In college, I used to climb all the time - sometimes four or five days a week during the summer - on the hard gritstone cliffs of western Pennsylvania. After most climbing trips, my compatriots and I would head back to someone's apartment, hang out, and watch climbing videos. Back then (and still today), one of the biggest names in climbing was Chris Sharma. There was one particular video I remember - Rampage - where he went bouldering in Squamish, British Columbia. I had never heard of Squamish, but in the video they describe it as a sort of Shangri-La of climbing - a place where the sea meets the sky at the intersection of acres of granite.
Fast forward to the present day, and my weekly schedule has changed. In fact, climbing is something that has really gone missing from my life. It's not surprising - kids, jobs, family life - not to mention getting older - priorities change and before you know it, it can be hard to recognize yourself. Which isn't to say I wasn't happy - I just always envisioned continuing my climbing and outdoor sports career throughout my life. Somehow it had vanished.
I spoke to my wife about it, and she was very supportive and understanding. I think she knew how important outdoor sports had been to me, and probably had been a little surprised I had gotten out of it as much as I had. Not to mention, she has always been concerned about my waistline and what it might mean for my health.
So when I started planning "getting back into the game", I knew I would need a big goal to set my eyes on. I needed someplace different and bigger than just the typical Kentucky, West Virginia and eastern climbing I had done before. I don't exactly know why, but for some reason I started thinking about Squamish, and couldn't get it out of my head.
Earlier in the year, I had reconnected with my old climbing partner, so I knew he would be game for this adventure. I called him up, pitched the trip, and we started training.
We started our trip in Vancouver - about a hour south of Squamish. As it was, I had business meetings there in late September. I flew out on Wednesday and had my meetings, and my partner loaded up his 80 pound gear bag (as well as other luggage) and flew up to meet me on Friday.
Our gear bag was probably the biggest piece of luggage I had ever seen checked on a plane. It was a huge red North Face duffel bag that looked like something you'd take with you to the Himalayas. It contained two 60 meter (200 foot) ropes, probably 30 pounds of aluminum (carabiners, rock protection, spring loaded camming devices), as well as a tent, sleeping bag, and God knows what else.
And they lost it.
The bag contained probably well over $3,500 worth of gear, but more importantly, without our gear we'd be reduced to the lowly status of hikers for this trip. To make himself feel better, my partner decided to go ahead and drive up to Squamish on Friday afternoon to do some recon. He texted me the picture below while I was still sitting in meetings in Vancouver:
Oh yeah - we were going to have some fun.
Luckily, by around 10 PM Friday night, they had located the bag, and he and I drove back out to the airport to pick it up. We then crashed at the hotel and got ready for a big day Saturday.
Since it was going to be raining in Squamish on Saturday, we decided to go to our backup climbing area first, in the hopes that it would be dry. My partner had done a great job in scouting out potential climbing areas that would be in the rain shadow of the mountain range that separates Squamish from the Canadian interior - the idea being that the rain would fall on the western side of these mountains, and that the area to the east would be more arid.
So, we left around 4 AM and started driving to the Fraiser Valley, which is about two and a half hours east of Squamish and Vancouver. Along the way, our path basically kept the US border just ten miles to our south, so the mountains in the picture below are probably the United States - which we could see from Canada. Driving out that morning, I had never seen a more beautiful sunrise than the one coming up over the mountains.
As we approached the Coquihalla Summit Recreation Area of the Frasier Valley, we had to drive through something I had never seen before - an avalanche tunnel. It was a concrete enclosure over the highway, necessary because the cliffs over the highway avalanched so much that otherwise it would constantly be covered with rocks and ice. We also learned later that there used to be an automated tram system that the local authorities would use to send explosives to the summit, which would then be remotely detonated to clear out avalanches.
As we exited the avalanche tunnel - we saw it. THE BEAST. We both said: "HOLY SHIT" about eight or ten times, as it was easily the biggest, slabbiest, tallest, nastiest granite dome we had ever seen. I really cannot express how huge Yak Peak appeared in that moment, so I will try to let the picture below explain.
Yak Peak is 6,690 feet in elevation, with a prominence of 1,600 feet. "Prominence" basically means how much the peak sticks up out of the surrounding terrain. For our climb, we would be attempting to climb up about 1,400 feet that that. As a point of reference, the tallest rock route I had climbed prior to this was a 400 foot route in North Carolina at Table Rock. So needless to say it was intimidating.
Adding to the challenge was the fact that it had been years since I had climbed a multi-pitch route. "Multi-pitch" basically means more than one rope length ("pitch" = rope length), meaning both climbers have to climb up to a belay station, anchor in, and then the lead climber continues upwards. Also, this particular type of rock necessitates a type of climbing called "slab climbing". This means the cliff face is less than vertical - anywhere from 40 degrees to 80 degrees (most of this route was probably around 60 degrees). I had never done very much slab climbing, so I was somewhat inexperienced in this style of climbing.
The route we were climbing up Yak Peak, which was called "Seven One Move Wonders of the World" or "SOMWOW", is considered a Grade III Alpine Trad Route. Grade III routes are serious mountaineering - a level of difficulty neither of us had really ever done.
Most challenging though for me was my head game. In climbing, your "head game" is simply your ability to manage your fear while climbing. My head game was very rusty after close to a decade of being out of practice, so had some pretty serious doubts as to my ability to climb what I was seeing. Luckily, those went away pretty quickly once I got back in the swing of things and I was very comfortable with the route.
We set out from the parking lot in about 32 degree F weather, and headed up the approach trail. The hike up to the base of Yak Peak was pretty heinous - hiking in British Columbia is very rugged - but we arrived at the base where there was a beautifully picturesque pond overlooking the mountain scene.
We roped up, and my partner headed up the route. Due to his greater experience with slab climbing, he would be leading all the pitches on this route. Also worth noting is that in addition to wearing a full rack of climbing gear up the rock, he also dragged a second "drag line" rope up the rock, which we would use for rappelling down later. 200 feet of rope dragging behind you on high-friction granite slows you down, to be sure.
Yak Peak is so large, after the first few pitches, you really began to understand why people talk about such areas as being a "Sea of Granite" - the rock truly looks like rolling ocean waves were petrified in rock form, and after a while it can be disorienting. An example picture is below:
The climbing was enjoyable, but hard. You basically are on your toes the whole time with the ball of your foot smeared against the rock, as there are no actual footholds to stand on. It's all balance and friction that propels you up the rock.
We continued up to the end of the 5th pitch, then stopped for lunch at about 700 feet up. Several of these pitches were a FULL rope length - which means that as my partner was climbing, I had to yell up "About six feet left!" - meaning, he only had about six feet of rope left before he was going to have to find the bolted anchor, or else he'd be out of rope. Luckily, he was able to find all the belay stations and then belay me up.
Our lunch ledge was probably the biggest ledge on the rock - it was a good 30 feet wide and perhaps 12 feet deep - plenty of room to take our shoes off, sit down, and relax a bit.
After lunch, we continued up at which point the rock got much steeper. Past a few hanging belays where we were hanging in our harnesses from the bolts, we ended up at a major roof, which my partner was able to pull, but by the time he was at the top, it was getting cold and the sun was rapidly sinking over the mountains. That was at the end of the 9th pitch. We decided it was time to go, and set up for a tandem rappel down the route. With a tandem rappel, each of us would be on one strand of the rope, rappelling down at the same time together. Later we were glad we made the decision to rappel in this manner, as it seemed like it took us forever to make the 9 rappels down the rock face.
At some point during the rappels, we lost count of how many times we had rappelled - it was definitely the most time I had ever spent hanging on a rope. But, finally we were down on the ground, and made the long hike down to the car. We were wiped out.
We hopped in the car, and then began the late drive to Squamish. By that time it was dark, and in truth, the three hour drive in the dark up the mountainous coast was likely far more dangerous than the thousand-some foot of rock we had climbed up. I was pretty happy that I didn't end up putting the car in the sound.
The next day, we awoke to be greeted by Squamish:
Sunday we spent the day climbing a few single-pitch routes on The Stawamus Chief and an area called Shannon Falls - the most prominent piece of rock in Squamish. As opposed to the slab climbing we did on Yak Peak, all the climbs this day were crack climbs, and they were all mostly wet or muddy, so it was less than ideal. My partner pushed himself climbing a 5.10c trad crack climb which we got up, and we ended the day with dinner at a local brewery.
Monday was our day to push hard again, and tackle a multi-pitch route at Shannon Falls called Skywalker, which is a five pitch 5.8 crack and slab climb. The first pitch was really wet at the bottom and seemed hard. It began with crack climbing at the start and then became a slab climb towards the top. The second pitch was rated 5.8 but felt way harder, a narrow first-knuckle only crack climb that was a dihedral (open book) and real balancy. My partner struggled with getting started up it, so I was concerned that if it was hard for him, that it would be impossible for me. It ended up being some ugly climbing on my part for sure.
The third pitch was a really nice diagonal ramp, rated 5.7, which felt about spot on. The end was really tricky and my leader felt a little sketchy above his gear until he figured out that he needed to heel-toe the off-width crack to get up it. I fooled around on it and just ended up aiding my way past that move. To hell with it - I wasn't winning any style awards.
The fourth pitch is known as a very scary part of the climb — it's known as the "Skywalker Traverse", which goes out to an overhanging roof with an undercling crack that starts as fingers and opens up to bigger than fists, all on a slabby footing area that is a straight drop down 350 feet or so. It looked terrible, scary, and like a place you would have to walk through on the entrance to hell. Best of all, some wiseass put a bolt tag with “May the Force be With You” on it at the start of the traverse, which didn't encourage us as much as you would think.
Even my partner was scared looking at it, mainly beacuse he had no more gas in the tank. However once he was on it, he said it was way easier than it looked. Of course the end of it was sopping wet, right where you needed the best footholds to be able to go up a little ramp. He sewed it up tight with gear (probably more than ten cams). My body just felt done for the day, so it took some convincing for me to build up the guts to jump into it - because once I broke down the anchor and headed up the slab, there was no way to turn back. Once I was on it, I found that I didn’t even have to smear my toes, I could basically stand with my feet flat on the rock — it actually was way flatter than it looked. It's probably one of the worst-looking pitches I've seen that ended up being pretty easy.
I will say that exiting the slab section to the ramp was a bit tricky, because again, you’re looking straight down at a messy and not fun fall over a 350 foot drop (which if you took, you’d probably end up having to climb back up the rope with ascenders, because the feet were terrible and it was a sheer face). But, once I was on the ramp, the handholds were huge and I felt good. I was glad that I had dove in and done that pitch, because I knew that we were now going to be able to finish the last pitch no matter what.
The last pitch went up a short handcrack to a treetrunk which my partner dutyfully tied off, and then went up a slab with 4 or so bolts on it. Because of the experience I had gained slab climbing Yak Peak on Saturday, this slab felt like cake, so I ran up it. My partner thought it was more challenging than most of Yak Peak, but I think I was ready to have the climb over, and happy to have gotten through what was some really difficult climbing for me.
The hike down off the end of Skywalker first involved us going up higher on the cliff on a narrow trail near the edge, and then down the backside on a steep but safe trail. Along this trail there were no fewer than 4 fixed and knotted ropes that you had to use to lower yourself down small sections of rocks, roots, or steps, which isn’t exactly the kind of thing you look forward to doing after your arms and fingers are totally blown from 6 hours of crack climbing. It’s just so incredibly rugged in BC that even a hike becomes way more technical than anything I’ve ever seen in WV, KY, NC, or other parts of the continent.
It was an incredible day of climbing to cap off an incredible weekend where we both pushed our technical and mental limits, and felt like we added a notch on the belts of our climbing careers. The next morning, we packed up and drove off, and Squamish gave us one last beautiful parting shot, before disappearing into our memories until the next time...