Squamish's Stawamus Chief anchors climbing community

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      Anyone who drives through Squamish can’t miss the massive, 700-metre block of granite beside the highway. The Stawamus Chief looms like a sentinel over the town of 17,000 residents. And, increasingly, it has become a source of economic development.

      According to the Squamish Climbing Strategy Report, which was completed in November 2008, the iconic Chief and other rock-climbing locations in the district generate approximately $25 million in revenue.

      “If there is a single predominant hallmark that defines Squamish climbing, it is the hundreds of magnificent splitter cracks that rake the walls of the Chief, the Smoke Bluff crags, Shannon Falls, and Murrin [Provincial Park],” the report states. “Such character, available in under 15 minutes from a major Highway, is rare anywhere in the world.”

      Sitting in his car dealership on the north side of town, Mayor Greg Gardner says the number of rock climbers is growing by five to seven percent per year in the district. More than 1,000 climbers a day will converge on the region on the busiest days, and Gardner expects that number to double in the next decade.

      “We’re seeing that having a definite economic impact in the community,” he says.

      Squamish mayor Greg Gardner shows where the best climbing spots are in his town.

      Stawamus Chief Provincial Park was created in 1997, and in 2006 the district designated Smoke Bluffs Park for climbers. Gardner says the B.C. government is in the process of adding to the Stawamus park 10 hectares of land around and including the Malamute granite face south of the Chief. “It is more or less across the highway and against the ocean,” he states. “In itself, it’s an incredible climbing face, but it’s dwarfed by the [Stawamus] Chief.”

      In the 1960s groups from UBC and Seattle ascended different parts of the Chief, according to the climbing-strategy report. The invention of the battery-powered Hilti drill in the 1980s enabled climbers to punch stronger bolts into granite, which was the catalyst for the sport’s rising popularity. Sticky rubber climbing shoes offered an added boost.

      Gardner points out that an unanticipated benefit of the sport has been the movement of climbers into his community. They come to visit and then decide to make Squamish their home. “Climbers are generally people who are fairly independent and can think for themselves, making them good employees or business owners,” he says.

      Kinley Aitken, who works with Squamish Rock Guides, is one example. In a phone interview with the Straight, Aitken said she moved to Squamish in the summer of 2002 because of the climbing. “At this point, I can’t imagine living anywhere else,” Aitken said, citing not only the climbing but also the mountain biking, hiking, skiing, and kite boarding.

      Aitken, who grew up in Horseshoe Bay, added that she has seen climbers come to Squamish from all over Europe, South America, and Japan. Some move to the community for up to a month, particularly during the peak season from June to September.

      She also pointed out that there are hundreds of different routes up the Stawamus Chief, ranging from the difficult to the very moderate. “Climbing is addictive,” she admitted. “When people first discover it, it takes over their life. All they want to do is climb, climb, climb.”

      A Vancouver real-estate company, the Kingswood Group, recently offered to build a glass-encased climbing wall and provide space for a National Climbing Centre along the highway as part of a rezoning proposal to develop more than 300 residential units. Company spokesperson John Moonen told the Straight by phone that if the district council approves the application, it could become a centre for rock-climbing education. Moonen said the company has shared its plans with local MLA Joan McIntyre and local MP John Weston in the hope of obtaining government funding.

      “Hopefully, it will be a facilitator for research related to climbing, physical activity, and all that stuff,” Moonen said.