Squamish: Canada’s Climbing Paradise

Getting slabby on The Malamute Photo: Sara Lindstrom
Getting slabby on The Malamute Photo: Sara Lindstrom

Written by Kyle Dow

I will always remember driving up the Sea to Sky Highway on Canada’s Westcoast for the first time; to my left, ocean islands packed with dark green vegetation were back lit by a setting sun and my eyes strayed from the road as I took in the foreign landscape. I wound my way up the scenic highway until I came around that final bend and The Chief rose up before me – I had made it to Squamish! The awe that struck me as I took in the 700m granite monolith is reminiscent of my first sighting of the Rocky Mountains. I had to pull over before I endangered anymore drivers with my distracted driving.

The view from the Smoke Bluff looking south over Howe Sound
The view from the Smoke Bluff looking south over Howe Sound

I took in the sight of the massive granite walls and all their features: a mixture of slants and slopes, roofs, corners, gullies, spots of green vegetation and every shade between dirty white to an almost blackened dark grey. A simple 180 and I was looking out over Howe Sound of the Pacific Ocean and the forested rolling mountains that served as the horizon. A deep breath took in smell of the rainforest mixed with the salt water rolling in off the sound. Before that moment, Squamish had only been a legend, it was an incredible feeling finally being there.
On that first trip I only got a small sample of the awesomeness. I was far too inexperienced of a climber to make the most of it; at the time I thought a ‘trad rack’ was some sort of medieval torture device. My brief introduction was enough to ensure I’d be back. In 2013 I spent the entire summer getting to know Squamish, pushing my sport skills, learning to trad climb, and falling in love with “The outdoor recreation capital of Canada.”
Squamish is the mecca of Canadian trad climbing. People travel there from all over the world to test their skills on the impeccable granite. The stone is featured with cracks of all shapes and sizes, and is solid enough that you could whip at will. If you’re not a gear head, that’s no problem. There’s a magical bouldering zone at the base of The Chief that will give you opportunity to meet the elves and ferries of the forest, and all other varieties of climbing dirtbags. And if you want to clip bolts, you’re also in luck. You can test your rubber on some razor sharp crystals as you work the slabs on The Chief or go get hyper-vertical at one of the hard sport crags.

Slacking on a rest day with The Chief as the backdrop
Slacking on a rest day with The Chief as the backdrop

When your muscles are aching and you couldn’t bear to make one more climbing move, grab a couple bottles from the Howe Sound Brewery and kick back at one of the easily accessible lakes. Brome, Alice and Cat are few good ones to start with but there’s many more to explore.
There’s so much climbing in Squamish that there are nearly as many forgotten routes as there are known ones and it’s continually in development. If you’re going to be spending any extended period of time there, you might as well splurge and buy the Squamish Select. So you’re not completely overwhelmed with the abundance of climbing, here are some good routes to start with.

Trad Routes:
Check out the Smoke Bluffs for single pitch goodness. There’s an abundance of climbing here with super mellow approaches. A favorite wall of mine would be Octopus’ Garden.
There’s a lifetimes worth of long routes on The Chief of all difficulties. You can climb bottom to top as easy as 5.8. I decided to include some multis on different walls to mix it up a bit.

Beautiful lines at Octapus’s Garden. Trying not to hum the tune is futile…
Beautiful lines at Octapus’s Garden. Trying not to hum the tune is futile…

Angels Crest (10.b, 13 pitches)
This ultra-classic route follows a rib to the right of the North Gulley up the entire height of The Chief. The route is not vertically sustained and occasionally has you meandering through trees in between pitches which adds a bit of a mountaineering flavour. You get a good mix of climbing styles, from slab to small overhangs, and some good exposure on the finishing pitches, well over 1000ft off the deck. There’s even a rappel involved as you make your way through the aptly named Acrophobes. You end up on the second peak of The Chief and walk down the hikers trail so be sure to haul up some runners.

Traversing The Acrophobes on Angel’s Crest – I hope you’re not afraid of heights…
Traversing The Acrophobes on Angel’s Crest – I hope you’re not afraid of heights…

The Great Game (10.d, 4 pitches)
The Great Game might be the best short multipitch I’ve ever climbed! It’s situated on Slhanay, just a little northeast of The Chief. It’s a steep approach but well worth the effort. The route has a spicy start with a fist jam to get off the deck. This is followed by steep and varied climbing with lots of opportunity for protection. Pitch 2 is a mellow connector – be sure to set your next station where you can see the entire 3rd pitch, the leader will appreciate it. Then you’re set up for a beautiful technical corner that follows a narrowing seam (bring some small cams) – this will have you testing your rubber. Pitch 4 starts with a fun overhang protected by a couple bolts and provides for cool movement all the way to the top out.

Hairpin (10.a, 5 pitches)
The Papoose is a shorter wall next to Shannon Falls that offers some excellent climbing! The approach is so short that you’ll barely break a sweat. A good parking alternative is in the lot across the highway rather than the Shannon Falls parking area. Hairpin follows obvious crack systems that wander their way up the face. The route has some awesome moves! With straight forward protection, bolted stations and low commitment level, it’s a great climb for people just breaking into the realm of trad-multis.

*The walk-off is to the north, NOT the south as the book suggests.**

Pitch 3 of Hairpin – Don’t be intimidated, there’s 10.a jugs to get you through the bulge
Pitch 3 of Hairpin – Don’t be intimidated, there’s 10.a jugs to get you through the bulge

Sport Climbing:
Sometimes you just want to clip bolts and feel good about taking whippers, I get it. Squamish offers several opportunities to get your sport on. Some areas that come to mind are Area 44 for it’s spectacular views and moderate grades, Murrin Park for it’s quality routes in the 11’s and 12’s, and Cheakamus Canyon for it’s high concentration of sport routes and the really hard climbs in the 14’s. Here’s few climbs to check out:

Getting slabby on The Malamute (route not described) Photo: Sara Lindstrom
Getting slabby on The Malamute  Photo: Sara Lindstrom

Star Chek (5.9, 3 pitches)
This is an excellent climb in a fabulous position above Cheakamus Canyon. You rap down into the gorge and start your climb above the turbulent water of the river. The climb makes it way up an arête that offers a decent amount of exposure. The bolts are a bit spacey when climbing over easier terrain.

Outstanding position above Cheakamus River
Outstanding position above Cheakamus River

Jeff and The Giant Reach (11.c)
An outstanding climb at Murrin Park! It combines technical moves, requiring solid footwork, with pumpy sections that will have your forearms bursting by the top. The ‘the giant reach’ is real, you’ll know when you get there. It looks long but keep in mind that the smoothest I ever seen it climbed was by a rock ninja that couldn’t have been taller than 5’7. Do yourself a favor and warm up on Zoe (10.a) that’s just to the right.

Mrs. Negative (12.a)
A classic test piece for climbers cracking into the 12’s. This route is kicked back and thuggy with big powerful moves that are sustained to the top. Really fun climbing! It’s in Cheakamus Canyon right next to the Circus Wall that offers some steep and enjoyable climbing. And just around the corner is The Big Show, home to some 14’s that represent the hardest sport climbs in Squamish.

I’ve never been much of a boulderer; something about every fall being a ground fall just doesn’t appeal to my ankles. Then there’s the fact that I’m just not that strong. So to take a peek into the bouldering scene I asked local Mark Criddle to give us a rundown on some quality problems.
Is It Pure? V2
I would say this is one of Squamish’s best V2s. This is a highball so it might not appeal to everyone, but if you love to get up high on the boulders and test your mental skill, then this problem is a must. It has a cool press at the start to get into the dihedral, once you get in there, you then have to make your way right across a blank face up to a great side pull. Hold your nerve here as you stem out, work your feet up high and gun for another sweet looking side pull. Once you hit this you’re pretty high off the deck so keep your cool and follow good holds to the top.
3 good crash pads are recommended as there are a few sketchy boulders under the problem. If you are solid at the grade then this problem is a must!

Mark Criddle testing his purity
Mark Criddle testing his purity

Kung Fu Fighter V4
This quality technical problem is a good introduction to Squamish granite; it’ll work your technique to the fullest. With smeary feet and barn door moves, you really have to work your body into that perfect position. Combine all that with a highball finish you get great value out of this one problem. The crux is at the start, so as long as you hold it together and find the positive holds and good feet for the finish, you will have a nice safe top out. Super fun and super frustrating all at the same time.
Although it’s classed as a high ball it has a nice flat landing – 3 pads will look after you, but you could get away with 2. Go get your tech on!

Baba Hari Dass V7
A classic problem for people that want to test their sloper power and heel hooking skills. This awesome problem is a sit start at the right side of the boulder, then you make a leftward traverse up to the bulge. As you pull off the ground, make your way up to a good edge and throw on a heel. This is where the fun begins as the holds start to get worse. Work your way up to find that sweet spot for your heel and throw out to some poor holds on the lip by the bulge. Keep working that heel and eventually you will be ready to rock over on to the slabby bulge – don’t get too excited as this bit can be the heartbreaker, I have seen many people spill from here. Find the little edges and dips to pull yourself up, stay composed and find the feet to stand up to victory.
Nice flat landing, 2-3 pads are good. If you fall on the heartbreaker at the top, there is a little step off that you could tumble over, having a spotter here would be super helpful. Heel hooking is not just for style points!

Baba Hari Dass Squamish bouldering

There’s more to Squamish than just climbing, everybody needs rest days. It has an abundance of outstanding mountain biking trails, great conditions for kite boarding, and tonnes of rivers, lakes and mountains to explore. Being a coastal climate, it tends to be a bit soggy; the summer months are usually the safest for good conditions. If things get wet, check out the brand new gym, Ground Up Climbing Center. Also be sure to swing by Zephyr Café for a coffee and Mag’s 99 for the best chimichanga this side of Mexico.

Victory beers after a late top out on The Chief. Photo: Toomas Meema
Victory beers after a late top out on The Chief. Photo: Toomas Meema

If Squamish wasn’t on your climbing radar yet, make sure to place it right near the top of your ticklist. You won’t be disappointed.

Kyle Dow is a Canadian climber local to Canmore and runs Hedon Rock Tours. You can find him any day of the week out climbing with clients in Squamish, Skaha, Revelstoke or with some friends right in the Banff area.

Check out Hedon Rock Tours


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