Friday, June 7, 2013

Hooked on Crack: A Few Days in Squamish, B.C., Part One

(Photo: Most of the way through the 5.10a pitch one of Exasperator, at the base of the Grand Wall of The Chief.)

I've been waiting all year for my trip to Squamish.

The plan was hatched in the depths of winter. I plotted to meet up with my climbing buddy Adrian in late Spring on his home turf in British Columbia. An elbow injury in March threw my plans into doubt for a month, but when that issue resolved itself favorably in April we were back in business. I booked my flight for the 30th of May.

Late May/early June isn't absolutely the most dry time of year in which to go to this notoriously rainy region. I might have played the odds a little better if I'd planned on August. But it was the only time in 2013 I could see myself getting away for several days. I reasoned that over the four days I was planning to spend in Squamish we were very likely to get at least SOME good climbing done.

As the trip approached I got more and more excited. I hoped not just to have a good time but also to become a better crack climber. I asked Adrian to put me on some vertical cracks on day one and to coach me, so that maybe I'd finally get used to the vertical crack life and not feel so useless when called upon to jam and smear.

Next I hoped that, weather permitting, we could spend the following three days tackling huge routes up the Stawamus Chief. I was really looking forward to being on the big wall. I'd never been in the presence of such a huge expanse of stone and I couldn't wait to experience it.

(Photo: Rappelling in the Smoke Bluffs, with the huge Stawamus Chief in the distance.)

In the days before the trip the weather wasn't looking so good. I found myself checking the forecast constantly, hoping the conditions might take a sudden turn for the better. By the time the day of my flight arrived, it seemed I was in luck. Things were indeed looking up. Although my first day was predicted to have a significant chance of rain, the next three days were expected to be beautiful, sunny and mild.

I found out once I got to Squamish that the weather forecast didn't mean much. We experienced a lot of rain. But it wasn't a washout. We managed to climb every day, and we got a lot of classics under our belts. I left Canada feeling like we got lucky, all things considered.

(Photo: Mount Garibaldi, seen from somewhere high on The Chief.)

I absolutely loved the climbing at Squamish. There is something special about the texture of the Squamish granite. It feels grippy. The friction is fantastic. It gave me confidence in my footwork, and though we never really did any pure slab routes due to the wetness, there were plenty of opportunities for smearing on the routes we did and I felt much more confident on my feet in Squamish than I ever did at other granite climbing areas like Cannon Cliff or Little Cottonwood Canyon.

I also found myself finally getting into the crack techniques. I am still no crack master, but I seem at long last to have gotten used to the idea of relying on jams and walking my feet up cracks. It doesn't feel so awkward and insecure to me any more. Something clicked in Squamish. After just a few pitches I was no longer afraid to try a climb just because it contained a hand crack.

Another source of confidence for me was the fact that these crack climbs just eat pro. I have never felt so well-protected as I did on these climbs in Squamish. Gear goes everywhere. And not just active placements, but passive ones as well. The vertical nature of the cracks makes slotting nuts a dream. I placed so many nuts in Squamish! It seemed like every nut sank into a perfect constriction. Every nut seemed like a fantasy nut. Because the pro was so good I felt comfortable hopping on harder climbs, secure in the knowledge that I could get good pro pretty much at will.

Day 1: Classic Cracks in the Smoke Bluffs

We awoke on our first day to wetness in Vancouver. It had rained overnight and the city was soaked. Fog and clouds hung around all morning, obscuring the surrounding mountains.

Eventually we decided we might as well head out to Squamish. Taking the one-hour ride up the Sea to Sky Highway (in Adrian's powerful Nissan GT-R!), I was impressed with the beauty of Howe Sound, even though I couldn't see the tops of any of the surrounding mountains through the cloud cover.

Once we got to Squamish, we headed to the Smoke Bluffs, a collection of small single-pitch cliffs slightly north of the huge Stawamus Chief.

Adrian was thinking we could do a link-up called the Smoke Bluff Connection, a four-pitch outing that connects routes on several small cliff bands together into one superb longer adventure. But when we arrived at the base of the Connection's first pitch, Mosquito (5.8), it was wet, so we kept on walking 'round the trail to the Neat and Cool area, which has a collection of good moderate crack routes. 

(Photo: Adrian leading Flying Circus (5.10a).)

My introduction to Squamish finger cracks came with Flying Circus (5.10a), a very enjoyable climb. Adrian told me there is often a wait for it. Adrian has probably climbed it a hundred times; he usually jumps on it whenever he walks by and finds it available. It took him just a few minutes to lead it. When it was my turn I was happy to follow it clean without too much coaching. The finger locks felt solid and I got my first taste of the great Squamish texture. My feet seemed secure wedged against the crack and now and then there were other bumps and features outside the crack which could also be used. I felt good about it.

(Photo: Cat Crack (5.7).)

It was my turn to lead something. The low-angled jam crack called Cat Crack (5.7) seemed like a good starting point. I did fine on it, although I went slowly and felt a little shaky. This crack was wider and I wasn't as instantly comfortable. Still, I survived, with a minimum of whining. This was also good climbing, with consistent moves throughout.

(Photo: At the crux roof on Neat and Cool (5.10a).)

From the top of Cat Crack we traversed over to set a top rope above Neat and Cool (5.10a). The whole crux portion appeared to be soaking wet and neither of us was too keen on leading it. But Adrian thought I should try it on top rope anyway. He had experience with the route and thought I would like it because it is a roof climb and therefore somewhat Gunks-like.

I did enjoy it. It starts up a slanting finger crack, and then a pumpy, Gunksy traverse on jugs gets you to the break in the roof. There is a perfect vertical jam crack above the roof, and I think I would likely have sent the crux first try had this part been dry. But it was so wet and slimy I popped off a couple of times while trying to move off of a jam to a wet jug. Finally I got up above the roof and then enjoyed the slab variation finish past bolts to our top rope anchor. This is a great pitch and even though it isn't very long it has good variety and several challenging moments. I would love to go back and lead it some day when it's dry.

(Photo: Past most of the difficulties on Penny Lane (5.9).)

After we were done with Neat and Cool, I told Adrian I really wanted him to put me on a good pure hand crack and to make me lead it. It was time to learn something. Adrian said he had the perfect climb for me: Penny Lane (5.9).

After the quick walk to the base I stared up at Penny Lane with awe. This is a long pitch that consists almost entirely of real crack climbing, after a difficult, bouldery first move.

I think Penny Lane is where I really found my way in Squamish. The opening move was a challenge, but there is good gear and once I committed to a thin finger lock with the left hand and a pure smear with the right foot, I was able to reach gracefully to the good holds on the right and then step over to the main crack, without too much fumbling around.

Once I was established at the main crack I placed some bomber pro and confronted the steep crux. Adrian said that some people walk up the crack and some people stem out. I ended up walking up the crack with my feet rather than stemming out; I just went for it that way and it felt good. Before I knew it, I had jammed up to a good stance and could place more gear. And the rest of the pitch offered more great climbing, with interesting moves between good stances.

I still was no crack expert but Penny Lane felt like the real thing, an honest 5.9 hand crack that turned out to be well within my abilities. It felt really good.

(Photo: Almost through stumbling up the beautiful Crime of the Century (5.11c).)

After we were done with Penny Lane we scrambled left to the anchors above Crime of the Century, a hard 5.11c that ascends a very thin crack in the middle of a beautiful blank face. Adrian took the first shot at it, and it did not look easy. He struggled and fell a few times. When my turn came I fell more than a few times. I was fortunate to nail the hard opening move after watching Adrian do it, but this glory was short-lived. I fell many times after that, eventually doing all the moves but never finding it easy. This would be a tough one to lead. The gear is micro and the stances from which to place it are very tenuous. It is an amazing pitch, though, relentless and aesthetically appealing, and I imagine it would offer great rewards to anyone who put in the effort to master it.

(Photo: Getting cruxy on Quarryman (5.8).)

I felt pretty worked over after Crime of the Century, but we had time for at least one more climb before we had to head back to Vancouver for our dinner reservation. I asked Adrian if he had a 5.8 hand crack for me and he sent me around the corner to try Quarryman (5.8). It's is a cool little route, ascending an easy crack and flakes and then making some committing moves around a corner, angling left and up into a diagonal jam crack to finish. To me the difficulty seemed to build as the climb continued. It started super casual and then got a little more interesting with each move around the corner and up to he anchor. It all felt well under control and made a fitting end to our day.

As the day ended it seemed like the weather had finally cleared up, right on schedule. Though it had been threatening to rain again all day we had persevered and now things looked good for day two. Adrian had a meeting at his office in Vancouver in the morning, so we wouldn't get an early start, but assuming we had good weather we could climb until sunset after 9:00 p.m., so we had plenty of time to do whatever we wanted.

Day 2: Smoke Bluff Connection and Exasperator

(Photo: Finishing up a damp Mosquito (5.8).)

It turned out my expectations for day two were unrealistic. I awoke to cloudy skies. As I waited for Adrian to finish with his work obligations, it didn't get any better. And by the time we drove out of Vancouver it was actually sprinkling. So much for the weather forecast. We carried on to Squamish anyway, since by the time we got there it was already going to be practically noon. No point in waiting around.

Once we got up there, it wasn't raining but we could see that the Chief looked pretty wet. Disappointed, we decided to check out the Smoke Bluff Connection, hoping we could still do something multi-pitch. Upon arriving at the base of the first pitch, Mosquito (5.8), we found it a little damp but not as wet as the day before. Touching the rock, it seemed okay. The bulgy crux looked pretty dry. We decided to do it. I took the lead.

This was another good pitch, a little stiff I thought for 5.8. The bottom section is kind of awkward, up until a stance beneath the little overhang. Then the moves out and over a bulge are the crux, steep but with good jams and holds.

Pitch two of the Connection is another 5.8 called Plegmish Dance. (I thought it was "Flemish Dance" until I looked in the guidebook, which I suppose is the joke!) This pitch is good too, but not as challenging, sustained, or ultimately as entertaining as Mosquito. It has some nice moves up a groove to a short section of mandatory hand jamming at the end. I complained a bit before committing to the jamming but got through it just fine.

(Photo: Adrian following Mosquito.)

Adrian then led the third pitch of the Connection, a 5.10b called Jabberwocky. It starts with a tough move to get established on the face and then follows yet another beautiful finger crack. Squamish seems to be littered with these great finger cracks. I was relieved to get the opening move and then followed the whole pitch clean.

(Photo: Following Jabberwocky (5.10b).)

When we both reached the end of Jabberwocky I was immediately fascinated with the thin crack in a corner right in front of us. This crack is its own route, a short but steep 5.10b called White Rabbit. It seems to be the logical continuation of Jabberwocky, but the Smoke Bluff Connection traditionally concludes with a different climb off to the left called Wonderland (5.9). Adrian kept insisting I'd regret it if I didn't lead Wonderland, a wildly exposed traversing climb, but I really liked the look of White Rabbit's pure, thin crack in the nearly featureless corner.

(Photo: Testing the first hold on White Rabbit (5.10b) while waiting for the rain to stop.)

We had plenty of time to think about which climb to do next, because as soon as we finished Jabberwocky it started raining again. We waited there, hoping it would pass over, but it seemed to go on forever as we killed time. After a while we began to wonder if it was even worth waiting any longer. Surely the climbs would need time to dry out once it had rained for 45 minutes or more.

But finally the rain let up and when I touched White Rabbit's wall it felt dry. I decided to go for it.

White Rabbit is pretty tough for a few moves. It is steep and strenuous and your feet are pasted to the smooth wall as you lay back the thin crack. The finger locks are there but you have to find them. It all feels pretty insecure. But there's great gear and it isn't too long before you clear the bulge and it starts to ease. As the angle decreases the crack also widens. Adrian tried to tell me to throw a fist jam into the crack near the end but, sensing that victory was near, I stayed with the layback and just powered over the top. It was my first 5.10 onsight lead at Squamish.

(Photo: Getting over the crux flakes on Wonderland (5.9).)

After we rapped back down Adrian pushed me to lead Wonderland. I wasn't really feeling it. It looked well-protected at the start but it appeared that most of the pitch involved traversing a hand crack with nothing but smears for the feet. I couldn't tell if the later bits were wet. And I didn't think we had enough big gear with us to protect the final bits of the traverse.

Finally I let him push me into it and I'm glad he did. Wow! This is an exciting pitch. The initial traverse is a simple matter, and then the technical crux comes as you move up onto the bulging wall using very thin, rising flakes. The pro is there and after a few good moves it eases back off. But then the final traverse heads left and the crack gets wider and wider. The mental crux comes as the hands become insecure slopers and the feet disappear. For just a move or two you have to commit to the slopers, and then a little foot rail appears and everything eases off again.

I held on to my blue # 3 Camalot as long as I could. I tried not to place it before the mental crux because I wanted to put it in for Adrian right after the move. (I'm all about protecting my second.) Hoping to conserve the cam, I even found a good nut in a lone vertical crack not too far to the right of the slopers. But then I tried to commit to the move and I almost greased off. Scared, I retreated, placed the blue cam and took a hang. Then I went for it again, and almost greased off again but this time made it through. Unfortunately I had now used the blue cam so I had no more gear that was large enough for the crack until I got to the end. So I didn't protect my second very well. Served him right, I thought. Adrian wasn't concerned about it, much to my chagrin. He sailed right through the pitch.

As we walked down from the Smoke Bluff Connection it was already getting late. What with our late start and the long rain delay our day was almost over. But it had cleared up again and we were hoping to have two more beautiful days in which to do long multi-pitch routes on the Chief. We decided to head over to the base of the Grand Wall of the Chief so that before our second day ended I could take a shot at one more short climb that was on my must-do list for Squamish: 

Exasperator (5.10c)!

This is a very famous, oft-photographed climb. It looks amazing. The thin crack heads straight up a blank slab for the 5.10a pitch one, then for the 5.10c pitch two the crack abruptly diagonals up right before turning 90 degrees and heading back up left to the end. In photos it looks pure, beautiful, and challenging.

As we walked towards the Chief from the parking lot I prayed Exasperator would be dry. We trooped in through a thick woods, gigantic boulders laying about, dropped at some point from the massive Chief as casually as crumbs brushed off of a table. The closer we got to the cliff, the more overwhelmed I became at its sheer size. The Chief is even larger than it first appears-- the distance from the parking lot to the cliff is further than I realized. As we caught glimpses of the face Adrian would point out distinguishing features and routes to the top, and the length of these routes was impressive. Eight pitches to this ledge, another six to that one, then four more to link up with thus-and-so... It went on and on.

(Photo: Dude looks like a lady? This carved figure welcomes visitors to the base of the Grand Wall of the Chief, but is it male or female? Adrian and I could not agree.)

Soon enough we got to the base of the Grand Wall and we were in luck. The very bottom of Exasperator was slimy but after the first move it looked dry enough. I knew now, after climbing several thin Squamish cracks, that I could handle the 5.10a pitch one, and off I went.

(Photo: Getting started up Exasperator.)

It is a beautiful pitch. It starts with a few straightforward moves up a jagged crack to a little pod, then the finger crack becomes thinner and the crux section begins, with nothing available but the crack and a smooth wall. I maneuvered carefully through this middle portion of the route, gently placing my left toe on little indentations against the crack and trying to select the best smearing placements for my right foot. The gear, as usual in Squamish, was automatic. As I reached a shallow overlap about two-thirds of the way up, I found holds and texture outside the crack for the hands and feet, and the realization dawned on me that I nearly had this pitch in the bag.

I'd never felt so good. But I didn't want to blow the last few moves. Adrian shouted encouragement and I told him to shut up. I needed to focus. Then after a few more careful steps I reached the alcove with the chains, flopped into it and exhaled with relief. Onsight of Exasperator! Woo hoo!

(Photo: Adrian on the 5.10a pitch one of Exasperator.)

I wasn't sure I wanted to lead the harder, 5.10c pitch two. But Adrian said he didn't want the lead, I think (in retrospect) because he knew I would later regret it if I didn't suck it up and lead it. After a few minutes' negotiation, in which I was assured the pro was all there, and that the crux section wasn't that long, I agreed to take the sharp end.

(Photo: Heading up pitch two of Exasperator (5.10c).)

The crux section comes right after the beginning of the pitch. The finger crack is good but the angle is such that it is hard to use the crack for your left toe. Gravity makes you want to paste both feet on the blank wall, which is less strenuous than using the crack but also less secure. I went back and forth between using the crack and using the wall to move up my feet. It went well for several moves, but when I paused to place a green Alien, my left foot popped off the wall just as I was pulling out an armload of slack to clip the piece.

I didn't fall. I managed to hold on with one hand in a solid finger lock. But the close call sent my heart rate into the red, and after I clipped the Alien I decided to take a hang. Afterwards I saw that I was just a move away from a rest stance. I had basically completed the crux already, and could have gotten the onsight. Oh well.

The rest of the pitch is a little easier. Similar climbing continues up the right-leaning crack for its entire length, but after the initial crux there are some good rest stances in occasional pods, and then before you know it the crack turns 90 degrees and widens. After the left turn I jammed my hands and my right foot in the crack and made burly but secure moves up and left to the anchor. Adrian showed me a way he thinks is easier, laying back off the crack and walking up it. I think it would be harder to place pro if you did it this way, but the climbing would be less strenuous. If I ever go back I may try it out. But I was proud of my solution. I had truly embraced the jamming life.

Exasperator was my favorite climb in Squamish. I came down off of it thinking it was the greatest finger crack ever. Of course I still can't claim to have vast experience with finger cracks, so if you know of a better finger crack than Exasperator I'd be really interested in seeing it! I was proud to have led it and just a tiny bit disappointed that I took a rest on the second pitch. I took consolation in the knowledge that I did every move without a fall. And I felt the climb demonstrated how much I've improved. Just last year I was so much shakier on the Green Adjective, a similar, easier climb in Utah.

After we finished with Exasperator we called it a day, retiring for beers and bar food at the Howe Sound Inn. We spent the night there so we could get an early start on what we were convinced would be a gorgeous, sunny day three!

Coming up in Part Two: Rainy day doldrums, salvaged by Supervalue (5.10c). Plus a day on the Chief doing Calculus Crack Direct (5.9) and the Squamish Butt Face (5.9).


  1. Hi Seth:

    Glad you had such a good time in Squamish and I'm looking forward to reading 'part 2'. Your buddy Adrian put you on many of the greatest crack climbs in that grade range, and it was fun reading about someone doing these climbs I love, for their first time.


  2. Thank you Steve! I loved Squamish and hope to return some day.

  3. Your blog is always so exciting. It's also an amazing resource for beta on Gunks routes. I thoroughly enjoy every post.

    Can't wait for part 2!

  4. Thanks so much. I'm working on it!

  5. Great write up. Sorry I couldn't make it out to climb with you two.

    1. Lee, I hope I get to meet you one of these days. I feel I know you already, I've heard so much from Adrian.

  6. Man Seth, that stuff looks so great!!! Thanks for the in-depth write-up!

  7. Thank you everyone, part two is now available.

  8. "(Photo: Dude looks like a lady? This carved figure welcomes visitors to the base of the Grand Wall of the Chief, but is it male or female? Adrian and I could not agree.)"

    About the carving near the base, it's called "The Rock Climber", and the facial features and hair are of Yvonne, my mother. Dad roughed out the body in a more masculine form, but the features are still my mom.

    I was 7 years old when my dad carved that rock, and like some of his other sculptures and carvings, you see the face of my mom even if the form is a bit masculine. She was a sturdy woman, and a true climber. She's planted her feet at the summit of more than one rock, and had a baby in her pack to hand her a piton or a squeeze of honey for energy.

    The dude looks like a lady because she is.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment! I was the one voting for lady-- Adrian was convinced it was a dude-- so I am gratified to hear this information. Adrian owes me a beer.