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Castaway On Howe Sound? If You’re Lucky

The Howe Sound’s most famous cliff is Stawamus Chief, but across the water lies some of the finest granite sport, trad, and deep-water soloing in North America.


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As I look down from a belay high on Stawamus Chief, my gaze falls on an explosion of colorful kites dotting the fjord of the Howe Sound. I look past the kites to the granite walls across the water, and realize that they too offer the same glacier-polished perfection I’m climbing on today. There are over 1,500 routes on this side of the fjord, yet only 80 on the other. So what gives?

It turns out that the actual climbing on these other, lesser-known crags is the easy part. The hard part—without trails or roads to reach the cliffs, many of which rise straight out of the ocean—is access. To get here, climbers must rely on a maritime vessel: canoe, kayak, standup paddleboard, dinghy, powerboat, etc. Fortunately, over the last 20 years, an intrepid few have mastered the nautical skills needed, and climbing on the Sound has evolved from the occasional mossy adventure to long days out on scrubbed and equipped cliffs.

The 26-mile-long Howe Sound funnels south, from Squamish to West Vancouver. Its beauty and biodiversity are stunning. Eagles perch atop towering fir trees, seals frolic in coves, and sea lions bark from craggy outcrops. Nine species of salmon swim below, amidst a host of other marine life including crab, prawns, and the giant Pacific octopus. Granite walls frame the ocean, flickering from golden to pale blue with the fluctuating light. There are four main climbing areas: the Southern Crags, Spawning Ground, Ocean Wall, and Yacht Club; the east side, comprising Quartz Pillar, Seal Cove, and Majestic; Anvil Island; and the west side, featuring Sea Flea Wall and Canoe Crag. Each has its own flavor and logistics.

Jon Burak sets out on the long paddle home to Porteau Cove on a calm February day—windless days like this are rare on Howe Sound, so you have to seize them, usually with a 5 a.m. departure. Once, on a trip to Anvil Island, we forgot to check the forecast before our return voyage. As we paddled home, we were blasted by wintry, gale-force winds and were blown nine miles south off-course, nearly taken out to sea. It was an epic evening, one we hope never to repeat! (Photo: Jimmy Martinello)

The east-side crags are accessible via a 10-minute drive south from Squamish. Both Quartz Pillar and Seal Cove are described in Kevin McLane and Andrew Boyd’s Squamish Rockclimbs. The Silver Surfer (5.11c) is the standout and a coveted tick. The sensational deep-water boulder problem Majestic (V6) is also easily accessible by a 15-minute walk from Britannia Beach. However, reaching the rest of the climbing involves a vessel of some sort—and even then the weather, the tides, and your choice of watercraft all factor into which crag you can visit on any given day. 

The water in Howe Sound ranges from 35° to 60° F; it’s especially cold at “the spit,” where the Squamish River flows into the ocean. The tides can fluctuate by 13 feet over a few hours, making it hard to stay put at any one sea cliff. All of these factors pale in comparison to the wind: Howe Sound is basically a wind tunnel. Summer afternoons create a temperature differential, with the air over Squamish heating up more quickly to create low pressure that pulls the cool, dense ocean air toward shore. In winter, the opposite occurs, with Arctic outflows lashing south down the sound. However, if you’re patient, you’ll find stable weather windows. 

In 2011, Andrew Boyd and Chris Weldon established Revenge of the Sea Flea, on the south flank of Canoe Crag. A golden, glacier-polished 5.12 sport climb, Revenge was named after the small powerboat that would serve the pair well over the next five years. Boyd and Weldon used Sea Flea to add many routes, both bolted and traditional, to the sound’s north end close to the Squamish marina. They’re all documented in the Squamish guidebook, in which Boyd does an excellent job describing logistics as well as providing photos and route descriptions, including for the adventurous multi-pitch climbs of the Ocean Wall.

 In July 2017, Jimmy Martinello spent three days shooting for the Arc’teryx Exposed Photo Camp, with the final day out on Howe Sound’s ocean cliffs. Here, Caroline Jung seconds Get Your Own Boat (5.10). This route, with its varied terrain (face, crack, and slab) and mix of bolts and gear, is a great intro to climbing at the Yacht Club. Best of all, it’s just a 20-minute paddle from the Squamish Spit. (Photo: Jimmy Martinello)

Farther south, you arrive at the Canoe Crag. This impressive wall is easily seen from Britannia Beach, a community seven miles south of Squamish, and rises almost 700 feet from the ocean. Here you’ll find a dozen single-pitch trad and sport routes from 5.10 to 5.12, with reports of multi-pitch development.

Farther south still is Lhaxwm, aka Anvil Island. Lush, green, and looking like it was plucked straight from Polynesia, Anvil is fortuitously situated away from the northern sound, where the wind howls and glacial runoff chills the ocean. A tropical feel pervades instead, with arbutus trees nestled in the cracks of golden granite. The water also becomes clearer and much warmer here.

This outing in August 2018 marked Brette Harrington’s first time climbing on the sound via paddleboard. Exciting times, clipping the boards to the wall, balancing on them to get the harnesses on and rack ready, and then making those first moves from the water’s edge. Harrington, being such a strong climber and alpinist, was right at home. Here, she gets into it on Keele Hauler (5.11c). This technical route is a skill battle on micro gear, leading through thin cracks, small face holds, and sustained climbing for 35 long meters. (Photo: Jimmy Martinello)

The climbing potential on Anvil Island is massive: The isle is essentially all rock. Anvil remains wild with the exception of the southern end, where the cliffs give way to a beach and a few cabins. The development so far has focused on the Dragon’s Lair, an impressive cave and a steep face, with 10 routes from 5.11 to 5.14. Just above is the colossal Upper Wall, which ranges from 200 to 300 feet high; currently, there are about a dozen routes from 5.10 to 5.12, with many more to come.

Although the logistics to reach the cliffs on the sound are complicated, and I’ve been blown off course paddling and have had my boat sink trying to reach the rock, my days on the sound remain the most memorable I’ve had in my decades of climbing. I wouldn’t trade them for anything.

Trevor McDonald is based in Britannia Beach, where he lives with his family. He has been an avid new-router for the past 20 years, and is happy to answer questions regarding climbing on Howe Sound (coastmountainstoneworks@gmail.com).

Jimmy Martinello has lived with his wife and two children in Squamish for 14 years. He’s an avid adventurer, global traveler, and dedicated climber. Contact him for info about seaside exploring at jimmymartinello.com.

Emilie Pellerin gets right into it on the steep, varied Chum Guzzler (5.11d), an area classic at the Spawning Ground Wall. Meanwhile, Vikki Weldon rocks the standup-paddleboard belay—the crux can often be figuring out how to step off your board onto the rock to get going. (Photo: Jimmy Martinello)

A chill, end of-the-day gathering on the sound—Chris Weldon and Nichol Sheppard get in one more pitch on Andrew Boyd’s Xanadru (5.10d; FA: November 2014). This perfectly formed arête lies near the Tantalus Crossing campsite on South Crags. It takes a finger crack to an exposed finish, and at low tide you can belay right off the shoal. (Photo: Jimmy Martinello)

Vikki Weldon near the top of Chum Guzzler (5.11d). This route takes you up the center of the Spawning Ground Wall, with steep, airy climbing to this fine, smooth-arête finish. Weldon is one of the stronger female climbers in Squamish, having sent up to 5.14 throughout the Sea to Sky corridor. Chris Weldon, her brother, is another strong and passionate climber—and a driven first ascentionist on the sea cliffs. (Photo: Jimmy Martinello)

One of the coolest boulder problems/deep-water solos in the Sea to Sky Corridor and along Howe Sound is Majestic (V6), either a short 15-minute hike from the highway or a 20-minute paddle from Britannia Bay. This micro DWS is all-time, punching rightward from the water’s edge on a big pocket, busting out a hand traverse, and then leading to big moves to the lip and a culminating polished mantel. Majestic’s FA was by the legendary Italian climber Christian Core, who in 2008 put up the über-crimpy Gioia in Varazze, Italy, the world’s first V16. Here, Taz Barrett and crew enjoy a perfect summer day on the sound, with Anvil Island visible behind them, a few miles distant. (Photo: Jimmy Martinello)

Chilling by the campfire on Anvil—the three-hour paddleboard out there makes it attractive to camp and climb on the island for more than one day. (Photo: Jimmy Martinello)

One of the best 5.12 sport routes on the Howe Sound is Return of the Sea Flea, put up by Andrew Boyd in 2011. Here, Jimmy Martinello makes his way up the slightly overhanging, ocean-polished granite, trending on delicate moves above the dark waters. From Britannia Bay, it’s a 30- to 45-minute paddle or a quick, five-minute ride in a power boat. As with all the Howe Sound crags, check the weather and marine/tidal forecasts before heading out. The weather can change in an instant, with serious consequences—especially if you’re paddling, bring dry bags, extra warm clothing, life jackets, and leashes to connect to the paddleboards. (Photo: Tim Emmett)

Tim Emmett and Trevor McDonald climb the classic Silver Surfer (5.11c) at Quartz Pillar. This crag, first developed in the early 1990s, has a half dozen routes from 5.8 to 5.12 on nice, south-facing stone featured with quartz crystals and replete with a sweet belay terrace. (Photo: Jimmy Martinello)
Argonaut (5.12c) is one of the best and wildest routes on Anvil Island, and is so steep it stays dry even during coastal downpours. Here, Trevor McDonald makes its first ascent in July 2021. There are a few good rests on Argonaut but also stacks of steep sequences, with dynamic moves, hand jams, underclings, and big pinches—you’ll need to be well rounded as a climber. A 70-meter rope will lower you to the water, where your belayer can retrieve you with a stick clip—or drop you into the drink if you’ve been abusive. (Photo: Jimmy Martinello)

Lily Allard stems the initial corner on First Mate, a classic 5.10b arête. This gem is located in the center of the Canoe Crag, an area five miles from Squamish with a vast amount of potential for sport and trad—at press time, there were only nine established routes, ranging from 5.10 to 5.12. Best of all, a convenient shelf below this route provides access to all manner of seafaring vessels. (Photo: Trevor McDonald)

A longtime pioneer of new-routing in Squamish—on the Chief as well as out on the Howe Sound—Matt Maddaloni tests out one of the first climbs bolted on Anvil, the 35-meter La Bella Vida (5.11c), completed in 2019. Jimmy Martinello spied the line when he first boated past the Dragon’s Lair in 2010. The stunning wall rises right out of the water, with golden granite tiger-striped by water streaks. However, La Bella Vida was put on standby for a few years because the main focus on Anvil became the oceanside cave, where Martinello and Trevor McDonald began bolting, reaching the island via standup paddleboard—a three-hour trip each way. “All the climbs were 5.12-and-up in the cave, and we needed a warm-up,” says Martinello, hence the impetus for La Bella Vida. He installed the route on lead, busting through overlaps, hooking thin edges, and trying to get the bolts in the ideal places. The climb weaves through a magnitude of amazing features: multiple bulges, funky grooves, and glacier-polished crimps. (Photo: Jimmy Martinello)

On Anvil’s Upper Wall, many new projects have been going down, with others in the works. Here, Tim Emmett susses out virgin terrain on the wall’s south end. This line, still unclimbed, tackles some of the crag’s steepest, cleanest rock. Says Emmett, “It has a punchy start through a roof, then takes on an immaculate shield with bouldery climbing on sidepulls and undercuts, merging into a steep crack and then finishing on a fingery headwall.” (Photo: Jimmy Martinello)