Thursday, June 13, 2013

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

(Photo: Starting up Triage Arete (5.9).)

On my third day in Squamish, I got out of bed expecting blue skies. But I pulled back the curtain to see clouds and wetness.

Oh no, not again?!

Seriously, what the H, Squamish? Rain for the third day in a row? This definitely merits a mention in my Yelp review.

Well, okay, so the streets were wet. It didn't seem to be actually raining. Maybe it would all burn off. We got up, checked out of the Howe Sound Inn, and went to have breakfast at the White Spot.

I kept looking out the window as I picked at my omelette, hoping for signs of clearing. But no. As we sat there it got worse. It actually started raining.


Day 3: Nightmare Rock (Murrin Park) and the Parking Lot Area (Smoke Bluffs)

It rained all morning. Every time we thought it might be done it would start right back up again.

We ended up climbing in the rain in Murrin Park, at a wall called Nightmare Rock. This wall has some hard 5.12 roof climbs that have anchors below the roofs so that the easier, lower portions of these routes, which stay dry in the rain, can be climbed even during a storm.

The route on the left, which climbs to an intermediate anchor on Grandaddy Overhang, is rated 5.8 up to the anchor. It looked interesting, starting with a weird chimney and then climbing a low-angled face up the left side of an arete. I had Adrian lead it. I didn't like the looks of the starting chimney but Adrian made it look very easy. The face moves above were a little harder. This isn't a bad pitch, if you have nothing else to do.

(Photo: Adrian sliding into the rainy-day version of Grandaddy Overhang (5.8).)

I took the lead back for the route on the right, Sentry Box (5.10a). This climb features a hand crack that forks into two cracks about 20 feet up the wall. I found the crux move to be relatively low, as you move up the initial crack to a stance at a thin flake that is stuck in the crack. I'd be hard-pressed to call this move 5.10a. It seemed much easier than that to me, maybe 5.8+ or 5.9- at the most. Above, when the crack splits in two, you can climb up either crack; both are easy. This is another nice enough route. We did it twice.

(Photo: At the crux move of the short version of Sentry Box (allegedly 5.10a).)

The never-ending rain was getting us down. We talked about climbing at another location but instead we said screw it and went to the climbing shop (why not?) and for an early lunch at a funky little diner called Mountain Woman. Burgers and milkshakes are the ultimate power foods.

Finally, during a break in the rain we decided to head back to the Smoke Bluffs. When we got there it seemed like the rain might hold off a bit. I walked up to the wall just above the parking lot to feel the rock and, miracle of miracles, it felt dryish. I ran back to the car to summon Adrian and get my stuff. We were in business.

(Photo: Adrian on Triage Arete (5.9). The vertical crack of Picket Line (5.9) is visible just to the left of the arete.)

We started with Picket Line (5.9), a vertical crack system on the left side of the little crag which can be clearly seen from the parking area. Although the bottom of the route was kind of grungy, I thought the crux steep hand crack through a bulge was good fun, and I enjoyed the easier climbing afterwards up to the anchor.

After Picket Line I led Cold Comfort (5.9), another obvious crack system on the right side of the crag. This one is a finger crack. Again the lower bits were pretty dirty, but by the time I reached the finger crack it was cleaner. I liked this one better than Picket Line. It has more sustained good moves. It is a worthwhile climb despite the filth at the bottom. Adrian said it used to be a consensus 5.8 and that sounded about right to me.

Next we turned to the elephant in the room, the climb right in the middle of the crag with four lonely bolts running up it. This is Triage Arete (5.9), an inviting line that is somewhat scary-looking. Adrian told me that in his opinion it has enough bolts but that it is a little bit of a heady lead. After some hemming and hawing I decided to do it. It looked fun. And I ended up liking it a lot. I too think there are just enough bolts. Maybe one more near the top would be nice. And the climbing is unusual for these parts; it's all about balance and moving from one side of the arete to the other. It doesn't appear so from below but there are good holds all the way up. I thought this one was also easy for its grade. If it were up to me I'd call it a 5.8.

By the time we finished Triage Arete it was getting late. All afternoon Adrian had been suggesting I lead Supervalue (5.10c). The Select guidebook lists it among the 100 best climbs in Squamish.

It looked hard in several places but after feeling good on climbs all day I decided to go for it.

The start, up an undercling crack and around a corner, was tough but I got through it. I placed a piece in the undercling and pretty quickly wished I had placed it further to the left. Once I committed to the sequence there was no way I could place anything else until I reached a stance around the corner. After I got around the corner and placed more gear, Adrian scrambled up and removed this first piece, because it was feeding the rope into the crack. I guess I would recommend that you do the same thing. You definitely want pro for the start, because the initial moves are hard and the landing is blocky. But once the moves are done it is a good idea to back-clean the piece to avoid drag and/or a stuck rope.

(Photo: Relieved to have passed the opening test of Supervalue (5.10c).)

Once I was through the bouldery opening of Supervalue I found it easy to get up to the second challenge, a face-climbing bit with three bolts. Really nice, delicate face moves lead through this bolted section. But I got stuck. I couldn't figure out how to step up to the third bolt. I needed to make one more move up, and I couldn't figure out how to get enough play out of the available holds so that I could make the step. It wasn't very steep but it was balancy and technical. And I failed. I tried several times, then took a hang on the bolt. Then I tried to go for it again and took more of a fall than a hang on the bolt.

I told Adrian I was thinking I might have to bail. We were discussing the logistics of this when some other climbers approached and encouraged me to continue, saying I was at the crux. Hearing this, I gave it one more try, and when I did I immediately found an obvious hold I had ignored and, feeling like an idiot, easily stepped up to the final section, a face with two vertical cracks.

These are both jam cracks. The cracks have good climbing that isn't terribly hard. The real crux of the route turns out to be making the transition between these two cracks, on thin feet and small handholds. I had already wasted plenty of time and was feeling tired so of course I rushed these moves, choosing the wrong footholds, and although I almost made it, I fell.

I had gear in the left crack, and my top piece was basically level with me, just a few feet to my left. It was my green/yellow Totem Basic Hybrid cam, an Alien clone. Although the piece was close by I still fell maybe ten to fifteen feet due to stretch and slack in the system. The fall was clean and the cam held just fine. I actually rested there a minute, my weight still on the cam, before I climbed back up to it. And then when I saw the cam I was alarmed. Two of the lobes-- the smaller pair-- had popped. Actually, they were beyond popped, and had somehow inverted. I had been held by just one pair of lobes! These two lobes now appeared to be somewhat mangled and welded together. And the stem, while intact, was kinked into a bent position.

I put in a new piece, and then managed to remove the compromised cam. I was able to get it out but even after removal it stayed stuck in roughly the same position it had been in while it held my fall.

(Photo: My messed-up Totem Basic hybrid cam.)

When I placed the cam I thought it was bomber.... And I guess it was! You never know. Anyway, after I sorted that all out I negotiated the crux just fine. All it took was patience and precise footwork. And then I finally finished the pitch.

Supervalue really does give a high value experience, with three interesting and different tough cruxes. It is a wonderful pitch and I wish I could say I did a better job leading it. I could have sent this on-sight if I'd been more disciplined about it. Must have been the milkshake...

Day 4: Finally, a Full-Length Trip Up the Chief

When we got up for day four we were finally graced with a glorious, sunny day. There was the slight chance of a thunderstorm in the forecast but Adrian and I hoped for the best and motored on up to Squamish. We wanted to do a big long route up to the summit of the Chief.

(Photo: My homemade beta photo of our route for day four. Click to enlarge.)

We ended up making it to the top, by one of the easiest and shortest routes, starting with Calculus Crack (Direct 5.9), then scrambling over to do Boomstick Crack (5.4), and finally doing the Squamish Butt Face aka Butt Lite (5.9).

Adrian had originally hoped we would do Diedre (5.8), a classic six pitch slab climb, to start our day. He even wanted to tack on a couple of optional harder slab pitches at the bottom. But when we arrived at the Chief there were still prominent wet streaks running down Diedre. So we headed over to the start of Calculus Crack, which is also traditionally done in six pitches. The climb follows a long crack system all the way up the left/north edge of the Apron, with lots of uniform jamming throughout. 

Classically the route starts up two very bushy pitches with only occasional fifth class moves, but we started instead up a recent 2010 direct variation that ups the grade to 5.9 by beginning to the left of the usual start up a slab (protected by a lone bolt off to the side) and then continuing up to an awkward short chimney and technical low-angled corner.

I agreed to take the first, crux lead but as soon as I clipped the bolt I got uncomfortable. The slab I was supposed to move onto was soaking wet and covered in fresh clumps of mud and moss. All the rains of the past week had clearly taken a toll on the condition of the route. I could see too that the awkward little chimney above was wet.

I felt certain I was going to slide right off of the slab. I didn't like it. So after some thinking I handed the lead over to Adrian.

(Photo: Adrian getting set to start a wet Calculus Crack Direct (5.9).)

As usual, Adrian was happy to bail me out. He looked it over and then did a tension traverse, having me keep the rope tight while he moved across the wet slab to the good holds. It was a smart solution, and one I never would have thought of. It's good to have people around who have alpine experience. They know things.

Adrian finished the pitch without incident, and I followed it clean, but almost the whole pitch was wet. I was really glad I gave up the lead. Luckily we didn't encounter any more pitches like this.

(Photo: Grateful to find dry rock on the 5.8 pitch two of Calculus Crack Direct.)

It was smooth sailing the rest of the way. I led pitch two, which is allegedly 5.8 but which seemed easier than that to me. I found jam cracks galore and whenever I got tired of jamming there were alternative ways to stay on the rock.

Adrian used his 70 meter rope to advantage on pitch three, blowing past the usual belay ledge and continuing up the 5.8 flakes that start the traditional fourth pitch. He built a belay in the jam crack when we got to the end of the rope.

While Adrian was leading this pitch a free soloist cruised by us, climbing with neither a rope nor protective gear. He was just moving along as casually as one would walk down the sidewalk, secure in the knowledge that he would never fall on such an easy climb, I guess. I wondered how far he was going. Would he walk off from the top of the slabs or continue all the way to the top of the Chief? He seemed very much at peace, climbing in rhythm, repeating the exact same jamming motion over and over again, wearing headphones. Adrian and I just stood there. We paused to let him pass and watched him go by. Then we looked at each other, shook our heads, and went back to our own business. We never saw him again.

(Photo: Following our pitch three (traditionally pitch four) of Calculus Crack.)

I took pitch four, yet another good hand jam pitch, all the way to the bolted anchor near the top of the slab, so that with our two long pitches we managed to cut the route down from six pitches to five. Adrian led the final short pitch, a quick slabby scramble to the ledge.

I enjoyed Calculus Crack. It features endless, consistent hand cracks at a pleasant angle. Good climbing in a scenic location at the edge of the Apron.

(Photo: Traversing the Broadway Ledge, on exposed territory above the Apron.)

From the top of Calculus Crack we went up a gully, which placed us on Broadway Ledge, an exposed scramble atop the Apron which can be followed further right to a walk-off.

We stopped partway across to continue upward with Boomstick Crack (5.4). This route has been upgraded to 5.7 in the recent Select guide but it is a 5.4 in Adrian's old guidebook and I really can't see how it is any harder than that. Regardless of the grade, the route is super fun and kind of wild.

(Photo: Walking up the freaky flake on Boomstick Crack (5.4).)

The first move is the only one that can arguably be called any harder than 5.4. You have to reach up until you can get your hands atop an improbably thin flake leaning against the cliff. Then you have to get your feet on top of it and walk up the flake, easy does it, until the flake ends and you find yourself following a seam up a slab. It starts out seeming kind of crazy, then gets easier and easier until you are basically just walking on the slab. Traditionally this route has a short second pitch but with the 70 meter rope I just took it in one pitch all the way to the woods.

Once we reached the trees another scramble was necessary to get to the base of the Squamish Buttress. The Buttress route goes to the top of the Chief at 5.10c but we planned to diverge from the route three pitches from the top to do the Squamish Butt Face aka Butt Lite variation, which brings the grade down to 5.9. As we scrambled unroped through the woods and across slabs, some 800 or so feet off the ground, I was pretty impressed with the surroundings. The views out to the bay, the town, and the surrounding mountains were excellent. We seemed to be in our own lost world, wandering through a forest in the sky.

Soon enough we reached the base of the Buttress route. We would be doing the traditional first four pitches but Adrian combined them into two pitches. These are not great pitches and Adrian wanted to stay ahead of a party that was coming up on our heels so he just ran up them in a hurry. The first long pitch had a few good 5.8 moves right at the beginning, up over a little roof and then up a slab past a bolt. Then it was easy slab climbing/walking left to a sandy stance beneath a blocky corner.

(Photo: Adrian heading up the blocky corner on the traditional third pitch (our second) of the Squamish Buttress.)

Once I joined Adrian and got anchored to a tree he took off up the next two traditional pitches, combined again in one. Like the two pitches that came before, these pitches feature mostly easy fifth class climbing with the occasional 5.6 or 5.7 move. We did them quickly but still couldn't lose the party snapping at our heels. They were even quicker than us because they 4th-classed it, soloing up these two middle pitches of the Buttress route! I was kind of unnerved when I looked back to see these two guys, keeping a safe distance, to be sure, but just walking, casually and unroped, behind me as I climbed.

(Photo: Adrian coming up to join me at the base of the Squamish Butt Face (5.9), a very long way off the ground.)

We weren't holding these two up in any meaningful way because they were planning on doing the traditional Buttress route to the finish, while we were about to veer off and do the Butt Face aka Butt Lite, a variant put up just a few years ago by famous climber Sonnie Trotter and friends. When I joined Adrian at the belay I scrambled up and left on ledges to where the route begins, below an obvious right-facing flake that is about 20 feet high.

(Photo: Just past the crux of the 5.9 pitch on the Squamish Butt Face, with the summit of the Chief in sight.)

The first pitch of the Butt Face is the technical crux. The pitch ascends the flake and at its top you move left using some small holds past a couple of bolts. After just a few thin moves the holds get bigger and then you mantel up and onto the shelf and go left to a bolted anchor. I enjoyed this pitch. Climbing up the flake is fun and there's good pro, then the bolt-protected crux moves are reasonable and brief.

Adrian took the next pitch, which if you're not accustomed to chimneys will be the mental crux. The real business of the pitch is a 5.8 chimney, and it looks intimidating but there's a good crack for gear at the back and moving up is easy if you stick your left side in. The toughest part, I reckon, is the roof move you make to exit the chimney at the top. But the holds are good; it is fine climbing.

Now we were all but done. I took the lead for the final pitch, a glorified scramble at 5.0 up a few ledges to the summit of the Chief.

In all we did fifteen guidebook pitches (it was eleven pitches for us) plus the scrambling. It was early afternoon. We lingered for a while atop the chief, eating lunch and taking in the view. Mt. Garibaldi was experiencing the thunderstorms we'd been warned about. We could see the rain in the distance but on this day we were lucky. The storms never came towards us.

(Photo: Atop the Chief we watched this paraglider guy run right off the cliff! As you know, I disapprove of these sorts of dangerous thrill sports.)

As we hiked down I suggested to Adrian that maybe we'd still have time to do a few more pitches at the base of the Grand Wall of the Chief. Or perhaps we could quickly run up Diedre before the day was over? By the time we hiked for an hour on the crowded tourist trail, down countless steps, and then walked back around the base of the cliff to the parking lot, we were both of a mind to pack it in. It had been a good day and it was enough already.

All in all I got a great introduction to what Squamish has to offer. I left very satisfied with the climbing we did, and eager to come back again for more. I do regret that I never got to do Diedre or any of the other slab climbs on the Apron. And I am really sorry that we never went up the Grand Wall to do a famous crack-in-a-corner pitch called the Split Pillar (5.10b). I think that one could have rivaled Exasperator for climb of the trip, if we'd done it. These climbs, and many others, will have to wait until the next time I find a way to come back. I am going to get to work on that.


  1. Hello again Seth:

    Thanks for posting up part 2. I enjoyed this one, too. Supervalue is a great pitch - one of my faves. If (when!) you return to Squamish, I'd highly recommend you giving the Squamish Buttress 10.c pitch a try - it is delightful thin fingers and technical pitch and takes great gear the whole way (many have aided it.) Also there is a new variation start to the buttress (after the walk through the woods) that is much higher quality than the 5.8 (one bolt) traditional start. It is either 5.9+ or 5.10a, depending upon opinion (many bolts a little gear).

    Take care,

  2. Hey thanks for your comment Steve. Don't know when but I'm sure I'll be back again.