Stawamus Chief
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North America Climbing Road trip – Squamish, BC

In an effort to make up some ground towards a rock guiding qualification, I decided I needed some more time on the rock. Climbing at Mt Arapiles had given me a good education in trad climbing. Climbing in NZ had given me a taste of choss (bad rock) and challenging approaches. But I really need more experience in variety and the unexpected. A few years ago I did a mountain bike road trip through the States and we went to a lot of places that are not only known their mountain biking, but also for their climbing. Not being a climber at the time, I’ve since wanted to go back and retrace this journey with my climbing gear. So I proposed a three month summer climbing trip, sampling everything from cragging to alpine summits. Climbing that was sure to provide me with all sorts of approaches, descents, route finding, rock type and quality, climbing styles, rope work, climbing skills, history and most of all, fun!

I invited Jesse, who is always up for an adventure and a very complimentary travel buddy. He immediately said yes and proceeded to get super stoked, while I was busy focusing on my first adventure, bike packing from Canada to Mexico. Fast forward to mid-July and an excited Jesse was picking me up from the Vancouver airport. I was looking pretty ragged after a long ride but I couldn’t wait to start climbing.

Plenty of awesome rocks along the Tour Divide. I got pretty distracted at times.

The route I had planned for our road trip called for a week at about thirteen different climbing destinations in the western half of the United States. Spots like Leavenworth, The Grand Teton NP, Yosemite NP, Indian Creek, Smith rock, Red Rocks etc. To get to these spots though we need a van or a car, or whatever our meager budget could accommodate.

Jesse had been in Vancouver for a day or so and had already looked at a few when we went to check out a Toyota LE van. After a test drive around Stanley park we were both sold and made an offer which was accepted. The van was owned by an actor who played minor roles in shows like Arrow and Prison Break. He was really helpful and friendly and hung around and bantered with us while we got it registered. Unfortunately when we went to register the car, Jesse’s name was flagged for unpaid road tolls from four years previous. Some $5 bridge crossings plus 4 years of late fees meant he owed about $150. Oops.

Us shaking hands with the vans previous owner
All registered and and ready to go.

Eventually though, we had a van. The next stop was to Walmart, to get the obligatory camping gear; cooler, water tank, chairs, etc. Our wallets were feeling a lot lighter, but we were ready to hit the road. We said goodbye to our friends David and Heather who had been hosting us in Vancouver, huge thanks to those guys, and headed for the hills.

Our first stop was Squamish. Quite a few of the places I had chosen to go and climb I had visited previously, but was only mountain biking at the time. Squamish was foremost amongst these as I had spent almost 3 weeks living in the Walmart car park and riding every day last time I was there. We made the 40ish minute drive to Squamish and made a B-line to the climbing shop. Jesse had saved up to purchase a new trad rack right at the start of the trip and I had left my rope at home with the plan to buy a new one. Once again, our wallets took a hit. We still couldn’t get on the rock however, as my rack and harness were still in storage up in Whistler. We cruised up there and grabbed them off a buddy who had been holding on to them for me. Now we were finally ready.

Us and our gear infront of our van
Starting to pack and find a home for everything in our 1988 Toyota LE. Photo: Jesse Dhue

Back in Squamish, late in the day, a quick game of rock, paper, scissors won me the right to the first climb of the trip. We chose a small carpark rock with a hand crack that is neither named, or graded. With that the climbing trip seemed like it had officially kicked off.

Me coiling rope
That’s a wrap on our first full day of climbing. Photo: Jesse Dhue

So, I plan to write a post for each of the areas or states that we climb in, and will share a bit about what the climbing areas are like, things I learned and maybe a few funny stories or misadventures from each.

Squamish was the perfect place to start our climbing road trip. Not only did we have a lot of friends in Vancouver, Squamish and Whistler to help us get started, but it was also full of fellow climbers. We instantly started to meet people and straight away started getting recommendations for routes to climb at Squamish and climbing areas to visit in the States. Pretty soon I realised we were going to get told about so many more areas than those we had planned for. So right away our plans began to change, as we were told that Smith Rock would be too hot at the time of year we planned to be there. It was also suggest we climb at Index if we were going toward Leavenworth.

An unexpected injury also made pretty immediate and big change to our plans. On day two, Jesse slipped on a really precarious move and dislocated his shoulder. Luckily it re-located on its own, so I didn’t have to drive him to hospital or reef on his arm. However he was out for a couple of days with a bit of pain. But after visiting a physio, he was assured that he was pretty lucky and would be climbing again soon. We decided to stay an extra week in Squamish, where I could still find plenty of climbing partners while he recovered.

Me crack climbing in squamish
Jesse unable to climb spent some time jugging around on ropes to get some sick photos. This is me on ‘A Little Testis’ 5.10b. Photo: Jesse Dhue

We had also made some new friends and so weren’t that keen to shoot off just yet. Josh, Logan and Aaron were from Ohio and really fun to climb with. We shared a lot of laughter while cooking pancakes and pretending to be boulderers. As well as ‘sending the gnar’ and modelling for Jesse on a fixed line.

Aaron climbing at Up Among the Firs
Aaron smearing against the ridiculously beautiful backdrop that is Howe Sound. Photo: Jesse Dhue

One of the big differences from climbing back home is the grading system. Where we use the open ended Ewbank system, North America runs on the confusing Yosemite Decimal System (YDS). Trying to learn the conversion for often subjective grades, and the fact the neither of us were climbing fit, it took a couple of days to figure out where we were at.

Squamish is beautiful granite with amazing splitter cracks, low angle, moderate grades and tricky slab faces. I wasn’t that used to climbing granite but I really loved it. Climbing with Ohio crew was good too because they already had a lot of beta on the area, having climbed there for a month already. And climbing with stronger people is the best way to push yourself I find. There is really easy access cragging in the Smoke Bluffs and Murrin Park, some amazing multi pitch routes on The Chief and great lakes to swim in each day. Its proximity to Vancouver means it gets super busy on the weekends, but we would get up early and beat the crowds.

The Arc’teryx Climbing Academy was on during our first weekend. This is Squamish’s three day climbing festival. During the day there are clinics and courses, there is a trade show with the sponsoring brands and at night there was free entertainment, presentations, contests, auctions etc. We went one night to hear Leo Houlding talk about his kite skiing, climbing trip in Antarctica. The goal of this trip was to kite ski to the most remote range in the world and climb the Spectre. The story he told was incredible and the photos were some of the most amazing I’d ever seen. The next night we went and watched the photo showdown. Six teams made up of a pro photographer, pro athlete and local athlete had two days to shoot photos and one day to edit them into a three-minute slideshow. The products were awesome and it was a great night.

It took us about a week of cragging until I started feeling confident on the rock again ( a little longer for Jesse after his injury). Once I felt like my climbing was back where it used to be, and Jesse was willing to trust his shoulder a bit more, we ventured onto our first multipitch. 18 pitches to the first summit of the Stawamus Chief via the 5.9 Buttress variation ‘Butt Light’. It’s a super popular route being the easiest route to the top. We were stuck behind a few parties on the lower Apron section and ended up venturing on to a barely climbed route which included a fair bit of vegetated crack. I ended up getting covered in sap. In the end, due to the traffic and our inefficiency at multi pitch climbing, it took us about 10 hours which is far longer than it should’ve taken and left us both pretty wrecked and hangry. Some things we will need to work on are; route finding, belay transitions, communication and swinging leads. There is lots of room for improvement which means we should be able to get a lot faster. Despite this, it was still an awesome climb.

Me climbing on the chief
Me Leading up the 5.9 crux pitch high on the Chief. Photo: Jesse Dhue
Route topo
A rough outline of our route up the chief. Traverse line is too low though, we did top out. Photo: Jesse Dhue
Jesse on the summit of the chief.
On the first summit of the Stawamus Chief after 18 pitches. Tired but victorious. Photo: Jesse Dhue

We made a new friend, John, who is a guide and has been climbing for longer than I’ve been alive. He’s a funny bloke who kept taking shots at me for being too skinny and cheap. He hung out with us one day and taught us a bunch of rock rescue and multipitch skills including but not limited to, different hauls, rappelling past knots, fast anchors, different rappel setups etc. I knew a bit of this already but definitely learnt some new skills and got to practice everything which is always good.

Eventually it was time to move on, Jesse’s shoulder was feeling better and I had to catch up with Dad before he flew home. We said goodbye to Squamish for now and headed to the USA. Stay tuned for the next post about climbing in Washington. Photo: Jesse Dhue





Avid outdoors man, aspiring mountain guide and author of 'For love of the Mountains'

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