Climb Every Mountain (or Take the Shortcut Instead)
Canada’s rock-climbing mecca of Squamish gets a sightseeing gondola. Is that good news?
When climbers look at a rock, they see a challenge, a playground. When they look at the Stawamus Chief, the massive monolith that towers over the British Columbia town of Squamish, they see even more: the second biggest slab of granite in the world, the so-called Yosemite North. But what about the rest of us?
On May 16, the scrappy little town of Squamish will open the Sea to Sky Gondola, a sightseeing ride that ascends a whopping 1,000 feet above the Stawamus Chief. From a brand-new mountain lodge, everyone can take in vistas that had long been reserved for experienced outdoorsmen and nesting peregrine falcons.
Squamish has been many different towns. Located halfway between Vancouver and Whistler and tucked between Howe Sound and the Tantalus and Garibaldi mountain ranges, it was once crammed with sawmills and loggers; lately it’s been simply a bathroom break on the way to a ski vacation. But rock climbers, mountain bikers, and parasailers have embraced Squamish since the ’80s.
Climbers from around the world crowd Howe Sound Brewing, an airy brewpub topped with 20 cozy guest rooms, while the local climbers are more apt to gather at the vine-covered Shady Tree Pub up the road. Conversation at both drinking holes covers the same ground: where they climbed today, where they’ll climb tomorrow.
More than 1,500 rock routes lace the area, so ridiculously close together that climbers simply stroll from one to another. You could belay from the roof of your car at Murrin Provincial Park (not that you should). At the popular Smoke Bluffs, a park wedged between a neighborhood and some power lines, dogs peer through backyard fences at the crowds jingling with climbing tackle.
In the middle towers Stawamus Chief. “Lots of times, there’s a kindergarten route, but there really is no easy route to the top of the Chief,” explains Dan Butler, owner of outdoor shop Climb On. That means the best of the best come to scale Squamish’s quality granite, and the locals earn respect as “hard men.” “An average climber in Squamish would be a hard man in any other town. Actually the average hard woman here would be considered a hard man in any other town,” says Butler.
But not everyone’s a rock climber. Plenty of people look at a giant rock—or even a middling little crag—and see only the impassable. For the trepidatious, there’s the new Sea to Sky Gondola.
The idea was originally pitched in 2002 as a sky ride up the Stawamus Chief, a scheme immediately met with horror by locals and Vancouverites alike. (Would you install an escalator up Half Dome? A road up Mount Rainier?) In 2011, Canadian developers floated a new proposal: a sightseeing gondola from the highway to a ridge between the Chief and the thundering Shannon Falls.
Local groups were angry because the project necessitated encroaching on the boundaries of Provincial Park by more than six acres; they also dreaded the invasion of the backcountry. Further complications arose when winds knocked a gondola off the cable during testing in February. But Butler estimates that 75 percent of the locals approve of the $22 million ride. For Sea to Sky general manager Jayson Faulkner, it’s all very…European. “In a 45-minute drive from Zurich, there are probably 10 to 12 of these kind of things,” he says.
From the top, it’s clear the Swiss are on to something. The wood-and-glass Summit Lodge wedged into the mountain is just large enough to hold an info desk, teahouse, and quick-service restaurant. Its deck cantilevers out over the slope, taking in 270-degree views of the moody blue Howe Sound below and triangular peaks in the distance.
Short nature trails, gentle enough for toddler legs, wind through the second-growth forest to more viewing platforms and First Nations interpretive signs. On one, a suspension bridge sways in the high altitude, purposefully “just a little wiggly,” says Faulkner. And some people will venture farther afield. Bike trails will spider web from the lodge next year, and now mountaineers can get closer to backcountry huts and a popular peak called Sky Pilot. New climbing crags have been exposed on Wrinkle Rock, a granite face that looks like a giant cerebellum.
Nearly 20 percent of Squamish residents bought a season pass to the gondola sight unseen this year, but local climber Derek Christ, a lawyer, says he’ll never ride it. “Climbers will not be amused when they arrive in May to find the tramway running: lights, noise, congested trails,” he says.
But gondola GM Faulkner swears that British Columbia’s new easy-access backcountry will be all blueberry picking and snowshoe treks, no condo development or habitat destruction. It will bring a whole new population into the wilderness, and Squamish may finally earn a reputation as an outdoors paradise for hard and soft men alike.
When You Go
① Fergie's Cafe at Sunwolf
Fishermen love the riverfront shack for caribou subs and salmon burgers, plus a breakfast selection of hashes and Benedicts, about 10 minutes north of Squamish. 70002 Squamish Valley Rd, Brackendale, 604-898-1537; sunwolf.net/fergies
② Shady Tree Pub
Under a thick covering of ivy vines lies a basic pub with burgers and soups served in a space with as many windows as TVs showing Hockey Night in Canada. 40456 Government Rd, Garibaldi Highlands, 604-898-1571; shadytreepub.com
③ Howe Sound Brewing
A combo brewery, restaurant, bar, and hotel serves a broad medley of lagers, hoppy ales, and seasonal brews. 37801 Cleveland Ave, Squamish, 604-892-2603; howesound.com
④ Hotel Squamish
A bare-bones inn over a liquor store nevertheless delivers good service and cheap, serviceable digs. 37991 Second Ave, Squamish, 604-892-9584; hotel-squamish.com
⑤ Sea to Sky Gondola
Opening May 16, the sightseeing ride rises almost 3,000 feet up to an eatery, suspension bridge, and viewing platform. $35, 36800 Hwy 99, Squamish, 855-732-8675; seatoskygondola.com
⑥ Shannon Falls Provincial Park
The third-tallest waterfall in British Columbia, a spectacular 1,100 feet of water, is only a few steps up a wide trail from the parking lot. Hwy 99, Squamish, env.gov.bc.ca/bcparks/explore/parkpgs/shannon
⑦ Stawamus Chief Provincial Park
Experts take 12 to 14 pitches—meaning they reset their equipment more than a dozen times—to reach the top of this granite monolith, said to be second only to the Rock of Gibraltar in size. Hwy 99, Squamish, env.gov.bc.ca/bcparks/explore/parkpgs/stawamus
⑧ Britannia Mine Museum
The opposite of rock climbing, Britannia offers a trip into the rocky tunnels of this decommissioned copper mine, now a museum showing off moving machinery and local lore. $22, 1 Forbes Way, Britannia Beach, 800-896-4044; britanniaminemuseum.ca