King Can Al is a Squamish Legend and Crag Keeper
A 2018 story about one of Canada's longest-running free-soloists by Drew Copeland
He is well known in Squamish as the chatty guy with a sleeveless jean jacket, soloing around in the Smoke Bluffs while drinking a beer. But there is much more to Al Douglas than this simple caricature; his story is complex and nuanced in ways that haphazard Smoke Bluff encounters don’t reveal.
Through the ups and downs of his life, Al has taken solace in time spent climbing—and he ha done a lot of climbing. Though despite countless hours of time on the rocks, he remains skeptical of his own commitment to the endeavor.
Through his 20s and 30s, Al worked as a manager in a glass warehouse in Ontario. He had climbed a bit on the Niagara Escarpment in his youth, but when he discovered the likes of Squamish, things changed and climbing took hold. He clearly remembers getting off of the Greyhound in 1993 and looking up at The Chief. “I thought I had died and gone to heaven,” he said.
“I went back to Ontario and I said, mom, I’m selling everything and I’m moving out to B.C.” Al’s family convinced him to stick with his career and life in Ontario for another chapter. For the next seven years, he stayed with his desk job, but would would take a month’s vacation each year and spend it climbing in Squamish.
Al recalls returning to Ontario after one particularly intense bout of Squamish climbing without finger prints and having dropped three waist sizes. Eventually the work-a-day life caught up with him; Al quit his job and moved across the country in 2000. Since then he has climbed an average of 3,500 pitches a year and gained a particular renown in the Squamish climbing community.
“Years ago, I would always solo Diedre on a Sunday night. I would always take one king can here and another here,” said Al, gesturing to the pockets in his jean jacket. He would regularly run into the same groups of UBC students. “They would let me pass and I’d stop and chit chat with them, and before I left I’d turn to them and offer them a beer. The kids started calling me King Can,” explains Al.
His King Can designation and accompanying regard has stuck with Al, but he wasn’t always known as the soloing jean jacket guy. During his early trips to Squamish, Al hired a guide to take him out climbing, and gradually began to take the reigns reigns himself, leading progressively harder sport and trad routes. He eventually dispensed with the rope altogether. “In the last three years, I’ve done 11 climbs with a rope.”
Al recounts a few instances when he has fallen while soloing from Penny Lane, Diedre, and earlier this summer, off Banana Peel—narrowly avoiding serious injury each time. He finds himself in a bit of a Catch-22 as he is fully aware of the hazards of solo climbing, but he also finds that the activity uplifts his spirit. “The reason I solo is that it fixes me.
I’ve always found that it releases the right sort of emotion and energy,” said Al and goes onto explain that his heart is compromised by amyloidosis, the same condition that ended the lives of his brother and his father. Climbing, and in particular solo climbing, he said, allows him to deal with the gravity of his circumstances. Without it, he thinks he would have succumb from the stress brought on by his heart condition long ago.
“I’ve used soloing to ignore the fact that I have a very serious heart problem. I thought I was going to die of the same disease as my brother and dad because I figured I was genetically faltered.” Al went under the knife and counts himself lucky to have survived. He shrugs off the irony of his situation–doing something as ostensibly dangerous as soloing to sustain his spiritual well-being–and launches into an impassioned rant on the serious hazards of climbing without a rope.
“I think it’s one of stupidest things in the world. I will admit it’s addictive, but I don’t think it’s smart. I’ve come close to death now so many times I don’t even want to think about it.” Al said he never encourages anyone to solo and reasons that glorifying the activity is downright irresponsible.
The story of Al’s ailing heart and escape through climbing is sorrowful and Al is forthcoming with his own regret. “You know what the sad thing is–I climbed my life away. I wish I had spent more time having a life.” It is certainly a tragic sentiment from one of Squamish’s most committed and prolific climbers. However, in his own enigmatic way Al maintains a lively disposition, and the silver lining lies in his contribution to the climbing community.
For 15 years, he has been a crag keeper, which means he looks after Neat and Cool, Burgers and Fries, and Alexis. Al stops in on these areas, keeps them pristine, lends a hand if he sees someone in a sticky situation, and chats with whoever is around—but really he’s always doing these things wherever he goes; it’s just how he rolls.
And when Al laces his shoes, dons the sleeveless jean jacket and starts up a climb, he always draws the intrigue of those who didn’t know him. Al adds to other people’s climbing experiences and is undoubtedly king of more than just the can.