Nick & Daniel's Experience
Just as Squamish started to feel like home, time was nearing for Daniel and I (Nick) to leave. Our pals from Newfoundland had arrived a week prior, and the campground was full of familiar, smiling faces.
Alas, we felt the mountains calling, so we planned one final big day on the Chief: The Grand Wall, the hardest climb we have attempted together thus far.
The Grand Wall is the most legendary route in Squamish. It was first climbed in 1961, and the ascent took more than a month. The route is graded 5.11a with two short bolt ladders to aid (A0).
The climb is 5 pitches long. The first pitch, 'The Split Pillar', is several hundred feet up, and reached by one of many routes. The last pitch finishes two-thirds up the chief on a large ledge named 'Bellygood ledge.' From this ledge, climbers choose to either walk off and access the descent trail, or climb a route leading to the top.
The Grand Wall can be done in as little as 8 pitches, and as many as 15, or even 17 (if continuing up the Raven's Castle from the top out). No matter the variation, the 5 central pitches remain the same. From bottom to top, these pitches are:
'The Split Pillar' (5.10b) - One of the most inspiring features of rock I have ever seen, let alone climbed, The Split Pillar is a 40m continuous crack that slowly widens into a squeeze chimney at the top.
'The Sword' (5.11a, A0) - Considered the most technically difficult pitch on the route, The Sword follows a system of dihedrals and gradually gets more overhanging towards the chains. It is an endurance test piece protected with gear. The pitch finishes with an 8 bolt ladder.
'Perry's Layback' (5.11a) - If the laybacking on The Sword wasn't burly enough, it sure is on Perry's Layback. This pitch is protected with bolts and follows a steep, overhanging dihedral and finishes with an incredible no hands rest behind a flake.
'The Flats' (5.10a) - Less remarkable than the three preceding pitches, The Flats traverses a slab on top of the steepest section of wall.
'The Sail' (5.10c) - The hard climbing certainly does not end with Perry's Layback. After unexpectedly climbing a tree 300m up a blank wall, The Sail traverses the full perimeter of a massive detached flake shaped like a child's drawing of a boat's sail.
Wednesday, August 10th, 2016
Before researching the climb thoroughly, I had heard most about The Sword. I definitely had to climb it. What we didn't realize until afterwards was if Daniel and I switched leads, he would end up leading all the other hard pitches.
We planned to follow Mercy Me (5.10b A0, 3 pitches) to the base of The Split Pillar, and climb the Upper Black Dyke (5.10b, 4 pitches) off Bellygood ledge to the top. Eleven pitches in total and a solid outing given the difficulty of the routes.
Our day began at 5am, to beat the crowds. However, following a somewhat gourmet breakfast (yogurt, fruit, nuts, and granola) and coffee, we started climbing at a leisurely 6:30am. Mercy Me was an exciting way to start the day; easy slab climbing with bolts spaced 15m apart. The Split Pillar was next.
Daniel's lead, and what a lead it was. I cowered at the sight of the massive rock pillar rising high above us, but Daniel didn't hesitate to jump right on. A few screams later, lots of encouragement from me, and Daniel sent the pitch! It was quite the performance. Inspired by his effort, I followed, and found the crux was removing my backpack in the squeeze chimney.
The belay stance at the top of the pillar was stunning.
Without even a chance to catch my breath, I was staring up at The Sword. Escaping my building nerves and a creeping apprehension, I immediately started up the climb. The 5.11a move, considered to be a long reach around a bulge, was not much trouble with my height. The crux for me was laybacking the finger crack in the overhanging dihedral, while placing gear all the way.
Feeling completely pumped, I grabbed the hanging chain anchor at the top of the pitch with a final, desperate lunge. As I could feel my grip loosening, I was acutely aware of a long runout below I had accepted to reach the anchor. All of a sudden, I remembered a comment on mountain project advising, "it is best to loop your entire arm through the chains." This simple advice was crucial and I was able to secure myself on the anchor. Then, I quickly aided up the bolt ladder to the next belay.
Perry's Layback proved to be as strenuous as its reputation suggests. From my comfortable belay stance, I was entertained watching Daniel's multiple screaming pendulum falls as he traversed the broad flake. Leading the pitch could not have been easy after climbing The Sword just minutes before.
It was Daniel's turn to laugh as I followed him up; I couldn't take advantage of the god-sent rest at the end because I was wearing our bulky backpack. So the last few moves almost made me flail.
My lead on The Flats was uneventful. However, a party creeping up behind us had a more interesting experience. The man leading the pitch behind us, Gino, was clearly a competent climber. He had made easy work of the earlier pitches we struggled with. Gino walked steadily to the slab, moving easily towards the 5.9 terrain. He clipped the first bolt on the pitch, and stepped confidently upwards. Several moves higher he was pretty runout.
Then, we heard a piercing, "ahhhhh!" In shock, we saw Gino soar past his only quickdraw, and whip all the way over the edge, dangling under the slab with 350m of air beneath his feet. A tiny foot slip had sent him on the whipper of his life. A few minutes later, at the belay, Gino told us the feeling of the fall, to him, was better than sending.
The excitement continued as Daniel began leading the final pitch: The Sail. Thinking all the strenuous laybacking was over after Perry's Layback, Daniel found himself climbing an equally challenging pitch and he even had to place all the protection himself.
Clearly in distress, Daniel fumbled with a small green cam on the traversing layback crux. Too pumped to think of managing rope drag, he jammed the cam into the crack without looking and shakily clipped it. The hasty placement immediately popped out of the crack and Daniel stared at a nasty pendulum fall. He obviously didn't think of simply reaching for another cam. Instead, Daniel tried to retrieve the cam by lowering the rope at his harness so it would slide back to him, as if on a miniature zip-line. It didn't work and it looked quite foolish.
Despite his shenanigans, Daniel placed another cam and pulled hard to send the pitch. I give him 10/10 on the effort, but 2/10 on managing the rope drag. I cautiously followed the '>' shaped rope to the top of the pitch.
So there we were on Bellygood ledge! We finished The Grand Wall and had little trouble (aside from route-finding) continuing the four sport pitches of the Upper Black Dyke.
It was our hardest climb together and one of the most memorable climbing day in my life. The Grand Wall was a hell of a great way to say goodbye to Squamish.
At the top of the chief, Daniel and I met Erik and Dave, who had just finished Angel's Crest. We exchanged stories and snacks and then headed down to the parking lot; all four Choss Boys were together after a wonderful day of climbing.
Perhaps we inspired Dave and Erik, for less than a week later, they too embarked up the 350m route...
Erik & Dave climb the Grand Wall
"Should we climb the Grand Wall, Dave?"
"Yeah, I think so."
And like that it was settled. Dave and I (Erik) would climb the Grand Wall. I felt my stomach do a little flip. Considered a world-class route of the highest standards, this would be single greatest climb I'd ventured onto in my life. And at 5.11a, one of the toughest!
Dave shrugged it off. "So, Monday?" He asked. "Sure, Monday." My last day in Squamish would be that Monday. It would also be the last day of climbing before heading back to Newfoundland to start my graduate studies. Five months of travel and climbing, culminating in this one main event. A test piece! Could there be a better send-off?
The 5am alarm goes off. It's saved in my phone as "Alpine Start." A routine at this point. I hear a rustling from Dave's tent. The Grand Wall day has begun!
We scarf down breakfast and steal nervous glances at the topo. We head up the approach trail and in good Choss Boys style get immediately lost and disoriented. Before long we find the Flake Escape ledges. They skirt the Grand Wall base and end abruptly at the base of a Mercy Me, a two-pitch 5.8 slab climb that winds up to a 5.10b traverse pitch. From there, a three bolt ladder leads to the base of the Grand Wall route. David ties in and start blasting up the route. I look at my phone. It's 7am. David's talking to himself up there. He links Mercy Me in two pitches, no problem with a 70m rope. My rope comes tight and it dawns on me I've forgotten my chalk bag. ("F*%k!") Of course on the hardest climb of my life I'd forget my chalk bag. I climb up and meet Dave at the hanging belay, quickly McGuiver a chalk bag from my sandwich bag and a sling. Dave's off on the 10b traverse section now. We're close. I follow around the corner and there it is: the Split Pillar. That iconic splitter corner crack. Reality sinks in. We're about to start the Grand Wall!
The Grand Wall Play-by-Play
The Sail Flake 5.10c
Erik climbs up a serindipitously placed tree and onto the crux: a 30-ft traverse on a precipitous undercling with no feet. With the sudden realization that he hasn't led a 10c yet in Squamish, he yells down to David, "what the fuck am I doing up here?" "No matter," yells David, "just fire it!" So Erik goes for it and no sooner he's soaring through the air. Big surprise! Back on, fires it to the top with a war-cry that startles gulls all the way down in Howe Sound.
"Damn it, Bruneau! We made it!"
"Yeah, we made it." Stupid grins all round.
We eat lunch. Best kiwi I've ever eaten. We traverse over to the start of the Black Dyke route. A basalt intrusion in an otherwise beautiful sea of granite. This route awarded nothing but airy views - it was just chunky face climbing all the way to the top.
And just like that, the Grand Wall and my (Erik's) last day in Squamish was over. We topped out at 3pm, finishing the climb in a leisurely 8 hours. A better last day I simply could not have imagined. After a short summit victory celebration, we walked the Chief trail with a pep to our step that belied our exhaustion. We stopped in the "River Shower" by the campground to cool our jets in the invigorating glacial melt water. And, like a gift from God, who joins us in that pool but two gorgeous nubile German female climbers who proceed to shed off their climbers wares right down to their tan lines. David and I exchange glances. I take off my shorts. "Nice to meet you, we just climbed the Grand Wall."
We are Daniel, David, Nick & Erik.
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