University Wall on The Chief is one of Canada’s most iconic routes and the first ascent is a great story.
By Ivan Hughes
Tim Auger quickly glanced over his shoulder. The campus security guard hadn’t noticed him standing there with a Goldline hawser rope coiled at his feet. Auger recognized him because he looked like the guard that had caught him on the roof of the Chemistry Building a couple of weeks earlier- that was a climb that could have got him in trouble. Certain that he was now alone, he pulled the rope around his waist, tied a bowline knot and looked up the series of drainpipes that led to the roof of the library. He signalled to his friend, Woodsworth Woodsworth, and then he reached up, tightened his grip around the stack and pulled his feet off the ground. The rubber of his tennis shoes had just enough friction against the metal to allow him to reach higher and shimmy up, he couldn’t help but smile. A minute later he was on top, ready to rappel back down.
It was the fall of 1965, “Wooly Bully” by Sam the Sham and The Pharaohs was at the top of the charts and Prime Minister Lester Pearson had just managed to get his committee to agree on Canada’s new national flag. Auger, a student in Arts and Science at the University of British Columbia, was having a good time with his friends at the Varsity Outdoor Club (VOC) as they ticked off ascents on the walls of many of the campus buildings, helping Dick Culbert collect routes for his new guidebook, A Cragrats’ Guide to the UBC Campus. It was a light-hearted distraction from studying and technically it was climbing, but what they really wanted to do was get back on the rock up the highway in Squamish. There, beneath a shadowy system of corners that led to the summit of the Stawamus Chief, a single line of rope hung from a few dodgy pitons as the rain fell and the winds lashed it against the ledges.
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On a part of the wall that some of local climbers in the early 1960s had dismissed as beyond their capabilities, Auger and friend Mike Wisnicki had envisioned a route that worked its way up the intimidating 900-foot corners that led to the Roman Chimneys. Armed with the confidence gained from the second ascent of the lower portion of the Grand Wall route the previous year, Auger and Dan Tate, worked their way up the lower ledges and cracks, through the bushes and up to the daunting corner.
With the enthusiasm of youth and racks of borrowed pitons, they attacked the first overhanging corner. With each foot of elevation gained, the terror increased ten-fold and after 60 ft of demoralizing fright, Auger sheepishly banged in four pitons at the first possible hanging belay and rappelled back down to safety. They abandoned the rope and ran back down to the trail, thoroughly humbled by the route.
The line they had chosen arched up and overhead at an imposing angle. The entirety of the route stretched on for over 1500 feet, with challenges that rivalled any similar routes attempted at that time.
As the winter rains brought the tedium of study, grey skies and pent up energy to the members of the VOC, more distractions were eagerly sought out. On weekends, some made their way up the North Shore Mountains and played in the snow. Others ventured further and sought out adventures in the backcountry. But Auger and others also found inspiration in a book entitled The Night Climbers Guide to Cambridge that described the nocturnal climbing on the Colleges and town buildings of Cambridge, England in the 1930s. It seemed the perfect stimulation for their restless minds and a great diversion from the rains.
They set about picking lines up window frames, archways, columns, drainpipes and chimneys. They also explored the sewers and cavernous spaces below ground in pursuit of the ultimate urban adventure.
Auger also searched out new partners to assist in his quest to establish his new route in Squamish. He knew interest in the Chief was growing, especially among some of the Washington climbers. Fred Beckey and Eric Bjornstad (along with locals Les McDonald and Hank Mather) had completed a ridge route they called Angel’s Crest in the summer of ’64. Beckey then teamed up with Mather, Alex Bertullis and Lief Patterson to climb the long, wandering line of the Northwest Passage in the spring of 1965. It was only a matter of time, Auger felt, before they would get on his route too. The line was just too impressive to resist and Auger was determined that locals should be the first ascentionists.
He found willing compatriots in two of the older, more experienced climbers at the VOC. Glenn Woodsworth and Hamish Mutch had already amassed impressive climbing resumes with many mountaineering ascents in BC’s interior and the Coast Range. Woodsworth had even ticked off the second ascents of Diedre and Snake on the Chief’s Apron, while Mutch had recently returned from several months in Yosemite, where he had frequently roped up with another young climber named Jim Bridwell. They had just enough experience, skill and daring and an equal amount of enthusiasm to get the job done.
In March 1966, with snow blanketing the approach, Woodsworth and Mutch clawed their way up to Auger’s abandoned rope. They looked at each other, sighed and then took turns testing its integrity. They had been assured that the pins holding the anchor above were “pretty good.” So they immersed themselves in the task at hand. Woodsworth attached slings to prusik knots on the fixed line and then tied into another prusik knot that attached to his chest loop. The work had begun.
While Mutch sorted gear and shouted encouragement, Woodsworth pushed his knots slowly up one after the other only to find that ten minutes later and already sweating, he still hadn’t left the ledge. The stretch on their cheap marine nylon rope was impressive and the coils at his feet were now a tangled bird’s nest. With persistence, methodical movement and repetition Woodsworth slowly ascended the rope. The concentration on the task occasionally took his mind from the potential for an anchor failure. Woodsworth reached the anchor mentally exhausted, hand drilled two questionable bolts, and rappelled back down, thoroughly demoralized. Had they known that psychologically the worst was over, they may have been happier with the day’s accomplishment. Mutch admitted being intimidated by the wall, which was much bigger than anything they had attempted before, still with four climbers working the route, it shouldn’t be too bad.[slideshow]
University studies continued and so did the antics of the growing number of enthusiastic builderers. They searched out problems around the campus to keep focused on climbing while building their strength and skills. They also began looking for stiffer problems and the UBC campus buildings were perfectly suited for this. The 1950s architectural designs incorporated strikingly repetitive angular geometrics, perfect for stemming, crimping and pinching. Auger admits that they often were forced to climb at night to dodge the university police, and “that just made it more fun.”
They even took their game off campus and found that Siwash rock, the rocky outcrop just offshore of the Stanley Park walkway, was a perfect mini-expedition complete with an icy swim approach, bewildered spectators and a large “DANGER KEEP OFF” sign that made an excellent foothold.
The Squamish climb was still at the forefront of their minds and whenever a pair of climbers from the team was available, and someone could borrow a car, they would head back up and work the route.
The routine was becoming predictable. A pair of climbers would prusik up to the previous high point, and then one would be forced into the slings of the hanging belay while the other pushed the route higher through the vertical and overhanging cracks above. The procedure became quite mechanical – work your way up as high as possible in the slings, study the crack and select the appropriate piton, hammer it in, clip a pair of oval carabiners, attach another sling, climb up, pull the rope through one biner and repeat.
Work continued on the route over the next few months as they gradually made their way up through the corner cracks until Mutch and Auger finally reached the tree ledge. It had been over 400 feet since they had been able to get out of the etriers. Mutch lit a cigarette. A sense of accomplishment rose within the pair as they finally felt they were making some real progress on the route. Auger says it was tough climbing and that they were just doing what they thought everyone in Yosemite Valley was doing, but they were slow, very slow.
The following weekend, Tate and Woodsworth drove out to push the route through to the top of the corner but first they had to return to the monotony of ascending the fixed line to the previous high point. One after the other, they tied into the rope and, with newly borrowed equipment, jumared up through the wild empty space towards the anchor above. For over 60 feet the rock of the wall was well out of reach and Woodsworth reflected on the tactics they were employing and whether it could truly be referred to as climbing, they seemed far too reliant of their equipment. Woodsworth mused that “Frank Smythe never would have approved.”
As Tate transferred from one fixed line to another, Woodsworth tried shouting his philosophical misgivings through the roar of the Squamish winds that buffeted the route every afternoon. Suddenly, the reality of the situation came hurtling down from somewhere above. A rock the size of a breadbox had somehow become dislodged from the rock face and was buzzing through air as it descended about 30 feet away from the climbers. Tate and Woodsworth watched it as it exploded off the slabs below and disappeared into the trees. If they continued to spend this much time climbing the route it was only a matter of time before something might go wrong.
They completed their ascent of the fixed lines and took turns working the route higher, the summer sun beating down on them. They hammered in more iron and realized that their approach to the climb was becoming nonsensical. It was taking far too long to reach the high point each visit.
Back in Vancouver, the climbers gathered to discuss strategy. It occurred to them that they had a rather odd approach to team work as they were never all on the route at the same time. They unanimously decided that the route should be finished in a final push and that would commence on May 4. The only problem was that Auger had exams.
On the morning of the final assault, Tate and Mutch headed up the highway towards the Chief while Auger crammed and Woodsworth waited. Tate and Mutch jumared up to the high point while Auger walked over to campus and Woodsworth readied their gear. After reaching the high point Mutch pushed on in the lead, Auger began to write his exam. It was almost dusk before Woodsworth and Auger finally drove up the highway and as they hiked in the base of the wall they could see the tiny specks of the other half of their group just about to reach the Dance Platform.
The lower pair of climbers ascended the fixed lines while work continued, pushing the route above and darkness descended over the Squamish Valley. Moonlight cast dark shadows, the stillness of the air in the great open spaces of the overhangs had the effect of amplifying the sounds of the climbers hammering above and the ascenders sliding up the line. Auger and Woodsworth didn’t speak, they were consumed by the work of catching up with the other half of their team. They cleared the route as they ascended, pulling out the pitons at the stations and dropping the ropes into the darkness below.
By 1 a.m. they were still a pitch below their partners but were too weary to continue and simply tied themselves in the anchor, pulled on their jackets and tried to sleep.
Night was a time for reflection, and as they looked down at the lights of the town below, Woodsworth reminisced about his climbing career and how this climb would rate amoung the others he had been involved with over the past few years. The study of geology had taken him to many peaks in the Coast Range and this climb was definitely the biggest wall he had ever attempted. But the tactics employed weren’t resonating with him, and he wondered how long it would take to climb the route in the future. Still it was a great adventure.
The next morning Auger and Woodsworth rose early and climbed up to Tate and Mutch. The four climbers were united on the wall for the first time. They smiled and exchanged stories of overcoming various challenges along the route. They sorted their gear, untangled ropes and decided on a plan of attack for completing the climb. Tate and Mutch were exhausted from the previous day’s work so they dug back into their sleeping bags while Auger and Woodsworth took over the lead.
They were now back on the route that occasionally met up with the original Grand Wall finish that Jim Baldwin and Ed Cooper had pioneered five years previously and had not yet been repeated. They could see traces of Jim and Ed’s passing but nothing to help guide them. The climbing was extremely strenuous. Before long they realized that they too were exhausted and dehydrated to be able to move fast enough to finish the route that day. They hung from their slings, defeated, wondering how Baldwin and Cooper must have felt after five days on the same wall.
Totally fatigued, they rappelled back down to the ledge where Tate and Mutch rested and explained the situation. They informed the drowsy pair that they would have to take over the lead once more. Both pairs of climbers were exhausted and dreaded the thought of venturing up onto the sun-baked wall. But the job had to be finished and eventually Mutch and Tate were talked into taking over the lead convinced that they were the ones to get the job done.
They geared up and left the ledge and soon Auger and Woodsworth were alone with the sound of pitons being hammered echoing down from above. The lead team reached the giant chockstone of the Roman Chimneys and Mutch belayed Tate as he fought through the arch, hanging vertically while nailing the crack above his head. He disappeared over a lip and finished the pitch, collapsing at the belay. Mutch worked equally hard cleaning the route and then attacked the final dihedral crack as night fell and began climbing in the dark while the second team began packing gear and ascending the line.
Mutch and Tate topped out, Auger and Woodsworth hauled the bags of gear and followed. Looking up from the chockstone, Woodsworth saw that the pins had all been removed and the line disappeared into the rock above and the blackness of the night. He attached himself to the line and swung out in to the air, 30 feet away and with the entire climb below him. It was a truly spectacular location and he reveled in the moment. This climb was impressive, one for the ages.
For the second night in a row it was almost midnight when the final rope was ascended, the bags of gear were hauled and the team united once more on the top of the Chief. They celebrated, shook hands and laughed. The climb of University Wall set a new standard in Canadian climbing. Whereas Baldwin and Cooper had climbed the Grand Wall using 138 bolts, this group of young locals had only used 14. They had performed well beyond their experience and challenged themselves like never before.
They had spent a total of ten days working the route and had thrown all that they knew at it. They had learned from the experience and felt better for it, wiser, more contemplative. Mutch, Tate, Woodsworth and Auger had graduated University, they had passed their exam.
Today, few climbers repeat the original route in its entirety, preferring to start higher up and to exit at the Dance Platform. Mutch refutes these pretenders, stating, “If you bale at Dance, you have not done the U Wall,” you have only done what he calls “High School Wall.”
– Ivan Hughes is the director of the film, In the Shadow of the Chief, which chronicles the first ascent of the Grand Wall. His website is www.fringefilmworks.com.