In the not too distant past, it’s probably safe to say that most people viewed rock climbing as an extreme fringe sport for people wishing to die.
Much of what non-climbers knew about rock climbing was informed by over-the-top movies like Suspense.
This has changed.
Over the past decade, climbing gyms have sprung up all over North America, making the sport much easier to access for the average person. You no longer have to live in a place like Squamish to learn the sport.
But many people who got their start in gyms come here to test themselves outdoors.
As a result, people from across the Vancouver area — and around the world — flood Squamish on sunny days.
You don’t have to learn the old fashioned way anymore, which involved hanging out at a cliff or downhill club, hoping that the grizzled old men or women of the mountain who got their start hammering old cans of cat food in caps would advise.
Now you can just learn in a gym or take a class.
Back to the future
Brian Moorhead, a staple of the squamish climbing scene, got his start in Ireland in the early 1960s.
“I was a ‘serious climber’ in Ireland at the time, but it wasn’t too difficult as there weren’t very many of us,” Moorhead said with a laugh.
However, he left in search of new adventures and, around 1967, he settled in Canada.
“Of course, the first time I saw the Tantalus chain running on the very primitive Sea to Sky highway at the time…I watched the Sea to Sky. It was a panorama of models, and I said, ‘Oh yeah, I think I made the right decision here,’ he said.
Moorhead’s interest will turn to mountaineering, with his focus on Squamish and the North Cascades. He started sailing and his interest in rock climbing came and went, although he had always contributed to it.
His son, Colin, would eventually get into the sport and run his own guiding company.
However, the elder Moorhead took a keen interest in the Smoke Bluffs, which required considerable effort from him and many others to turn into a park.
“There I really saw the evolution of rock climbing,” he said.
He said he noticed a lot more immigration to Canada after Expo 86, and although many new people were coming to the country, this was not reflected in the rock climbing scene.
Moorhead said perhaps there were more pressing needs for new Canadians to meet rather than recreation.
“I came to conclusions myself as an immigrant. I knew a lot of these people were dealing with a new country, a new language,” he said.
However, he said the advent of climbing gyms has increased accessibility to the sport and he has since seen more and more climbers from different backgrounds get involved.
Another thing that has changed is the gear, which has allowed climbers to push the level of technical skill higher than before.
Sticky rubber shoes have replaced studded boots, and ropes that may or may not break have been removed for certified ropes that people can repeatedly fall on without incident.
“Good gear has made the sport more accessible,” Moorhead said.
As for the future of climbing, he said it could mean more travel for people.
“Squamish may have reached critical mass in terms of livability or enjoyment,” he said.
Crowds have flooded the most important areas and it is increasingly difficult to find a place to climb.
However, if people continue to develop new routes, there may still be ways to accommodate the growing number of climbers, provided they are willing to walk further from the main areas.
Moorhead said younger generations must take responsibility for the maintenance and construction of outdoor climbing routes and access trails.
This influx of people forced the Squamish Access Societythe non-profit organization managing local climbing routes and access trails, to adapt.
Alex Ryan Tucker, a member of the company’s board of directors, observed that there was a need for people to rethink the Leave No Trace philosophy.
It is generally accepted that recreational enthusiasts should leave the areas in which they play exactly as they found them.
However, new questions about this arise.
Is it better to develop more paths, thus altering the natural state of the land, or is it better to leave it alone?
The first option has the immediate effect of disrupting the terrain, but it controls the flow of crowds. This last option does not immediately affect the pitch, but, in the long term, crowds could
spread through the area unchecked, damaging further natural habitat.
“I think one of the biggest things is if we just looked at the no-trace, just the absolutely no-trace coverage anyway – that’s not going to be a realistic way to deal with that,” Tucker said.
“What we need to do more often – and what we aim to do more – is exactly where we have these escalation areas,
trying to improve and strengthen the trails and base areas of the climbs.”
It’s about finding a balance between improving trail infrastructure while respecting the natural character of the area.
Some areas, like the Smoke Bluffs, which are heavily developed, are more suited to large gravel routes. On the other hand, there are more natural spaces and it is important to maintain this quality, he said.
Murrin Park is an example of growth.
Led by Moorhead, it started out as an access trail for rock climbers but has since become a very popular hike.
“It’s cool to see that rock climbers can have positive effects on other people in the community and give other people the opportunity to get outdoors,” Tucker said.
Both Tucker and Moorhead encouraged people to get involved in volunteering to help maintain climbing routes and trails and, if they have $10 to spare, to join the Squamish Access Society.
A sport for all
Brent Goodman of Canadian Adapted Climbing Society has been one of the driving forces behind the involvement of people with disabilities in climbing.
While the pandemic has put the group’s activities on hold due to gym restrictions, Goodman said he expects the organization to get back on track this year.
Efforts have been made to make climbing spaces more inclusive for people with reduced mobility.
One example, he said, is the extensive parking wall development in the Smoke Bluffs, which has been landscaped to the point that it has become easily accessible.
Level trails to Free and Easy, via the Mamquam Blind Channel, also provide good accessibility options.
Unlike many climbing approach trails which can be uphill, the area is almost perfectly level which is a big help for anyone with mobility issues.
Goodman praised Moorhead and the Squamish Access Society for their work on this project.
That said, there is still a lot to be done to make rock climbing more accessible.
“It’s definitely a privileged activity, isn’t it? said Goodman. “So on that topic, you know, we still struggle with the fact that if we’re trying to be the voice of increased accessibility and the Canadian climbing communities, we still have a long way to go.”
One of the stumbling blocks the group faces is that they lack dedicated facilities.
Climbing gyms generally tend to be for-profit operations, and when COVID capacity limits were imposed, they simply couldn’t accommodate the group.
That being said, he said his organization has made progress in raising awareness for the cause.
Goodman also said there are new avenues for the sport.
“We’re sort of tying therapy outcomes to climbing and using that as a way to love, a way to use climbing as a form of rehabilitation,” he said. .
“I think our most successful program so far is actually combining occupational therapy and recreational therapy, and the tools from rock climbing.”
With the easing of COVID restrictions, he said he believes more momentum will be created for adaptive climbing.
“It was like I could figure out how to do physical handicaps and get them to climb in an authentic way – still interacting with the wall, still using their hands and still enjoying using their bodies and still feeling the same way you and I would feel when we’re going to be climbing, or as much as we can. That was the goal. And we’ve built all the systems now so we can take that extra step and develop these other programs…like climbing in cure drug rehab,” Goodman said.
“I’m excited for the future. If we’re on the spectrum…let’s say 2010 was like, 0 out of 10. And maybe 2016, where we were maybe like, four or five out of 10. You know, it’s maybe 6 right now. I think in the next couple of years we’re going to be up to eight, probably.
***Please note this story first appeared in the Summer 2022 edition of The Squamish Chief magazine Discover Squamish.