cascading into the ocean. The Stawamus Chief, in its majestic domination over the town, quickly became the canvas for my climbing imagination. This place lived up to the hype right off the bat.
Alone and curious, I wandered around town, eventually stopping to bust out my guidebook. I decided to get in some bouldering since I didn’t have a partner yet. Crash pad in tow, I hiked into the Grand Wall Boulders to discover the “Rampage” competition in full swing.
I immediately jumped right into the fray, projecting with friendly locals and hopping on classic granite boulders. The abundance of spotters, crash pads, and people who knew which boulders hosted which problems made bouldering a simple task.
After my hands were sufficiently raw, I hiked back to my car, smiling and alone once again. The granite was tricky, and felt different than all other granite I’d climbed on: City of Rocks (ID), Joshua Tree (CA), Little Cottonwood Canyon (UT), and Boulder Canyon (CO). Squamish granite hosted its own unique array of features, cracks, and textures.
Back in the parking lot, I met a fellow climber (let’s call him Cali Dude). We discovered that we both needed partners, and quickly decided to run up “Rambles”, a route on the Apron of the Chief featuring fun mixed climbing up an impeccable slab with discontinuous cracks.
A storm and darkness descended, so we ventured into town to the Chieftain Pub with some of his friends. It was a wildly entertaining night, watching middle-aged, drunk locals dance and sing terrible karaoke. I was enamored with the no-fucks-given attitude of British Columbia.
Over the next few days, I got to explore more of the climbing potential around Squamish. I cragged at Murrin Park, and enjoyed wonderful sport climbs on perfect crimps and slopers. The routes at Petrifying Wall were particularly stellar. I ended up taking a huge fall there, and got a bruise and cut on my sternum from hitting the wall at the end of my whipper (thankfully it just left a big scar and no serious damage).
Each morning, I drank coffee while flipping through the guidebook, excited for a new day of pulling on granite. Every night, I found a spot to watch the sunset before sleeping in my car, content after climbing.
Cali Dude and I eventually agreed to climb the route “Grand Wall” (5.11 A0 III) as an awesome trad climbing objective. We got a late start since he relaxed in his Sprinter van with his dog, sipping coffee and taking hours just to get his stuff together. I was feeling anxious and ready to get rolling: we had a full day of climbing ahead of us.
Finally, around 11 am, we started up “Apron Strings”, a 2 pitch trad climb consisting of splitter, perfect 5.10 crack laybacking with strenuous smearing and gear placements.
After that, the route leads you into “Mercy Me”, an extremely runout ‘sport’ climb with just 8 bolts in two full pitches. Fun edging while risking huge whippers a few pitches off the deck proved to be an exciting approach option to the proper start of “Grand Wall”.
After the 4 ‘approach’ pitches, we arrived at the first real pitch, which consisted of interesting, thoughtful downclimbing and traversing to a short bolt ladder aid section. The next pitch was the absolutely fantastic “Split Pillar” pitch--truly the stuff of dreams! This marvelous crack splits a gorgeous, perfect granite wall with hand jams. The pitch is a striking corner that ends with a freaky chimney section.
At this point, Cali Dude and I were stoked on being so far off the deck and enjoying the climbing. It became increasingly clear, however, that our late start was going to screw us over. Evening had arrived, and we had to start cruising to try to finish the route while we still had light. We only had a few sips of water remaining, and we had run out of food.
Rappelling wasn’t an option because we only brought one rope, and it wouldn’t be long enough to rap the route. The only way down, was up.
The next pitch was “The Sword”, the crux of the route with thin, sustained 5.11 gear climbing, and I already felt exhausted as I dispatched it on lead. I hadn’t climbed for a few weeks prior to my trip due to a tendon injury in my hand and wrist. I could really feel my lack of endurance.
The sun dipped below the mountains across Howe Sound, and I pulled out my headlamp. I asked Cali Dude where his headlamp was. He didn’t have one.
“Hold up. You say that you’ve been climbing over a decade. You climb in Yosemite. You’re supposed to know what you’re doing. Why didn’t you bring a headlamp?!” He shrugged.
I was pissed. I should have checked that he was prepared prior to the climb. I assumed that he’d know better because of his experience, and how long it took him to get ready for the climb that morning. I was wrong.
Cali Dude then proceeded to tell me that he’d be leading the remaining pitches with my headlamp, and that I’d just have to follow in the dark. The Canadian night engulfed us, with a miniscule amount of ambient light from town lighting up the Chief. We were hundreds of feet above the ground, with only one headlamp, and pitches of climbing remaining above us. I reluctantly agreed to let him take my light, and he set off up “Perry’s Layback”, a 5.11 pitch of intense laybacking that is thankfully bolted.
I was dizzy from dehydration and low blood sugar since we were out of food and water. Our pace slowed down to a torturous rate. Cali Dude had also forgotten to bring a jacket (shocker, I know). We had to spend extra time at belay stations so he could borrow my jacket to warm up before questing into the unknown again.
I followed in the dark of the night, using my hands to feel each anchor to make sure I’d cleaned all the gear off. Using a combination of free climbing and aiding, I clumsily ascended. The exposure was remarkable. Although it was the middle of the night, the subtle light from town made me feel like I was floating in space with endless air below my feet, the cliff falling away below me, all the way down to the trailhead.
We were moving absurdly slow at this point, totally out of energy and stoke. Cali Dude was yelling at me from above, telling me to hurry up. I was at my absolute limit, especially with patience. I cursed him for forgetting a headlamp as I struggled to remove cams and nuts in the dark.
I was climbing totally blind in these upper pitches, relying purely on my sense of touch to continue upwards. I can confidently say that climbing 5.10 trad in total darkness after 13 hours of continuous climbing is more technically challenging and mentally taxing than any hard climbing I’ve ever done.
Both of us were fading. I felt nauseous from the antibiotic I was on for an infected spider bite in my leg, and I was certain I’d pass out at any moment. I fell asleep intermittently while belaying him, only waking when I’d feel the rope shift in my hand. I shook my head and stomped my feet, desperate to stay warm and awake, but with little success. Progress was slow.
The wildest moment on the ascent was the start to the final pitch below Bellygood Ledge, where you step out onto a tree that hangs over a thousand feet above the ground. The exposure seemed to take me by the shoulders and shake me. I climbed the tree and then traversed the “Sail Flake”, wishing it was still daytime and that I had energy to enjoy the classic climbing.
Cali Dude and I arrived on Bellygood Ledge well after midnight. We were wiped out to the core, and we laid down on the narrow dirt ledge for a while, overlooking the town and its surrounding mountains by the soft glow of light from Squamish. We reluctantly began the traverse of Bellygood Ledge, which we had severely underestimated in both difficulty and length.
The ledge is at times mere inches wide, requiring careful sidestepping and good balance. There are very few options for gear protection during the traverse of the ledge, and a fall could be disastrous. We made sure to leave space between us on the rope so we at least had trees that the rope would wrap around in the event of a fall. If you were to fall in most of the sections, you’d pull off your partner, take a giant pendulum, and then be totally stranded on a blank slab below the ledge.
I was terrified. We moved deliberately across the ledge. Cali Dude insisted on keeping my headlamp. At the most exposed section of the traverse, I crawled on my stomach in complete darkness, lying down on the ledge and inching forward. I’d push my backpack in front of me, scoot a little further “Army-crawl-style”, take a breath, try not to pass out, and then repeat. It was exhausting to the point where I almost forgot my fear.
I was covered in moss, dirt, and blood. I stumbled along the narrow ledge in the dark, unable to see my feet. The final section of the ledge before the trail featured loose rock and wet, seeping roots. We held on to the sketchy tree roots, our feet slipping on the unconsolidated dirt and rocks. I watched chunks fall away below me for hundreds of feet until they disappeared into the abyss.
When we finally arrived at solid ground, we both laid down again, deliriously tired. I curled up directly in the dirt, partially lying on my rope, grateful for a moment’s rest. I watched bugs crawl onto me but I was too tired to care. In a zombie-like daze, we began the hike off the side and down the Chief.
Since Cali Dude still had my headlamp, I tripped on rocks and branches, and fell often. It was absolutely pitch black in the forest, the trees blocking the small amount of ambient light I’d previously had from town. I had flashbacks to hiking alone in the forest in Argentine Patagonia, nervously moving through the woods after a long day in the mountains. Eventually, we linked up with a major hiking trail as the first signs of dawn shed light through the trees.
At 6 am, after 19 hours of climbing and hiking, we arrived back at the car. People in the parking lot asked us if we “were the people on Grand Wall last night”, and we warily confirmed. Cali Dude was extremely embarrassed, but I was mostly proud that we’d gotten ourselves out of a mini-epic. It was the biggest climb I’ve ever done.
I took a couple of rest days, feeling like I earned every meal and cup of coffee. I took a day trip to Vancouver and had a blast exploring the city with locals before returning to Squamish.
I spent a lot of time sitting on the pavement of a parking lot next to Howe Sound, admiring the Chief across the water and estuary. After almost a year away from college, I’d be starting classes again in about a week. I reflected on my time off, appreciating the travel and climbing I’d done. I tried to soak up every last bit of relaxation and sunshine.
During my last week in Squamish, I was able to climb classics such as “Diedre”, an ultra-fun slab and crack route up the Apron of the Chief. I spent a full day cragging at Smoke Bluffs, running up endless classic cracks on splitter, wonderful granite. I met friends from all over the world and made great new climbing partnerships. Hand jamming in perfect weather easily filled my time.
The last few days of my trip entirely consisted of bouldering, which was refreshing and fun after crack climbing for most of the trip! I met up with Philip Quade, a Canadian climber and photographer (a few of his awesome shots are featured in this post). Jordan Chow, another Canadian climber, and I bouldered all around the base of the Chief while Phil took photos. We enjoyed a variety of climbs, from the techy “Black Slabbath” to the amazing thuggy “Crackhead.”
The bouldering around Squamish is near perfect: short approaches, grippy granite, generally safe landings, fun folks to project with, and stunning green forests with moss hanging from huge trees. The boulders seem to be peppered all over, closely together, and each hosted a variety of classic problems. I particularly loved the slopey arete problems that seem to grace many boulders below the Chief.
Before my trip, I was warned of incessant rain, smoke from wildfires, and bad humidity. Squamish decided to treat me by delivering sunshine, clear air, and relatively low humidity for climbing. I’m so thankful I got to see Squamish at its best! Canada definitely has my heart.
Follow Fallon's escapades on Instagram @fallonclimbs