Squamish Chief, Grand Wall

By: Matthew Buckle | Climbers: Matthew Buckle, Andrew Fitze-Earl |Trip Dates: April 13, 2000

Photo: Matthew Buckle

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Ever since I first climbed in Squamish about 4 years ago, my biggest goal in climbing has been to climb the Grand Wall, an 11-12 pitch route up the center of the Chief's sheer west face which bears the same name. Well, I finally got my ass up it, though not in the best of style. Here goes:

After 3 days with my head buried in books or writing exams with perfect weather outside, I needed to get out and do something. I called Andrew Wednesday night to see if he was up for anything the next day. Aside from a couple sessions falling off his warm-up problems on the wall in his garage, we hadn't climbed together since we were both living in Calgary 2 years ago, as he had been off cranking in Australia.

Andrew said sure he was up for something, but I'd have to be ropegun as he was beat up from a hard day of climbing and bouldering earlier that day. I said fine, but knew that Andrew was a very solid climber, and could lead harder than I in his sleep. After about 10 days of near perfect weather, the forecast was for an 80% chance of showers, but we decided that we'd at least head out and see if we couldn't find something dry. We eventually settled on the Grand Wall. At 11a it was near my limit, especially for a long route and leading trad, but I was pretty comfortable getting on it with Andrew.

Thursday dawned with patchy clouds, some harmless looking, others ominously dark. I headed over to the north shore where Andrew picked me up and we drove up to Squamish. It still wasn't raining, though it did look a bit threatening. We racked up and headed off to the base of the wall, getting there about 10:30. As I had climbed Apron Strings and Mercy Me, which comprise the first 3 pitches of the route, and had led the odd pitches, I suggested Andrew take the first lead so I could lead the ones I hadn't down before. Andrew said"Sure," and headed off up the 10b thin fingers first pitch. I've never heard Andrew complain on a climb before, but he was obviously feeling the effects of some hard climbing the day before, and ended up resting at the crux, which didn't bode particularly well for other 11 pitches of the route. Soon he got back on and was up to the belay. I followed, then set out on the next pitch, a 5.9 corner followed by an easy wide crack, without much incident. By this time the ominous clouds had started to drizzle a bit, but not enough to get the rock really wet.

The next pitch is a delightful easy (5.7) though runout dike. Andrew started out on this, looking about as shaky as I've ever seen him climb, quite surprising on a pitch 5 number grades below his limit. After dumping all his extra gear on the first bolt, he got up to the belay without any trouble, and I came up and started on the next pitch. The pitch was relatively straightforward; up the dike then right across the slab to a flake, with the crux a wide stem across a section of flowing bright green slime to reach the belay. The drizzle had stopped by now, and a few patches of sun showed up for a while. Andrew took the next pitch, a somewhat awkward and balancey 10b that traverses down around the bottom of the split pillar, finishing with a couple aid bolts to reach the belay. With a pack on, it seemed a bit tricky to second, but soon I was secure and staring up at one of the most intimidating pitches I've ever seen.

The split pillar is a completely detached 140 foot high pillar which sits at the base of the dead vertical mid section of the Grand Wall. The right side starts out as thin hands and gradually widens to hands, off-hands, fists, off-fists, then full on layback over 100 feet before a jug and the first rest. It then continues up some easier laybacking, before the final 15-foot squeeze chimney to the top. It has a fearsome reputation as a forearm burner, getting harder and harder all the way as the crack widens and strength fades. It took me a few minutes to psyche myself up for it, as one of the pitches I'd been wanted to have a bout with for quite some time. At strenuous 10b, I knew I had a chance, but wasn't too sure how good that chance was.

I started up the pitch with some hand and foot jamming, occasionally stemming and laybacking a bit, knowing that my best chance was to go as fast s I could before burning out. A couple small pieces went in I was feeling ok. Andrew was calling out some encouragement with occasional bits of beta thrown in for good measure.

"You got it man . . . Jam it, jam! . . . Go for it"

Everything was going OK, the pump was starting to kick in, I placed my #1 Camalots, then moved up as the crack opened to hands and wide hands. A #2 went in, a bit more jamming, a couple layback moves, I was halfway to the rest. The burn was getting stronger and stronger.

"Keep moving . . . You got it"

The crack was now fist and arm size. In went the first #3 Camalot. Getting harder and harder to jam. The burn was in full effect now. Perhaps 25 feet to the rest now. A bit higher the other #3 went in, my last piece before the rest, and the crack widened to full on layback and started to kick back a bit.

"Go for it! . . .Just go!"

"Raargh!! You bastard!!" I moved up a few more feet, feeling my arms fade.

"Come on!! You're almost at the jug"

"Yaaarrgh" a couple feet closer. The jug was maybe 10 feet away, then 8, then 6.

"You got it. . . .It's bomber man! . . .Go for it"

It was so close I could taste it, feel the wonderful sensation of reaching up to my elbows in it, but it was still 5 strenuous feet above me. Feet pasted on the wall, arms burning, I gave it my last shot.

"Rraagh!! You... Mother#&*^%aggghhhh!!!!" and I was off. And then I was looking back up to my first #1 cam. Andrew was 5 feet off the belay, held back by the chains. I've fallen on gear before, but I've never taken a real whipper on it. Perhaps 45 feet, I think this one counts as a whipper. Fully psyched up, I let out a good whoop, then looked up again and realized I had to climb all the way back up there. Another whoop, then I pulled up to let Andrew back down to the ledge. After shaking out a bit, I started yarding back up to the last piece. It took me about 15 minutes to get back up, then I hung out on my last piece waiting for some juice to return.

Ten minutes later, I moved my last piece a bit higher and was back on. This time I was a bit fresher, and the layback went a bit faster, but I was still thoroughly pumped as I reached into the jug, then hauled myself up to the rest. Another whoop. I managed to stick my head in the crack for a no-hands rest, and shook out. The climbing above was easier, but still a bit pumpy, and some smaller gear went in the behind the flakes wedged in the crack. Finally I was at the squeeze chimney. I eased myself into the chimney, only to have the gear on my back loop wedge itself between me and the rock.

"You f&^%!" I tried to get it free, eventually sliding my way into a slight widening of the chimney. Much thrashing, grunting, and swearing ensued, and eventually I reached an arm over the top of the chimney and managed to haul myself out onto the perfect belay ledge atop the pillar. I let out another whoop. What an incredible pitch. I certainly have a score to go back and settle though.

Andrew came up, feeling a bit better now, and we took a break for lunch. Andrew suggested I have a go on the next pitch, the Sword. The pitch starts up a corner which quickly narrows from wide first size to finger tips, then kicks back though a bulge. After pulling over this (the technical crux at 11a), a good rest is reached before stepping left out of the corner into a featured face crack on the main wall. Stepping out onto the wall and looking down is incredible, as this is the first time there is no ledge below. Instead, a sheer 750 drop down to the slabs and then the forest. I tried the move into the face crack, but couldn't seem to get established, and fell a few times. Eventually I decided to lower for a rest and let Andrew give it a go. He led it without much trouble, up the face crack slinging horns for 25 feet before moving back into the corner, which was now off finger size. A few strenuous moves up the corner, then a long reach out left to the chains for the hanging belay. I followed the pitch, finding the move into the face crack not too hard once I tried it from higher up the corner, but finally burning out just before the anchor.

Above this, we aided the 50 foot bolt ladder through the wildly exposed blank section,. Andrew then set out on the final 5.11 pitch, Perry's Layback, the crux a 50 foot diagonal undercling/layback. This pitch could be protected with half a dozen #4 Camalots, but most parties just clip the bolts on the adjacent bolt ladder. With one rest near the end, Andrew completed the pitch, and I followed, dogging liberally on the bolts for the last half. The pitch above this wanders right and up across a steep slab, mostly bolt protected, for about 120 feet, before some reachy moves to a dirt & pine needle covered diagonal hold and then the belay. At 10a, it seemed really hard, but considering I was pretty wasted and the crux was covered in dirt, perhaps the rating was right.

Andrew was soon at the belay and heading up the tree to get onto the final pitch, a 10c undercling flake then easier but still strenuous climbing to Bellygood Ledge. It went off without a hitch, and soon I was following it and then sprawled out one ledge at the top. Although it is possible to continue up another 4 pitches to the true top of the wall, we, like most parties, headed off south along the ledge, at times only a foot wide, which traverses the full width of the wall over 1000 feet above the ground. With a brief stop at the creek for a drink on the descent, we were back at the car just after 8pm. Roughly 10 hours car to car, all in all, not to bad.

We then set off to the brewpub for a celebratory pint, then headed back to town for some dinner, a few drinks, and a fatty. The perfect end to an absolutely fantastic day of climbing! The climb was absolutely incredible, probably the best I have ever done, even though our style was a little less than perfect. I'll certainly be back however, as I have some unfinished business to take care of. And I'm still pretty psyched about that whipper!