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.
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.
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.
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org).
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.
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