Sunday, June 18, 2017

the Squamish 12d issue

For the first year or so after I relocated to Squamish, my efforts at sport climbing were blatant grade-chasing. I sieged my way up a 5.13a and then a 5.13b. Embarrassingly I then realised that the underlying improvement in my performance didn't really reflect that level; I was still finding routes at a much lower grade hard. So, from mid-2014 onwards I decided to go into reverse and "build a pyramid" - a process recommended by many climbing coaches. Essentially this meant climbing a lot more 5.12d sport routes. I made a list of eight popular 5.12d's across a range of styles and focused on completing them all through 2015 and 2016. I ticked the last one off, the horrifically thin Vorpal Sword at Murrin, in September last year. I also climbed several more at the grade that weren't in my initial list, including a couple of new routes confirmed by others as 5.12d.

My main observation from this exercise was that the 5.12d grade is not a very useful guide to difficulty. I came close to flashing one on my list but needed seven days to complete another, the brutal Mr Negative at Chek. Discussing this with other climbers, I heard a common opinion that in Squamish there is resistance to admit sport climbing routes into the 5.13 zone, which is seen as much more prestigious than 5.12; consequently 5.12d is "broad", as it has become over-populated with routes that might elsewhere be given 5.13a. Being an empirical kind of person, I wondered if this theory was supported by any data?

Helpfully the excellent route database supports filtering by area and grade to create route lists. Furthermore, the grades are consensus from the site's users, so usually correct obvious anomalies in guidebook grades. I copied and pasted from sendage into Excel and then did some easy calculations to create a frequency distribution of incidences of routes across a range of grades. For further context, I ran the same analysis for Skaha, the other area in BC with a large number of sport routes, also heavily visited by users.

These are the results in chart form, Skaha first:

Frequency per grade for Skaha sport routes with two or more reported ascents, with exponential trendline
(data extracted from
And Squamish:

Frequency per grade for Squamish sport routes with two or more reported ascents, with exponential trendline
(data extracted from

A few observations from the data:
  1. The Skaha chart shows the frequency distribution I assume to be "normal" for a fairly large and diverse sport climbing area: that with each increment in grade there are fewer routes. The only data point that doesn't fit the curve neatly is the 5.13a grade, but the variance isn't pronounced.
  2. As anticipated, and in contrast to the Skaha data, the 5.12d grade does appear to be over-represented in Squamish.
  3. However, the 5.13a grade doesn't appear under-represented in the Squamish data. It fits the curve.
  4. The 5.12c grade looks significantly under-represented in the Squamish data. (So does the 5.13b grade to some extent.)
So where does that leave the theory that people are reluctant to give routes 5.13 in Squamish? Seemingly not very well supported. The simplest conclusion is that there is a "12c issue"; 5.12d is broad because a proportion at the soft end really belong in 5.12c. I have not spoken to anyone who thinks that make sense, but the data "is what it is" (a Canadian platitude that irritates me - but that's a whole other topic!).

Alternatively, if you stare at the chart for long enough, it is possible to imagine the data fitting the curve through a more general "smoothing": push about five 12b's into 12c, similarly about five 12d's into 13a and a few 13a's to 13b. In other words: there isn't a specific "sticky" grade - Squamish sport climbing is systematically sandbagged. This seems to resonate with many people's experience. Significantly it is much easier to get suggestions for upgrades (*) from people than the converse: suggestions for downgrades. So I am inclined to run with that conclusion.

For completeness, here are those two rival theories re-plotted:

Frequency per grade for Squamish sport routes with two or more reported ascents, with exponential trendline
ADJUSTED with five routes moved from 5.12d to 5.12c

Frequency per grade for Squamish sport routes with two or more reported ascents, with exponential trendline
ADJUSTED with 5 routes moved from 5.12b to 5.12c, 5 routes from 5.12d to 5.13a and 3 routes from 5.13a to 5.13b

Before anyone says it, I should add that I am fully aware that this analysis rests on a few questionable assumptions. The main one being that the plot of grade frequency for an area should have some specific shape at all. For an individual cliff, it would obviously be ludicrous to expect that each increment in grade is less populated. In fact it is easy to think of counter-examples. On the other hand, I am reasonably sure that it is a correct assumption for the total data set of sport climbing routes worldwide, at least down to the grade below which people tend not to be interested in developing routes. It has been decades since I last studied statistics but, as far as I recall, sampling theory - in particular the minimum size of a sample that can be expected to represent the whole - is well established stuff. So it should be possible for someone to do the math and state whether the data set of Squamish sport routes is a large enough sample. But not me.

I should also state again that this topic is only about sport climbing grades in Squamish. The style differences between sport and trad here are so great that I don't see much point in in trying to compare grades between the two. People, especially americans, will endlessly tell you how some popular Squamish trad crack would be three grades easier in the "Valley" or the "Creek". Whatever.

* For what it is worth: my upgrade list would include Ty Man from 12b to 12c, Mr Negative from 12d to 13a and Ibiza from 13a to 13b.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017


In the fall of 2015,  I started work on what became my longest climbing siege of the last three years, the curiously-named Jesus Save the Pushers at Horne Lake. I first heard about this route back in 2010 from expat Brit friend, Colin Spark. At that time I hadn't visited Horne, but Colin described the route so vividly that I built up a very strong mental image that stuck in my head for several years. JSTP is spectacularly steep: about 20 metres of net horizontal movement in 30 metres of climbing. An early ascensionist, Mike Doyle, described it as "the best 5.13a in the world". Overall, an obvious candidate for obsession.

Lowering off Jesus Save the Pushers at Horne Lake
Projecting routes at Horne Lake has some strong positive and negative issues for Squamish-based climbers. On the plus side, during the often-wet fall season, the Amphitheatre at Horne works like an umbrella and only gets wet once seepage works through cracks in the limestone after several continuous weeks of rain. In comparable conditions, almost everywhere at Squamish has long since been shut down.

On the minus side, every trip to Horne requires a ferry crossing from Horseshoe Bay to Nanaimo and back, which is both expensive and tedious. (Well, some say tedious ... having been chauffeuring son #1 to and from soccer matches for about nine years I am very used to killing time on demand; a ferry is essentially just a sort of giant floating Starbucks with extra seating.) Given that, I am indebted to the people who accompanied me to Horne from the mainland for my attempts: the afore-mentioned Colin and on other occasions Chris, Travis and Todd. A climbing friend from my UAE years, Vanessa, also picked me up from Nanaimo on two occasions, allowing me to save on the vehicle portion of the ferry ticket.

A good metaphor for describing my efforts on JSTP would be extricating a vehicle stuck in mud or sand. Lots of tire-spinning and going nowhere, punctuated by abrupt, but usually short-lived, progress and significant amounts of sliding backwards. The first half of the route is an awkward overhanging 5.12b called Plastic Jesus, with its own anchors just off the line of JSTP. It is often attempted as a route in its own right. I onsighted a 5.12b at Horne back in 2013, but for whatever reason never really felt solid on "Plastic" and needed three days just to get the redpoint. In particular there is a strength-sapping sequence at the lip of a horizontal roof just before the chains, where it is easy to hang almost indefinitely off a jug and cammed heel hook, but weirdly hard to actually move. I spent much time trying to find an efficient sequence there but my beta always felt improvised and sketchy.

Just before the end of "Plastic", JSTP goes right for a couple of moves into a peculiar alcove sandwiched between big overhangs. Allegedly there is a good rest to be had there but I never found anything better than an uncomfortable and mentally-draining "butt scum" wedged out of balance on two opposing tufa features. From there the route breaks out through another big horizontal roof on spaced pockets to a difficult clip, a tenuous perch on the lip then a pumpy set-up for a dynamic and blind move on the merely-overhanging wall above. The trick there is a complicated sequence of knee bars - four "knee swaps" in total for me - to avoid cutting loose and to recover some strength. This section I did get dialled from around day 6 of my siege but it never felt easy.

Above is a long "slab" section (it probably overhangs 20-30 degrees) with good holds broken by an OK rest on a knee bar at the amusingly-named "Garden": an often-wet niche with a single tiny fern. Then the climbing gets hard again with an awkward barn-door'y traverse then another near-horizontal section ending on two unhelpfully-flat small holds. As most normal people are seriously pumped at this point, the moves off those holds are generally regarded as the redpoint crux: a campus-like throw to another flat hold then a committing lurch sideways on a shockingly-small gaston to big holds and a stem rest. The chains are just above. For some reason, when discussing Pushers no-one mentions that this crux section is hideously run-out with a guaranteed fall of maybe ten metres or more. This makes it hard to work the route as it is really hard to regain contact with the cliff after falling. Furthermore, some sadist placed the bolt after the crux in a hard-to-clip spot, so the consensus strategy is to just skip it and push on to the chains.

My last three days on JSTP in the fall of 2017 (I took eight days spread over a year in total) all involved taking the big whip from the top section at various points. Unsurprisingly, stamina seemed to be the primary problem as I always felt out of gas at the twin flat holds. I addressed this issue in two ways: back home, trying to improve my stamina through some monotonous "foot-on-campusing"; on the route, looking for greater gains from the available rests. As seems typical of prolonged sieges, I also developed some irrational neuroses, of which the primary one became BC Ferries coffee! I concluded that I was drinking too much of it (hard to avoid on a 90 minute crossing), that it was over-caffeinated and toxic, and that I was therefore arriving at the cliff too jittery and uncomposed.

Just say no (to BC Ferries coffee)

On my last day there, aptly accompanied by Colin who had first got me interested in the route, I tackled the coffee issue by bringing my own flask and strictly rationing my dosage whilst on the boat. I also requested that Colin use his phone to time my rest at the "butt scum", to ensure that I didn't set off too soon. Perhaps predictably, none of this worked and my first burn terminated at the four-knee-swaps spot - my lowest failure for some time. I threw a classic sport-climbers' tantrum whilst lowering off and vowed to give up on the route for the rest of the season ...

... a vow which I reneged on about three hours later. It would be an overstatement to say that my psyche returned; more accurately I accepted that honour required at least one more token try. However I made sure the deck was so stacked against me that there could be no risk of success: belaying Colin for long enough to get thoroughly cooled down and for good measure necking the remainder of my coffee to ensure I was too hyper to focus. I then sealed the deal by forgetting to wear my knee pads and not realising until the fourth bolt.

The problem with assured redpoint failure is that despite being mentally excused any annoying pressure to "try hard" there remains the small matter of actually succeeding in falling off. Despite the "oops-no-knee-pads" shock I failed to fail anywhere on the Plastic Jesus section and found myself back at the terrible rest. The obvious next strategy was to leave that rest too quickly and make sure I pumped out at the four-knee-swaps section but somehow I bumbled on through that part too and reached the knee bar rest at the "Garden".  At this point whichever part of my brain handles optimism experimentally fired a few neurones whilst long-term memory reminded me that I had never fallen off the next few moves. My overall mental state shifted subtly from total indifference to "well, fuck it then: let's at least get high enough for a respectable fall".

Autopilot then carried me all the way back to my usual high-point at the twin flatties. Where a miracle occurred. Someone had once told me that there was a final knee bar possible there, in a short wide crack, but I had never found it. But this time my right knee just slotted in without any conscious effort. I considered the situation and realised that this was actually a sort of rest and that I could de-pump modestly for a few seconds. All sorts of good brain chemicals then kicked in hard. I nonchalantly crushed the pop to the higher flattie and nasty gaston move, spat dismissively on the un-clippable final draw and whooped to the chains.

POSTSCRIPT: What do I learn from all this? It is stating the obvious but: to succeed on these kind of routes, you have to just keep showing up and trying them. Which requires a certain stubbornness (plus time and willing partners). But beyond that, does it matter what else is going on in your head?

Specific psychological training seems to oscillate in and out of fashion in the climbing world, but there is usually at least one coach out there pimping a book or course on how to think your way to success. However the very accomplished Scottish climber, Dave Macleod, wrote an excellent blog-post a couple of years ago debunking the whole topic:

"The cult of positive thinking, both in society and in sports psychology, is looking increasingly like it may be among several major diversions from the path of progress of sport and health in recent decades .... A determined performance with 100% effort can exist just as easily in any state of mind, positive or otherwise. The key point is to give that effort regardless of your state of mind."

For what it's worth, this seems right to me. Ideally it would be great to suppress the mental chatter before or during a climb, but, otherwise it is just seems best to ignore it. My Pushers' send was the most farcical experience I have had of succeeding against all expectation but it has happened to me before and I am sure will happen again.

Friday, October 28, 2016

west of the river 2: alpha

A couple of months after visiting Echo Lake, I ventured into the Tantalus mountains again, to attempt Mt Alpha. The mountain has been on my mind for years as it is the most striking of the peaks visible from the Sea to Sky highway north of Squamish. There is even a popular viewpoint on the road from which tourists frame their selfies with it 365 days a year. I am a sucker for mountains that look like mountains, irrespective of their actual difficulty. Alpha is satisfyingly pointy.

Alpha in winter
I know many people who have climbed Alpha. Two of my friends have soloed it in a day, starting and ending on the valley floor with an altitude gain of 2300m. One of them did it door to door from his house, cycling the not-insignificant distance to the usual start point. Unfortunately, being a defiant aerobophobe (is this a word? - if not it should be) that kind of madness is not for me. Thus my ascent waited on the discovery of a climbing partner both as lazy as me and with the financial stature to pay for a helicopter ride: Chris. Over the last year or so he has become one of my most regular climbing partners, almost wholly on sport cliffs, but we only recently confessed to alpine urges.

Helicopter access to the Tantalus is laughably convenient. We met our pilot at Squamish airport around 6:45am, had the payment and a safety briefing complete by 7:00 and were landed by Lake Lovely Water at around 1000m altitude by 7:10. We bagged a camping platform by the hut there, tossed beer into the lake to cool and had begun our ascent well before 8:00. Our plan was to climb up and down the East Ridge route. The more standard itinerary is to descend to the west on a lower-angle scrambling route but a study of numerous online trip reports suggested that 1. everyone gets lost 2. the hike back alongside the lake from the west side to the start point is long and tedious.

The trail to the start of the east ridge is reasonably well-flagged through the initial forest section but then less distinct on more open heather-and-talus slopes above. But it doesn't matter too much as it is fairly clear where you are headed: a slight col on the ridge above. However it was buggy; I was glad to have brought a head net. At the col, where you meet the glacier, there was more wind and temperatures were cooler, so bugs less of a problem. 

The last section of the approach trail
The East Ridge from the col
The East Ridge breaks down into three sections: scrambling on the crest of the ridge or snow plodding at varying angles to its right; a short 5th class climbing section where a rope is a appropriate; a final few hundred metres of scrambling/ easy climbing. We had both chosen to wear approach shoes rather than heavier boots, and correspondingly did not have crampons, though we did each have an ice axe. For the first section, Chris chose to scramble the ridge whilst I took my chances with the snow. With hindsight his choice was probably better, as the snow was a little harder than I had expected, and I felt insecure at several points. We met up again at the notch under the 5th class section, where we dumped the ice axes and roped up.

Niobe and Lake Lovely Water from the start of the east ridge
Chris below the short 5th class section
The roped climbing was straightforward and obvious with just a couple of steep crack moves around 5.8 then the rest much easier. We did it in three short pitches, of which the last was definitely unnecessary. Above that section we dumped ropes and the other climbing gear, though I chose to continuing wearing climbing shoes (a comfortable pair of Mythos).

Route finding from there to the summit was confusing at times, with multiple options. It reminded me of easy ridges I had climbed in the Swiss Alps as a teenager. Not technically demanding at all but definitely "mustn't fall" terrain in a couple of spots. When I was much younger, that kind of casual unsensational risk-taking never troubled me much, but as I grow older it hovers around the edge of my conscious thought rather more. There had been a high profile fatality in the Coast Mountains a few weeks previously. The accident was on a much bigger and tougher peak, but my understanding is that the victim's critical slip was on easy unroped terrain. I had actually met her briefly at a Squamish cliff earlier in the summer, as I was climbing with one of her mentors and friends. She seemed energetic, thoughtful, experienced. A unfathomable, sobering loss.

Chris starting the final summit tower
Chris and I spent about twenty minutes at the summit eating lunch and taking photos. Views were excellent. Eventually we were spooked by some cloud starting to form on the nearby, but higher, summit of Mt Tantalus, so decided to head down.

Dione and Tantalus from the summit
Looking south to Howe Sound and the Georgia Strait
Looking across the valley to a very bare Mt Garibaldi 
Descent was mostly uneventful. We drifted briefly on to the glacier hoping the snow would be softer but then reverted to the ridge. Very near the end of the unroped down-climbing I had an uncomfortable moment when I pulled off a loose hold in a slightly comical slow-motion way. But I had a solid hold in my other hand and didn't fall.

On the descent
We were back at the lake mid-afternoon with significant time to kill. Bugs were still bad, so we drank beer rather claustrophobically in the tent. I also had an experimental swim in the lake: very cold, very refreshing. Later we drank more beer by the lake with a small, possibly-illegal campfire to keep the bugs at bay. A couple of other climbers joined us and described the west descent of Alpha which we had avoided. It sounded like quite a chore so we felt vindicated in our decision.

Did I mention the bugs?
Last light over the lake
We had booked our ride out at noon the next day. This gave us an opportunity to wander around the lake on the opposite side from Alpha and admire the previous day's route. Also to research the approach to the north side of Mt Niobe, which we both thought a worthy objective for a future trip.

Alpha east ridge in profile, from the lake
Chris checking out boulders at Niobe Meadows
A SUP out on Lake Lovely Water
Back at camp, I had a final swim. Lake Lovely Water is well named; it is a very very aesthetic spot. With its glacier-fed water and high alpine backdrop it is reminiscent of the Rockies' famous Lake Louise, but without the ridiculous faux-chateau and thousands of tourists. Indeed, at least fleetingly, I had the lake all to myself.

When diving into cold water, there is a distinct and interesting interval, just after the conscious commitment to launch but just before the inevitable "christ, it's freezing" shock. In that moment, I was unexpectedly overwhelmed with elation: that I was alive in a beautiful place, that the world was as perfect as it could possibly be, that kind of hippie stuff. Sensations like that don't often hit me these days, and being a jaded old cynic about most things I can easily rationalise it as post-fatigue endorphins or perhaps even the childish anticipation of another helicopter ride. Anyway: it happened and it was uplifting, and it reminded me why we go into the mountains for pointless adventures. 

Saturday, June 18, 2016

west of the river 1: echo lake

Mt Murchison from my bedroom window
From a reclined position on my bed, if I have woken up sufficiently to have opened the blinds, the windows frame a view entirely of mountains. There is no sign of human activity at all.

This is a great luxury for which I count myself fortunate. However, it is hard to deny that - at least superficially - these are not the most exciting mountains. From late fall until early summer the high ridges are typically white with snow, but there are no glaciers. The summits are rounded not sharp. There are a few cliff faces, but none with any distinct architecture (unlike the Stawamus Chief, which I can see if I get out of bed, step out on the balcony and crane my head south). Even the mountains' names are not especially inspiring: Murchison, Lapworth, Coneybeare. Further north in the same Tantalus mountain range, the mountains get spikier with year-round ice and snow, and have been christened more dramatically: Alpha ... Omega ... Serratus.

Nevertheless over time I have come to appreciate subtleties of the view. Much of the visible rock is granite (or some variant on granite: granodiorite, a geologist pedant has often suggested to me) but a large swathe is actually volcanic in origin. With cloud swirling low enough in the valley, the basaltic Touch and Go towers become well-defined within the view, the largest being the ghostly Castle. Surprisingly this may be where the first climbs in Squamish took place in the 1950s, as they were then easily accessible from downtown over a footbridge (now long gone) unlike the Chief which then had no road under it.

The Castle

Also prominent is Monmouth Creek, a system of almost continuous waterfalls and cascades descending the entire 900m hillside down to the Squamish River.

Monmouth Creek

The lower part of the creek passes between the granite and volcanic rocks, creating - I now know - a deep and wildly-sculptural canyon. The creek itself has its source in Echo Lake, a kilometre wide feature hidden in the bowl below Murchison and Lapworth. A trail has been created up to the lake from the west bank of the river, staying as close to the falls as possible. I had heard that it was very worthwhile but the practicalities of crossing the river were off-putting.

In May this year Leo had some free time together, as Shoko had taken James to visit family friends in Arizona and his soccer season had ended. Leo had recently developed an interest in video editing and had obtained a second-hand drone to capture raw footage. Necessarily this implied some outdoor adventuring to access places to film, so for the first time in several years we had some commonality of interest. Around the same time I happened to mention to my neighbours, Shawn and Sharon, that I aspired to visit Echo Lake. Very generously they offered to lend their Canadian-style canoe and remarkably didn't retract the offer when I pointed out that I had never used one before. Helpfully I then stumbled over some GPS coordinates for the river crossing and first section of the hike and discovered that tide timing was suitable for the coming weekend. Leo bought into the idea, based on my over-optimistic estimate of the time required and promise of unique views from the lake. A plan was hatched. As final preparation, we watched some online videos on the paddling and steering of Canadian canoes - it looked easy enough.

And so, on a Saturday morning around 8am (about four hours too early in the teenage circadian rhythm), we cautiously clambered into the wobbly canoe and - to my relief - onsighted the river crossing. 

crossing the Squamish River
The take-out spot was easy to find. From there just one trail leads onwards ...

Looking up the line of the lower falls
Lower Falls "keyhole" feature
The trail gets a little crazy
Gorgeous hidden valley with old-growth cedars and firs
Echo Lake outflow
... which we followed, reached our objective and came down. Normally I would add more detail about days like this, but Leo made a video. (Highlights are around 3:30 and 6:00 in my opinion.):

A few things I should add for anyone researching this hike:
  1. It is genuinely very worthwhile. In my experience the usual BC hike involves hours of tedium deep in the trees before anything interesting can be seen. This one throws surprises at you all the way. 
  2. The river crossing deters people so you have a good chance of being alone all day.
  3. There are multiple trail options, of which the most challenging are close to the falls. On the way down we chose the more sedate trails more distant from the creek. 
  4. Do locate the take-out point for the canoe back on the east side of the river before you start. We didn't (and ended up paddling unnecessarily far).

Tuesday, March 22, 2016


Last summer I climbed Freeway for the first time. Not that significant an achievement for me, even adjusting for my age, decrepitude or any other handicap, real or imagined. But, nevertheless, a big day on an exceptional route. So I thought that I should document it, before the memory fades.

Freeway is widely regarded as the best of the Chief’s long free routes. It has loomed large in my consciousness since my first summer season in Squamish in 2005. My climbing partner then, Andy Donson, had done Freeway on a previous visit. He and I did Grand Wall together, an intimidating climb for me at the time, and definitely at the edge of my granite trad competence. Though he was too tactful to rain hard on my parade, it was fairly obvious from his comments that Freeway was a much bigger deal and something I needed to work towards in the future.

The line of Freeway on the west face of the Stawamus Chief © Squamish Rock Guides/ Marc Bourdon
Over the next few summers, when I typically spent 3 or 4 weeks in Squamish each year, I gradually ticked off most of the easier long routes like Angels Crest, Squamish Buttress and the Ultimate Everything, mostly with my friend and fellow “Japanese Wife Club” member, Bob Jasperson. Though I didn’t fall off anything, the 5.10 pitches on those routes seemed hard enough and the cumulative effort fairly exhausting. A route with multiple solid 5.11 pitches like Freeway seemed a very distant prospect. In fact during that period I never even tried single-pitch 5.11 routes. In 2010 I made my usual summer trip to Squamish but left the family behind, which raised the possibility of getting more climbing done than usual. Colin Spark, an expat Brit, then between jobs, was staying with me. We actually set out one morning specifically to “have a go” at Freeway, but - fortunately, I suspect - got cold feet once we had arrived at the parking lot and decided to do Milk Road instead, a 5.10+ multi-pitch which follows a parallel but inferior line nearby.

After I moved full-time to Squamish in 2012, Freeway was promoted from the "maybe one day" list to "really must get it done". But it was a surprisingly long time before the stars aligned and I felt ready. Generally I have restricted my trying-hard efforts to sport routes, and kept my trad-climbing as low drama as possible: climbing onsight on routes well within my limit and focusing on placing good gear. Somehow, though, my comfort level rose. A few standouts included Yorkshire Gripper and Crime of the Century in 2013 and Hungry Wolf in 2014. Earlier this year I changed tack slightly and "head-pointed" a couple of routes: the quite bold Electric Ball and tough Spiderfly, my first Squamish trad 5.12. A sad affliction of Brit climbers, at least of my generation, is to translate trad ascents into Britain's weird E-grades. These last two seemed respectably in the E4 to low E5 zone, roughly the highest level that I used to manage on British cliffs in my mid-20s, before I discovered sport climbing.

Simon benchmarking himself for Freeway with an onsight lead of Yorkshire Gripper at the Smoke Bluffs
Another auspicious factor was the impending visit of my friend, and business partner, Simon Lee to Squamish for three weeks mid-summer. Simon is almost exactly my age and has had a very similar climbing evolution to me, both in terms of duration (decades …) and the objectives we have pursued at similar times (though he has managed to push the bar a little higher). He wanted a target for the trip, so Freeway was adopted even before he arrived. Simon has put in some time in Yosemite, including an ascent of the famous Astroman, to which Freeway is sometimes compared; success therefore seemed reasonably assured.

Ahead of his visit, I read as much as I could about Freeway on the web. A recurring theme was off-putting descriptions of the 4th and 5th pitches. For example:

“The 100 meter dihedral which is one of the best features of the route … can be split up into 3 11b-ish pitches or the first two can be linked together to make two monstrous 50 meter endurofests …. the climbing was spicy, extremely technical, with occasional wet finger locks, and cruxy dead dihedrals that were negotiated with many calf-burning stems on micro features. … the cruxes are short. The thing is: every pitch has a handful of them with no places to hang out and rest.”

Or, even more discouraging, from one of the best female sport climbers in the US:

“I found myself trying harder on the 11c pitch 4 than I tried during an entire month projecting Dreamcatcher (5.14d) in the forest below”

Consequently, I got a little anxious and began a long period of what - with hindsight - I realise to have been over-preparation. In particular I became obsessed with finding the correct shoes for Freeway (and sent stern emails to Simon suggesting he think likewise). Whilst I hate painful feet from over-tight shoes worn on long routes, the “calf-burning stems on micro features” seemed to require a precision shoe. My usual shoe choice for easier long routes is a baggy pair of old-school La Sportiva Mythos, and for harder single-pitch trad the same firm’s Miuras, sized as tight as I can bear. Neither seemed right for Freeway.

My first experiment was to buy some Miuras one half-size larger than usual. They were - initially - disappointing. I did a lap up Grand Wall in them, with Eric Hildrew, another Brit visitor, in town a few weeks before Simon and his family. The Miuras hurt, yet didn’t feel very precise. In a panic, I made a very left-field choice: a pair of Mythos, sized tighter than usual, and, for extra impact, in the women’s style which is significantly narrower. For a while I managed to delude myself that these were good shoes, and even took them for (another) lap up Grand Wall, with Simon and his son Tom. But a couple of obvious negatives were hard to ignore: one, that they were scarcely less sloppy than my normal Mythos, and, worse, two, that my feet were tending to pop out of the shoes’ shallow heel cups.

Simon and Tommy on Grand Wall
Eventually, in search of objectivity, I carried a bouldering pad and my entire shoe collection to a slab near my home, notable for some thin problems. In particular there is a sandbag V2 which starts with two consecutive rock-ups on small crystals, on which I often fail. The only reliable shoe I own for moves like that is the Five Ten Anasazi White, a stiff “plank” too foot-crushing to wear for any significant time. Predictably the problem wouldn’t go in Mythos of any flavour, nor in any of the other oddities I have accumulated down the years (Five Ten 5X’s, Red Chilli Spirits … czech carpet slippers … etc). However the aha! moment came when I did manage the two crystal moves in the new upsized Miura's, even though they felt awkward and clunky. I decided to stop fussing and just concentrate on getting those shoes thoroughly broken-in.

The chosen Miura's (and nut key)
Another issue was how many ropes to take. Double ropes are a common choice for the route, as it makes a retreat easy if the crux middle pitches go badly (the route is equipped for 50m rappels). On the other hand, double ropes are a time-suck on long routes with small stances, as they usually need frequent untangling. A single climbing rope plus a haul-line is an other option but still comes with a high clusterfuck risk. We decided to just take a single rope and assume we would either top out somehow or sacrifice some gear to rappel if absolutely necessary.

Besides agonising over equipment, I also asked around as to whether there were any lesser routes Simon and I should complete together as “a Road to Freeway”? My very keen friend Travis, who seems to have ticked almost every trad pitch at Squamish sub-5.13, offered the non-intuitive suggestion that the best preparation for Freeway would be the first pitch of Freeway itself. I now know that this is excellent advice, as the first pitch is indeed a microcosm of the whole route, but I wasn’t wholly convinced at the time, and certainly couldn’t motivate Simon to do it. So it came to pass that out first encounter with the route - on 3rd August - was the real deal, the actual send, rather than a reconnoitre.

We decided to climb the route in two blocks, with me leading the first five pitches. My web research had convinced me that the big dihedral pitches (pitches 4&5) were the crux and the roof (pitch 6) more of a formality, but of sufficient substance that Simon would feel he had participated adequately. As with most plans, the actual implementation played out quite differently.

Getting to Freeway from the Chief parking lot is much like getting to Grand Wall. You wander in amongst the forest boulders, expecting to find a single upwards trail but are instead confronted by a confusing plethora of trails eroded by boulderers, from which you randomly pick one. After a few minutes you are overcome by doubt, walk back down and try another one. Or at least that is how it usually works out for me.

The base of Freeway isn’t. Steep uphill dirt transitions subtly to steeper scrambling then a fixed rope up a smooth slab. “Where do I change into my climbing shoes?” I wondered. At the top of the fixed rope, of course, but when I got there I found Simon lashed to the anchors and nowhere to stand but a smooth groove full of cedar needles. The day after our ascent I wrote on Facebook that the crux of the route is finding a way to clean your shoes before starting the first pitch, and, honestly, I still hold that opinion. The pitch is technical and insecure right from the first move, so you don’t want any extraneous material between your rubber and the rock.

In various sources pitch 1 gets 5.11a or 5.11b or a split-grade in between. Whichever, it is stout. Lots of thin laybacking and undercutting with poor feet for 20m or so. Eventually the holds grow and there are few jamming moves but the angle steepens. The anchors were more distant than I anticipated. Pitch 2 starts with a blind reach around an arĂȘte. The rest is easy jamming up a nice splitter. Some recommend linking pitches 1 and 2 but the rope stretch would guarantee some very long slides for the second if they fell low on pitch 1, so I wouldn’t suggest it. Pitch 3 is very aesthetic: a long downwards traverse along a flared feature to a nice belay ledge, mostly protected by bolts. Not very hard climbing but stimulating: as the face below is steep and blank and the ground already quite distant. Somewhere in the middle of this pitch I realised that I was having fun; an emotion that sometimes eludes me for the whole duration of multi-pitch routes. Unfortunately my positivity drained away whilst Simon seconded, as I had time to fret about the “I tried harder than on Dreamcatcher” pitch 4 above. It looked very similar to pitch 1, but steeper.

Simon following the easy splitter crack on pitch 2
The interesting downwards-traverse on pitch 3
In maximally-apprehensive mode, I indulged in various spurious gear-rerackings and shoe-retightenings before setting off. To my surprise, the style of climbing seemed to suit me, progress was pretty smooth and my good mood returned. One question mark in my mind was whether to split the pitch at a small ledge with gear anchors or keep going for a full 50m pitch? A team ahead of us, now struggling on pitch 5, had split the pitch. I decided to do the same. As the climbing had gone well up to that point I assumed the crux must still be ahead, so I was happy to minimize rope drag and recover all the small cams I has used below. In fact, it wasn't a great decision. As I intended to keep leading, we had to contend with an awkward swap-over. And then the pitch - let’s call it 4(b) - proved no harder than 4(a) and even had a bolt at its crux. So: top tip #2 if you are contemplating the route - don’t split pitch 4.

Simon following pitch 4(b)
Simon at this point was getting a little impatient for the sharp end, so he set off first up pitch 5. I had seen the guys above doing some horrific-looking tips laybacking, so wasn’t wholly upset. However, being an independent-thinking kind of guy, Simon found some much easier beta, using … well, maybe I shouldn’t say. Following the pitch, I found one of the toughest sections to be passing a dead tree stump in the main corner. One day, when that falls out, the pitch will be harder. Near the belay ledge the climbing becomes quite runout and changes character from crack grovelling to big face moves between knob features. I wasn’t wholly unhappy that he got the lead on this either.

Simon starting pitch 5
... and higher on the same pitch. The large overhang above the Truckstop is visible above.
The ledge system above pitch 5 is known as the Truckstop. Though you can just about sit down, it is not the most relaxing place. The ledge is partially filled with jammed boulders and the whole thing is capped by a large horizontal overhang. Then there is lot of air underneath. Overall it is both claustrophobic and vertiginous, a weird mix. We caught up with the other team here. Embarrassingly I failed to recognize one of them, who reminded me that we had spoken together at length on two previous occasions, about adventure tourism opportunities in Oman. They decided to rappel down, feeling that the route was too hard them(or maybe in disgust at my senile forgetfulness?).

The next pitch breaks through a two-tiered overhang slightly left of the anchors, with only the first couple of metres visible to the belayer. Simon again took the lead on this. He managed to pull through the first overhang OK, and disappeared from my sight. Unfortunately he then botched the next moves, and took a short expletive-laden fall back into my view. One more misfire later, he deciphered the moves and finished the pitch.

As he started to take in the rope for me to second, I realised that I badly needed to shit. It would be an understatement to say that this was bad timing. I pondered trying to hold out for longer, but from what I knew of the pitches above, there were no ledges until the top of the cliff. An obvious problem was that there was no question of removing rope or harness on the Truckstop, but a quick trial revealed that my cotton trousers were just sufficiently lycra’d and stretchy to be pulled out of harm's way whilst the harness stayed on (thank you, Patagonia). I tied off the rope at the anchors, leaving about six or seven metres of slack, then shuffled backwards in a crouched position as far as I could along the ledge, ass-outwards, hoped that no-one in the parking lot had binoculars or zoom-lens trained in my direction, then did the deed. For good measure, I wrapped the turd in some tissue and hurled it even further down the ledge, with a silent prayer that it would be sufficiently distant to decompose or mummify without stinking out future Freeway ascentionists, perhaps earning me such notoriety that I might have to leave town forever.

Simon meanwhile was getting confused by my lack of progress on the pitch, and had pulled the free rope super-tight. The possibility of being catapulted into the void caused me some anxiety as I removed the anchors and started climbing. This eased once I was over the first overhang and we could communicate easily again. Somehow I then failed to fall off the crux move above, though my beta - a long lurch to a distant finger-lock - was not elegant.

Simon’s position was a hanging belay on which it didn't look easy to swap over, so I took the next pitch. Descriptions for this pitch are rather confusing, suggesting it is all about a strenuous rightwards traverse in a very exposed position. When I got to the end of the obvious traverse line, the sun was directly in my eyes and it was hard to know where to go. I blindly chose upwards, which turned out to be correct. This section is for me the finest climbing in Squamish: you venture up vertically for about fifteen metres on improbable face holds, then make a final slopey diagonal mantle on to a small but perfectly-positioned belay stance, with a 300 metre clean drop to the ground below. Before bringing up Simon I paused to enjoy the solitude and overwhelming feeling that this long-sought-after route was now in the bag.

Simon on pitch 7. The excessive depth of field here makes the base of the cliff look deceptively close, rather than 300m below. 
Simon finishing pitch 7
The three pitches of the Express Lane finish to Freeway, between us and the cliff top, are face climbing at a lower angle to the rock below. Not pure slab climbing, but reclined enough to be fairly relaxing. We alternated leads. Unfortunately Simon again took a short fall. I sensed his focus had dropped after blowing the onsight on the roof pitch. In contrast he cruised the very last pitch, a short arĂȘte with some classic barn-door laybacking, which I thought was quite fluff-able. After that, it was all uneventful. We wandered down without getting lost and headed directly to the Brew Pub. At the next table was a guy from Alberta who I had climbed with for a day two summers before; predictably I didn't recognize him ...

For me, an unexpected feature of climbing Freeway was the consistent quality of the climbing. In theory I knew that in advance, because of the online hype, star ratings in guidebooks and general reputation. But that kind of thing doesn't always correlate with reality, especially with long routes. At least three of the pitches - #3 (the downwards traverse) and #4 (the crux dihedral) as well as pitch 7 (the airy wander above the overhangs, already praised) - rank amongst the best in Squamish, and all of the pitches are good. My main emotion with most of the long routes, that have been milestones in my climbing, has been satisfaction in getting the job done, coupled with relief to have finished. With Freeway, my main feeling has been “must go do that again”.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

traversing the Chief east to west

From the front deck of our house we look south to the Chief and in particular the saddle between the third summit of the Chief and the Squaw. I have often noticed that the north-east ridge up to the third summit from the saddle is not very steep, and wondered whether it is possible to find a non-technical way up there. The only publicised hikers' routes up to the Chief's summits come up from the south-west side, all variants on the incredibly-popular Backside Trail.

My interest in this more obscure side of the Chief has also increased because of the Sea to Sky Gondola. There is a good view down over the east side of the third summit from the Gondola's Chief Viewing Platform. From there, the north-east ridge to the third summit looks easy, though from a distance you can never be 100% sure what's lurking in the trees.

The Chief third summit from the gondola viewing platform

The same view rendered in Google Earth with the possible north-east ridge route

Unsurprisingly, asking a few local climbing friends fairly quickly uncovered that there is a trail of some kind up there, though no-one was able to be very specific about its exact line. I filed the idea away in my head under "things to try with the kids some time".

This weekend (a long weekend in Canada because of Victoria Day) I was scheduled to be "in charge" of Leo. He usually has league soccer matches on Saturdays, sandwiched between evening training sessions, so it seems best that he doesn't do anything active the rest of the time. However this weekend was different: no matches and no training. So I insisted he join me for some kind of outdoor exercise. Reluctantly, as given a free choice he would prefer to be indoors gaming online on his PS3, he agreed to go for a hike. I offered a few options, from which he picked what I was calling "the Chief loop", probably because it is nearest to the house. I mentioned that I wasn't sure of the exact route, but I don't think he was listening.

The plan was that we would leave the car near the start of the normal ascent route, with the expectation that we would come down that way after traversing the third and second summits.

Our whole planned route rendered in Google Earth

This meant the hike started with a dusty trudge of about 1.5km along the Mamquam forest service road. Leo was not in a very engaged mood, but it turned out that passing under the recent North Walls rock slide zone was a worthy conversation topic.

The forest service road; Squaw rock behind

The next section is the Squaw Rock approach trail, which I know quite well. As it is completely enclosed in tall trees, it is fairly dull walking, also steep. Fortunately after 30 minutes or so, the trail meets the saddle where there are a few viewpoints and the angle eases.

The approach trail up to Squaw Rock

On the saddle between Squaw and Chief, looking north to our house

The Chief third summit from the saddle

Beyond this point was new terrain for me. There are several trail forks, most of which unmarked, so we chose whichever was closest to the ridge. At one fork there was a "Chief" sign, though placed ambiguously and without any arrow, so that it could apply to either turn.

Starting the north-east ridge trail up to the third Summit

Cryptic signage

The trail gradually steepened up, and we passed two sections with easy rope pulls. Up to this point, we had been entirely alone, but at the next view point there was another father and son team. They asked us where they were. It became immediately obvious that they were very badly lost, having taken a wrong turn off the normal route to the 3rd summit, and continued contouring hopefully around the Chief for at least a couple of kilometres. I suggested they join us though warned that I only had a vague idea of the route.

Just above that point the enigmatic "Chief" sign appeared again, but seemed to want us to head downhill. Instead, I noted a faint trail leading upwards to a ~10m rock chimney full of tree roots, and partially equipped with an (old)  knotted rope. I recommended that we tried that. With hindsight it seems unlikely this was the correct way, but everyone got past the obstacle - eventually. Leo was nervous on this section and the other teenager even more so. I ended up descending the chimney to assist him, then had to stand tenuously bridged across the outside whilst telling him where to place his feet. Thankfully his father was a better climber.

The sketchy chimney

Above the chimney our trail converged with another more substantial one. Beyond that point were two more "climbing" sections, equipped both with new'ish ropes and rebar steps, in a european "via ferrata" style. The amount of assistance provided seemed excessive.

Short unnecessary via ferrata section

One of our "clients" on the final via ferrata section, just under the third summit

We then arrived quite abruptly at the third summit, which was predictably (bank holiday weekend ...) busy. No-one seemed curious that we had come up from the "wrong" side. After a sandwich break, Leo and I abandoned our "clients", suggesting that they couldn't possibly get lost again if they followed the crowds down. We then traversed over to the even-busier second summit, where we didn't linger at all. At the narrow gap between the second and first summits, I tried to interest Leo in the via ferrata there, which gives a quick route to the first summit, but he wasn't keen. As I had been that way a few years before, I was not bothered to miss it.
Leo starting down from the second summit

The rest of the descent passed very quickly as we stupidly decided to run, enjoying seeing how many tourists we could pass. I was pondering how embarrassed I would be if I tripped and broke a limb or twisted my ankle, when we bumped into a stretcher party bringing an injured hiker down. However, we ignored the bad omen, and resumed at the same speed. We were back at the car about 3 and half hours after we left.

Clearly this was a very mild adventure by Squamish standards but I thought I would document it as there is very little information about the route on the web. I plan to do it again some time soon and try to figure out where we went wrong. Then see if it can be done with a seven year old ...

EDIT: I did this walk again one week later, with my friend Bob, starting from home, which adds another 1-2km on roads and flat trails. This time I followed the most substantial of the trails rather than trying to follow the ridge directly. The consequence was that we ended up avoiding the sketchy chimney but did otherwise follow most of the previous week's route, including the two via ferrata sections. It is hard to describe this with great precision, but broadly-speaking the ridge is followed apart from one large dogleg away from the ridge contouring around the Chief leftwards for about 200m, until blocked by the large cliff of Above and Beyond, at which point the trail heads back up rightwards. Generally, once on the ridge, looking for combinations of 1. the most well-trodden trail 2. the occasional "Chief" signs and 3. red flagging tape, will find the right route.

Map of our route from Bob's Strava page

Same data plotted on Google Earth

... and zoomed in closer on the North East ridge (note the major dogleg away from the ridge line)