Will Gadd hadn’t moved in almost an hour. He was partly wedged into an offwidth at the top of a 40-foot crack climb called Chunder Dragon (5.11a), at the Ultraviolet Cliff, a dope little crag at the top of the Sea to Sky Gondola on the Squamish Chief. The anchors were painfully just out of Will’s reach. He squirmed around and tried to gain more purchase on a funky heel-toe, while his left arm flapped around in the back of the crack like a greasy chicken wing.
“It’s a question of will,” said Will, seemingly on the brink of floundering. That heel-toe just wouldn’t stay.
“Is this really where I want to be in my life as a professional athlete right now?” he asked, laughing.
A dozen students—folks who had signed up for Will’s basic crack-climbing clinic at the Arc’teryx Climbing Academy in Squamish—seemed to collectively shrug, not knowing if this were simply Will’s brand of wry, self-deprecating humor, or if it were an actual plea to a universe that had forsaken him. Sweating, he took off his Red Bull helmet and clipped it to the outside gear loop of his harness.
“This is such a sandbag!” Will squealed, fighting the flaring maw that was spitting him out. “5.11a my ass!”
Earlier, while riding the gondola to the top of the Squamish Chief, one of the students in the clinic had mentioned that his goal was to become better at climbing offwidths.
“Why would you want to do that?” Will retorted.
O, the irony.
Offwidth climbing is a pretty masochistic endeavor in general, but Squamish offwidths certainly carry a certain infamy. In fact, prior to this day, the only thing I knew about Squamish offwidths—the only thing most of the online world knows about Squamish offwidths—is that they once made Jason Kruk shit his pants, which was captured on video and became the most-viewed climbing film of all time.
Even if you’ve seen this video before, I recommend watching it just one more time. It’s still funny.
Although slightly easier, Chunder Dragon seemed to be in the same vomit/shit-inducing genre of route-name theme as Kruk’s nemesis, “Boogie till you Poop/Puke.” According to Urban Dictionary, “chunder dragon” is a situation where you chug a lethal amount of grain alcohol until you start to projectile vomit the fire-water, while flapping your arms like a dragon. This video demonstrates it well:
Within this context, Will’s question—“Why would you want to do that?”—seems not only like a sane response, but also like the kind of damn good life advice you might only expect to receive from a serendipitous encounter with an old black musician at 2:30 a.m. in a now-empty jazz lounge.
Soon, Will had levitated two inches higher. He reached his right hand over a bulge, and mono’d the bottom chainlink of the anchor with a single finger. Then his whole body swung out of the crack while he grabbed onto the anchor as if it were the reigns of a bucking bronco.
“I’m taking that!” Will yelled. “That’s still an onsight!”
One thing I’d been ashamed to admit is that, while I’ve spent a chunk of time down in America’s ass, Mexico, up until last month I had still never been to America’s hat, Canada.
So when Arc’teryx, makers of the sleek and technical outdoor apparel, reached out to me and asked if I would join them at the Arc’teryx Climbing Academy festival in Squamish, I jumped at the chance to lose my Canadian virginity and enter the land of milk and honey and moose.
I’ve only heard amazing things about Squamish, of course. The thing that has always appealed to me most was the description of Squamish granite being “better than Yosemite.”
Better than Yosemite?
That’s a mighty bold claim, Gordon (or whatever people in Canada are named). Most places can only aspire to a reputation for being, at best, “Yosemite-esque” or even “like Yosemite.” But Squamish granite was going full monk by throwing down a “better than Yosemite.”
This, I had to see.
Unfortunately, my busy schedule left me with only a three-day window to attend the annual Canadian climbing festival as I had to squeeze it in between visiting the in-laws out East, and co-teaching at the “Rock and Ice John Long Writing Symposium,” which really just meant that I would be a student, too, tip-toeing around the booming wisdom of the master himself, Largo.
To recap: I had 3 days to get in and out of Canada. With travel, that left me just one full day to experience the grandeur of Squamish. The math didn’t make sense. But, I wondered, should I go anyway, simply to go to Canada?
Does a moose eat bark off a tree?
Hell yeah it does! (I think/assume.)
Climbing festivals are basically all the same. A bunch of people who look, dress and talk like climbers congregate in some open field beside a destination crag, and spend a weekend milling around a bunch of branded EZ-Up tents that offer festival goers chances to rent the latest shoes, harnesses and other wares for the day. There are clinics and slideshows from sponsored climbers, and impromptu games, like tug of war.
Most people spend the morning spraying beta, and making grand climbing plans with each other to tackle some really hard/long objective.
By mid-morning, after people delay their grand plans long enough through suspiciously frequent trips to find yet another cup of coffee, those plans begin to shrivel and wane and soon become plans to tackle a route that is much easier and not so scary.
Finally, after enough rounds of hacky-sack with the local hippies, lo and behold, it’s the late afternoon, all motivation is gone, and those climbing plans have finally reached their inevitable graves once people say, “Fuck it. Let’s go find the beer tent and get drunk.”
Indeed my morning began with a cappuccino with three friends from Boulder, CO. I was with Jesse Huey, Holly Yeary and Matt Segal, who was in Squamish to take a rest week from his “Dawn Wall”—hashtag what’s your Dawn Wall?—project up in the Bugaboos, a 5.14+ alpine wall that he and Will Stanhope have been chipping away at for the past few years.
“Dude, we should climb the Grand Wall today,” Matt said to me.
“That sounds awesome,” I said. “I’ve always wanted to climb that.”
“Naw, you guys should do Freeway,” Jesse said. “The Grand Wall is so overrated.”
Matt and Jesse debated the finer points of why one route might be considered slightly more classic than the other, as well as which route would be better for a Squamish noob like me.
Meanwhile I finished my cappuccino and watched a cloud bank begin to form around the Chief, knowing goddamn well that there was no way either of these plans would ever happen. Besides, I already had a pre-existing obligation that morning to attend, in order to write about, Will Gadd’s crack climbing clinic.
“I’m actually signed up to attend Gadd’s crack clinic,” I said.
“Is Will even a good crack climber?” Matt asked, lightly cackling.
“I think it’s a clinic for beginners,” I said. “Also, I’m pretty sure Will is good at everything he does.”
“Why are you going?” Jesse asked.
“Because all true masters are perpetual students,” I said, pressing my palms together in prayer. “Namaste.”
I quickly added: “Also, I’m going because that’s my job this weekend. I have to write about this clinic.”
“Well, we should go climb the Grand or Freeway after your clinic is done,” Matt said. “Text me.”
“Sure thing,” I said, making a fart noise in my head while the day’s first drops of rain began to fall. “By the way, can I borrow a rain jacket? I didn’t bring one.”
“You have to train your mind to be strong!” Will shouted at a student, who was fighting her way up a 5.10b crack.
Over the course of a few hours, we were more or less spared the brunt of the rain, and the Ultraviolet Cliff stayed dry. Meanwhile, Will continued to dish out some very no-nonsense, real-world climbing advice, and great trad-climbing tips, in a very organic way.
Some of Will’s tips included:
On Self Rescue: “It’s great to know how to escape the belay, or create a Z-pulley to haul someone out of a crevasse. But in all of my years of climbing, I’ve never had to use those skills. It’s much better to not get yourself into those situations in the first place. If you are facing a situation where you have to self-rescue, you’ve already made mistakes that could’ve been prevented. Spend more time focusing on how not to get yourself into that situation.”
On Placing Gear: “Old climbers don’t run it out. If you want to be climbing for a long, long time, you won’t either.”
Use a Gear Sling: “I prefer to rack on a gear sling. It just makes it easy to swap leads with your partner.”
Protect the First and Last Part of the Pitch: “The first piece can’t pull out, so make it multi-directional. And I always seem to fall going to the anchors, so I like to put in extra gear right at the end.”
Use Lots of Nuts: “Nuts are way more reliable than cams. They’re cheap. They’re solid. They’re reliable. Use them.”
On Building Anchors: “All those acronyms for building anchors have some value, but in the real world you’ll never find textbook situations. The most important rule of thumb for building anchors is that you need at least one absolutely bomber piece of gear. Then, if you can clip in to one or two more pieces of gear—and there are a million ways to do that—that’s going to be all you need.”
But perhaps my favorite piece of advice was something that Will said at least a dozen times during that time.
“You have to train your mind to be strong!”
If you’ve been climbing a long time, you know that shit-shows are about as inherent to this sport as car wrecks are to NASCAR. Many beginners don’t always understand this, or they think that they’re the only ones dealing with shit-shows, and that climbing for the pros always goes smoothly.
In many ways, I think the most valuable lesson at Will Gadd’s clinic was that even if you’re Will Gadd, one of the best all-around climbers in world, not everything goes smoothly all the time, and that’s OK.
What I learned at the Arc’teryx Climbing Academy is that Canada is beautiful, Squamish granite is probably better than Yosemite, and climbing festivals can be great venues for sharing some important real-world climbing lessons.
Watching Will Gadd climb the actual Chunder Dragon was a lesson that even when you find yourself in a tight squeeze, literally or figuratively, sometimes the best technique is just having a strong will.