One must imagine Sisyphus happy – Albert Camus
Everest climbing and anthropology are united to the extent that they are both pretty useless – Mike Thompson, mountaineer/anthropologist
Climbing (n.): “A ritualised performative act, driven by individual free will and centred around the ascent of mountains and/or rocks and rock faces, which serves no immediately apparent function other than self-validation and the Sisyphean pursuit of ‘fun’ (and/or suffering).”
That’s about as good a definition of climbing as my anthropological training can produce. Depending on who you ask, climbing might also be a ritualised example of “deep play” where the only immediate benefit to the climber is the visceral proof of his or her consciousness (this, according to Steve House who had Mishima’s “cut the apple and reveal the core” metaphor in mind here).
The key point to note here, is that yes, climbing is a meaningless pursuit (and yes, this is true even despite the best efforts of these American-Filipino auxiliaries who thought that climbing the city walls of Manila could be militarily useful). Climbing has neither function nor currency and thus resists any true anthropological explanation (at least within a structural-functionalist mode of attention). But on one fine September morning, the apparent uselessness of it all had done nothing to prevent us from wanting to play the game anyway.
Of course, climbing is not merely a single homogeneous game but a multiplicity of thematically linked games taking place in different kinds of terrain (boulders, crags, frozen waterfalls, granite big walls, snowy mountains) and using different rulebooks (boltless? O2-less? sleeping-bag-less? ropeless? trouserless?). Today, the game we had chosen to play was a game involving not just a single ascent of a single peak but rather an “enchaînement” of multiple peaks conducted according to the rules and parameters of what Lito Tejada Flores called “the super-alpine game”, albeit in a significantly more people-friendly environment than that of “the real mountains”.
The goal we had set ourselves was meaningless. The timeframe, arbitrary. We wanted to climb all of Squamish’s great rock faces in a single day. Shannon Falls, The Papoose, The Malamute, The Chief and The Squaw – all in one push, linking them together on foot. (Actually we had wanted to include the Smoke Bluffs as well but 19 hours in we got lazy). I like link-ups and traverses. Scaling granite big-walls seems like it might even be useful when you use climbing as a means of travel – as a way of getting from point A to point B… A par cours (à la David Belle and the French urban free-running crowd).
Of course, in hindsight, the funnest part of our day was scoffing fresh chimichangas and mexi-fries from Maggs 99 (the best Mexican cantina in North America) at midnight in the Apron parking lot, but we’d told ourselves at the start of the day that such an endeavour might be fun.
As more than one mountaineer has put it (and generally this comes from the kind of mountaineer who refers to himself as an “alpinist”… à les alpinistes de l’Haute-Savoie qui grimpent “léger expresse”) – it doesn’t have to be fun to be fun.
So with this essay by Jon Krakauer about futility and entropy in the back of my mind and this essay by Mark Twight about drive and energy goading me on, I went climbing with my friend Andrew, even if it was all just a bit of useless fun. And we climbed all the great rock faces of Squamish over the course of a single day and afterwards, with our egos temporarily slaked, we retired to our vans.
So here’s a photo-essay of our 19 hour stroll around town.
1. Shannon Falls (Coastal Salish: “Kookx-um”)
The day began in the van. It was dark outside. 4am dark.
Ellie was still asleep so I fired up the jet-engine stove and russelled around noisily in the dark. I ate some oatmeal. Apple and cinnamon flavoured. When I opened the door and rolled out of bed, Andrew was there with his head torch (North Americans call these objects “headlamps”) on his head and his harness around his hips. We ran to the base of Shannon Falls. The running wouldn’t last.
We looked up at the route. It was soaking. Glistening wet in the light thrown out by the shipyard across the Sound. Who’d have thought that Shannon Falls was a big seep?
Shannon Falls is sacred in Native cosmology as the place where Xwechtaal, the hero-founder of the Squamish nation, slayed the two-headed creator serpent, Sinulhkay. Legend has it that in order to acquire the powers required to defeat Sinulhkay, he first had to bathe in the sacred waters of the falls. A couple of lessons to take away from that one, the most obvious being that if we were going to do our little link-up it seemed logical that we’d have to do some waterfall-bathing. The route goes at 5.7. Pretty cutting edge – more so in the wet. Skyward bound, we slip-slid and grovelled into the dark.
Andrew’s head torch was out of battery by pitch three. I pontificated about preparation. We ran back to the car to get new lithiums and jogged onto the next cliff-face.
2. The Papoose (The Baby)
We hit the base of the Papoose and started up the first pitches, ascending into a racing dawn. The early morning sky was pale and grey. The cliff was pleasantly dry.
Just as the five fingers of the Hand of Fatima massif are imagined by the Fulani as the five members of a man’s family, the granitic monoliths looming above Howe Sound are personified accordingly. “Papoose” means “baby”; the Malamute, the trusty dog; the Stawamus Chief, the head of the family and the “Squaw” (now known as Slhanay), his wife, sits cracked and cackling on his left side, looming over the meth-dens and trailer-parks (and rather nice, cookie-cut estates) of Valleycliffe.
The Papoose is a round batholith of glacier-polished granite – baby bum smooth. There is some quote-unquote “real” climbing on the Papoose. I climbed a crack. It was fun.
3. The Malamute (The Doggy)
We topped out, went back to sea level, ran along the highway and filled our water bottles up at the Chief carpark. Then we sauntered across the bridge and down the side of the Malamute, hungry for the next leg of our skyline stroll. We hit the railway.
Andrew led the first pitch on our way to the top. Lay-backing on wet rock. Mint conditions.
4. The Chief (“Siam Smanit”)… Big Daddy
We continued onwards and up the Chief – Big Daddy – the second biggest granite monolith in North America. Second comes right after first. Squamish legend says that the Chief was once a longhouse which, at a time of great flooding was transformed by two magical brothers into a refuge for the Squamish people. The Chief is Canada’s very own Ark. Pretty cool, really. Wondering where the Transformer Brothers had been two weeks ago when my van had been leaking like a sieve in a rainstorm, I climbed on.
The lower half of the Apron took us twenty minutes. We’d both climbed the route before. We started up the second half on a route that neither of us knew. It took us two hours. Easy slabs. Much wondering. Mostly run-out. Forgettable. We got lost a few times.
We carried on up the Squamish Buttress. I snaked the sharp end for the crux pitch. I huffed and puffed. I sent. The Buttress was the first big route I’d done in Squamish so what better way to herald in the end of the climbing season than with a re-send of my first route up the Chief?
From the top of the First Peak, I gazed over the Coastal Range, spying out the jet black knife-point of the Black Tusk off in the distance. It’s a nice little peak. I’d hiked it with my girlfriend earlier in the season. The Black Tusk is known as “T’ak’t’ak mu’yin tl’a in7in’a’xe7eh” in Coastal Salish (but really, who can pronounce that?) meaning “Landing Place of the Thunderbird”. Finding itself in plum position in the heart of the Garibaldi wilderness, it remains one of the more inspiring pieces of choss I’ve ever laid eyes on.
5. The Squaw (Slhanay).
We descended from the First Peak and looped round the back toward the Squaw. We weren’t running anymore. We traced along the base of the Second and Third Peak and around the Cirque of the Uncrackables Wall.
We arrived at the col between the Chief and the Squaw just as the sun was setting behind the Tantalus Range. The view was decent.
The Squaw was given its name by the first Western settlers – beer-swilling types who came to town with lumber on their minds and the displacement of others in their hearts. I guess they thought that the big granitic dome next to the Chief, rather resembled a devious wench chained to her master’s left-hand side. “Bit sexist,” the council later decided, so with the McKinley/Denali debate in mind, they picked a new First Nations name – “Slhanay”… which still ended up meaning the same thing – “woman”. Regardless, everyone still calls the Squaw, the Squaw.
Anyway, the final pitches up the Squaw were horrific – and not because the climbing was hard but because our bodies were wasted. She proved to be a bitch indeed. By the end, we were cruxing out on 5.7 lay-backing. Alex Honnold eat your heart out.
Tonight there was a lunar eclipse but the red moon was shielded from view by the looming walls to which we had chained ourselves. We still had a bit to go at around 10 o’clock. I was starting to feel less like Sisyphus and more like Tityos – the Greek giant who was chained to a rock to have his liver feasted on by a pair of vultures – big-wall climbers can probably relate. Down in town, our friends were watching us from Mag’s – two little pin-pricks of light, doddling up a rock in the dark.
We topped out, cheered some, wondered why we had just done what we had done and headed back down to the road, running the last few kilometres along the Mamquam FSR to the car. Ellie was waiting there with fresh chimichangas and mexi-fries and a large Coke to wash it all down. Then I went to bed.
The next day I posted a short excerpt about our climb on social media and then I wrote this blog post about it. And as the comments flowed in, I saw that #Meru and #TheNorthFace was still trending on “InstaTweetMyFaceGram” and people were hashtagging their adventures everywhere, all the time. As per usual. Which leads me to wonder if perhaps – despite all the theories about “deep play” and “Type III fun” – if perhaps climbing does have a “function” after all.
“Cultural capital” (see Pierre Bourdieu). But that’s another blog post.
The Papoose, ‘Squaw’ and Malemute were given those names by climbers in the 1960s. And the photo of the hollow flake from Banana Peel? In fact, a troll lives there. 🙂