Squamish, just North of Vancouver in Western Canada, is a friendly, well-located, single and multi-pitch climbing destination. I’ve heard it being described as ‘the little Yosemite’. The area and scale of the place may not be quite the same, but the rock type and style of climbing are very similar; slick granite, splitter cracks, huge variety and ‘on your doorstep’ adventures.
Most Brits would think the local areas of Europe are on our doorstep, which of course they are, however the time it takes to fly out to Vancouver then do the short drive North to Squamish, is probably pretty similar to that of driving to Dover, catching the ferry and then trundling on down to Font. Well, it all depends on your location in the UK, but you get the idea, Squamish is easy!
The beauty of the area is that while it’s big enough to have an adventure, the approaches, descents and scale are easy enough to manage. You never feel as though you’re going to have a massive epic if the day doesn’t quite go to plan.
You’ll arrive at Squamish from the South, with the Ocean on your left and The Chief greeting you on the right. I say he’ll be greeting you, as you can literally see the face of a Native American Chief, along with his headdress in the granite scars and landscape of the mountain!
The best place to start your journey through Squamish is in the hidden boulders in the forest below The Chief. A lot of these boulders are no more than five minutes from the car park. For in depth details about the bouldering in Squamish, check out local Mark Bourdon’s boulder destination article here.
I should just add, the “re-birth squeeze hole” is a problem not to be missed and can provide fantastic entertainment if out bouldering in a group. Go on… strip down to your birthday suit, go through there naked and enjoy the full experience!
For single pitch cragging one of the best and easiest locations has to be the Smoke Bluffs. The outcrop is away from the large faces of The Chief and is a standalone crag. There is a mixture of both bolted and traditionally protected routes here. Aside from the bolts, the area reminds me a little of the Gritstone outcrops; A whole bunch of routes across the grade range, fairly short and sharp and a mixture of technical smearing with solid and burly jamming. Some fantastic routes across the range are Laughing crack, Penny Lane, Split Beaver and Crime of the Century.
If you are looking for grades in the high 5.11s and into 5.12 then Murrain Park is the place to go. There are a few different walls to visit round here, again with a similar style of protection; some bolted, some fully traditional. Petrifying Wall and Nightmare Rock are the places to go with quality routes in abundance and a few classics to get your teeth and tips stuck into are Burning down the Couch, Sentry Box and Flight of the Challenger.
If these walls still don’t provide the challenge you are after then Leviticus will hopefully sort you out. Here you can find routes in the 5.13 range. Still hungry for more? The famous Sharma route Dreamcatcher (in the boulders below the Chief) and Cobra Crack (made infamous by Sonnie Trotter and Didier Berthod on the film The First Ascent) should keep you busy for plenty of time.
Shorter multi pitch routes
There are some fantastic, shorter multi-pitch routes on the buttresses around the main walls of The Chief. These can provide a good warm up before really committing to the big stuff.
The Apron is a really generous starting point and can provide a multi-pitch outing for the lesser experienced. The angle is so slabby in parts, you feel as though you could just walk back down the way you’ve come up! Climbing on The Apron can also give some confidence to the slightly more experienced who want to practice moving quicker together before jumping on the steeper walls. Although very popular routes, Deidre and Banana Peel are a must.
Up in the woods above the campsite is The Bulletheads with 1 to 4 pitch climbs. Often a little quieter than somewhere like the Smoke Bluffs and the next stage up for multi pitch climbing, after going on The Apron. Ride the Bullet and Bullet Head East are among the best.
Even further over is Shannon Falls where the classic Skywalker can be found; 5 pitches, 5.7, 5*
Routes to the top of the Chief
The easier routes up the Chief can see some traffic, so if you don’t want to be stuck behind parties I’d recommend getting up early and going. Topping out you’ll get the usual tourist comments of “you climbed up there? You’re crazy” and “you should have just taken the steps mate.” However you can’t really beat the views back down in Squamish at anytime of the day. Morning, midday or evening they’re all spectacular.
Ultimate everything and Angels Crest are the best and easiest ways to the top. The terrain on these is low angled and it never feels too exposed. If you are after a steeper, bigger, more airy adventure you want to be looking towards the main face…
The BIG 3:
‘The Sword pitch’ of Grand Wall, ‘The Roof Pitch’ of Freeway and ‘The Shadow Pitch’ of University Wall all cover exceptional and exposed ground for the grade. The best pitches of each surely rival some of Yosemite’s best and if you’re fit enough to link two or three together there is no doubt you will have a jolly good day out.
Climbing when its wet
Squamish can be quite similar to the UK in terms of weather, i.e. it can suffer from rain. However there are options even when it is wet. Cheakamus Canyon is a 20 minute drive north of Squamish has a bunch of sheltered sport climbing. In general the harder the route, the drier it stays as the steeper it is. However the area does offer sport climbing grades from 5.9 upwards, with the best probably starting in the 5.11 range. The spectacle of the area is The Big Show Wall, however you’ll have to get your forearms firing and biceps pumping to get up that!
If the rain really is torrential and the rock seeping, but you are still itching to go climbing, there is another option. There is an indoor climbing wall in Squamish called Ground Up Climbing Centre, which offers both bouldering and roped climbing.
When do I go?
The best time to go to Squamish is late spring and late summer/early autumn. If you leave it too late in the year, you will most likely be battling with the rain and the cold. Nobody wants to be shivering away on a belay station waiting for their partner to finish climbing, and likewise nobody wants to have to bail 9 pitches up a 10 pitch route as a rain storm has hit them. Both have happened to me in Squamish, and both are just annoyingly unpleasant.
A period from May through to September will give you the highest chances to ensure this doesn’t happen. The beginning of May and end of September will obviously give you the coolest conditions if you are looking to climb hard or complete a project. However more relaxed climbing can be done into the summer months. Even though the heat is bearable in the summer months, it can still be scorching. Thinking about sun protection and hydration is really important, so you don’t end the day with heat stroke. Which has happened to me… several times.
How do I get there?
Squamish is really easy to get to: fly to Vancouver International and then drive north up the 99 highway for 1 hour. Squamish is on your left, the climbing is on your right. You’d have to be asleep at the wheel to miss it.
The easiest option is to hire a car, as it gives you the flexibility to go wherever you want and whenever you want. However, it is possible to do without a car, either by hitching (Canadians are very friendly people) or by public transport.
The two public transport options to consider are the Greyhound service, which connects you from Vancouver to Squamish with stops along the way. There’s also the tourist shuttle bus which goes from Vancouver to The Sea to Sky Gondola (which is a tourist cable car attraction going up the Chief and a short walk from the campsite).
Where do I stay?
The best place to stay is the main campsite below the chief. It’s really close to the climbing and there are always people to chat to and cook with and it’s generally just a nice atmosphere. The camping is $5 a night and is just done in a self service way; fill out a camping permit slip, enclose your money, pop it in the payment box. Easy.
The campsite is very basic; there are places to pitch your tent, bear boxes to keep your food in, two communal toilets (holes in the ground), two fresh water taps, and a shelter for cooking when its raining. There are no wash basins or showers.
If you are not up for roughing it out a little, then I know that people have definitely booked small apartments around the Squamish area for their stay. Although it might set you back a penny or two more, you will have the comfort and probably won’t stink from not being able to go for convenient showers, like the campers.
Communication back home
Communication back home is really easy from Squamish, you can get phone signal pretty much everywhere and there are plenty of places in town you can buy a drink and connect to some Wi-Fi. The Zephyr Cafe, McDonalds and some of the Supermarkets all have Wi-Fi.
What's the scoff like?
There are a load of decent places to eat out round Squamish. If you’re looking for a café, the Zephyr Cafe is a good option and that is where you are likely to find other climbers. Good for tea and cake, plus there is Wi-Fi.
If you’re after something quick to eat, you can’t beat ‘Mags 99’ just off the 99 highway, when you’re heading back from Squamish to the Campsite. I would opt for a burrito. As you will probably be jealous when your meal arrives and your friend has ordered a huge burrito and you’ve said “Oooo, I’ll try something else today.” Trust me.
Finally if you are after more of a sit down meal, there are plenty of places to try out, but one good place with ‘pub grub’ is The Watershed.
Where can I buy gear and food?
As the campsite is directly below the climbing area and not in Squamish itself, without a car you will have to make journeys to and from town to buy food. This can be done on foot, however the best option is to just find other climbers in The Chief carpark who are driving into town and try and score a lift. The distance is about 3km.
There are a few big supermarkets just off the main 99, heading into Squamish. It’s no problem if you forget anything, as it’s all conveniently located.
Yes, so don’t worry if you run out of chalk, tape or lose other essentials, as you can purchase all climbing related gear from Climb On Equipment.
Which guide book should I get?
‘Squamish Select’ is the best guide for single and multi pitching. If you are after bouldering then ‘Squamish Bouldering’ should cover you.
Shower and Living
As there are no campsite showers, the best place to go for a shower is Brennan Park Recreation centre. You can either just pay to use the shower or you can pay for the pool, sauna, the lot. Its great going there on a rest day, to get clean, chill out and rest the achy muscles for a few hours.
What else is there apart from the climbing?
Whistler is just north from Squamish. Loads of downhill biking goes on during the summer months around here and you are able to hire equipment and do it yourself for the day. However I would be very careful going on a climbing trip and then doing some downhill biking on a rest day, I bet there are quite a few climbers who have flown over their handlebars, done themselves a mischief and scuppered the rest of their climbing trip!
A more relaxed rest day would be to head to the swimming pool (as mentioned above), or do the tourist thing and take the Sea to Sky Gondola up the back of the Chief. There are also some tourist trails and paths you can meander round for a few hours.
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