I’m not much of a climber. Before this summer I had puttered around on boulders, done some top roping, and led a few easy sport climbs. My unease with heights is a likely contributor. In spite of this, climbing allows one to reach peaks and places untouched by most. And so it seems a good skill to have at least mild proficiency in. When I found myself in Squamish for the summer, living with three strong climbers, I had to take the opportunity to climb hard and often. They towed me up my first multi-pitch sport route, helped me lead my first trad route, push grades, and learn the gear management and rope work necessary for longer adventures.
All of this culminated in Axel and I climbing the Stawamus Chief during out last week in town. Eighteen pitches of 5.7 to 5.9 trad climbing would see us at the top of the giant 2,300 foot granite face. I had been progressing all summer with Axel as my sensei, but this still seemed like a stiff mission. We nervously sorted gear, food and water out the night before, and after that all there was to do was attempt a few hours of sleep before setting out.
All the gear we'd haul up
We were at the base of the climb around 6 a.m., only to find three other groups queued up for the popular route we chose to start on, Diedre. Off to a smooth start. Axel suggested to rally up Calculus Crack instead, and after a short hike, we were off on the first pitch. I led the second pitch, which contained some uncomfortable off-width climbing for about thirty feet. Axel conveniently failed to mention this before I took off, only offering his famous line before I start any lead, “you’ll fly up it”. I flailed, fought and shimmied up, but fly I did not. I also ended up with some mega rope drag at the top, which took another fifteen minutes to sort out after miraculously making it to the top of the pitch. Again, not much of a climber.
I was pretty beaten down after this pitch, but Axel, being the sensei that he is, talked me out of my funk and got me back into somewhat of an operable state of mind. This was all thrown out the window when we were passed by four freesoloers. I scooted to the right at the anchor I was belaying Axel from on pitch three, and prayed I didn’t slip a foot and kill someone as they passed. One of these climbers conveniently slipped his foot just above me. Thinking I was about to see someone meet his untimely demise, I felt like vomiting. He carefully re-placed his foot, took a deep breath, and continued on. I still wanted to vomit either way. Finally, they cleared out, Axel and I collected ourselves and we focused back in — fifteen pitches still staring us down.
Freesoloers making Calculus Crack look easy
After the morning full of mishaps, we fell into a groove and started ascending cleanly. Our summer as climbing partners started to show, we were quick at climbing, cleaning, and rope management, and the pitches started to fly by. We were even starting to have some fun, believe it or not. From Calculus we hit Boomstick Crack which was an easy but unique pitch, climbing up and on a razor thin crack that you could see down into about twenty feet at times. Then we hit the Squamish Buttress, and I led my first 5.9 trad pitch (thanks Axel for volunteering me for that). We were passed by a group of simul-climbers and had a nice little chat with them mid-pitch as we neared the top.
Letting our simul-climbing friends dart by
We peeled off Squamish Buttress to avoid the spooky 5.10b that was above our pay grade, and opted for Butt Light — a fun 5.9 alternative. Again, I found myself leading this crux pitch. But I got in the zone and climbed the thing cleanly. It felt fantastic. I sent Axel up on the daunting chimney pitch which was the true crux of the route in my opinion. He seems to like those masochistic climbs, and this was no exception. He did battle with it, making good use of a #4 cam, and ended up on top. From there it was low fifth class climbing up to the summit. We even felt so good that we soloed the last pitch, which was a low angle slab coming in around 5.5, if I were to guess.
The "crux pitch"
Axel on what I think is the true crux pitch. He had to remove his helmet to fit in this chimney
Axel soloing the last pitch
With that, we were on the summit of the Chief. A summer’s worth of hard work realized as we topped out. And to stand up there with my best friend and climbing partner who just four months ago was a complete stranger was certainly something to behold. It was a sweet way to end the summer, and opened my eyes to some bigger climbing goals in the future.