Thursday, October 25, 2018

Dammit, Granite, I Love You! Four Days in Squamish

(Photo: Adrian's shot of me on the Angel Crack (5.10b).)

The month of May seems so long ago.

I've let the year get away from me!

I meant to write a post, oh-so-long ago, about my climbing trip to Squamish. But things have been busy busy busy. Spring has turned to summer and then to fall, and now-- I can hardly believe it-- I'm at risk of letting the year slip away without memorializing the four wonderful days I spent with Adrian in his backyard granite playground.

Well, my friends, the wait is over. I have been remiss, but I am here now to correct the oversight.

The original plan was to go to Yosemite in the Spring.

Adrian and I had been there once before, in 2014. We'd had a great time, and of course we'd barely scratched the surface of the climbing there. I was dying to go back. I hoped that I'd improved since 2014. I wanted to tackle some of the classics that were on my life list, like the old-school Steck-Salathe, historically rated a moderate 5.9 but universally feared for its wide sections and claustrophobic chimneys. I told Adrian that I'd volunteer to lead all of the weird and wide stuff, if he'd only agree to do the climb with me.

It seemed like a good plan. But Adrian had a bunch of things going on, chief among them moving his and Cathy's place of residence an hour up the Howe Sound from Vancouver to Squamish.

As we talked about Yosemite logistics and tried without much success to settle on some dates that we both could manage, Adrian eventually came up with a brilliant idea: I could just come to Squamish instead and stay with him in his new house, right after he and Cathy moved in.

(Photo: The Chief.)

Now, Squamish isn't Yosemite, but I'd loved it there as well when I visited the area back in 2013. And we'd hardly gotten to do any of the big, long routes up the Chief. We'd had rain for three of the four days I was there, and though Adrian and I still got to do a lot of climbing, the only big route we'd really gotten to try was the Squamish Butt Light (5.9). I was eager to get back out there and, with a little bit of weather luck, maybe this time we'd get some more multi-pitch good times.

So it was a go.

As the trip approached, the weather looked grim. A few days before my departure, I checked the forecast and saw a steady week full of storms. It seemed our Squamish plans would be dashed. Adrian and I talked about driving off somewhere else to do some sport climbing.

But then everything changed. Right before I flew out to Vancouver, Adrian told me that we were about to get a stretch of splitter weather. I decided to take his word for it. I was too superstitious to check the forecast myself.

It was raining that evening as I hopped into Adrian's vintage BMW and headed up the highway from the airport to his new home in Squamish. But Adrian's optimism was undimmed. He reported that the rain was due to end by morning, after which we would get to climbing. I tried to keep the faith.

Apart from my general desire to do long routes, I had only one big goal for my trip to Squamish: I wanted to lead the Split Pillar pitch on the Grand Wall. Really I wanted to do the whole Grand Wall route-- it is a long route, as legendary as any climb in Squamish, with several memorable challenges along the way. I was willing to lead any and all of the pitches. But the Split Pillar pitch (rated 5.10b) became my particular focus because it is all about jamming, for over a hundred feet. The pitch follows a crack on the right side of the pillar, which gradually widens from thin hands, to perfect hands, to fists. I'd been working on my jamming skills, as best I could, in my local gym, and I felt like I'd recently made real progress. I thought that if I could send this pitch it would represent a big milestone for me. And I thought that I might be able to pull it off.

Unfortunately Adrian wasn't all that enthused about the Grand Wall. Of course, he'd been up there at various times during his two decades of Squamish experience. And he knew we would need to do some hard and/or runout slab climbing, plus some awkward aiding up a bolt ladder, to get to the base of the Split Pillar. In addition, after we finished with the Split Pillar there were still several hard pitches before we would get to the top of the wall. It was sure to be a very challenging day, maybe more challenging than we needed.

We decided to plan for the Grand Wall, but to push it off until the last day. And we figured we might just get up to the Split Pillar and then rap off afterwards, skipping the harder pitches that follow. Since this pitch was my main goal, I was fine with that.

Day One: Smoke Bluffs

On the morning of our first day, I woke up in Adrian and Cathy's new house, amazed to see the Chief in all its glory from Adrian's second-floor windows-- except that the Chief was partially obscured by clouds and the rain was still falling.

But it soon stopped, right on schedule. We had a leisurely breakfast and waited a few hours for everything to dry out.

And then we enjoyed four straight days of plentiful sunshine and moderate temperatures. We did tons of climbing and I got to lead almost all of the good pitches, since Adrian had done them all before.

Around noon on day one we headed over to the Smoke Bluffs (an area of small, single-pitch cliffs) to see if anything was dry enough to climb. It turned out that pretty much everything was dry. We did seven pitches that afternoon, hitting a bunch of climbs that were new for me as well as a couple of my favorites from my last visit.

(Photo: Out to Lunge (5.10b). Photo by Adrian.)

I was happy to find that I felt comfortable on the granite, pretty quickly. I remembered that Squamish granite has a wonderful, grippy texture-- in contrast to Yosemite granite, which feels much more slippery. But I also remembered that in 2013, despite the welcoming texture, it had taken me a while to trust my toes on rock that was unfamiliar to me.

Not this time. I felt confident right away and led a (soft?) 5.10 right off the bat. We started with Out to Lunge (5.10b), which begins with a crux high step right off the deck and then eases into a cruiser traverse up a diagonal crack to an anchor up and far left of the start.

(Photo: Mosquito, a classic 5.8 which we also did in 2013. Photo by Adrian.)

Next we hit a more technically challenging vertical climb called S-M's Delight (also 5.10b but harder). This one had a few thin, awkward moves in the middle. I felt fortunate to get the on-sight, clean.

(Photo: Adrian on S-M's Delight (5.10b).)

Adrian suggested we up the ante with Kangaroo Corner (5.11a), which he described as "everyone's first 5.11" at Squamish. It ascends a short but blank corner.

I set off, placing one nut and then clipping a fixed wire at what turned out to be the crux move, just a short distance off the ground.

(Photo: Adrian on Kangaroo Corner (5.11a).)

I slipped off attempting the next move up. I lowered and tried again, slipping off again at the same spot. But I thought I'd figured out the move. So I started one more time from the bottom and got it done, for my first clean 5.11 lead in Squamish.

(Photo: It's hard to pass up Penny Lane, a joyful 5.9. Photo by Adrian.)

Next we moved around to the Penny Lane area and I managed to get another on-sight on a 5.10d called (fittingly enough) Climb and Punishment. It is a fun route with some thin moves up a jagged flake and then a tough reach to a juggy shelf. The guidebook entry on this route mentions a piton, which is no longer there. The crux might be more difficult now than in the old days, because now you have to protect the crux with gear, and you have to place this gear in a crucial undercling hold without blocking the hold. I made it through the move, blindly placing a small cam at the overlap under pressure, and then working my feet up and reaching successfully for the good shelf. It was exciting.

(Photo: Adrian on Climb and Punishment (5.10d).)

We finished up our first day with Health Hazard (5.10a), a climb that felt a little bit spicy to me despite the two bolts that protect the climbing up the initial slab. I enjoyed the movement on this one but the runouts and hollow flakes make it unlikely I'll ever do it again.

(Photo: Health Hazard (5.10a). Photo by Adrian.)

As we ended our first day I felt like we were off to a great start. I couldn't wait to hit a big route in the morning. I was happy to find myself feeling right at home in Squamish, though I did find that the grading of the routes was often puzzling to me. Some 5.10's at Squamish felt like 5.8's to me, while other 5.10's seemed legitimately challenging. It was a pattern of inconsistency that I would continue to observe over the next few days.

Day Two: Angel's Crest (5.10b)

The day dawned bright and clear and we got a pretty early start, huffing and puffing our way uphill through the forest to the base of Angel's Crest. This adventurous route essentially follows a ridge line up the left edge of a big wall on the Chief, framing one side of a huge fissure called the North Gully. There are many sections of memorable climbing, interspersed with scrambling through the woods to the next obstacle. The route is popular so we expected crowds, even on a weekday. We got there in good time, finding ourselves alone at the toe of the ridge. We enjoyed the solitude for the moment, but we ended up encountering several other parties over the course of the day.

(Photo: Adrian in silhouette getting us started on Angel's Crest (5.10b).)

Adrian volunteered for pitch one, which involves thin 5.10b climbing past two bolts on a bulging face and then some unprotected easy slab, ending at the base of the beautiful Angel Crack.

Adrian made quick work of it but I thought the climbing off the deck was strange and harder than I expected. Although the awkward climbing was well-protected by the bolts, I was glad Adrian led the pitch instead of me.

(Photo: Striking a pose at the start of the Angel Crack. Photo by Adrian.)

I took the next pitch, the Angel Crack. Allegedly 5.10b, this pitch felt to me like a really nice 5.8, with beautiful moves throughout. The supposed crux at the top didn't seem like a big deal to me, but I found the pitch outstanding and very memorable, regardless of the grade.

(Photo: I've stepped down and left into the wet crux pitch of Angel's Crest (5.10b). Photo by Adrian.)

I took the lead again for the pitches 3 and 4 combined, starting with some supposed 5.10b face climbing past bolts, leading into easy climbing up a corner. This pitch is often wet, and, as usual, it was wet on the day we did it. But still I thought it was easy for 5.10 and it was over very quickly.

I kept right on leading for the pitches 5 and 6 combined, starting with some 5.10a moves up some steep flakes, leading to a technical, slabby, right-facing corner. I loved this pitch. It was one of my favorites. The steep flakes offered good juggy fun and I also enjoyed the corner, although I found myself wishing it continued on for a bit longer. Before I knew it I was basically hiking up the next easy pitch to a set of trees.

(Photo: Adrian leading pitch 7 of Angel's Crest.)

The pitches started to go by in a blur. Pitch 9 was another highlight: the Acrophobes, a set of Flatiron-like fins leaning back, a thousand feet off the ground. Climbing them is easy (5.5) but the exposure is spectacular and the position affords sweeping views down to the Howe Sound.

(Photo: The Acrophobes. You can see the party ahead of us on the Flatiron-like features.)

We'd been on the heels of one other party for much of the day but as we reached the Acrophobes the traffic increased, with another pair briefly joining Angel's Crest from an adjacent route called Borderline (5.10d). These folks had big things in mind. They soloed the Acrophobes right behind us, and then they scrambled over to finish their day on High Plains Drifter, a gorgeous, curving 5.11a crack climb. We were able to watch them sending High Plains Drifter from our position on Angel's Crest. I was impressed. The route looked so sustained and pure. I was inspired to come back and try it on another trip. It looked like my crack game would have to be very on point if I were going to attack that one.

Meanwhile, we could see that the end was approaching for us. Adrian took pitch 11, yet another memorable bit of climbing. After a steep vertical crack, the pitch ended with the Whaleback, an unprotected easy slab (shaped, obviously, like the back of a whale) with ridiculous exposure.

(Photo: A climber from another party took this photo of Adrian starting up pitch 11 of Angel's Crest.)

I led the final 5.10 pitch of the day, pitch 12, which went up some discontinuous vertical cracks, some of them a bit wide. There were some interesting moves. For the first time all day, I felt like I was actually climbing a 5.10. But then Adrian told me that it used to be considered 5.9 and was only upgraded to 5.10a in the most recent guidebook! But Adrian also added that the pitch is known as "the stinger in the tail," so I guess  I'm not the only one who finds it somewhat challenging. In any event, it was enjoyable and went fine.

We just had one more pitch to go, and it was my lead again. Pitch 13 wasn't technically hard, but it was thrilling, with an exposed step down and across a void to get into a 5.8 chimney, which I then took to the top of the Second Peak of the Chief.

(Photo: Adrian emerging from the final chimney on Angel's Crest.)

What a day! This was the kind of thing I'd always wanted to do in Squamish. A 13-pitch 5.10, and it felt casual. We finished it without any trouble by mid-afternoon. We'd have been a few hours quicker if there'd been no one else around, but as we got towards the top we found ourselves waiting to climb on several occasions.

It was my first time atop the Second Peak and I savored the views over the First Peak and down to the water. The walkoff was long, featuring what seemed like a million steps, but we felt like superheroes walking with our climbing gear amongst the gawking hikers.

Day Three: St. Vitus' Dance (5.9) to Squamish Buttress (5.10c)

I was psyched to do it all over again on day three. Another long route, please! The glorious weather continued unabated, so the only question was which route to do.

Adrian proposed the Ultimate Everything (5.10b), and I agreed although I had reservations. From what I'd read on the web, this route involved lots of scrambling and maybe wasn't actually the best, or ultimate, in anything. But Adrian swore I'd like it so I went along.

This ten-pitch route starts from the top of the Apron so we had to pick an approach route as well. Adrian proposed St. Vitus' Dance, a high-quality 5.9 route with some good jamming for me. I was sold.

After Adrian and I knocked off first two approach pitches of St. Vitus' Dance, I led the next two pitches, the heart of the route.

(Photo: I'm heading into the hand crack pitch of St. Vitus' Dance (5.9), with another party just ahead of us. Photo by Adrian.)

The first pitch of St. Vitus proper (our pitch three) is a glorious 5.8 hand/fist jam-crack pitch. Although the grade is moderate and the climb is sub-vertical, I felt like the time I'd spent practicing my jamming skills definitely paid dividends. I was more solid with the hand and the fist jams than ever before. The pitch felt just how 5.8 ought to feel. Before doing it I read numerous comments on Mountain Project suggesting the leader should bring an absurd number of duplicate cams to protect this pitch, but I was comfortable walking up a couple of hand-sized Camalots while leaving behind the occasional piece here and there. I thought a standard rack was perfectly sufficient.

(Photo: Adrian coming up the beautiful St. Vitus crack.)

The next pitch was maybe even better, with some nice 5.9 face climbing up to a brief wide slot.

(Photo: I'm doing the crux face climbing on St. Vitus' Dance (5.9). Photo by Adrian.)

Adrian led the next two pitches in one up to the top of the Apron. The final bits of real climbing came right at the beginning of the pitch, as the St. Vitus crack continued through a steep bulge. Again I saw my crack practice coming in handy as I was able to get a high jam right off the ledge, which effectively put the pitch in the bag for me (as the follower) after just one move.

(Photo: Adrian past the final challenging bits of St. Vitus' Dance.)

Now we were atop the Apron, but we still had to do a couple of pitches to get to our next objective.

(Photo: Getting started on Karen's Math (5.10a). Photo by Adrian.)

First was Karen's Math (5.10a). This was one of my favorite pitches of the trip. It is a full-value pitch. It starts with steep, overhanging jams, then offers beautiful technical climbing up a thin flake, then a hand traverse past a bolt with slabby feet, and finally a thin move up a crack. I got through all of it without a problem but I made the mistake of going up at the bolt for one too many moves. I contemplated the foot traverse for a minute but then decided I had to downclimb to the hand traverse. It was touch and go for a second as I made the step down but then it was smooth sailing to the end of the pitch.

The next pitch, Memorial Crack (5.9), was also special. It is an old-school 5.9, probably harder than many of the pitches we'd done that were described as 5.10. Nice climbing up twin cracks, involving some thin moves and insecure positions.

(Photo: Memorial Crack (5.9). Photo by Adrian.)

Now we arrived at a decision point. We had plenty of time left in our day but we'd already done eight guidebook pitches. The Ultimate Everything would add another ten. Alternatively, we could do another popular route called the Squamish Buttress (5.10c), which would involve only seven pitches, most of which were pretty easy, and some of which we could combine together.

We had done portions of the Squamish Buttress on my first visit to Squamish back in 2013, as part of an easier variation route called the Butt Light (5.9). But this time around we could change things up by starting with an alternate 5.10a first pitch. And of course we would do the crux 5.10c pitch near the top, which Adrian described as one of Squamish's most beautiful pitches, and which the Butt Light avoids.

It sounded good to me, and better than the Ultimate Everything. So we went for the Squamish Buttress.

I led the alternate start 5.10a pitch. It is an interesting pitch, moving awkwardly around a corner with bolts for protection, and then following more bolts up a slab to a crack that takes gear. I liked the moves but I felt a little bit uneasy moving past the first three bolts. It seemed to me that they were placed such that falling would be a bad idea.

(Photo: Adrian coming up the alternative 5.10a start to Squamish Buttress.)

As we cruised up the next several unremarkable pitches towards the 5.10c crux, I started feeling pretty fatigued. Still, I was excited about the 10c pitch. I remembered looking at it five years earlier and wondering if I would one day be up for it. It sits in a dramatic position, near the top of the First Peak of the Chief. It is a pure, natural line, ascending a dead-vertical crack in a shallow corner. It just begs to be climbed.

(Photo: The crux pitch of Squamish Buttress (5.10c). Photo by Adrian.)

Once we got there, the pitch did not disappoint. A few interesting moves up little ledges brought me to a good stance below the business. And then, after a nice rest, it was on. From there to the top, there would be no rest stances, although it was possible to change positions from a layback in the corner to the occasional stem, with the right foot on the outside edge of the corner and the left foot in a crack on the face. For the hands, too, there were choices. You could jam the crack at the back of the corner with your fingers, or you could reach over to the crack outside the corner to the right.

Unlike many of the pitches I'd done in Squamish, this climb felt like a real 5.10. The corner steepened as I got higher, getting harder just before the end, but after a few tenuous final moves I found myself with a sinker hand jam at the top of the buttress and I knew I'd made it. This was my favorite pitch so far at Squamish, and I was thrilled to get the on-sight.

(Photo: Success! Photo by Adrian.)

I was also wiped out. As Adrian led the final 5.6 pitch to the top I was wishing we could paraglide down instead of doing the long walkoff again.

(Photo: Adrian taking us to the top on Squamish Buttress.)

I had no regrets. It had been another perfect day in Squamish, with fifteen guidebook pitches and many varied challenges. It all had gone off without a hitch. But it was our third day in a row and I was starting to feel it.

Day Four: Apron Strings (5.10b) and Diedre (5.8)

So tired.

This was supposed to be our Grand Wall day, a fitting finale to my trip.

Or if not the whole Grand Wall, I was determined to get up to the Split Pillar.

But here I was, hanging from the rope after taking a whip on our first pitch, the 5.10b Apron Strings.

(Photo: Hanging after taking a fall on Apron Strings (5.10b). Photo by Adrian.)

Was this climb harder than all the other tens we'd done? Or was I just exhausted after three full days of climbing?

The route was sustained, following a steep layback flake, with smeary feet. I'd struggled from the get-go, misjudging which cams I needed to save for higher up and using them down below. As I got higher, I had to make do with the gear I had left and I battled to get good placements.

Eventually I got a bad case of the leg shakes, and after fighting to get in a blue .3 Camalot I slipped off and took the ride. Going back up, I made a few more moves past the blue cam but then nearly whipped again before getting my next piece at the top of the flake. I had hoped there would be juggy holds at the top of the flake, but no. There was no stance to speak of and, barely holding on, I struggled again to get gear I was happy with.

Once I finally got in a piece I took a hang, and then I finished the pitch.

I arrived at the anchor mentally drained and drenched with sweat. This was not an auspicious start to our day.

I should be enjoying this, I thought. It's another beautiful day. I would kill for a pitch like this in the Gunks.

But I wasn't enjoying it. I was suffering. Was I really up for the Split Pillar today?

Adrian was tired too. He struggled to follow the pitch. His stomach was bothering him.

(Photo: Adrian reaching the top of pitch one of Apron Strings (5.10b).)

I decided to pull the plug.

"Why don't we go run up something easier," I suggested, "like maybe Diedre?"

"Wait a minute," Adrian said, surprised. "You've never done Diedre?"

"No, it was soaking wet last time."

That was all Adrian needed to hear. He was psyched. "Let's do it!"

Diedre (5.8) is what you might call the High Exposure of Squamish. It is an incredibly popular moderate climb. It is a slab climb but because it follows a corner it also provides relatively good gear, for a slab climb.

I had some worries about Diedre because I have very little slab experience and slabs give me the willies.

But in 2017 I'd led the poorly protected slab pitch on White Punks on Dope (5.8+), and it had gone well. So I figured I'd be fine on Diedre. With the generally soft grades at Squamish, Diedre was sure to feel easier, and with better gear too.

When we got to the base, we could see a party ahead of us, a couple of pitches up, but no one was cued up behind them. Perhaps because it was Mother's Day morning, there weren't too many climbers about. So we didn't have to wait to get on the climb.

I took the first pitch, a somewhat complicated 5.7 slab with some traversing and not much pro. It went fine.

(Photo: Adrian coming up the long, poorly protected 5.7 pitch one of Diedre.)

Adrian took the second pitch, a 5.6 slab traverse to the big corner, with pretty much no gear.

Then I led the next three pitches, climbing the endless slab and corner up the huge Apron. I enjoyed these pitches immensely.

(Photo: I'm leading one of the 5.8 pitches on Diedre. Photo by Adrian.)

The two 5.8 pitches were well-protected. Much of the time my feet were pasted on the slab but you could make use of the corner if you wanted to. There were also some fun flakes in the corner for handholds from time to time.

(Photo: Adrian reaching the end of pitch 3 or 4 on Diedre (5.8).)

As the angle eased the protection got worse, and I couldn't say that the 5.6 pitch felt much easier than the 5.8 pitches. I started to worry a bit as the gear got more sparse and I scared myself a little when one of my feet slipped on the slab. But I held on and continued leading without incident.

(Photo: Adrian leading our final pitch on Diedre (5.8). At least, I believe that's Adrian. We both wore red that day, sorry.)

I think Adrian could sense my weariness, so he volunteered to lead our final pitch. I was relieved. I was having a great time but I was mentally and physically exhausted. There wasn't much protection for the final, lower-angled slab section of the last pitch, and the 5.8 exit moves onto the ledge atop the Apron were wet. I was so happy to be on top rope as I grunted my way to the finish.

(Photo: Totally out of gas at the final move on Diedre (5.8). Photo by Adrian.)

There was of course plenty of time left in our day and many many routes still above us, but we were both done. It was Miller time.

(Photo: Hiking down Broadway Ledge. Photo by Adrian.)

All in all, I could not have been happier with my trip to Squamish. The weather was ideal, and the routes we did were all world class. I got a good sampling of the very best of the climbing that Squamish has to offer. And I felt like I climbed reasonably well too.

I wished I'd had the chance to do a little bit more pure crack climbing. And I regretted not putting the Grand Wall closer to the start of the trip. But Angel's Crest, St. Vitus' Dance, the Squamish Buttress, and Diedre were all amazing, so it is hard to say I would have had a better trip if I'd done the Grand Wall instead of one of these other climbs.

And besides, I have to save some goals for next time, right? I hope I don't wait another five years to visit Squamish again. I'm already getting my routes planned out. We'll hit the Grand Wall (5.11a) on day one, Borderline (5.10d) to High Plains Drifter (5.11a) on day two...

And then maybe a rest day. Rest days are nice.

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