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Van Life and a North America Climbing Road Trip

Kim McGrenere writes about hitting the road for rock, before the pandemic started

Photo by: Kim of Graham McGrenere on Zombie Roof

My partner Graham and I are two climbers from Victoria, B.C. who shared the classic climber’s dream – living on the road and climbing our hearts out – and we spent years saving up enough to make it happen. Back in September of 2014, we bought a white panel van from a friendly dude with a drywall company, quit our jobs, cancelled our cellphones, loaded our stuff into storage (our parent’s houses) and let go of the perks of “comfortable” city living.

We launched ambitiously into the series of headaches and triumphs of van camperization that we now refer to nostalgically as “building our dream home.” Neither Graham nor I had experience in design, carpentry, cabinetry or electrical wiring, but we were equipped with a hell of a lot of stoke and had some great people on hand to help us through it. It took us two months to complete our dream home dubbed The Millenium Falcvan, but the time spent perfecting the 60-square-feet we would live in together for the next year and a half was worth it.

We hit the road on a rainy late November day with a list of destinations and open minds. Our goals were simple, one was to climb as much as possible and two was to see as much of North America as we could. With the strict rules governing how long we as Canadians are free to visit our neighbours south of the border, we planned for winters in the southern states and summers exploring the rock that Canada has to offer.

Our first big stop was Bishop, California. The beauty of the area and the concentration of quality bouldering lines blew us away. Bishop is a small and sweet town that is keen on supporting its visiting climbers. Excellent bakeries and cafes, affordable restaurants, free water and cheap camping help make Bishop very accessible to climbers. The town is surrounded by land owned by L.A.’s department of water and power which, although rife with controversy, has prevented expanding development and maintained the surrounding landscape, giving Bishop and the Owen’s Valley a somewhat historic feel. Bishop is surrounded by the ecologically unique volcanic tablelands and nestled beneath the south eastern end of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Within the tablelands are the Happies and the Sads – small canyons packed to the brim with volcanic tuff boulders. Pockets, crimps, jugs, steep overhangs and even technical slabs enable lots of fun movement and some great physical climbing. Some of our favourite problems included Heavenly Path V1, Molly V5, Toxic Avenger V9 and Solarium V4.

The Buttermilk country is the other primary bouldering area in Bishop, characterized by well-spaced, impressively huge monzonite boulders. These boulders are breath-taking and boast some seriously impressive lines. We particularly enjoyed Sole Slinger V9, King Tut and Funky Tut both V3, The Birthing Experience V-fun and Sheepherder V2. It felt great to push ourselves in Bishop and watch our bouldering ability improve. Graham sent his first V11, Beefy Gecko and I sent my first V6, The French Connection, motivating accomplishments for both of us.

Another place we spent a great deal of time this winter was Red Rocks, Nevada. We love the beautiful red and white sandstone and crimpy edges of the technical climbing. Most of the sandstone climbing is located in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, just 30 minutes or so from the Las Vegas strip. The climbing in Red Rocks is very popular, but certainly not in comparison to the droves of people that flock into Vegas on a regular basis. The great expanse of desert provides a wild juxtaposition against the flashy lights of the sprawling city. It was strange to be so close to the city and yet feel so far.

We devoted the majority of our time in Red Rocks to sport climbing. The sandstone is characteristically soft and absorbent meaning climbing is a no go after any wet weather. A few rainy stretches and even some snow had us taking a lot of forced rest days, but we had amassed a great crew to pass the days with both on and off the rock. When we were climbing, we gravitated towards several fun lines like Monster Skank 5.13b, Threadfin 5.12b, Nirvana 5.13a and Yaak Crack 5.11c.

I will always reflect fondly on this particular stay as it represented a huge transitional time for me in dealing with the process of fear. Driven by the urge to be a confident and independent climber, especially as a woman, I made a pact to myself to lead all my routes and enter a level playing field with my fellow climbing partners. My battle with fear has not been a short one – I spent many years completely unwilling to tie into the sharp end. Over several seasons I’ve been working steadily at a suite of strategies to help me overcome said fears and in Red Rocks I crossed over the hump. Managing fear is still a challenge for me, but I am now finding it both stimulating and motivating.

As spring rolled in we wrapped up our time in the states and headed back north to Canada. We continued our sport climbing streak with a month in Skaha, a great climbing destination with tons of technical routes at all grades. Located near the town of Penticton in the Okanagan Valley, it is a great place to spend your rest days out wine-tasting at different vineyards. Unfortunately, because Penticton is a seasonal tourist town, it took us a bit more time to navigate some of our basic dirtbag needs, like finding free/cheap camping, free water and occasional showers. There are some free rec sites nearby, the Banbury “climber’s campground” is a great place to stay for those keen to pay 10 dollars a night and then there’s the Walmart.

Skaha represented a time of improvement and growth for us as climbers. I onsighted my first 5.12a and Graham onsighted his first 5.13a, we also both bumped our respective redpoint limits, me with a send of Wings of Steel 5.12d and Graham with his send of The Replicant 5.13d.

We spent the majority of the summer months in Squamish, a beautiful town and rock climbing hub where we’ve clocked more climbing time than anywhere else. It is somewhat of an annual ritual for us to spend the summer months in Squamish each year, slowly plucking away at the seemingly endless amount of rock. One of the wonderfully special things about Squamish is that it has it all: excellent single- and multi-pitch traditional crack and slab climbing on bomber granite, world class bouldering and an abundance of fun sport climbing. The community in Squamish is also very strong and there is always a lot happening with so many locals, pseudo-locals Vancouverites and traveling climbers.

This season was exceptionally hot and dry, which was rough on the rivers and forests, but good for climbing. As long as we remained strategic we could climb almost every day – and any super scorching days were remedied with swimming in the nearby lakes. Some of our favourite routes and problems from this particular summer were Zombie Roof” 5.13a, Xenolith Dance 5.10c, Redneck Shootout 5.13a, Passchendale 5.12c, The Fuzz V7 and The Hoop Wrangler V5.

Another one of our favourite things about spending the summer in Canada was exploring the limestone sport climbing that our country has to offer. We made two trips to the mountain town of Canmore, Alberta to crank down on the steep edgey routes characteristic of the Bow Valley’s limestone. With hour plus uphill approaches to reach many of the crags, the Bow Valley demands great fitness of its climbers. We were drawn most strongly to the Acephale and the wicked movement on stout routes. We were totally impressed by the welcoming and helpful nature of local climbers in the Bow Valley, which definitely enhanced our experience.

By early September the weather around Canmore had already made a turn for the worst, so we high-tailed it east to spend the last two weeks of the month hitting up limestone crags across Ontario’s Niagara Escarpment. Spending no more than a couple days at each spot, we sampled as much of the sport climbing as we possibly could during our brief visit. While we did encounter some choss here and there, the majority of the rock we climbed on was of very high quality. Our two favourite crags were Old Baldy in the Beaver Valley and Lion’s Head on the Bruce Peninsula. Both of these locations offer incredible, demanding climbing with beautiful exposure and views.

Climbing an average of five days a week does take a toll on the body. Likely a result of being totally swept up in excitement at the start of our trip, we both sustained pulley injuries within the first two months of traveling. I tore an A4 pulley after only three weeks in Bishop and proceeded to patiently wait out a long eight weeks off as I recovered. Had I injured myself back home I wouldn’t have thought too much of it, but in the middle of a road trip dedicated to climbing, the time off wasn’t exactly racing by. Not too long afterwards Graham injured the A2 pulley in his left pinky finger. We eventually both recovered and learned a valuable lesson about pushing ourselves too hard at the start of a long trip. Our advice to ourselves for next time, or to anyone else planning an extended road trip: you only have one body, don’t thrash it around too hard right off the bat.

We’ve been living happily in the van for a year now and we absolutely love this lifestyle. Our lives are simple, free from the pressures, stresses and expectations that our previous high-speed digital world was full of. Travelling and living for climbing is an amazing way to intimately connect with people and culture across our continent and is a constant reminder that even as our sport rapidly increases in popularity, the community remains tight-knit and climbers are still a unique and special breed. We have met, travelled and climbed with some amazing people who are sure to become lifetime friends and climbing partners.

We are now over two thirds of the way through our trip and our outcomes have far exceeded our goals. We have formed friendships that are sure to last a lifetime. We have overcome debilitating mental barriers. We have climbed some incredible routes and pushed the limits of our climbing ability. We have grown as climbers and as people. We are equipped with a daily sense of adventure and a lot of climbing psych and that is all we need.

This story first appeared in Gripped’s October/November 2016 issue. Kim and Graham are currently based in Squamish.

Lead photo: Kim of Graham McGrenere on Zombie Roof