Searching for Xwechtáal

The following words appeared in Mountain Life (Winter/Spring 2018)

Photos by Alex Ratson (@aratson)

Video by Erica Sorenson/Squamish.com

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Viewed from the base of the Stawamus Chief, the Black Dyke – a basalt streak which splits the mountain’s sweep of granite greys – seems foreign, out-of-place.  

On either side, the flanking granite is countertop smooth but the basalt itself, to the touch and to the eye, is variegated and friable – dark and loose and wet as it slices through a series of roofs on its path for the summit.

While ostensibly a geological quirk – the legacy of a spurt of basaltic magma obtruding along a vertical fracture in the mountain – the Black Dyke has another, mythological origin that reaches back to the earliest histories of Squamish First Nations.

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It begins with Sínulhkay̓ the two-headed sea serpent, explains Alice Guss, a Squamish Nation storyteller and educator. Per the local oral traditions, the tales told about Sínulhkay̓ (pronounced “See-nool-kay”), have varied across the generations. One version has Sínulhkay̓ as a creation deity – analogous to the serpent-creators of Sumerian or Australian Aboriginal mythology – a powerful being who carved out the known valleys of the world with the weight of his slithering.

Another story imagines Sínulhkay̓ as a primordial aggressor, an elemental monster who terrorized the earliest ancestors of the Squamish people. Alice Guss’ Sínulhkay̓ story envisions the two-headed serpent as a little bit of both – a monster and a creator – and her story also describes the origins of the Black Dyke.

In earlier times, Alice narrates, Sínulhkay̓ menaced the inhabitants of the village of St’a7mes by hiding in wet, watery places – hypnotizing then devouring the locals whole. As the body count rose, Xwechtáal (pronounced “Zeh-wetch-eh-tall”), a young warrior, was called forth by the village chief to protect his people.

Victory over the serpent however, would not be a labourless feat. Every time Xwechtáal would get near Sínulhkay̓, he would become sick – intoxicated by the serpent’s supernatural aura. Only through a ritual of daily bathing and self-purification, could Xwechtáal even begin to approach Sínulhkay̓.

Eventually, Xwechtáal flushed the serpent out from his nest and chased the beast south along the shores of Howe Sound. According to legend, the coastline crenellations left by the serpent’s slithering became the notches and coves of Horseshoe Bay while the round hulk of present-day Anvil Island was carved out as a quay upon which Sínulhkay̓ came to rest.

But Xwechtáal was relentless. Aboard his war canoe, he located Sínulhkay̓’s refuge, armed and ready for battle. But the serpent dove deep into the Sound, surfacing later through a tubular tunnel which connected the fjord to Murrin Lake. (This curious detail blends Alice’s myth with geological reality because the lake does indeed connect to Howe Sound via as-yet unmapped artesian wells.)

Finally, in a last ditch effort to escape Xwechtáal, the serpent slithered up the side of the Chief. “There, look, you can see the black markings,” Alice points to the Black Dyke. Concluding her story, she recounts how in a final feat of bravery, Xwechtáal scaled the rock face, summiting the Chief and then tracking Sínulhkay̓  as he carved out the slithering contours of the Shannon Valley. At last, in the sacred waters of Kookx’um (today known as Shannon Falls), Xwechtáal slayed the beast and returned a leader of his people.

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It’s surely true that indigenous stories such as this invite a closer inspection of the landscape – imbuing the stones, streams and summits with a cultural history that sits quietly beneath the surface, jumping out when uncovered. Likewise, the contemporary climbing-route lore of the Black Dyke is equally dramatic. Guidebooks, alpine journals and first-hand accounts offer tantalizing glimpses of the epics witnessed on this dark streak of stone.

Tales of pitches protected by “prayers”. Monstrous run-outs above knife-blade pitons jabbed into questionable rock. Harebrained yarns of aid-climbers dangling from stalactites “like a frog on a crocodile’s tooth”. Somehow, in 1970, Al Givler and Mead Hargis, made it to Bellygood Ledge (three-quarters of the way up the Chief) alive, shimmying off the wall and onto the flats with a spectacular ascent behind them.

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Descriptions of the Black Dyke in Gordon Smaill’s 1975 Squamish Chief Guide reveal further madness in the route’s history.  Quotes like “this climb turns into a veritable bag of liver in the rain” and “Bricks Shannon soloed the top of the Dyke on motor responses” speak to the spirit of the times.

Finally, with the inception of new ways to realize the art of ascent at the turn of the century, the route was free-climbed by well-known, Squamish big-waller Matt Maddaloni.

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Other impressive feats followed, culminating perhaps with Sonnie Trotter and Matt Segal’s 2006 ascent of the “Squamish Triple” where they linked The Black Dyke, The Grand Wall and The University Wall (via The Shadow) for a thrice-in-a-day ascent of the Chief via three different 5.13 routes.

Since its very beginnings then, the Dyke has stood firm as a testament to the hard – a vestige of a bygone era of bold and dangerous aid climbing; a proof of mastery for those who wish to use only their hands and feet; and a totem to Man’s mythical struggle writ real in indigenous oral traditions.

In a serpentine twist of the narrative however, the Black Dyke became exponentially more difficult. In 2014 a series of crucial holds fell from the crux pitch.

“No one has freed that roof since those holds fell off,” says Kumarri Berry (“Koo” for short), a young Australian woman who has spent the last two summers on a mission to do just that – to prove that climbing the current arrangement of basalt holds on the Black Dyke is humanly possible.  

“Boys sending or girls sending. Who cares? I just want to have a good time,” Koo says. She invites me to join her on her most recent attempt to ascend Sínulhkay̓’s glistening trail. Fascinated by the rock, the route and the rich cultural history surrounding it, I leap at the chance to support her.

At ten o’clock on a Sunday – just enough time for Koo to recover from a raging hangover from the night before – we begin climbing. Rising up and out of the forest, we move fast over lichen- and mud-clad basalt, the Douglas Firs shivering lithely beneath us. The base of the wall is coated thick with bushels of glistening creepers. Chunks of dislodged basalt litter the valley floor, slowly growing smaller beneath us.

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Koo swears that her laps up and down these lower pitches have cleaned up the worst of the loose holds but climbers reserve a very specific term for this amorphous, non-geologically-specific-but-definitely-unattached rock type – “choss”.

Approaching the base of the first major roof, Koo starts up the pitch, casually clipping quickdraws before an abrading rumble, like boulders rolling downstream, rents the relaxed atmosphere in two. Ten metres to our left, a tooth of granite slithers from the wall and hurtles into the void. Awed, I watch as the human-sized block plunges groundward, bouncing off the Chief’s lower slabs before showering the forest floor with a high-velocity airburst of shrapnel. A chorus of “whoahs!” emanate from other climbers on the wall.

“That was fucking crazy!” I yell from my secure nest of rope and nylon.

“Holy shit! Epic!” Koo whoops.

No one seems to have been injured so our attention returns to the rock. When I meet Koo at the next belay she reaches for the day-bag, procuring  her never-would-dream-of-not-having-them pack of roll-your-owns. Time to calm those frazzled nerves.

On the wall, Koo, a connoisseur of the irreverent, drinks and smokes like Warren Harding and carries her water in a never-washed two-litre vodka bottle. Off the wall and during the week, she works rope access jobs in the city and trains like a World Cup boulderer in the gym. In between and on the weekends, she hangs her harness outside a tent at the base of the Chief before returning Sunday night to the room she rents in the home of a family of nudists.

“Personally, I’m not that in to getting naked,” she tells me while hanging upside down from an eight metre roof on our next outing on the wall, “But hey, do what you want I reckon!”

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On our second day up high, Koo reaches the first roof with the sequence now locked down and I watch as she throws her heel high, rocks up onto it and then darts her right hand for a sharp crimp. Execution effortless.

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Like Xwechtáal on the Chief’s mythical first ascent, Koo is a strong, seasoned climber. Her belay-chat, while relaxed and filled with hilarity, belies an internal drive to try hard and treat her climbing as a vehicle for self-improvement.

This is a woman who loves to party but who also loves to work hard – living the life she wants while remaining an ascetic at heart all the same. In her quest to maximize her time on the rock, she’s cut away the superfluities – be it a car (with its attendant bills) or a comfy sleeping pad. And watching Koo locked in a vice-grip struggle with the crux, I’m reminded of Xwechtáal, the first hero to feature in the Black Dyke’s story.

“Day by day, he would sacrifice more of himself,” recounted Andy Paull, a Squamish Nation lands rights activist who also carried the totemic name of “Xwechtáal”. “Eating a bit less, and sleeping with less blankets and clothes. All of this was part of his training to kill the serpent.”

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Emulating Xwechtáal’s path seems to be common in Squamish, even if the emulators might never have heard his name. For generations prior to the arrival of colonial settlers, First Nations men would train their bodies by climbing up the lower slabby sweeps of the Chief before diving into the mouth of river to bathe and purify. The hordes of rock climbers living out of their tents and vans continue to do the same today. Koo though, is remarkable among these new-age Xwechtáals in that she’s climbing the very route on which her First Nations counterpart enshrined his own legacy.

Step-by-step, she’s breaking her goal down into its constituent parts – first by facing up to her fears. She’s two summers in now but I know that with persistence, and perhaps a little luck, the Black Dyke will go for her. It might take some time. But all great struggles take time. And anyway, Koo’s got a few more seasons to break the current record. After all, it took Xwechtáal four years to slay his serpent.

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