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Discover Squamish: The explosive growth of Squamish climbing

A lot has changed since its early days.

In the not-too-distant past, it's probably safe to say that most folks considered climbing an extreme fringe sport for people with a death wish.

Much of what non-climbers knew about climbing was informed by over-the-top movies like Cliffhanger.

That has changed.

In the last decade, climbing gyms have sprouted up all over North America, making the sport far easier for the average person to access. It's no longer necessary to live in a place like Squamish to learn the sport.

But many people who got their start in gyms travel here to test themselves in the outdoors.

As a result, people from all over the Vancouver area — and the world — are flooding Squamish on sunny days.

No longer do you have to learn the old way, which involved hanging around a crag or alpine club, hoping that the grizzled old mountain men or women who got their start by hammering old cat food cans into stoppers would mentor you.

You can now just learn in a gym or take a course.

Back to the future

Brian Moorhead, a longtime fixture in the Squamish climbing scene, got his start in Ireland in the early 1960s.

"I was a fairly 'serious climber' in Ireland at the time, but that wasn't hard too because there weren't very many of us," Moorhead said with a laugh.

However, he went off in search of new adventures, and around 1967, he moved to Canada.

"Of course, the first time I saw the Tantalus Range running up the very primitive Sea to Sky Highway at that time...I looked at the Sea to Sky. It was a panorama of templates, and I said, 'Oh yeah, I think I made the right decision here,'" he said.

Moorhead's interest would turn to alpinism, with his attention focusing on Squamish and the North Cascades. He took up sailing and his interest in climbing would ebb and flow, though he always had a hand in it.

His son, Colin, would eventually take to the sport and spearhead his own guiding company.

However, the elder Moorhead took a keen interest in the Smoke Bluffs, which took considerable effort on his and many others to turn into a park.

"There, I really saw the evolution of climbing," he said.

He said he noticed a lot more immigration into Canada after Expo ’86, and though many new people were coming to the country, that wasn't reflected in the climbing scene.

Moorhead said that there were perhaps more pressing needs that new Canadians needed to have met rather than recreation.

"I just came to conclusions as an immigrant myself. I knew that many of these people are struggling with a new country, a new language," he said.

However, he said the advent of climbing gyms has increased accessibility to the sport, and he's since seen more and more climbers of different backgrounds get involved.

Another thing that's changed is the gear, which has allowed climbers to push the level of technical skill higher than before.

Shoes with sticky rubber have replaced hobnailed boots, and ropes that may-or-may-not-snap have been phased out for certified ropes that people can fall on repeatedly without incident.

"Good gear made the sport more accessible," Moorhead said.

As far as the future of climbing, he said that it may involve more travel for people.

"Squamish may have hit a critical mass in terms of livability or enjoyability," he said.

Crowds have flooded the most prominent areas, and it's increasingly hard to find a place to climb.

However, if people keep developing new routes, there may still be ways to accommodate the growing number of climbers, provided they're willing to hike further from the main areas.

Moorhead said younger generations must take responsibility for maintaining and building outdoor climbing routes and access trails.

This influx of people has forced the Squamish Access Society, the non-profit steward of local climbing routes and access trails, to adapt.

Alex Ryan Tucker, a board member of the society, has observed that it's required people to rethink the leave-no-trace philosophy.

It's generally been accepted practice that recreationalists should leave the areas they play in exactly the way they found them.

However, new questions about this arise.

Is it better to develop more trails, thus tampering with the land's natural state, or is it better to leave things be?

The former option creates the immediate effect of disrupting the land, but it controls the flow of crowds. The latter option does not immediately affect the land, but, in the long run, crowds could

spread across the area unchecked, thus damaging more natural habitat.

"I think one of the biggest things is if we just looked at leave-no- trace, just the blanket absolutely-no-trace anyways — it's not going to be a realistic way of dealing with it," said Tucker.

"What we need to be doing more often — and what we're aiming to do more of — is just where we do have these climbing areas,

trying to kind of upgrade and reinforce the trails and the base areas of the climbs."

It's a matter of striking a balance between upgrading trail infrastructure while keeping with the area's natural character.

Some areas, like the Smoke Bluffs, which are heavily developed, are more suited to big gravel pathways. On the other hand, there are more natural areas, and it's important to maintain that quality, he said.

Murrin Park

Murrin Park is one example of growth.

Spearheaded by Moorhead, it started as a climbers' access trail but has since become a very popular hike.

"It's cool to see that climbers can have positive effects for other people in the community and give other people opportunities for getting outdoors," Tucker said.

Both Tucker and Moorhead encouraged people to get involved in volunteering to help maintain climbing routes and trails, and, if they have $10 to spare, to join the Squamish Acces Society. 

A sport for all

Brent Goodman of the Canadian Adaptive Climbing Society has been one of the driving forces behind getting people with disabilities involved with climbing.

While the pandemic put a pause on the group's activities due to gym restrictions, Goodman said he anticipates the organization to get back on track this year.

There have been efforts to make climbing spaces more inclusive for people with mobility issues.

One example, he said, is the extensive development of the parking lot wall in the Smoke Bluffs, which has been landscaped to the point that it's become straightforward to access.

The level trails leading to Free and Easy, by the Mamquam Blind Channel, also provide good accessibility options.

Unlike many climbing approach trails that can be upward slogs, the area is almost perfectly level, which is a big help for anyone with mobility challenges.

Goodman praised Moorhead and the Squamish Access Society for their work on that project.

That being said, there is still much to do to make climbing more accessible.

"It's definitely a privileged activity, right?" said Goodman. "So, on this topic, you know, we still struggle with the fact that if we're trying to be the voice of increased accessibility and the Canadian climbing communities, we still have a long way to go."

One of the stumbling blocks that the group faces is that it doesn't have a dedicated facility.

Climbing gyms generally tend to be for-profit operations, and when COVID capacity limits were imposed, they just couldn't accommodate the group.

That being said, he said his organization has been making progress in spreading awareness about the cause.

Goodman also said that there are new avenues for the sport.

"We're kind of linking therapeutic outcomes with climbing and using it as a way to like, a way to use climbing as a form of rehab," he said.

"I think our most successful program up to this point is actually combining occupational therapy and recreational therapy, along with the tools that come from climbing."

With COVID restrictions loosening, he said he thinks more momentum will be building for adaptive climbing.

"It was like, if I could figure out how to do physical disabilities and get them climbing authentically — still interacting with the wall, still using their hands and still like using their body and still feeling the same that like you and I would feel when we go rock climbing, or as much as possible. That's been the goal. And we've built all the systems now so that we can take that extra step and develop those other programs…like climbing as rehab," said Goodman.

"I'm excited for the future. If we're on the spectrum…say 2010 was like, 0 out of 10. And maybe 2016, where we were maybe at like, four or five out of 10. You know, maybe it's six right now. I think in the next couple years, we're going to be up to eight, probably."

***Please note, this story first appeared in The Squamish Chief’s summer 2022 edition of the biannual magazine Discover Squamish