Climbing community reacts to Stawamus Chief rockslide 

Climbing veterans don't expect rockfall to deter recreation tourism

click to enlarge PHOTO BY MANDY JENSEN / COURTESY OF THE DISTRICT OF SQUAMISH - ROCK AND ROLL   A scar is visible on the north face of the Squamish Chief after a chunk of the granite monolith fell on Sunday, April 19.
  • Photo by Mandy Jensen / Courtesy of The District of Squamish
  • ROCK AND ROLL A scar is visible on the north face of the Squamish Chief after a chunk of the granite monolith fell on Sunday, April 19.

With no injuries to report, the Sea to Sky's climbing community is counting its blessings after a massive chunk of rock fell off a section of the Stawamus Chief that is part of a popular climbing route.

Squamoleans were startled just before noon on Sunday, April 19, when a large piece of the granite monolith measuring roughly 1,000 cubic metres tumbled from the north face of the mountain. The rumble could be heard throughout the downtown area.

While several people were on the Chief at the time of the slide, no injuries have been reported — a stroke of good fortune, according to John Clague, professor of earth sciences at Simon Fraser University.

"We dodged a bullet because it's a common area for scrambling — rock climbing off the main face of the Chief," said Clague, who noted that a rockfall of that scale typically occurs on the Chief every one or two centuries.

The slide happened in the North Walls area of the north peak, near a route called Northern Lights. Damage affected several routes, but veteran climber and guidebook author Marc Bourdon highlighted the most significant.

"Basically the climb that it's going to affect that is the most important is the Angel's Crest, which is an historic climb," he explained. "It's not particularly difficult, but it's exceedingly popular."

Bourdon said it's not uncommon for multiple parties to be climbing Angel's Crest on a day with favourable conditions like Sunday.

The other major route impacted is Northern Lights — actually a combination of two different routes — which is far less popular among climbing enthusiasts, but just as important as Angel's Crest, according to Bourdon.

A silver lining for Bob Allison, president of The Whistler Core Climbing and Fitness Centre, is that the slide may end up improving access to the challenging North Walls area of the mountain.

"It's always been a dark, intimidating start to the wall on the North Walls because they're already difficult routes, but they also don't get much light with the trees there," he said. "Now there are no trees there anymore, so it's a lot lighter."

While Squamish has garnered much positive mainstream media attention recently for its outdoor recreation offerings, both Bourdon and Allison believe the slide won't impact climbing tourism to the region.

"In general, the rock in Squamish is quite safe and sound. The granite is well weathered, glacier polished and generally quite compact, but we do get rockfalls off the Chief, and this just demonstrates that anything can happen," said Bourdon. "I don't think it's going to stop people, but it will make them think a little bit more about where they're climbing and what they're doing."

When asked about a possible cause for Sunday's slide, Clague said it's unlikely there was any particular trigger other than what's called "fatigue" in geological circles.

"Rocks standing in vertical faces do very, very slowly — on an almost geological timescale — fatigue," he noted. "They get tired and you eventually reach a 'straw that breaks the camel's back' point where a block will slab off and fall down.

"It would have been very difficult (to foresee) as there's no reason to monitor that face on a continuous basis."

Geological engineers are currently assessing the site of the slide, and an update on their findings is expected this week, according to the District of Squamish.

While the climbing access trail to Angel's Crest is closed until further notice, all hiking trails on the Chief are currently open.

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