A Mecca for Climbers
The Vancouver Sun: July 18, 2015
SQUAMISH — Renee Vieira and Nathan Paul Campbell Rehorick roll off Highway 99 into the gravel lot below the Stawamus Chief. Nathan pops open the back of the forest green Subaru Outback and they begin organizing their equipment for the day: carabiners, slings, cams and nuts are sorted and clipped to harnesses; a thick nylon rope is freed from tangles; and chalk bags are filled. The climbers discuss their route and gaze to the granite walls that reach 400 metres above where they stand.
They decide on a route called The Snake, which winds up the Apron — a prominent feature protruding out and sloping downward from the middle of the Stawamus Chief. Renee and Nathan hike 10 minutes up to the base of the rock slab, swap out their hiking shoes for climbing shoes, tie into either end of the rope, and begin their ascent.
Renee takes the first lead. Moving upward, she finds purchase on the rock’s inconsistencies with chalked fingers and sticky rubber climbing shoes. Nathan pays out slack as she goes. Every so often, Renee removes a piece of the equipment from her harness, affixes it to the rock, and then clips in her trailing rope. This is so that if Renee loses purchase, her fall will be halted by the last piece of equipment she placed, the rope, and her attentive belayer. Upon reaching the top of the first pitch, Renee secures herself to a large tree and calls back to Nathan, “Secure.” She clips the rope into the belay, pulls it taut. “Nathan, on belay.”
Up and up, Nathan and Renee take turns leading as they traverse the route.
Outside the esoteric world of climbing, the Stawamus Chief is a historically significant place.
For the Squamish Nation, who have resided in St’a7mes (as the indigenous place name is written) long before rock climbing existed as an activity unto itself, the Chief was culturally important. “The Chief Mountain got its name because it’s said that the torso of an Indian Chief can be seen in a silhouette in the top of the mountain,” says Rebecca Duncan, a teacher and translation specialist of the Squamish language.
“Our elders believed that when somebody passed away, a piece of the rock would fall from the Chief.” The rock rises proudly 702 metres above the top of Howe Sound. It is a daily sight for residents and adds to the allure of Squamish as a place of adventure.
On the Apron, Renee and Nathan are reaching the end of their climb. After a short but strenuous lateral traverse along a horizontal crack, they are done with the difficult sections. A short scramble later and they are enjoying lunch on Memorial Ledge. The view is incredible: the kite boarders in Howe Sound, the highway stretching back to Vancouver and up the valley to Mount Garibaldi. Unfortunately, dark clouds are spilling down the valley and soon enough, raindrops begin to fall. The water douses the rock, drastically reducing the friction necessary for continuing climbing.
Renee and Nathan had in mind to continue up to the top of the Second Peak, via the Squamish Buttress, but the conditions have dictated a descent instead. Still, spirits remain high. It’s been an enjoyable journey up the Stawamus Chief. Renee and Nathan will be back again soon enough.
A Climbing Destination
Renee and Nathan are among the thousands who will climb the Chief this summer. Squamish is only an hour’s drive up the Sea to Sky Highway from Vancouver and much of the rock is close to the highway, making it an ideal destination. The Chief has attracted many climbers since Jim Baldwin and Ed Cooper first ascended a route on it called the Grand Wall in 1961. During their 40-day climb, the pair relied on pitons, which they hammered into the rock, to aid their upward movement. Advances in climbing techniques and equipment allow climbers today to ascend the Grand Wall in a few hours.
As climbing has increasingly moved into mainstream popularity, Squamish has become a Canadian mecca, with the Chief at its centre. “The setting is amazing, climbing a giant granite wall above an ocean fiord with glaciated peaks marching off into the horizon is simply breathtaking,” says Colin Moorehead, a longtime Squamish climber and owner of Squamish Rock Guides. Colin puts forward an educated guess “that over 500 people climb full-length routes (bottom to top on the Chief) per year, with many, many more people climbing shorter routes; or climbing in other nearby areas around Squamish: Murrin Park, Shannon Falls, Smoke Bluffs Park and Cheakamus Canyon.”
For Nathan, who left Ontario in 2007 to move west for a ski season, ascending the Chief became a personal ambition. “I had bypassed the Chief on the highway many times because I was heading to Whistler to go skiing. It always struck me, but I didn’t understand the potential of what it could offer until I touched real rock.”
When Nathan discovered the parallel world of rock climbing, he was hooked within a season: acquiring skills, purchasing equipment and taking a month-long climbing trip to the United States. Nathan has since climbed several different routes on the Chief and continues to seek out more technically demanding ascents.
For Renee, who is also an Ontario transplant, the Chief existed in her mind’s eye long before she had the opportunity to climb it, or even see it. She was studying biology at Hamilton’s McMaster University.
“I heard about it because everyone was coming from Ontario in the summers to climb in Squamish.”
When Renee moved to Vancouver a couple of years later, she made a beeline for Squamish. “I literally moved everything, all my stuff, and the first thing I did when I came to Vancouver was spend the day in Squamish climbing. My friend picked me up from the airport and we drove straight to Squamish, didn’t even stop in Vancouver.”
For both Renee and Nathan, climbing has become a major part of their lives. They climb and work at the Hive Bouldering Gym in Vancouver, and regularly make the trip to Squamish.