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Beware the Squamish Rock Trundler

A story from Gripped in 2010 by Squamish climber Kevin McLane about long route development

A few visits to Squamish and its most popular climbing areas leave little doubt as to how magnificent the climbs are, and how tantalizingly short the approaches to some of the world’s great crack climbs can be.

We eventually get used to the elbow-jostling of the crowds and continue having fun and ticking off climbs in what is now a year-round climbing environment. Life around the most popular climbing areas on the Chief is a social affair as climbers and the public mix it up on the trails. But there are some dark clouds on the horizon.

The number of climbers continues to double every decade and environmental impacts have risen sharply from relentless human traffic and the unrepaired ravages of winter storms. This coincided in the early 2000s with the province gutting BC Parks budgets so deeply that the on-the-ground capability of their staff to manage recreation resources in the Squamish area was decimated. Finding a uniformed presence at the crag became as likely as tripping over a spotted owl.

Unsurprisingly, the habits of climbers developing long new routes changed too, gradually slipping back toward the pre-park days of unfettered liberty, frequently with only cursory concern for environmental consequence or self-restraint. As the number of climbers has increased, so has the number of people wanting to create new multi-pitch climbs. New routes are necessary, and they can be fun and very satisfying to complete.

However, a serious consequence has been a very considerable increase in the amount of rock raking down the high walls of the Chief and the Slahannay, deliberately trundled off ledges or dug out of corners and crack systems. Ricochets and exploding boulders have been known to fly far down the slope into the bouldering areas and onto trails frequented daily in all weather by the public as well as unsuspecting climbers. Stonefall is not just for the alpine, it’s right here in Squamish. Many people now have war stories of close misses and diving for shelter. Some new routes in progress have needed only one or two volleys of rock, but others have seen periods of sustained rockfall over many months.

Efforts to post warning signs and to work at quiet times invariably fall short of what a non-climbing authority would deem as acceptable for a busy area. After midnight in heavy rain in January is the best bet now, but who wants that? What’s required for acceptable safe practice on the major walls of the Chief is well beyond what individual climbers are reasonably capable of doing, however well-intentioned, and efforts to patch together agreements on how to behave have soon fallen apart.

Climbers are risk-takers, and in this case, too often willing to take the chance that for the next five seconds no-one far below is in the way. We’ve all done it. An extraordinarily high number of very near-misses in recent years have created some nasty conflict between climbers, but amazingly no one has taken a direct hit (this is not about broken fingers, it’s about death.) One direct hit is all that has stood between us and a near-certain curtailment of climbing opportunities.

In response to all these troubles, the Squamish Access Society convinced the province of BC to commission the Squamish Climbing Strategy Report. It was released in 2008 with a raft of far-reaching recommendations to BC Parks that covered everything from revitalizing overgrown climbs, trail management, signage, growth management, risk management, campground expansion, and developing a strategy to govern how climbers and BC Parks co-manage affairs in the rock and nearby trail environment.

Top of the list of recommendations was to establish a high-level advisory group of climbers to work with BC Parks and the climbing public to steer this process in the best possible direction. So the new Climbers Advisory Group (CRAG) was struck last fall by the Squamish Access Society: a dozen well-known climbers, including new route developers, old hands and guidebook authors. Progress is steady toward developing new protocols and best practices allowing new routing to continue on more solid ground, but there’s a long way to go yet.

BC Parks, who co-manage the CRAG group with the SAS, have woken up to the seriousness of the situation on their watch. Money is being found for trail repairs and risk management planning is next. This is a good thing, as BC Parks are conceivably on the hook for lawsuits over failure to be diligent if death or serious harm were to occur from intentional rock trundling. What is now also clear is that if a person were to be killed or seriously hurt by deliberate rockfall, the trundlers could be in line for police investigation, criminal charges and a possible civil lawsuit.

Events over the last year in the Tantalus Wall area have put a new card on the table. Great White North 5.13d, the hardest route up the walls of the Chief, was hit with countless volleys of trundled rocks, stones and dirt from a new route being developed across Crescent Ramp. Hardware has been badly damaged or blown out, and most seriously, its lower pitches are now scored with hundreds of white scars. Whether it can still be climbed as it was in doubt. Regardless of how people may see this – joy at a new long route to climb or anger at the devastation – for BC Parks it raises a new concern: their duty of care to protect park resources and the climbing experience. When climbers are smashing up high-value areas of the park as a consequence of ambition, whether for the pleasure of others or personal achievement, it brings the very real spectre of fines and court appearances.

Finding the best way forward through the challenges of new long route development on the walls of the Chief is complex, but developing safe, secure practices can be done. In the meantime, if you’re considering working up a new route at Squamish where the ground is out of sight and rock has to be removed, be very mindful of the considerable responsibility you’re taking on. -Kevin McLane is a climber and guidebook publisher based in Squamish.