Tag Archives: Squamish

Merry-Go-Round

West Coast Canada, July 2011

Slack-lining, yoga, smoking and sunbathing. This is the scene of a typical day at the camp ground in Squamish, Canada where rock climbers are taking a day off and recuperating from their latest vertical conquest upon the towering walls of a giant rock known as ‘The Chief”, a 500m tall granite monolith surrounded by enchanted pine forests below.

It’s been an absolutely magic and humbling month. I’m tired all over, bones throbbing and everything. A friend of mine called Monte, text me the other day and asked if I wanted to climb a rock pinnacle called ‘The Sentinel’ over in the Rocky mountains near a town called Lake Louise. (The other side of British Columbia). I didn’t refuse as I’m new to climbing in the mountains without a guide and I want all the experience I can get as I’m dead keen on being a guide myself in the future.

Hitchhiking south to Vancouver, I call up a lady friend I met on a night out once. We enjoy some cheese and crackers over a bottle of wine and some Finley Quaye. Such a nice change after living in a campsite and sleeping on the ground. A hot shower and a real bed too. Luxury. She even had internet so I got to search for some ride shares in the morning over coffee.

An hour later, I hop off a local bus and rendezvous with a family of modern looking Native Americans who pick me up in Abbotsford, a peripheral city of Vancouver. They’re driving all the way east into Alberta, so I jump in. It’s the cheapest and fastest option.

Unfortunately, they asked for petrol money upfront which is fine, only they weren’t that keen on getting to know me so I got to sit there like a heap of forgotten luggage.

A day of silence later and we pass through the town of Revelstoke, the same town I was living in at the beginning of the summer. I thought of a friend I know called Alex, a funny and sweet female earth child from Quebec. A fantastic mountain biker too.

After hugs and some chit chat it turns out she is driving with her boyfriend to Lake Louise for some hiking as well. How funny. So the next day we blast out of town in her match box car, crammed in at all sides with bags and gear with two mountain bikes drooping off the rear. Amazingly, we manage to crawl up and over the mountain road of Rogers Pass like a cheerful snail until we reach the boundary of the Banff national park in the town of Field. There’s free camping and Monte’s down to meet me there in the morning which works for me. Pretty much straight away though, it pours with rain all night long.

*

I call Monte upon waking to hear the crushing news that the Highway to Lake Louse is closed because of a mud slide. I lament with resignation about having hitched hiked for two days from west to east British Columbia for nothing.

With a smile and a jug of coffee, he scoops me up from the flooded campsite and we cruise on the highway south back to his place. He informs me that he’s headed to Vancouver in a few days anyway and offers me a ride, my damp spirits warmed just like my face which is pressed up against the heater.

Cranbrook is not really a place most people like me want to hang out but thankfully it’s positioned in the middle of a plateau that looks upon the western foothills of the Rockies. Head towards those slopes and maybe you’ll find Laquet Lake. A massive pond without a current but with a pretty line of cliffs surrounding it. Monte drops me off and leaves me in the dust, miles away from civilization.

See ya in three days buddy.

As soon as the air settles, a cloud of mosquitos descend, sending me into a frenzy to set up the tent and hide from this onslaught. Wiping my itching arms before entering the little green bubble, my arms glisten red with the sheen of blood. Damn.

The days pass slowly and the combination of heat and bugs drives me a little mad as being outside to go climbing or walking around is more a matter of how-much-can-you-take before you want to run around stir crazy and retreat to the tent or end up sitting by a smoky fire the whole time.

Post dinner on the last evening, I notice daylight is fading but it’s not the time of day, it’s actually due to a massive black curtain of rain that’s steadily ploughing it’s way over the wide plateau and towards the foothills where I’m currently sitting and swatting myself like a repenting monk. The shroud of thunderclouds flashes and booms over Cranbrook and continues onwards toward our little pond where all the wildlife including me sits in hushed anticipation.

Whoosh! The rushing headwind destroys the fire and knocks me about as I make tracks for the tent, stumbling over rocks and clumps of grass. The epic draft is busy trying to uproot my home so I peg it down with extra guy ropes and chuck all my gear inside to make sure it doesn’t fly away. Diving in too I sit there scared, preparing to brave another round with the powerful forces of nature. The deluge sweeps over the lake and it feels like I’m under a waterfall in a wind tunnel.

It’s now dark as night as the flash bangs that usually have a delay between the two become ‘flash & bang’. Boom! The lake is struck with lightning a few times. For some reason, the only thing I can think of doing in this frightening position is to read my mountain weather book, looking for advice concerning thunder storms for some respite.

Is there something I can do to make this situation better? Please..God..anyone?

Frantically absorbing the pages, it turns out all the climbing equipment I’ve thrown in the tent to weigh it down is made of metal, which is a major conductor of electricity. Yes, I did go to high school. Yes, I was in a panic and didn’t think about that. I’m right next to the lake too, which isn’t a good idea either. The wooden outhouse down the hill beckons me as the only viable option so I bolt out of the tent and run for cover like Bambi.

Inside the walls of the outhouse I wait out the storm and feel the explosion of lightning rock the booth a couple more times. Yet suddenly it’s all over, the clouds lift and birds start chirping like nothing happened. The sun hasn’t even set yet. Walking around the lake, only puddles remain and my tent is intact. Was that just a nightmare?

I relight the fire and sleep it off. The next morning, Monte shows up with french pressed coffee and confirms for me. “Wild storm last night eh buddy? Crazy, let’s get outta here!”. I regale the nights entertainment and we set off for the west coast. Two days later, I arrive back to the camp ground in Squamish with welcoming smiles of climbing friends ‘chillaxing’, contemplating life and juggling apples.

Just like nothing had happened. 

Safe in these Surrey Hills

*†*

As California’s spring sun thawed me out of the winter freeze, I became more familiar with the power of presence. Here is a recollection of one of my favourite days out climbing alone. Somehow, I had the urge to put myself in these kind of situations where I had to present and silent in the mind. The fragrance of these moments was pure connectivity to myself, the landscape and aliveness down to every cell.

These glimpses of pure being injected me with more medicine but the mind still identified these moments I call Grace with the act of climbing itself and therefore created apparent dependency on it. I also had another ‘near miss’ two years previously when I was climbing fully with the ego but thankfully dodged another bullet! But unlike the same fear that arose and lingered whilst ice climbing, presence itself dissolved the memory leaving me only with the beautiful moment of that day.

I am still so full of Gratitude for this experience.

Thank you.

Normal text – April in California and June in England

Bold text – 2011, two years before in Squamish, Canada 

*†*

26th April 2013, Idyllwild, California. Diana is busy working at camp so with no climbing partner, I am therefore left to my own devices for the day. Without a doubt it begins with a bucket of hot coffee. Next, I walk a few minutes out-of-town, to a cluster of trees for some private council on the days potential. The pine trees groan as their stiff and parched trunks sway softly in the cool morning breeze, their needles floating at will into the perfect blue yonder above. Looking up to the east, the splendid pinnacle of Tahquitz rock sits silently in its dominion over the valley, its golden white granite glowing fierce in the bright morning sun. It’s less than a week before I return to UK soil so I guess there isn’t really any question. I’m going climbing. 

An hour later, I top out alone on Taquitz rock after climbing ‘The Trough’, a historic route (first climbed in 1936). It required some simple scrambling with a few fun jams*, turning out to be a pleasant warm up. Hiking down the backside, I return to the base of the west face once more where my thoughts turn to the main objective. White Maidens Buttress. The route on this feature is full of variations but can still stay moderate (5.6) for an experienced climber. All 800 ft of it. Sitting at the bottom and looking at the route, there’s no babble that invades my thoughts, only calm, as if my spirit already knows that I’m going to need a tranquil mind for the ascent. When enough time has passed, the usual check list is sorted. Strap up the rock boots, chalk bag* on. Mow down a Mars bar and chug some aqua. Good to go.

Tahquitz Rock glowing in the sunset. White Maiden Buttress is the left leaning buttress in the center between the trees. 800ft or so.
Tahquitz Rock glowing in the sunset. White Maiden Buttress is the left leaning buttress in the center between the trees. 800ft or so.

The initial flakes* and cracks are surprisingly vertical but perfect jam after jam keeps the flow strong. After two hundred feet I pass a large pedestal with a couple of guys chilling, eating their lunch. Excuse me, mind if I pass? Cheers. The angle then eases and the cracks stay juicy for the next few hundred. Never before had I felt so empowered to be alone and capable in that moment 500 feet up. Then came a moment I hoped would come since August 2011;

At this point in time, I had been traditional (crack) climbing for 2 months. Feeling good about progress, I felt like a low commitment day (as in not dedicating yourself to hours of battle on the big wall) and decided to go to the Smoke Bluffs, a crag in Squamish, Canada with an abundance of single pitch routes (a single rope length between 20 – 50m). By 4pm I had soloed some very easy ‘5 star’ beginner routes (5.7) alone and decided to finish with a route called ‘Burger & Fries’. All I can say is a series of very bad decisions shortly ensued.  

Firstly, the route is about 25 meters and gets baked by pounding sunlight all day long, making the rock sweaty and slimy. Secondly, a lot of easy ‘classics’ have a tendency to be really polished from many ascents, and oh how it was. I started up anyhow in some kind of arrogant defiance to reach the top. Near the top, in front of me was the last feature, a polished, bulging slab*. Instead of down climbing like any sensible human being I reach my third and last crescendo.  Groping a protruding pebble the size of a dime with two fingers and stepping off a small ledge of safety, my feet are now pasted on more squeaky pebbles. The dime is as smooth as marble and I freeze up quick, like a frozen spider. Oh No! Saying this out loud only exacerbated the rising tide of terror beginning to consume me to the core. Legs shaking and palms damp and slimy I fear the friction will not last and contemplate my absolute failure.

If I fall now I’ll probably shatter my pelvis on that boulder down there. I refuse to accept this!

In pure fight mode, I rouse my last ounce of what felt like survival climbing. With all my might, I reach up and slam my palms as hard as possible onto the slab, my feet desperately running in order to create some kind of momentum. In a few frantic moves I am at the top gasping for breath and feeling like an utter fool. My motives that almost led to my potential oblivion was the result of my ego assuming a 5.7 without a rope was a sure thing. I had to be more in touch with me, my essence. I never forgot that, but hoped that some day I would be able to solo again without that crippling image choking me with fear. 

That same day, soloing at the crag
That same day, soloing at the crag

Back on Tahquitz, two years on, I reach the end of a friendly crack. At first I halt as the way directly up is out of the question but it seems I must traverse a section of slab down and left to reach the final corner* that winds its way up the ramp, all the way to the summit. Not long now. The moves look OK but a flash of that day at the Smoke Bluffs makes me take a breath. Instantly it dissolves. I am still and clear. Stepping down onto the slab I chalk my fingers and crimp the holds perfectly. One move at a time I go, looking down to focus on my feet with 500ft of silent space below. Still I breathe, the sound of air inflating my lungs is the only thing I register. Nothing else exists in that moment, only nothingness. Three moves in, I am in between the two cracks, completely exposed, standing on my fingers and toes. One more. I keep going slowly, mindful that I could reverse the moves if necessary. Finally, my fingers sink into the corner crack. Ahh. And then it clicked. At long last, I had found my centre and was free of the fear. The setting sun was beginning to stain the valley in orange and call it a day, as was I.

Sitting on the summit, all I could feel was immense gratitude to be alive. Existing. Every cell inside my body tingling with intense life. Although the climb is rated 5.6, which is not technically very hard, I had a revelation. You are not you from 2011, you are not what you would like to be, you are just you in this moment. It’s all relative, that’s the whole point. All you can do is be honest with yourself and make the right decision in that moment. This is most important. Back in town, every sound is crystal clear, every spectrum of colour is visible and the smell of food utterly delectable! I meet up with Diana and listen to her talk about her day. She appears to be glowing. The sound of her voice is like music. I recline in my chair and relax. Sublime, so sublime.

Two months later I’m sitting in mums garden in a little village called Wonersh. It’s located in Surrey, southern England. Many delightful qualities exist here; Twisting country lanes that lead to old pubs dating back to the 15th Century, old friends and of course family. The local Blackbirds and Robins sing their chorus of song as the bumblebees hunt for pollen across the flower beds of Honeysuckle, Lavender, Buddleia and Lilac. The wind chimes sing peacefully in the background. So much life here. So safe.

Two months. The longest I’ve gone without climbing for two years. On the contrary, I am the one who is wilting. I feel like I have been cryogenically frozen. It’s a hard thing to describe to people who do not live with the mountains in their lives, but this was why I started the blog in the first place I suppose. It’s funny how you think back to how amazing it all was or how awesome next month is going to be, but what about now?

As we create our own reality, it’s definitely important to put things in perspective, like making enough money to fund that expedition you’ve always wanted to do or to reconnect with family after all those epic adventures you’ve had. The legendary British philosopher Alan Watts once put forward a metaphor that the present is like a sailboat. The wake doesn’t drive the boat but are memories and experiences that ripple and melt into the sea of time, just depends on where you want to go.

I like that.

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* ‘Jam’ is a term used when one slots in a body part such as a hand or arm and uses opposing pressure in the crack to hold oneself in the feature. When the body part is jammed, one can raise up their legs to continue up.

* Chalk is used to dry moisture and increase friction. It washes off in rain.

* A flake is a plate of rock that literally sticks out for you to pull on. Like when you open a bread roll.

* Slab denotes literally a flat slab of rock, less than vertical but with very small edges. Balancey.

* A corner looks like an open book.