Whistler’s little sister
Squamish has become a hub for mountain biking and climbing
THE road to Wigan Pier is in Squamish. It lies just off Highway 99, on a slow-back eddy tucked behind the Highlands Mall with its sprawling parking lots and bland cheerfulness. It’s on Tantalus Way, and cars shoot past it without a sideways glance, eyes focused on the asphalt ahead as they make for Whistler, British Columbia’s confident star pupil.
Wigan Pier, a fish and chip shop, is at the end of the road. To get there you first walk past the Cup organic deli, with a pile of bikes outside and a glut of cyclists inside loading up on fresh carbs.
Then you pass Pepe & Gringo’s, where local cocktail drinkers enjoy the flattering low candlelight and sip margaritas out of delicate glasses. Opposite Wigan Pier, men in biker jackets stand outside the sports bar smok- ing cigarettes next to huge Dodge Ram trucks. If fish and chips and Tantalus Way had existed in 1792, when British explorer George Vancouver made the first nonnative foray into Darrell Bay just south of Squamish, he would have gone to Wigan Pier and feasted like a king.
The small restaurant flies the flag for the British legacy, with its London Tube maps and Tetley’s Bitter, scampi, cod and mushy peas. Owner Greg Venables hails from a village near Wigan in Lancashire and saw similarities between the two towns’ workingclass ethics, deciding to name his eatery in honour of his homeland when he opened it in 1995.
Vancouver christened the area Howe Sound, sparking a period of trade with the First Nations peoples before colonisation, farming and forestry created the town and gave it its life force. From the top of the Stawamus Chief, the world’s second largest granite monolith, which looms 700m above the town, you can trace its evolution from port, which was its connection to Vancouver, 70km to the south, until the 1950s, through to the chalk prints of climbers dotted over the rock.
Jim Baldwin and Ed Cooper took six weeks to scale the Chief in 1961. Their achievement heralded a new era, and income, for the area: adventure tourism. By the 80s the tales of Yosemitelike walls and spectacular granite had spread among the climbing community, with the more hardcore members finding bold and challenging new routes.
‘‘But they had an uneasy coexistence with the townspeople,’’ explains Dave Jones, who edits Squamishclimbing.com. ‘ ‘ The town was built on the logging industry, and climbers got lumped in with the green-leaning city folks from Vancouver. You can imagine the tension when a group of scruffy climbers walked into the Chieftain Hotel full of loggers.’’ As the sawmills shut down in the 90s, people came to Squamish and saw it without the associated pollution. The town began to invest in outdoor recreation, culminating in the Adventure Centre, a glass-and-wood construction on the outskirts of town; it’s a one-stop shop for booking anything from a rock-climbing guide to a sea kayak trip.
‘‘Less than 10 years ago, fewer than 100 climbers lived in Squamish. Now there are more than 1000. When you drive into the Chief campground, you see licence plates from all over the States and Canada,’’ Jones says
‘‘For most tourists, Squamish is a pit stop at McDonald’s en route to their destination, which is Whistler. But for climbers, Squamish is the destination.’’
Jones is right. Most tourists head for Whistler, which opened for skiing in 1966 and welcomes 2.1 million visitors each year, dwarfing the 25,000 who stop over at the more authentic, bluecollar Squamish.
‘‘It’s the social vibe that really hits you here,’’ Jones says.
‘‘When you slip off the highway you encounter a town that shares your appreciation for outdoor adventure.’’
Squamish has one of the biggest mountain-bike clubs in Canada, with 800 members out of the town’s population of 16,000. Every Wednesday, the Squamish Off-Road Cycling Association hosts a Toonie race, so called because it costs $ C2 ($ 1.97) to enter. There’s a loyal turnout — people come after work, yachties banter with policemen, teachers chat to mums, and the crowd often grows to more than 100.
‘‘I really don’t want to race tonight,’’ says Shaums March, a Red Bull-sponsored mountain biker who runs a training school in Squamish.
‘‘But I always find myself at the Toonie. It’s where the whole place gets together.’’
Like many in the area, March first arrived with the intention of settling in Whistler, 40 minutes up the road and the bigger name in outdoor sports. ‘‘The more I raced, the more I headed to places like Kamloops and Whistler. We’d pass Squamish and it had a cool vibe. The trails here are great, and increasingly we found ourselves riding here. So we stayed.’’
The town sits amid dramatic natural terrain possessing enough features to satisfy any outdoor enthusiast. While mountain bikers make use of rooty, earthy trails on the thickly rainforested sides of mountains in areas such as Alice Lake and Cougar Ridge, kite boarders, sailors and kayakers exploit the waters of Howe Sound and Squamish River.
But it’s the Chief, a spiritual site for the Sko-mish people, that has made Squamish a worldrenowned rock-climbing destination; even the hike up the back involves a series of ladders and chains to reach the summit. Walkers pass the thundering mists of Shannon Falls before they reach the sign at the base of the 2.5km hike that dares them to continue. ‘‘This hike is not a walk in the park,’’ it says with an understatement visitors soon learn is also part of the Squamish vibe.
It’s not all about big walls, though. Smoke Bluffs climbing area is a two-minute drive from the centre of town, its car park decorated with campervans and boulder mats. Here, climbing lessons take place on creatively named walls: Elephant’s Arse, Penny Lane, Futurama.
Down at Murrin Lake, boulderers (who climb smaller walls without ropes) can enjoy a late-evening session right by the water.
Inspiration for many comes from the natural environment, a consequence of needing to sustain it and care for it as tourism grows, but also as a way of tapping into the local heritage.
The Squamish Nation, which occupied the terrain long before Vancouver encountered it, continues to own parcels of land amounting to 6732sq km. Their message is one of symbiotic living with nature, and rings true for those who spend hours on rock, earth and water.
Within rock-climbing circles, Squamish is one of the few places that still embrace the traditional dirtbag lifestyle of climbers — people who sacrifice creature comforts for maximum time on rock. The campsite at the Chief remains cheap, with unrestricted stays, meaning that people sometimes pitch a tent for the summer.
The Squamish vibe gets a good airing on Cleveland Avenue. It’s a hotchpotch of craft boutiques, organic delis, climbing shops, ski shops, galleries and one-off stores selling eclectic items.
Indeed, the artistic community is vibrant, with the Squamish Valley Artists’ Society listing 35 professional artists as making a living in the town. It’s part happyhippie, part adrenalin junkie, and Squamish seems to revel in its ‘‘We’re not Whistler’’ reputation despite the whiff of granite chip on shoulder.
There’s little gloss, no glamour and minimal time spent on creating an image. The loggers have gone now, and paint peels off the walls of the Chieftain Hotel as you head out of town towards the warm interior of the Howe Sound Brewing Company.
Here, local patrons stack up their self-decorated beer mugs behind the bar.
How long the small-town feel will last is debatable. The wheels are in motion for the development of the Squamish Oceanfront, a project to transform the area around an old water treatment plant into a new community, complete with 917 condos and 203 homes, plus schools and activity centres.
It’s a bold 20-year plan, with construction due to start this year. Yet at its core remains a vision of sustainability, a desire to emphasise cultural and environmental heritage and reduce car use.
Not far from Wigan Pier is Bean Around the World, a coffee shop and cafe where the rustic interior belies a modern take on breakfasts. Warm ham and cheese scones are followed by huge burritos and hazelnut lattes. The radio plays terrible rock music. Squamish isn’t perfect. But it’s getting most things right.
There’s rock-climbing for all