June 21, 2002 Features & Images » Feature Story

Feature - Old school Squamish rock 

A fraternity of freeclimbers from the 1970s continues to pioneer new routes

Early one morning, Hamish Fraser, all of 14 at the time, borrowed his friend Mike Beaubien's motor bike. It was more a case of borrowing without asking but it was in the name of an altruistic pursuit. He wanted to bring back milk and eggs from the local market for his hung-over friends with whom he shared a summer lease on a home up on No Name Road in Squamish.

On his return, with milk and a carton of eggs tucked into his jacket, he hit a bump in the road. This being Squamish in the late ’70s there were a lot of bumps in what passed for a road back then. He flew through the air, before leaving a smudge of blood, egg and milk in the gravel and dirt.

Later, when he had managed to safely stagger home, he called his folks in Victoria to let them know that he had been in an accident but that other than a nasty case of road rash he was okay. His dad, unimpressed to say the least, informed the young Hamish that rock climbing was one thing, but he was under no circumstances to ride a motorcycle ever again.

As it turned out his dad was right, because in 26 years of rock climbing Fraser has never suffered an injury as bad as the one he took from his crash on a motor bike back in that summer morning of 1978.

So what was a 14-year-old doing hanging out with a bunch of rock-climbing freaks in a rundown house in Squamish in the first place? The story of one of the most revered climbers on the West Coast is what I’m trying to uncover as I sit down with him for a beer one beautiful August evening, at the Howe Sound Inn and Brewing Company in Squamish. We sit out on the deck of the pub; an appropriate setting for our interview as hikers and mountain bikers settle around us after a long hot day in the mountains – those very same mountains that frame our view from the deck.

Friends come and go, greeting Fraser, and we make small talk for a while until I am able to steer the conversation around to "his story." For Hamish Fraser it started at the age of 11, when he learned to rappel off of trees and cliffs. He then met some climbers, who informed him that while it was great that he knew how to get down, the real trick was in climbing up something.

He began to try bouldering with some older friends on Vancouver Island, near his home town of Victoria. But before long he yearned to be climbing the big granite faces of the Stawamus Chief, the impressive piece of rock that towers over the town of Squamish. At 13 he was a part of the Squamish climbing scene, having completed the first couple of pitches of University Wall.

He established relationships with several climbers, including Perry Beckham, Greg Foweraker, Peter Croft and Peder Ouram. For many years they lived a merry Band of Brothers existence, occupying a series of ramshackle houses and pioneering routes up the Chief. A few summers they even resorted to living in caves at the base of the Chief. It was definitely a fraternity, as Fraser describes it.

"You have to understand, back then we were considered freaks. There were less than a dozen of us up here, all men, who climbed back in the ’70s," Fraser says. "Even later on there was only one or two women who climbed, and then it was because they were the friend or girlfriend of someone."

In Pushing the Limits: The Story of Canadian Mountaineering (Rocky Mountain Books), author Chic Scott describes the first free climb of the University Wall, involving Croft, Foweraker and "a 15-year-old high school student by the name of Hamish Fraser. During this historic climb Fraser wore his EBs on the opposite feet because they were worn through at the toes."

Back then, Fraser explains, climbing wasn't even considered a sport, it was more of an adventure or a lifestyle.

"Actually, it was purely an adventure," he corrects himself. "We wanted to explore the mentally challenging aspect of climbing."

For Fraser the act of rock climbing is something of a high-altitude meditation. He often prefers to solo routes, losing himself in the climb.

"I used to get up before dawn and walk down from No Name Road, it was about a 40 minute walk," he says. "Once a RCMP officer pulled up beside me and he was very suspicious as to what a 15-year-old kid was doing skulking around at 4:30 in the morning. When I told I was heading out to climb the Chief he gave me a ride to the base. Of course then I had to sit around for an hour waiting for the sun to come up, because I didn't have a headlight – or maybe they hadn't even been invented yet."

He admits that solo climbing isn't for everyone, but for him the simplicity and efficiency of climbing alone makes it all very satisfying.

"It's a very rewarding endeavour, you really have to reach into yourself. It's very personal."

An attempt to pin Fraser down on the difficulty of the routes he has climbed is met by vague and non-committal responses. Instead he stresses that for him climbing is more about the location than grade.

"When we grew up it was about the experience. We weren't out to beat our chests or anything."

About that time one of Fraser's long-time friends and climbing partners, Mike Beaubien, wanders over to our table with a pitcher of beer in hand. Being well provisioned, he’s invited to join us.

"You're talking to a living legend," Beaubien informs me. "Some of the stuff he has climbed here has rarely been repeated."

Fraser seems to warm to his friend’s bravado. Although he remains unspecific on details, he begins to refer to an epic here and there. He mentions being 13 and his first attempt to climb University Wall with Greg Foweraker. They got about three pitches into it when Foweraker, on a belay from Fraser, saw that the slight adolescent was shaking from the strain of supporting his friend. So despite encouragement from Fraser he rappelled off and they called it a day. A few years later Fraser, Foweraker and Croft would complete the first free ascent of the route.

From our vantage point on the deck Fraser and Beaubien point out the other routes that they have completed the first free ascents of over the years: Genius Loci, Sheriff's Badge, The Roman Chimneys. I ask what the various grades would be on these routes.

"Grades sell magazines," says Fraser.

Beaubien, however, is a little more forthcoming and chastises his friend for being overly modest.

"Most of those routes are about .12b-.12c, probably .13 on some pitches," says Beaubien.

Both Fraser and Beaubien run tree-topping businesses, which keep them in shape for climbing. Still they admit that it is hard to get out like back in the good old days.

"In the early ’80s I climbed the Grand Wall five times," says Fraser.

A browse through a Squamish rock climbing guide confirms that Hamish, along with the other former occupants of the house on No Name Road, named or claimed the first free ascent of many of the routes up the Grand Wall through the ’70s and into the early ’90s.

In search of rock

While many Squamish climbers travel extensively to climb in other parts of the world, Fraser’s a little different.

"Actually, I'm the guy who's never been anywhere," he says.

Despite the fact his girlfriend has climbed as far away as Thailand, Hamish has been content to limit his experience to B.C. and California.

"Fifteen, 20 years ago it was all about training for Yosemite. And the Chief is pretty good for that, it's like a mini El Cap (El Capitan, a 3,000-foot granite face in Yosemite Valley) and really it's the best place in Canada for solid granite and long climbs."

Climbing in Squamish has exploded in the last decade, not only with locals taking up climbing but international climbers coming from around the world to test their skills on The Chief. Fraser and Beaubien are asked if they pine for the old days or are they happy to see the sport grow in popularity.

"Well I guess it's one of those ‘careful what you ask for’ things," answers Beaubien.

"We used to wonder why people weren't more interested in something as cool as climbing. Of course now they are and they're here, and the parking lot that used to have a few $200 beaters scattered around it is filled with shiny new SUVs from the city."

Fraser nods and adds: "The sport, well it really became more of a sport with the advent of sport climbing. It's good to see, I think it's sad when people don't find something to be passionate about in their lives."

Considering Fraser's no-holds-barred, forthright technique, how has he managed to escape serious injury through the years?

"I would say it's about time put in, you just become very aware of what you are capable of. When you are climbing up something the process is slow and measured, you're working against gravity. If you take something like snowboarding or mountain biking you're letting gravity take you and that's hard to control."

Fraser, who in recent years has become a mountain bike enthusiast, opens his shirt to reveal two red gashes on each shoulder to illustrate his point.

"I did this last weekend. I took a header over the handle bars. I never had wipeouts like this climbing."

Of course you can't really afford to.

"True," he admits. "But there's a right way and a wrong way to approach it and again it's about time put in, you just kind of figure it out."

He goes on to mention that as a volunteer for search and rescue he sees accidents happen over really insignificant things.

"Sometimes people just fall."

I suppose when you're a 1,000 feet up and hanging from your fingertips a certain amount of fatalism comes into play.

Asked if he ever returns to his roots in bouldering, Fraser says it still fascinates him in a way, but he craves the height. Then he adds, "It would be interesting to see a really good boulderer up on the Grand Wall. I'd like to see what their approach would be."

Still I'm surprised that the simplicity of it (bouldering) isn't more appealing to him.

"It is, but if I'm going to do something like that, I'd rather scramble up Squamish Buttress."

Behind me he points to a narrow, tree-lined ridge which marks the beginning of the route about a third of the way up the Chief.

"I used to be able to get up and down it in about 40 minutes, once as fast as 34 (minutes). It was fun, sort of like high stress hiking. I guess you could say I love the height."

The old gang

A couple of weeks later I manage to get a hold of Greg Foweraker, one of Fraser’s first climbing partners back when they used to go bouldering and sport rappelling on Vancouver Island. Later on they climbed the big routes on the chief together. I ask him how he came to associate with Fraser in the first place.

"Yeah he was a young punk. God forbid you were seen with him. His mom used to pay my bus fare if I would take him along (climbing) with me. Of course later on we found out he was a better climber than all of us."

Still on those first day trips it was more about the then 14-year-old Foweraker having to drag along the eager 11-year-old Fraser, who was short on gear and apt to make the occasional mistake.

"Hamish would do a lot of sport rappels back then, so one time he thought he would double his ropes by cutting them in half. For some reason it didn't occur to him that then they would be half as long. There's actually a picture somewhere of Hamish half way down a cliff with his rope 20 feet off the deck."

Later on it would seem that his lack of gear instilled considerable resourcefulness in Fraser.

"When he was climbing up at Squamish, he would put in a piece of gear and really run it out, but he was always in control," Fowerakers says.

I wonder just how in control he could have been as a very young climber out to tackle some of the toughest faces in Canada?

"Well the days of gear just randomly failing are pretty much gone, but 20 years ago it did happen. Still Hamish was pretty athletic, pretty mental; it was obvious from almost the beginning he was several notches above every one else."

Considering how long Fraser has been climbing in the Squamish area it’s surprising he doesn't get credit for more routes.

"For him it was never about the volume of new routes, it was more about a defining style and approach," Foweraker says. He goes on to mention Fraser’s 24-hour rope solo of University Wall as an example of his athletic and mental discipline.

Another long time climbing partner of Fraser’s is Peter Croft, who now resides in Bishop California. But for years Croft was part of the Squamish climbing elite. He fondly remembers the good old days, describing them as like a family experience.

"You know, maybe you didn't like one brother but you liked the other, and really we were all friends to some extent," Croft says.

He also confirms the sort of oddball caché that rock climbers had 20 years ago.

"It was funny, here we were all pursuing this athletic pastime, but most of us were lousy at sports in school. Of course sport was the last way we would have described climbing."

Croft started climbing when he was about 17 and remembers Fraser back then as a "tiny little guy who would climb anything.

"I was watching Hamish and I think Greg Foweraker on this hanging sling belay off a cable tower, why they were there in the first place, I don't know, but they started yelping and freaking out from the electricity. I was sort of wasted at the time so I couldn't really help. They eventually managed to rappel off of it (the tower). But their gear stayed up there for a long time."

Later on when the two began to climb together Croft concedes that it was obvious Fraser was the most talented.

"On our first free ascent of Roman Chimney, we were on our 16 th pitch on top of the Grand Wall, when I was on a lead belay and looking down at Hamish, saw him slip. His feet were fully dangling and he was hanging by his finger tips, when as calm as could be he reached down with one hand, chalked up and executed a perfect one hand pull up."

Croft, unlike Fraser, has travelled a great deal – Scotland, Australia, Norway and Greece, to name a few. He admits to missing his time on the West Coast.

"I suppose it's like anything when you look back on it, you tend to idealize it, but it was an awfully cool atmosphere," Croft says.

Another way that Croft differed from Fraser was in the priorities they set in life as they got older. Fraser eventually cut down on his climbing to start his own business, while Croft pursued climbing basically as a career, or as he likes to say, "I pursued it as the ultimate fun."

"I wish that Hamish was as lazy as I am, or that his work ethic wasn't so stringent," Croft says, "just because he's so much fun to climb with."

Sometimes, however, he feels that Fraser probably pushes himself too far.

"Once a few years ago Hamish and Greg (Foweraker) came to visit and we went climbing up around Mammoth. So late in the day Hamish finds himself out on this really difficult overhang pitch. He yells back to us that he's thinking of packing it in, but Greg and I tell him to go for it. Of course we're just sitting back eating chocolate bars. Anyway, he finished the pitch, but it cost him a separated rib, which was purely from over excertion. He just pushed his body beyond what it could be pushed and that still didn't stop him."

Last summer Croft managed to make one of his increasingly rare trips up North, so that he and Fraser could establish a new route to the top of Sheriff's Badge, a variation on Daily Planet. In turn Fraser went south this past July for Croft’s wedding. Of course they made time to climb the Needles, near Bakersfield, California.

The fraternity of Squamish climbers from the ’70s, pioneers in a now-popular sport, still exists. They're spread across the continent now, a little mellower but still climbing, still pushing.

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