Climbing Pioneer Tony Cousins Remembered


Tony Cousins set first route on the Stawamus Chief’s ApronA beloved climbing pioneer is being remembered after succumbing to a heart attack while scaling a route at Smoke Bluffs Park Monday (July 28). Tony Cousins died while climbing Sally Five Fingers, a moderate 5.9 climb on the very popular Neat and Cool wall.“He was on a fixed rope with a self-locking device, climbing alone on a route he’d done hundreds of times before, said Jim Sinclair, his climbing partner and close friend of 50 years. “It’s kind of like, I don’t know, it’s kind of like crawling into your own bed.” Cousins arrived in Canada as a British war child, and as a young man, took to the mountains and made it his life, said Sinclair. “The Alpine Club of Canada founded the Mountain Rescue Group [in North Vancouver], both Tony and I were in that in the 1960s. And Tony went on many serious rescues.He was in the ski patrol for many years in Whistler. He worked in the Swiss Alps as a ski guide for many years. He has been climbing for over 50 years, including serious mountains.” Among his many peaks, Cousins counted the 14,410-ft Mount Rainier and the 9,127-ft Mount Shuksan, which he’d done “probably 10 or 15 times,” said Sinclair. And before Jim Baldwin partnered with Ed Cooper in 1961 to famously scale the Chief’s Grand Wall, Baldwin helped Cousins, then 23 years old, set the first route of the Chief’s Apron earlier that same year. Cousins named the route Slab Alley.“He was an extraordinary man,” said Sinclair. “Jim Baldwin called him a ‘G-Man,’ meaning guts. One day when he and Baldwin were climbing on this Slab Alley first ascent – you must realize it’s a slab and it’s 700 feet high, and nobody’s ever been here before, and you’re leading out on this thing and there’s nowhere to put protection in – Tony reached in his pocket, pulled out a sock, put it on his head and pulled his cap down over the top of the sock, and said: ‘I’ll lead.’ “He used his sock and a cap as a hardhat. That’s the kind of guy he was.” If Cousins’s name isn’t as familiar as some other celebrated rock climbers, that may be because he didn’t seek the limelight.Despite his apparent bravado, Cousins wasn’t that interested in scoring first ascents, but he was a fixture among Squamish rock climbers for decades. His name appears as the first ascender perhaps half a dozen times in Squamish climbing guidebooks, said author of The Squamish Guide, Kevin McLane. “Tony was never really a pusher at the front of the climbing scene,” said McLane. “He may have seen himself more as a mountaineer than a Squamish rock climber, but if that’s true, it was still pretty subtle. I mean… he put a lot of time in here.” Cousins had experienced chest pain and pressure while climbing since a heart attack three years ago, but friends nonetheless respected his choice to keep doing what he loved.“He came out here, he didn’t phone me,” said Sinclair, “he knew what he was going to do, he came up there, and he probably… I’m quite sure he was happy to go that way.” “I think in a relative sense,” said McLane, “you can say that for Tony to die of a heart attack while climbing, many people might say ‘Well, that’s not a bad way to go’.” As climbing partners, Sinclair got to know Cousins in ways friends rarely do. “He saved my life a few times,” said Sinclair.A recent close call occurred in June, 2006 when Sinclair fell 60 feet off a trail at the top of a climb in Murrin Park, sustaining injuries to his ribs and head. “He was really distraught about me a few years ago when I took my fall,” said Sinclair. In an interview with The Chief, Cousins gleefully said Sinclair’s survival was “like Easter, Christmas and winning the lottery all rolled into one. There must be something in store for you.” Cousins was saved when Sinclair, along with a third climber, Les McDonald, cut him down after he’d fallen upside down on a North Vancouver route, sustaining a serious head injury. Cousins was more than a climber, however. He was a husband and father to three, and made a point of balancing climbing with family life.He was also known for his sense of humour, said Sinclair. “He had an incredible wit. There was one incident I often think about: we went climbing one night and came down late and it happened to be Halloween night. “We went to the Lotus Garden Chinese restaurant and the gentleman that owned the restaurant had to keep the door locked because there were kids out in the streets throwing eggs. “At that moment, in walked a RCMP constable and he had egg all running down his tunic. And Tony walked up and said ‘Excuse me sir, what do you charge for an omelette?’” And with so much time spent together on remote ledges, the duo also shared laughs over a few less appealing attributes. “He played a terrible guitar and even worse mouth organ,” laughed Sinclair. “As Tony suspected, the mouth organ truly did not fall off the ledge that night – I threw it off.” Both McLane and Sinclair agree that Cousins’s most memorable trait is his joviality.“I didn’t know Tony well,” said McLane, “but whenever I would meet him, that is my overarching memory – he was always cheerful and always smiling.” “His thing was fun: ‘Hey man let’s go! It’ll be great!’” said Sinclair, adding what he’ll remember most of Cousins: “To be honest with you, I’m sure it’ll be his smile. “I don’t know how many times I’ve sat at Starbucks, you know, we’re supposed to meet at 10 o’clock, and there he comes around the corner and, boom, there it is.”