Climbing the Squamish Chief

Getting outside Vancouver is an easy adventure now that the upgrades to the SEA to SKY highway has been mostly completed and there are now more lanes to speedily make way to Squamish, a small town between Vancouver and Whistler.

A hidden gem exists here that you must see: The Stawamus Chief. Its brooding profile rises 650 meters from sea level, about 1.5 times taller than the world’s tallest building. What lured me here was its granite face also well known to other climbers around the world as being “the best” rock to climb on. A short 45 minute drive from Vancouver will get out to the outer world. If you pull over in the parking area at the “apron” of the Chief you will see tiny colourful dots lined up like clotheslines and glints of metal sparkling in the sunlight. Upon a closer inspection you might realize these are rock climbers on established routes making their way to the top. They arrive here in clusters in early spring through fall to climb the various 2000 established routes on The Chief’s granite face.

You can stay and picnic at the highway pullout about 1 km before Squamish. It is fully stocked with picnic tables and washrooms. The view here isn’t too bad either, but if you are out for a little cardiovascular adventure, stop at the Shannon Falls parking area and get yourself ready for a little adrenalin flow.

The Chief has three great peaks that are all accessible from the Shannon Falls parking area, just head up past the washrooms to the left past the falls, there will be a right turn that leads you to the start of the trails of the Chief (about 70 meters). Make sure you are not one of the ill equipped hikers I see in attempting to hike in high heels, flip flops, no water, improper clothing, and whose regular exercise includes hiking only to the couch from the sofa. I am not kidding when I tell my friends about hikers we come across hyperventilating from overheating and under-conditioning. This isn’t an easy hike. A little conditioning prior to a hike on the Chief is advisable.

Once on the trail you will enter rocky sections with wooden stairs, and then shortly thereafter you will see the spray of Shannon Falls at the foot of the bridge. Stop here and catch your breath and take out your camera. Take a dip in the water to cool down on the way down; it could be a refreshing shower as your treat. Continue up the wooden stairs and make your way up another 1.6 km of lush forest and chirping birds that alert other forest friends of your arrival. Follow the markers designated as First or Second Peak, my recommendation is to try first peak then venture to second if you feel strong enough to hike further.

If you go on a sunny day, expect a congo-line of other like minded folks; the Chief is the most climbed hike in British Columbia, it lures about 150,000 hikers and rightfully so. Its easy access makes it a beacon to many couch potatoes and super athletic fit types. At the top is a series of ladders and chains. If you suffer from issues with height, be warned: what comes up must come down. You however can do this is if you are patient. Give right of way to people coming down – then keep going up another 100 meters. The view at the top is alluring.

The view of Howe Sound, Indian Arm and Pitt Lake will blow you away. If you look down, a stream of “Tonka toy” cars move below you in a snake line pattern. You might see windsurfers out in the “spit” behind the town of Squamish and rock faces of The Chief – don’t stand too close – it’s a 650 metre drop to the village from here. Head down another 50 metres and you can take the lower often unused route out and back down to the first peaks trail. It is full of giant rocks and mossy lichen, so be careful – it can be slippery even on a dry day.

Don’t forget as you head back to the main trail to stop at the bottom of the waterfall to enjoy a spray of water to refresh you from you long hike.

Give yourself a couple of hours to reach the summit (it takes about the same amount of time to down hike the trail) if you are an unconditioned athlete. I’ve run to the top in the early morning hours and reached the summit in 37 minutes – I am however an elite athlete looking for an anaerobic challenge. The Stamamus is the Indian words for “where three rivers meet” and has a spiritual vibe. Enjoy its presence, stay on the trails, carry your litter out and keep your noise down so that others can also enjoy its lush surrounds and stunning views. Whatever you do, go at your own pace and enjoy the beautiful surrounds that lure so many of us!

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