Climber camping culture

From humble beginnings when Jim Baldwin and Ed Cooper started up the Grand Wall of the Stawamus Chief in May of 1961, Squamish has hosted an avalanche of rock climbers seeking extremes: challenging routes balanced by a laid-back lifestyle when the harnesses are off.

Every year, thousands of climbers come here to test themselves on the granite boulders and cliffs. The result is a passionate group of Canadians and internationals who call Squamish home for the summer. 

While many stake a temporary claim to a campsite within Stawamus Chief Provincial Park, others wishing to be a little closer to nature – and avoid the cost and regulations of a sanctioned campground – opt for more freestyle camping. The Squamish Estuary and along the Stawamus or Mamquam rivers are known to be favourite spots. 

Whatever the accommodation, it is an interesting community and culture that forms in a climber campground – generally focused on maximizing climbing and enjoyment of life. 

Phil Bonham, 27, and Claire Donley, 28, are two people who chose to lead parts of their lives in this fashion. 

Bonham has lived in Squamish and Whistler for the past five years. This summer, he decided to embrace his “inner dirtbag” and move into a camper-van.

“I was nervous about moving into a van, because I wasn’t sure what it was going to be like,” he said, elaborating on the culture around the park’s campground from inside his van. 

“From day one, it was pretty much the best decision I’ve ever made. The lifestyle is so good. The people are so good. There’s so much support. There’s never a dull moment. There’s beauty and there’s love and just amazing times.”

Bonham climbs most days, particularly during this past period of consistently sunny weather.

Donley is from Oregon, and she’s staying in Squamish for five weeks before she returns to finish her masters in physiotherapy. She said the community of people in the campground is amazing.

“They’re just so giving,” she said. “You know we make dinners together all the time, potluck-style, and we hacky-sack and talk about things that matter.” 

Donley adds that this summer a Frenchman taught her how to aid-climb – a style of climbing in which the climber employs metal equipment to improve purchase on the rocks and “aid” themselves upwards. 

“Everyone I have met here, I can call a good friend,” she said. “I’ve been meeting people from around the world. I went on an adventure with a Swedish girl I just met a few days ago. I know I’m going to keep in contact with her for the rest of my life.” 

Donley and Bonham express the archetypical sentiment of the scene at the climbing campground. People are psyched on climbing and living simply. 

Cleo Simms, Sam Laviné and Gabriol Kelley, who hitchhiked west to Squamish from Quebec City earlier this summer, are relaxing under the covered cooking area in the Stawamus Chief Provincial Park campground. 

They’re waiting for the cooler evening before they return to the boulders for another climb. 

“It’s chill, everybody is climbing. Squamish is one of the best places on the earth to climb,” said Laviné. 

“There is no shower, but there are the falls right there and it’s cold, but beautiful,” added Simms.

The discussion about climbers around Squamish is often focused on how to better accommodate them and how to get more of them staying in legitimate campsites.

John Harvey is the founder of the Mamquam River Access Society. He’s working on creating a not-for-profit, 45-site campground alongside the Mamquam River on Centennial Way. He says the site is in the middle of everything – biking trails, climbing areas and the Brennan Park Recreation Centre – and it will aim to attract climbers, cyclists, windsurfers and other people passing through town. People have camped on this patch of Crown land for 40 years until recently when efforts were made to curb the perennial phenomena of nature camping – or squatting, as some opponents would call it.

Harvey is currently in the process of acquiring a Crown lease and applying to have the land rezoned with the District of Squamish. He says his intention is affirmed by the number of people who approach him and let him know that they think this type of project is exactly what Squamish needs. 

Given the growing popularity of climbing in Squamish, efforts like Harvey’s for more and better accommodation of these rock-enthused freespirits are probably worthwhile.

Back in his van, Bonham laments the end of the climbing season and having to return to a life more consistent with typical social norms. 

“I haven’t had a bad day yet. Damn, I don’t want this to end,” he said. “I have to move back into an apartment in the winter time when it gets cold, but I don’t really want to.”

Michelle Le Banc, from Nova Scotia, who describers herself as the only Acadian on the Chief, climbing the Titanic Boulder. - David Buzzard
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