A Grand Day Out

This piece was published in Climber Magazine in 2016.

We talk about a golden age of climbing as something passed. The big first ascents, standards being defined, precedents set and a nostalgia for an era where climbing seemed a more adventurous and off beat pursuit. Adventure is surely about uncertainty?

Finishing Perry’s Layback on the Grand Wall, Squamish.

As we grow ever more addicted to social media the constant flow of information this uncertainty is being eroded, and replaced with a persistent culture of envy.

Jon and Jen moved to Canada in mid-winter. I turned green in May, as the early spring weather faltered in Matlock, but turned their stream of photos from glorious powder skiing to sun kissed crack lines. “Can’t remember the last time the weather wasn’t perfect for climbing,” Jon posted on Facebook. I was watching the windows steam up in Outside’s café wondering if the promised perfect spring gritstone day would materialise.

It’s a bit too easy to get fixated on the Instagram-style snippets of outdoor culture. Fulfilment isn’t just about sunny days and perfect crack lines. I booked flights to Canada and found both of those, but also that more elusive quality that I’m always chasing.

In the afternoon sun the Squamish Chief cooks gently. Sweaty granite crystals glisten and as you walk beneath the face you catch the intermittent sharp flash of a bolt at a belay. The sound of trucks on the Sea to Sky Highway sprays through the trees at the base, then hits the face and dissipates in faint echoes around Howe Sound. The breeze is gentle, just enough to make you wish it were a little stronger, so that it might strip the bubble of warmth emanating from the rocks.

As the evening progresses the sun slides behind the mountains, casting long dusty shadows across the calm waters. The Grand Wall ripples with the reflected light. Rays rise up the face, illuminating features which were flattened in the brighter light. The sun sets and Tantalus Wall clips the last of the beams before they disappear beyond the horizon.

The traverse to the base of the Split Pillar.

The cooling is sudden. The warmth soaked up by the walls evaporates and the stone becomes cold and taught. Dusk descends across the valley, interrupted by the lights of cars. Advertising hoardings flick through their roll, shining a gentle changing glow up the face. Eventually a dark silence settles. The valley waits for morning.

The dawn dew softens the crunch of pine needles as we approach the face. Pupils dilated by coffee pick out the pinks and oranges and yellows on the wall and the myriad shades of green below. We approach from the left, along ledges lined with scrub and dirt, with short steps between rounded flakes that bring us to the foot of the Grand Wall. Already 60 metres up the face we are ready for the main event, but rudely awakened by the first bolt, glinting nearly 10 metres above us. We tiptoe up the slab, not wanting to wake the beast. The third pitch glides across to the right, following a vanishing flake and the first tricky moves. Three pulls on a bolt and we are at the Split Pillar. 

The Split Pillar

Up close the pillar hums gently, the slight morning breeze is just strong enough to cut through the hollow form, and we can hear the air escaping on the far side. We watch the sun beginning its descent on the mountains opposite. On the face it is cold. We are climbing in T-Shirts, with a litre of water and a chocolate bar each, hoping our movement will keep us warm. For a moment we both watch the warmth of the sun and think of jumpers we used to own. But watching and thinking won’t warm us, and we’re just delaying our nervous start up the hard section of the route.

The bolt ladder.

I set off up the pillar. An obtuse smooth-walled corner beckons you upwards for 40 metres. I plug my fingers into the widening crack. Fingers lead to ring locks lead to hands lead to fists lead to not fists. I’m sliding and struggling. The pump is everywhere. I calm my shaking core, and relax into the face. The rock smells good – a hint of sap, of chalk dust, of sweat and the taste of metal.  With fists too small and a forgotten large cam in my tent I wobble up, and commit before I can change my mind. I layback upwards, the edge of the crack becomes blunt, the face smooth, then an unexpected jug and relief. The chimney fights more than I expected, and I arrive breathless and content at the belay.

The Sword pitch passes in a blur. I throw my arm through the chains at the top in desperation and hang a while to swallow it in. Ten bolts up the headwall is a dream, the position fantastic and the small sloping ledge at the end is a beautiful position to watch the world.

We arrive at Bellygood Ledge before the sun, and lose each other with a full length of rope flowing up the Black Dyke to the summit. We take our time to lie in the warmth and watch the chipmunks and the tourists. We swim in the river and sing the Bear Necessities and share a beer into the sidereal day.

The last light clips the Tantalus Wall and cool descends.

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