July 13, 2001 Features & Images » Feature Story


Social climbing


The Squamish Chief ranks alongside Yosemite’s El Capitan as one of the premier rock climbing destinations in the world – and the word is out. Each summer a community of rock climbers congregate there for the pure joy of climbing, and numbers are growing. Robyn Cubie spent some time at the Chief to discover what draws people to the rock.

" Because it’s there ."

Asking a climber, "why do you do it?" is apparently as difficult and frustrating a question today as it was back in the early 1920s when British climber George Leigh Mallory was trying to raise money for his 1924 Everest attempt with Andrew Irvine. As Mallory implied, undertaking the venture just for the sake of climbing was reason enough to do it.

Put the same question to any of the hundreds of people who migrate to Squamish each summer specifically for that same purpose and the reaction is typical: a sudden screwing up of the face followed by a shrug and a gesture that seems to say; "How can I even start to put into words what climbing means to me?"

It’s a question that those who make climbing their lifestyle must face at some time, at least when talking to non-climbers who just don’t get it. Yet climbing fascinates nearly everyone. Take a drive along Highway 99 and it’s impossible to miss the impressive bulk of the Squamish Chief, rising almost 650 metres above the head of Howe Sound. Pull into the parking lot at the base of the chief and inevitably there are hordes of tourists peering into binoculars and pointing at the tiny specks that are climbers making their way up the near vertical face.

To mere mortals, the idea of climbing this huge granite monolith seems almost impossible.

Yet climbing has always been as much a part of the Squamish landscape as the mountains themselves, although always on the fringe. Last weekend saw the 40 th anniversary celebrations in Squamish of the first ascent of the Chief’s Grand Wall, by American Ed Cooper and the late B.C. climber, Jim Baldwin. Back in 1961 it took the pair several weeks of preparation and scouting of the lower reaches, and then four days to finally complete the 2,000 foot face. In the book Pushing the Limits; The Story of Canadian Mountaineering , Cooper recalled the huge media following and public interest their accomplishment generated.

" Soon small crowds would gather every night both on the highway and at the very foot of the wall to watch us descend. These small crowds grew to large crowds until one weekend the highway was jammed with 12,000 cars all attempting to get a look ."

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