A lot has changed since the beginning.
In the not too distant past, it’s safe to say that most people viewed rock climbing as an extreme fringe sport for those with a death wish.
Much of what non-climbers knew about rock climbing was informed by over-the-top movies like cliffhangers.
That has changed.
Over the past decade, climbing gyms have sprung up across North America, making the sport much more accessible to the average person. It is no longer necessary to live in a place like Squamish to learn the sport.
But many people who started out in gyms travel here to test themselves in nature.
As a result, people from across the Vancouver area — and around the world — flood Squamish on sunny days.
No more learning the old way of hanging out at a crag or alpine club hoping that grey-haired old miner who started banging old cat food cans into stoppers would advise you.
You can now just study at a gym or take a class.
Back to the Future
Long a fixture on the Squamish climbing scene, Brian Moorhead got his start in Ireland in the early 1960s.
“I was a pretty ‘serious climber’ back in Ireland, but it wasn’t difficult because there weren’t that many of us,” Moorhead said, laughing.
However, he set out in search of new adventures and moved to Canada around 1967.
“Of course, back then, when I first saw the Tantalus Range running up the very primitive Sea to Sky Highway… I looked at the Sea to Sky. It was a panorama of templates, and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I think I made the right decision here,'” he said.
Moorhead’s interest turned to mountaineering, with his attention focused on Squamish and the North Cascades. He took up sailing and his interest in rock climbing ebbed and left, although he always had one hand with him.
His son Colin would eventually transition to the sport and run his own guiding company.
However, the elder Moorhead took a keen interest in the Smoke Bluffs, which, with significant effort, could turn him and many others into a park.
“That’s where I really saw the evolution of climbing,” he said.
He said he noticed a lot more immigration to Canada after Expo ’86, and while a lot of new people were coming into the country, that wasn’t reflected in the climbing scene.
Moorhead said that there may be more pressing needs that new Canadians need to meet rather than recover.
“I have come to conclusions myself as an immigrant. I knew a lot of these people were struggling with a new country, a new language,” he said.
However, he said the advent of climbing gyms increased access to the sport and he has since seen more climbers from all backgrounds get involved.
Another thing that has changed is the equipment, which has allowed climbers to raise the level of technical skill higher than before.
Shoes with sticky rubber have replaced spiked boots, and ropes that may or may not break have been replaced with certified ropes that people can repeatedly fall on without incident.
“Good gear has made the sport more accessible,” Moorhead said.
Regarding the future of climbing, he said there may be more travel for people.
“Squamish may have reached a critical mass in terms of habitability or enjoyment,” he said.
Crowds have inundated the most prominent areas and finding a place to climb is becoming increasingly difficult.
However, as people continue to develop new routes, there may still be ways to accommodate the growing number of climbers, provided they are willing to trek further from the main areas.
According to Moorhead, younger generations need to take responsibility for maintaining and building outdoor climbing routes and access trails.
This influx of people has forced the Squamish Access Society, the non-profit administrator of local climbing routes and access trails, to adapt.
Alex Ryan Tucker, a board member of the society, has noted that people are being asked to reconsider the leave-no-trace philosophy.
It is generally accepted practice that recreational athletes should leave the areas in which they play in the same way they found them.
However, new questions arise.
Is it better to create more trails, thus manipulating the natural state of the land, or is it better to leave things as they are?
The former option produces the immediate effect of disturbing the land, but controls the mass flow. The latter option will not affect the country immediately, but in the long run, crowds could be affected
spread uncontrollably across the area, damaging other natural habitats.
“I think one of the biggest things is if we’re just dealing with leave-no-trace, anyway just the absolute no-trace — that’s not going to be a realistic way to go about it,” Tucker said.
“What we need to do more of – and what we strive to do more of – is where we have these crags,
try to improve and strengthen the paths and base areas of the climbs.
It’s about finding a balance between improving trail infrastructure while preserving the natural character of the area.
Some areas, like Smoke Bluffs, which are heavily built up, lend themselves better to large gravel trails. On the other hand, there are more natural areas and it’s important to maintain that quality, he said.
Murrin Park is an example of growth.
Led by Moorhead, it began as a climber’s access trail but has since become a very popular hike.
“It’s cool to see rock climbers having a positive impact on other people in the community and giving other people the opportunity to get outside,” Tucker said.
Both Tucker and Moorhead encouraged people to volunteer to maintain climbing routes and trails and, if they have $10 to spare, join the Squamish Access Society.
A sport for everyone
Brent Goodman of the Canadian Adaptive Climbing Society was one of the driving forces behind getting people with disabilities interested in climbing.
While the pandemic disrupted the group’s activities due to gym restrictions, Goodman said he expects the organization to get back on track this year.
Efforts have been made to make climbing spaces more inclusive for people with mobility issues.
One example, he said, is the extensive development of the parking lot wall at Smoke Bluffs, which was designed for easy access.
The level paths leading to Free and Easy on the Mamquam Blind Channel also offer good accessibility options.
Unlike many via ferratas that can be uphill, the area is almost perfectly flat, which is a big help for those with mobility issues.
Goodman commended Moorhead and the Squamish Access Society for their work on this project.
However, there is still work to be done to make rock climbing more accessible.
“It’s definitely a privileged activity, isn’t it?” said Gutman. “So you know we’re still struggling on this issue with the fact that if we try to be the voice of improved accessibility and the Canadian climbing communities, we still have a long way to go.”
One of the stumbling blocks the group faces is that it does not have its own facility.
Climbing gyms tend to be for-profit and when COVID capacity restrictions were imposed they simply couldn’t accommodate the group.
That being said, he said his organization has made strides in spreading awareness of the cause.
Goodman also said there are new avenues for the sport.
“We kind of tie therapeutic outcomes to climbing and use it as a way to use climbing as a form of rehab,” he said.
“I think our most successful program to date has been combining occupational therapy and recreational therapy along with the tools of rock climbing.”
With the easing of COVID restrictions, he said he believes more momentum will build for adaptive climbing.
“It was like I could figure out how to deal with physical disabilities and get them to climb authentically – still interacting with the wall, still using their hands and still enjoying using their body and still to feel the same way you and i would feel if we go rock climbing, or as much as possible. That was the goal. And we’ve got all the systems built now so we can take that extra step and develop these other programs … like rock climbing as rehab,” Goodman said.
“I’m looking forward to the future. If we’re on the spectrum…let’s say 2010 was 0 out of 10. And maybe 2016 where we were maybe 4 or 5 out of 10. You know, maybe it’s like six right now. I think in the next few years we’ll probably be up to eight.
*** Please note that this story first appeared in the Summer 2022 issue of The Squamish Chief’s semi-annual magazine Discover Squamish.