Rock Climbing, Abseiling & Canyoning

How Climate Breakdown Is Changing Canada’s Most Iconic Climbing Destination

Home to some of the world's best climbing, Squamish in British Columbia faces an uncertain future

Featured image climber: Tony McLane // Featured image credit: Kieran Brownie

Nestled in the UNESCO Biosphere Region of Howe Sound, the iconic granite monolith Stawamus Chief towers 700m above the water of its surrounding town Squamish, in beautiful British Columbia. For the First Nations people of Squamish (Skwxwú7mesh), the Chief holds a spiritual significance—traditions say it was once a longhouse that was transformed to stone by Xáays, the spirit-beings known as the Transformer Brothers in this area. Their name for the mountain, Siyám’ Smánit, refers to someone deeply respected, such as a teacher, leader or elder. With equal respect and significance, the climbing community see the birthplace of climbing in the area in a similar light.

Since climbers started coming to Squamish in the early 50s, the Chief has become a renowned world-class climbing destination; each season drawing visionary climbers who want to leave their mark on the rock and advance the sport. Kelsey Watts, a local climber, says that the Chief’s seemingly endless, high-quality climbing potential and ease of access are what make it such a special place for the community. For them, the Chief is Canada’s answer to California’s famous Yosemite National Park and El Capitan; a rock that has, in recent years especially, become ubiquitous with climbing culture and the pushing of boundaries.

“Last year alone, the Chief saw four or five major rockfalls after severe weather events”

Throughout 2021 however, an unprecedented number of rockfalls caused closures on famous routes across the Chief, some of which won’t reopen until Spring 2022. The year was also punctuated with severe weather events and periods of extreme temperatures, likely exacerbated by climate change. This got me thinking, is climate breakdown impacting Squamish’s climbing community? And if so, how can these climbers help the places they enjoy?

Formed 100 million years ago by volcanic activity, subsequent glacial erosion gave the Chief its characteristically polished, steep technical faces and inviting cracks. As Wesley Ashwood— a Geotechnical Engineer who often works on the Chief—says, rockfalls are commonplace in landscapes such as this, where coastal elements are funnelled down the fjord, battering the rock with wind, rain and snow.

Despite this, rocks generally change over really long geological timeframes; similarly to climate, the rate of change is traditionally so slow that we wouldn’t notice. But as climate change appears to be fast-forwarding through extreme weather events and rapid temperature variability, it’s not a giant leap to assume these environmental factors are also impacting rock features more quickly than previously seen too.

After a rockfall… Photo: Kieran Brownie

Similar to the Chief in terms of its setting and formation, researchers at Yosemite, studying thermal changes in the rock during heatwaves, found that the rocks were expanding and propagating cracks into more significant fractures (the kind of ones that cause rockfalls). Sergio Sepúlveda, an Engineering Geologist that studies geological processes, notes that it is for reasons such as these that the Chief is highly susceptible to rockfalls, “The trigger factors that lead to rockfalls are usually earthquakes or climate factors like intense rainfall, freeze-thaw during cold snaps, and thermal effects during warmer months.”

In 2021, BC saw record summer temperatures due to a Heat Dome, an extra wet autumn due to an Atmospheric River weather system, unusually high snowfall, and Arctic Outflow winds that brought temperatures as low as -20 to the valley. These extremes all put pressure on the rock, accelerating the natural process of expansion and contraction that cause cracks to widen and increase gaps behind faces like the Grand Wall that ultimately lead to significant hazards. During last year alone, the Chief saw four or five major rockfalls after severe weather events. 

“These things are easier to mitigate than rockfalls, which are hard to predict and can only really be managed by not climbing at all”

But what does that mean for the climbing community here? Will it make them more conscious of climate change? Kelsey says there will always be a baseline risk that comes with the sport, “Climbing on the Chief (multi-pitch trad climbing), you are almost always managing risk in some way or another… tying knots in the end of the rope to rappel, building anchors, choosing how often and where you place gear on a pitch”. However, these things are easier to mitigate than rockfalls, which are hard to predict and can only really be managed by not climbing at all—a hard reality for a community that is so passionately connected to the land in the way they are to the Stawamus Chief.  

If rockfalls on the Chief were to shut the park indefinitely for climbers, the entire energy of Squamish and its community would likely shift. Historically, climbers are known as rule-breakers, and Kelsey believes people would still climb the Chief even if it did close. Regardless, it would be a massive blow for the community and change the nature of the sport in the entire region, if not Canada. So what can climbers do in the face of climate breakdown to try and protect the very places that give them their identity?

Siyám Smánit, also known as The Stawamus Chief. Photo: Kieran Brownie

One organisation acting as a mediator throughout the rockfalls on the Chief is the SAS (Squamish Access Society) who are helping communicate the work of BC Parks, the provincial body responsible for the area. Kieran Brownie, a SAS board member, is focused on creating and maintaining relationships and communication channels between recreational users, indigenous peoples and stakeholders to encourage a strength-in-numbers approach to better management and social and climate justice in Squamish. Talking about climbers becoming a more active group, he mentions that the community must be careful not to drown out other voices, “A big crowd doesn’t have to talk very loud to make a big murmur, and then you can’t hear the person who’s been screaming for years”.

“A big crowd doesn’t have to talk very loud to make a big murmur, and then you can’t hear the person who’s been screaming for years”

According to Kieran, there’s already a management plan dating back to 1997 that has a grand vision for the Chief park; one that puts an emphasis on education and cultural significance, and acts as a sort of ode to the people who live below the rock. But it hasn’t been touched since then. The SAS’s mission statement reads, “With the emergence of climbing as a mainstream pursuit, the societies direction is focused on ensuring safe access for all who wish to experience the magic of the cliffs and crags… and to ensure these opportunities to connect with the land are available to future generations.” But, what if addressing climate breakdown is as big a part of ensuring these opportunities still exist as access and equity? Perhaps this is the moment for both climate and social justice to be actioned in equal measure.

Climbing, more than many outdoor sports, allows you to see a landscape from a unique perspective. Kelsey says there is something breathtaking about being on the side of a wall looking down hundreds of metres below and having a view of the complete landscape around you. “I think that maybe the vulnerability of this experience, dangling in the air from a rope, heightens this sense of appreciation and beauty of your surroundings,” she adds. 

Howe Sound and Stawamus Chief. Photo: Kieran Brownie

Already, climbers tend to be very environmentally conscious, with the ethic of the community always being based on Leave No Trace principles. Conservation efforts have also been an inherent part of climbing communities who are intent on protecting climbing areas from development. But as Kieran says, the mountain is alive and people are only just realising that now. So how can they take this knowledge to safe-guard not only their sport but their community and town’s vibrant scene too?

Many share the sentiment that rather than thinking about how climate breakdown will affect the climbing community, they should consider how it will affect the Squamish community as a whole; ultimately going on to combine efforts to produce meaningful action. This would mean not only on a personal level—voting with their politics and purchases—but also bringing every level of the community, including the indigenous population, to the table to discuss far-reaching solutions and hazard mitigation strategies. As Kieran says, a community has to be built on common ground. The Chief has the opportunity to be this literal and figurative common ground for people to come together.  

“I think we would all benefit from coming together and putting more effort in”

Talking about local stewardship, which must be a baked-in part of these solutions, Kelsey says, “Although I am a member of the SAS, I haven’t actually given my time to get involved with local efforts, and I think I could say this about many climbers in the community here. I think we would all benefit from coming together and putting more effort in.” 

The evidence for climate change is compelling. Without action, it’s likely the climbing season here will shift and / or get shorter as Squamish and the Chief settle into extremes of warmth and snow. Whether this community can act on climate breakdown to help limit the dangerous climbing conditions on the Chief, seems to be a question of collaboration. It’s not an environmental problem or social problem; it’s both. And one that must include everyone.

Why is Squamish a popular climbing destination? Well, the views certainly help. Credit: Getty Images / iStock
Climbing in Squamish faces an uncertain future. Photo: Getty Images / iStock
North of Vancouver, Squamish is a town in British Columbia. Photo: Getty Images / iStock

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