Down and Out in Squamish & Whistler

A version of this article was published in the Winter/Spring 2017 edition of Mountain Life.

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Illustration: Dave Barnes

Dirtbag (noun): English portmanteau of “dirt” from the Old Norse “drit” meaning “excrement”; and “bag” from the Ancient Greek “bastagma” meaning “load” – lit. therefore: “load of excrement”.

  1. A bag or sack with dirt in it.
  2. An unkempt or slovenly person; an undesirable.

~~~

Beggars do not work, it is said; but, then, what is work? A navvy works by swinging a pick. An accountant works by adding up figures. A beggar works by standing out of doors in all weathers and getting varicose veins, chronic bronchitis, etc. It is a trade like any other; quite useless, of course–but, then, many reputable trades are quite useless…” – George Orwell

~~~

We spent the first year and a half of our life in the Sea to Sky corridor sleeping in the back of a rusty red work van with the words “Ville de Montréal” tacked on the side. We’d driven the van from Québec across the continental US (where gas was cheaper), arriving finally in Squamish – the outdoor capital of Canada.

Of course, I say “sleeping” in the back of the van because all of our living was being done outside of it – climbing, hiking and skiing. Anyway, on day three in town, after we’d made some mandatory repairs to our ailing vehicle, my girlfriend Eleanor tallied up the finances and discovered that we had eighty-three dollars between us. Eleanor had lined up a cash job at a dog kennel so we figured – with a splash of cautious optimism – that the receipt of a paycheque was feasible within two weeks. This left us, if we divided eighty-three by fourteen, with a per diem of five loons and ninety-two cents. A share-sized pepperoni pizza from Little Caesar’s cost $5.85 which left seven cents a day for whatever our hearts desired.

The point is we were poor. Which didn’t matter because we were happy. Although, to be fair, if we were a little less poor it’s not unreasonable to think that we might have been a little more happy.

In the meantime, we parked out front of the Walmart to access wifi and since we also frequently stayed there for the night, we listed that lot as our address when we switched over to British Columbia driver’s licenses. It was also a good place for the essentials – ramen, oatmeal and energy bars – because even when you live under the breadline you still have to line up for your bread.

We were, in the colourful parlance of the outdoors, a couple of “dirtbags” – living a life divided almost exclusively between Walmart, work, and the walls of the Stawamus Chief – the great totem-like stone around which the climber configures his existence.

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The “dirtbag” of course, is less a species of outdoorsman and more a genus of outdoorsman – an umbrella term which describes a variety of different types of people who prioritise experience over possessions and adventure over stability. For example, during the summer, the dirtbag scene in the parking lot of the Stawamus Chief can be subdivided into three different social strata.

At the top of the dirtbag pyramid (and the closest this world gets to an aristocracy) are the Sprinter van dirtbags. Often, a Sprintocrat hails from outside the Sea to Sky Corridor, piloting vehicles with license plates from such far-flung places as California or Colorado. In the sense then that Sprinter dirtbags are usually holidaymakers or professional athletes (and often both) they tend to “eat cake”, so to speak, while the lower-tier dirtbags (les paysans) must use wit and cunning in their search for daily bread.

One tier down, the dirtbag middle class constitutes the only working class amongst the dirtbags. Typically, they are “local” in the sense that Squamish, Whistler or Pemberton are the listed towns of residence on their driver’s licenses. In the eyes of many well-settled, land-owning locals however, the inherent kinesis of the dirtbag sleeping quarters means that the middle class dirtbag can only ever be considered “drifters” or “freeloaders” – terms that both come with a history of social and political baggage.

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It’s a misnomer of course, as middle class dirtbags generally occupy all the lowest-paying positions in the modern industrial economy. Operating lifts, selling tickets, pouring drinks, manning checkouts and ferrying cartons of hamburger meat up and down scenic gondolas, the middle class dirtbag is the oxygen-transporting haemoglobin of the Sea to Sky service economy without which there would be no French fries and nobody to hate on.

To make matters worse, a working class dirtbag is also derided as a “granola” by the lower dirtbags stratums for his or her ability to financially access the more bourgeois of the cereal options. So, much like middle classes the world over, the granola dirtbag gets all the loathing that comes with privilege without actually being privileged.

The final class of dirtbag (the dirtbag in its purest form) is the species a naturalist might refer to as “homo dirtbag dirtbagius” but whom others might refer to as “the lowest of the low”. These are dirtbags in their natural state, lifers who typically reside beneath tarps and tents and if a car is even owned at all, it is rarely greater in size than a Honda Civic. Although usually male, they come from many different backgrounds – young, old, Ontarian, Quebecois, often Australian.

This lowest form of dirtbag, it must be said, does not work, but then as Orwell once quipped “what, indeed, is work?” The Sprintocrats work by uploading filtered images to the Instagram accounts of outdoor clothing companies, the granolas work by serving beers to hedge-fund managers with goggle tans and the true dirtbag woks by bin-diving for the curd gristle on a discarded plate of poutine or by hoovering up the remnants of a half-eaten sandwich in a day-lodge cafeteria – to keep away the bears of course.

Insofar as these bin-diving, pow-shredding, rock-scampering dirtbags are usually cognitively-functioning members of society, most are, at the very least, physically competent to commence work. This means that social mobility across the three dirtbag strata is fairly easy. The lowest dirtbag can become a granola simply by getting a job and the granola can become a member of the Sprinter-owning class, provided that he is happy to shoulder a lifetime of debt for an overpriced vehicle.

Thriftiness defines the dirtbag and so does mobility. He knows that twenty dollars of gas will get him from Squamish to Whistler and back in his beat-up gas-guzzler. But he also knows that he must factor in the very real possibility that his van might never restart when he makes for a tactical exit in the wintry pre-dawn from his illegal bivouac in the Lot 4 parking lot. Fringe-dwelling aside, he is a good enough fellow – grateful even of his mountain life.

Indeed, for the dirtbag, the mobility afforded by life in a car is better than paying somebody else’s mortgage. It gives one freedom of movement. Squamish in the summer, winter at Roger’s Pass and perhaps a trip to Indian Creek or Bella Coola in the shoulder seasons if he can skimp to together the gas money.

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Certainly, there isn’t much incentive for the dirtbag to sedentarise in today’s housing market. With a detached single bedroom likely to cost the dirtbag one thousand two hundred dollars per month, renting a place in Squamish or Whistler, share house or not, may as well involve speculating in Texan cattle ranches. So, for many, the time spent dreaming about living in a home is better spent cross-checking the calorie content of a can of tuna.

With the reasons for dirt-bagging being wholly rational then, the only question that remains is “why is the dirtbag hated?” Well, no one really hates the dirtbag. “Hate” is a word best saved for that moment when the Vancouverites cruise into Creekside at 7’oclock in the morning on Opening Day and find not a single spot available. The parking lot is full of dirtbags. They’ve taken on the Goretex-clad pelage of the dirtbag in winter form – the “ski-bum”… and they’ve slept there overnight.

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A working class dirtbag, on patrol

 

 

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Fall

Fall. Fall now. Fall hard. Fall long. Fall so long and so hard and so far that the force of your falling mass – the dead weight that is you attached to the end of your rope – catapults your belayer and all your fears into the sky. You are the counterpoise of the trebuchet that is your life – only you can cast off the load that is weighing you down. Fear, uncertainty, insecurity – it all weighs heavily on your shoulders. Cast it off. Everything. You don’t need it.

Fall. Fall now. Fall hard. Fall long. Fall so long and so hard and so far that you rip gear from the wall. That tiny, finger-sized piece. Yeah, the one you’d slivered into the crack with shaking legs and shaking arms. The one you’d told yourself was good (or good enough, anyway) and clipped it to the rope. Or maybe it was that big cam. That same piece that you thought could anchor a battleship to a bundok… Fall on it. Rip it from the wall. Make a twenty-foot whipper out of the one you’d hoped would stop at ten. Ready your mind and savour the plunge and slam hard against the wall and feel what it’s like to fail. Feel, so you can remember, what it’s like when the gear fails.

Yeah. The system doesn’t always work the way you were hoping. The tiniest perturbation in the system – an arbitrarily small change – can make a shambles of your plans. Mathematicians call this “sensitivity to initial conditions”. Chaos ensues, inevitably. Maybe the perturbation was one you’d failed to notice – a cam lobe wasn’t seated properly behind a jutting crystal inside the crack. Maybe the perturbation was one you couldn’t have noticed – the biotite minerals inside this particular section of granite are heavily hydrolysed and the feldspar crystals have become powdery and rotten – friable rock. The cam was always going to rip, says the chemist. After the fact, of course.

Regardless, this is what it feels like to fall. To fail. This is what it feels like to be run out far above that last piece and then to blow it. To not be good enough at that moment in time. This is what it feels like to be flipped upside down by the rope when it wraps itself behind your leg. This is what it feels like to be re-oriented, eyeballs pointed earthward, and to watch the ground rushing towards you. You, the climber, the one who’s just made the transition to bungee jumper.

After the fall, and after you hit the wall, and flail around at the end of the rope, whooping at your friends about the big whipper you just took, you will realise that the fall was nothing, that the whipper doesn’t even matter, that you were wrong to be afraid in the first place, because even though your gear ripped you are still fine, totally fine, and your fear of falling was totally irrational.

The fall doesn’t matter. It never did.

It doesn’t matter.

You will come to a similar realisation while you are falling. That it – everything – doesn’t matter. While you are falling though, it’s not the fall that doesn’t matter, but the you that doesn’t matter. In allowing yourself to fall you have come to terms with the limitations of the you. Finally, you have come to the realization that you are not invulnerable – that this climb is too hard for the you at this particular moment in time. And regardless of whether you are alive or dead at the end of this fall, it simply doesn’t matter. What happens happens. Live. Die. Break your foot. Whatever. What will ensue in the fullness of chaos will ensue. And you don’t matter.

So fall. Fall now. Release yourself from the wall. Take the whipper. Log some air time. Tell yourself that you have failed. Come to terms with your failure. Be content with your failure so that you can throw yourself at the feet of failure again and again in the future. Failure is the only constant. Success, though gratifying, is only fleeting. Accept this. Embrace it.

And fall. Be the guillotine – the one that is crashing down upon your own ego – that same ego that brought you up here in the first place. Maybe then, you will learn something.

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The author climbing in the Blue Mountains. (Photo: John Price)

Lo, The Terminus

“Oooh! For Christ’s sake let me alone!” cried the wounded man, but still he was lifted and laid on the stretcher.

Nicholas Rostov turned away and, as if searching for something, gazed into the distance, at the waters of the Danube, at the sky, and at the sun. How beautiful the sky looked; how blue, how calm, and how deep! How bright and glorious was the setting sun! With what soft glitter the waters of the distant Danube shone. And fairer still were the faraway blue mountains beyond the river, the nunnery, the mysterious gorges, and the pine forests veiled in the mist of their summits… There was peace and happiness… “I should wish for nothing else, nothing, if only I were there,” thought Rostov. “In myself alone and in that sunshine there is so much happiness; but here… groans, suffering, fear, and this uncertainty and hurry… There—they are shouting again, and again are all running back somewhere, and I shall run with them, and it, death, is here above me and around… Another instant and I shall never again see the sun, this water, that gorge!…”

At that instant the sun began to hide behind the clouds, and other stretchers came into view before Rostov. And the fear of death and of the stretchers, and love of the sun and of life, all merged into one feeling of sickening agitation.” – Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, Book II, Chapter VIII

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Navigating the terminus of the hollow, melted-out Sphinx Glacier.

The old man, chained, by time, to his wheelchair, looks up at me with eyes wide. Medical paraphernalia exudes from everywhere all over him. On his wrist, there is a coloured band with a name and a number and a barcode – the international accessory of the admitted infirm.

“Are you going to be around here for awhile?” he asks with open palms. Fingers spread, hands pointing up – like a supplicant.

I come to a halt in front of him, keys jangling at my waist, short-wave radio clasped to my belt. In the evenings I work security at the hospital, doing my two-hourly rounds through palliative care. Checking the locks on doors, alarm systems, fire panels. That kind of thing.
“Jack was a logger” according to the life synopsis that the nurses have sticky-taped to the wall next to the door to his room.
He left his native Ontario at age 15 and worked his way across the country on the trans-Canada railroad. A stint in the boiler rooms of the coal-powered ships crossing the Pacific followed; then time in Papua New Guinea hunting “alligators” [sic]. Later, he would “serve as a mercenary” and then, returning to Canada, with the RCMP as a Mountie above the Arctic Circle. Then, he settled down, in the fjords of British Columbia, with his wife and three children. This is the bio of a man who has lived a very full life – an adventurous life. Jack was a “fun hog” in the sense that Chouinard and Tompkins might have used the term.
“Are you going to be around here for awhile?” he asks me again.
I nod, and point to the “Security” embellishment on my uniform. “I’m always around,” I say.
“What?”
He doesn’t hear me. Jack is mostly deaf and the deafness does not help with the dementia. He beckons me toward him, asking me to repeat myself – and, leaning in, progressively closer, I eventually give up.
I hold up two fingers. Jack can still see. He gets it. Kind of. “You’re here for two hours?”
I nod. Close enough.
“But I need someone to watch out for me,” he says. “Can’t you stay awhile and watch out for me?”
I nod. “I’m here for you Jack,” I say. He doesn’t hear me.
“I need someone to watch out for me,” he repeats.
A nurse at the nursing station, seeing me detained part-way through my patrol, intervenes. “Come on now Jack,” she says, and she approaches, inserts herself into Jack’s surrounding and then smiles at me as if to say, “it’s OK, I’ve got this now. You’re right to go on.”
I look back at the bio sheet on the door again, reading more about Jack’s life. Here, the choice of tense in the wording stands out. Jack “was a logger”; “he enjoyed fishing”; “he took to deep-sea sailing on the West Coast”. Here is a life history written in the past tense – the same tense we employ for the life histories of Norgay, Napoleon, Nietzsche – as though the man were already dead.
A nurse reports that one of the maintenance guys has left the door to the outside workshop open. It’s my job to go and lock it. Access control. I step out a fire escape. The evening is clear and cold in Squamish. No winter rains today. Just the chill as the last of the day’s light disappears behind the Tantalus Range. I look east towards the Garibaldi range. In the distance, the Crosscut Ridge of Mt Isosceles is seen through the valley-gap between Crumpit Woods and the lower flanks of the Chief, silhouetted in the light of a rising moon. In its current state, caked in ice and snow, the Crosscut Ridge is very much in winter condition. Last summer, we’d tried to get in there to climb it, only to be shut down by weather and distance and ability. Late season conditions. Melting glaciers reaching the end of their lifespans.
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The saw-toothed Crosscut Ridge, “the obscure object of our desire”, centre-right.

I was preparing for another shot at it in the early spring, hoping to use skis to cut the approach time by traversing the ice floes on Garibaldi Lake. This time before the summer sun had melted everything out and before the glacier became a labyrinth again.
I return inside and patrol through the “Intermediate Secured Unit” – where they put the high-risk patients – and then, with my rounds complete, I step out into the main hallway again. Someone else, Jim, an old miner, is complaining that another resident entered his room and stole all his stuff. He seems upset. Upset people can become aggressive and Jim has a history of aggression. For the most part, I ignore him. I let the nurses know about his problem and tell them to raise me on the radio if they need me.
I walk away. I don’t much want to grow old, I think to myself, although I know that one day I will have to. I don’t want to die either but I know that this is not an option available to me.
In pre-modern Japanese society, the base of Mount Fuji was said to be a site for a practice called ‘ubasute‘ – whereby the elderly and the infirm were left before the mountain’s bosom to die. Similar things have been said of pre-colonial Inuit society where “old Eskimos were set adrift on ice floes” – farewelled into Nature’s arms. The historicity of these past practices is the subject of intense debate. They may indeed just be myths. But the fact that rumours of these other-worldly practices have persisted (even if solely amongst foreigners gossiping about the Other), reminds us that the problem of how Man should spend his last days is a problem we have not yet solved as a species. We are uneasy about and perhaps not yet satisfied with the systems we have designed for dying. How can we be?
I walk on through the corridors, passing by the infirm in their beds – respirators on, holding on, clinging on. Televisions play in all the rooms. Just another half hour of television. Hold on just a little bit longer. I feel very happy for my beloved grandfather (just passed in December) that he did not spend long in permanent care before he died. He escaped that fate – the fate of a man dying while surrounded by others who are also dying. Quick and painlessly, he went.
The next day, the rains return but then it clears for a while around midday. I can see my objective again – the Crosscut Ridge. I imagine myself on top of the highest gendarme – picking my way along its plated back. I am looking across my domain – my mountains – and I am wondering what it will feel like to die. I am wondering what it must have been like for Ari, when he fell from Mount Aspiring. What were those seconds like? Those final seconds of falling, before impact on the Bonar Glacier? Surely, there must have been fear. Anxiety. But still, I have to believe, I must believe that he was at peace with himself – that he’d accepted it, and in accepting it, experienced a sensation of something akin to bliss.
Yes, I think to myself, gazing across at Garibaldi and Phyllis’ Engine and the Sphinx – mountains named for beings past, both real and fictive, with their own life histories attached. Death is a problem.
A host of dark questions gnaw at me. How do I stay alive in these mountains? How do I keep living without growing old? How do I face the inevitable without becoming a nihilist? How much more of this beauty can I enjoy before I am too old to keep seeking it out? And will I be able to find enjoyment, find beauty in other things, when I am too old and too weak and I’ve lost my mobility?
A few days later, I clock on again at the hospital and continue on my rounds through the residential home. Jack, in his wheelchair, is in the hallway again. He looks docile now. The feintest hint of a smile crosses his lips. Like the dying Count Bezukhov, the father of Pierre, the protagonist of War and Peace:
“While the count was being turned over, one of his arms fell back helplessly and he made a fruitless effort to pull it forward. Whether he noticed the look of terror with which Pierre regarded that lifeless arm, or whether some other thought flitted across his dying brain, at any rate he glanced at the refractory arm, at Pierre’s terror-stricken face, and again at the arm, and on his face a feeble, piteous smile appeared, quite out of keeping with his features, that seemed to deride his own helplessness.”
Jack, half-smiling still, is wheeled back into his room by a carer, embracing the infinite jest of it all. And me, the mountaineer just down from my mountains, the summiteer but after the fact, the security guard on my lonely night patrol – I am left, alone, in the hallway. Alone with another pithy quote. Nietzsche. The so-called nihilist, again.
One should part from life as Odysseus parted from Nausicaa,” Nietzsche wrote. “Blessing it, rather than in love with it.”
I poke my head around the corner and see Jack being helped out of the wheelchair and into his bed. He moves, at a glacial pace – the sound of the crepitus in his bones like the crack and grind of crevasses in the fracture zone. The whole mass is moving downstream to its end. Here, at his terminus, Jack is ready to go. Ready to transition from one world into the next.
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Every Man is, in fact, “an Island”

 

I was in the middle of the Utah desert when six co-ordinated terrorist attacks rocked the streets of Paris, expunging the life from the bodies of 129 people. In my desert world, wandering through my Kingdom of Rocks and Sand, I knew nothing of the World Outside. I had disconnected and unplugged – finding solipsism in my solitude.

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The Canyonlands of Utah. No jihadists in this desert…

I emerged from the desert to news of the attacks – live updates on the BBC; terrorist profiles on Le Mondegood analysis, bad analysis and everything in between from internet news sources, everywhere. Aside from the initial shock which came with reconnecting with the horrors taking place outside my little bubble, I also couldn’t help but think that my very existence, the life I’d been living for the past three weeks – rock climbing in the Utah desert – was empty, selfish, maybe even abhorrent, given what was happening elsewhere in our burning Global-Village.

But then, when I read the news shorts about what other people were doing in the rest of the world – beheading journalists, dropping barrel bombs on hospitals, stigmatizing minorities based on their religious preferences – I realized that really, what I was doing – living a life of my own selfish choosing in a beautiful place – wasn’t so bad after all. I wasn’t hurting anybody was I?

 

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Arches National Park. No jihadists here either…

One of my desert climbing partners, Dan, was an Infantry Recon soldier in the 10th Mountain Division. Dan had spent 27 months of his four year stint in the US Army deployed to Iraq, fighting a hopeless war in the service of a misguided political philosophy. 19 of the 300 men he deployed with never returned home. His brothers-in-arms were practically decimated.

So, craving a better life, Dan had finished his military service, and like me, had decided to withdraw from the World Outside, retreating to an island of relative isolation (Durango, Colorado) in order to pursue a lifestyle which, though perhaps more selfish than the selfless servitude of military life, would never require him to pick up a weapon and put a bullet between somebody’s eyes.

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Dan in his natural habitat.

Indeed, I thought to myself, as I read over what a New York billionaire was suggesting we Westerners do to solve the problems of the Middle East, maybe our outlook going into the future ought to be a little bit more isolationist. Maybe, instead of focusing our attentions outward – by busying ourselves with projecting force and influence into places where we’re not wanted (under the guise of selfless humanitarianism or “spreading democracy”) – we ought to become a little bit more inwardly-focussed, a little bit more selfish. We need to change the way we engage with the rest of the world, I would argue.

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We should have listened to this guy…

The Global-Village in which we now live affords us great opportunities for economic interdependence, expanded networks of trade, innovation through the sharing of information, and diplomatic engagement to tackle tough issues like climate change. But the Global-Village also presents a series of complex and dangerous threats to our way of life. It shortens distances between Us and Others, bringing us closer into contact with those who would do us harm. It creates electronic pathways for dangerous ideas to flood our idea-scapes, radicalizing our youth with info-bites from foreign wars.

In an era where the UN, NATO and R2P blend into practically-synonymous acronyms representing the same ideas, we have told ourselves that our liberal humanitarianism bequeaths us with a responsibility to protect the downtrodden in other parts of the world – invading and occupying countries in order to free them, destroying villages in order to save them. Our paternalistic obsession with effecting “positive change” in linguistically- and culturally-distinct parts of the world, I would argue, is doing little to secure the safety and dignity of oppressed peoples in the Third World and even less to secure our own safety.

Now, it may just be that what is needed to destroy ISIS once and for all is a good bombing campaign targeting Al-Baghdadi’s stronghold in Raqqa, but for the most part what I can take away from this foreign and domestic crisis that is all things ISIS, is that the Western world should return to a position of political isolationism.

Here we might learn from the mountain republic of Switzerland, whose greatest military humiliation (unlike our repeated humiliations in Vietnam Afghanistan and Iraq) in recent years has been the fashion choices of its soldiers in the Vatican. Or here too, we might learn from the North Sentinelese, an island-people adrift in the Andaman Sea who, rather than worrying about where ISIS is going to strike next haven’t even heard of ISIS because they live in hermetically-sealed isolation, having had almost no contact with the outside world. The Swiss and the Sentinelese share two things in common – they are largely insulated against negative developments in the World Outside (ie: they are isolated) and they profit economically from their neutrality (ie: they are selfish) – the Swiss through their banks and the Sentinelese through their safe and secure hordes of coconuts.

Therefore, I advocate, rather than continuing on a tangent of selflessness and interventionism (as has been the trend during the last twenty years), we the people of the West might profer from a new outlook of selfishness and isolationism.

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This Sentinelese guy knows how to deal with intruders. Source: survival international.org

With all these case studies in mind I propose a substantive retreat from the Global-Village in order to create a hypothetical island-village on a new Island – the Island formerly known as the West. This hypothetical Island would be our Island and ours only – a new polity whose primary political ideals are isolationism and selfishness.

Social harmony is created and sustained on the Island by agreeing on a series of basic principles on which everybody can and must agree if they are to live on the Island. These principles should not be religious or cultural, since there are already many different religions and cultures which make up our Island’s demography. Naturally however, since the Island in question is being created in “the West”, these basic principles should be “Western principles”. Some of these principles might include the assumption that democracy is the best way to govern the Island; or that, fundamentally, people have a series of basic liberties which enable them to lead the life of their own choosing, in the manner which they deem fit and in a way which does no harm to others. “We on the Island like freedom – freedom of speech, freedom of worship” – et cetera, et cetera.

In addition to these agreed-upon principles there are barriers which will inhibit and even prevent entry to Others who would come to the Island from the World Outside. An island, by definition, is not easily accessible to outsiders. There is an ocean which separates the Island from the World Outside. Island-dwellers, therefore, live (at risk of being seen to inappropriately quote from A Few Good Men) in a world with barriers. And these barriers are good for those who dwell on the Island.

There are naturally-occurring, geographic barriers (the oceans) which provide an immediate barricade against external aggression. And there are human barriers – sea mines and battlefield blockades and walls with soldiers on them – which provide another layer of defence in-depth. On some level, the Islanders must be prepared to defend their Island and to defend their way of life. And they should do so. When the crazies board their little jihad-boats and cross the seas to do harm to our little Island, the Islanders must stand ready to blow their boats out of the water.

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The author surveilling shipping lanes on a reconnaissance patrol with one of the Army’s Regional Force Surveillance Units. Intruders not welcome.

Creating this Island is not the same as creating Utopia. Utopia is Fantasy and the Island will be Real (at least, hypothetically real anyway). The Island will still have its problems. Christian Islanders will have to get along with Muslim Islanders. Brown people will have to get along with white. For the good of the Island.

In addition to the isolation we will make for ourselves, we Islanders will be a selfish people. We will cease to concern ourselves with liberating the un-liberated. De oppresso liber be damned – I’ve got some barramundi fishing to doWe will cease dropping cluster-bombs so that others may revel in the virtues of democracy. We will be selfish.

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Kill eels, not Arabs.

In retreating from the woes of what is happening beyond our Island, the West will have achieved two great successes – 1.) dodge culpability for negative developments in the World Outside (eg: the rise of ISIS in post-Saddam Iraq); and 2.) be better prepared to defend ourselves against external aggression due to the reductions in cost (both in blood and treasure) from not engaging in foreign wars.

All islands have limited real estate and fixed finite resources. This means that everybody cannot come to the Island. As any Sentinelese will probably tell you – there are only enough coconuts for so many. This unfortunate (perhaps even “inconvenient”) truth means that not everybody can come to the Island. Australia’s national anthem: “for those who come across the sea, we’ve boundless plains to share”, may need to be revised.

But here of course, we arrive at the difficult question regarding what to do about refugees who come to the Island. What do we do about those miserly  refugees from Syria?

Refugees from the World Outside will want to come to our Island. This is natural. Inevitable. Who wouldn’t want to drink coconut water and dance with our beauties on our white, sandy beaches? Should we help these asylum-seekers? And if we did wouldn’t this go against our lofty principles of Islander selfishness?

Here, I would argue, Islanders can both take in refugees and still remain true to our selfish ideals.

Firstly, altruism, contrary to popular belief, is not necessarily the antithesis of selfishness. People give money to feel-good charities so they can post the pictures of their sponsor-child on Facebook and accumulate “likes” from their friends. Priests give blessings to the elderly so they can get into Heaven. We can still do good things for our own selfish reasons. And we should. Because it helps everybody and hurts no one. And this is one of the Island’s chief principles.

In addition to this, there are other benefits to accepting a few people from the outside. Accepting some outsiders onto the Island will prevent us from suffering the ills of what anthropologists call “endogamy” – marrying within (and only within) the tribe. A society without immigrants just like a gene pool without new genes, will stagnate. Societies need new ideas, new inventions and new foods if they are to survive – Japanese robotics, Ethiopian intuitive road safety, Middle Eastern cuisine – the Island will benefit from all these fresh and new things. And we will need migrants to bring all these ideas, inventions and new foods to our doorstep.

So yes, inhabitants of the Island should accept refugees provided that these refugees can agree to abide by the principles of Island living. Let those who would do harm to our Island, leave the Island and let us still vet everybody who would come to the Island… For the good of the Island.

Thus, we arrive at the chief point of this piece. Retreating politically from developments in the World Outside is not the same as not having a foreign policy. Just as the Swiss gladly take foreign rich people’s money and the North Sentinelese stripped an Indian anthropologist naked and took his glasses, we can still have a give-and-take relationship with the World Outside – but we can do so from the isolation of our Island.

Perhaps the most pleasant consequence of dispensing with our old “selflessness” in favour of selfish isolationism will be the end of the liberal interventionism for which the current crisis in Iraq and the ISIS-pocalypse in Syria can partly be traced.

John Bolton may be right that a new state for Arab Sunnis is exactly what the Middle-East needs (although his designation of “Sunni-Stan” proves that he can’t differentiate between the languages of Central Asia and the Arabic-speaking Middle East), but it is not for us to say.

Others (including myself), have perhaps made similar blunders in their policy suggestions – confusing things which are happening overseas with things which might effect us. In a recent Washington Post article, Liz Sly has made a valiant effort to determine whether or not “it is too late to solve the mess in the Middle East?” The answer is of course “yes” it is too late to solve the mess in the Middle East. That place went down the toilet a long time ago. Ultimately however, Sly’s question is the wrong one to ask. The real question is: “should the West try to solve the problems of the Middle East?” or “was the West ever capable of solving the problems of the Middle East in the first place?” The answers to both of these questions is “no”. Since we can’t do anything for the Middle East I would argue that we shouldn’t bother trying in future. Thus, the Island.

It may indeed be that ISIS has become too big to ignore. Intensified military action may be required to destroy, finally, the little jihad-island ISIS has created for itself in Raqqa. We might need to drone Baghdadi’s death cult into oblivion before retreating into our little shell. You can call it pre-emptive isolationism. But after this war is over, after ISIS is defeated – it may be an Island mentality which will prevent us from inadvertently creating another ISIS – the ISIS of the future.

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Russian tanks line the beaches of Soqotra – an isolated island adrift in the ocean between Yemen and Somalia

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The island of Soqotra is home to an Arabic-speaking Bedouin people, hundreds of endemic species and a peace which is endemic in the region.

 

A Stroll through Squamish (#MyMeru)

One must imagine Sisyphus happy – Albert Camus

Everest climbing and anthropology are united to the extent that they are both pretty useless – Mike Thompson, mountaineer/anthropologist

The Chief and the Howe Sound at sunset

The Chief and the Howe Sound at sunset

Climbing (n.): “A ritualised performative act, driven by individual free will and centred around the ascent of mountains and/or rocks and rock faces, which serves no immediately apparent function other than self-validation and the Sisyphean pursuit of ‘fun’ (and/or suffering).”

That’s about as good a definition of climbing as my anthropological training can produce. Depending on who you ask, climbing might also be a ritualised example of “deep play” where the only immediate benefit to the climber is the visceral proof of his or her consciousness (this, according to Steve House who had Mishima’s “cut the apple and reveal the core” metaphor in mind here).

“It doesn’t have to be fun to be fun”.  Some rotten day in wintry New Zealand a few years ago.

The key point to note here, is that yes, climbing is a meaningless pursuit (and yes, this is true even despite the best efforts of these American-Filipino auxiliaries who thought that climbing the city walls of Manila could be militarily useful). Climbing has neither function nor currency and thus resists any true anthropological explanation (at least within a structural-functionalist mode of attention). But on one fine September morning, the apparent uselessness of it all had done nothing to prevent us from wanting to play the game anyway.

Of course, climbing is not merely a single homogeneous game but a multiplicity of thematically linked games taking place in different kinds of terrain (boulders, crags, frozen waterfalls, granite big walls, snowy mountains) and using different rulebooks (boltless? O2-less? sleeping-bag-less? ropeless? trouserless?). Today, the game we had chosen to play was a game involving not just a single ascent of a single peak but rather an “enchaînement” of multiple peaks conducted according to the rules and parameters of what Lito Tejada Flores called “the super-alpine game”, albeit in a significantly more people-friendly environment than that of “the real mountains”.

The goal we had set ourselves was meaningless. The timeframe, arbitrary. We wanted to climb all of Squamish’s great rock faces in a single day. Shannon Falls, The Papoose, The Malamute, The Chief and The Squaw – all in one push, linking them together on foot. (Actually we had wanted to include the Smoke Bluffs as well but 19 hours in we got lazy). I like link-ups and traverses. Scaling granite big-walls seems like it might even be useful when you use climbing as a means of travel – as a way of getting from point A to point B… A par cours (à la David Belle and the French urban free-running crowd).

Of course, in hindsight, the funnest part of our day was scoffing fresh chimichangas and mexi-fries from Maggs 99 (the best Mexican cantina in North America) at midnight in the Apron parking lot, but we’d told ourselves at the start of the day that such an endeavour might be fun.

As more than one mountaineer has put it (and generally this comes from the kind of mountaineer who refers to himself as an “alpinist”… à les alpinistes de l’Haute-Savoie qui grimpent “léger expresse”) – it doesn’t have to be fun to be fun.

So with this essay by Jon Krakauer about futility and entropy in the back of my mind and this essay by Mark Twight about drive and energy goading me on, I went climbing with my friend Andrew, even if it was all just a bit of useless fun. And we climbed all the great rock faces of Squamish over the course of a single day and afterwards, with our egos temporarily slaked, we retired to our vans.

So here’s a photo-essay of our 19 hour stroll around town.

1. Shannon Falls (Coastal Salish: “Kookx-um”)

The day began in the van. It was dark outside. 4am dark.

Photographic re-enactment of the wake-up in the van (note: not taken in the Shannon Falls carpark but in the car-yard of our mechanic). Photo by Jimmy Chin (no not really). But seriously, thanks for the snap Renan. #lol #thenorthface.

Photographic re-enactment of the wake-up in the van (note: not taken in the Shannon Falls carpark but in the car-yard of our mechanic two days later when the van started leaking again during another monsoon). Photo by Jimmy Chin (no not really). But seriously, thanks for the snap Jimmy.  #thenorthface.

Ellie was still asleep so I fired up the jet-engine stove and russelled around noisily in the dark. I ate some oatmeal. Apple and cinnamon flavoured. When I opened the door and rolled out of bed, Andrew was there with his head torch (North Americans call these objects “headlamps”) on his head and his harness around his hips. We ran to the base of Shannon Falls. The running wouldn’t last.

We looked up at the route. It was soaking. Glistening wet in the light thrown out by the shipyard across the Sound. Who’d have thought that Shannon Falls was a big seep?

Shannon Falls is sacred in Native cosmology as the place where Xwechtal, the hero-founder of the Squamish nation, slayed the two-headed creator serpent, Say-Noth-Ka. Legend has it that in order to acquire the powers required to defeat Say-Noth-Ka, he first had to bathe in the sacred waters of the falls. A couple of lessons to take away from that one, the most obvious being that if we were going to do our little link-up it seemed logical that we’d have to do some waterfall-bathing. The route goes at 5.7. Pretty cutting edge – more so in the wet. Skyward bound, we slip-slid and grovelled into the dark.

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Andrew’s head torch was out of battery by pitch three. I pontificated about preparation. We ran back to the car to get new lithiums and jogged onto the next cliff-face.

2. The Papoose (The Baby)

We hit the base of the Papoose and started up the first pitches, ascending into a racing dawn. The early morning sky was pale and grey. The cliff was pleasantly dry.

A quality iPhone panorama, courtesy of Steve Jobs.

A quality iPhone panorama, courtesy of Steve Jobs.

Just as the five fingers of the Hand of Fatima massif are identified in Fulani lore as the five members of a man’s family, the granitic monoliths looming above Howe Sound are personified accordingly. “Papoose” means “baby”; the Malamute, the trusty dog; the Stawamus Chief, the head of the family and the “Squaw” (now known as Slhanay, read on), his wife, sits cracked and cackling on his left side, looming over the meth-dens and trailer-parks (and rather nice, cookie-cut estates) of Valleycliffe.

The Papoose is a round batholith of glacier-polished granite – baby bum smooth. There is some quote-unquote “real” climbing on the Papoose. I climbed a crack. It was fun.

Some nice glacier polish on the Papoose

Some nice glacier polish on the Papoose

Andrew takes it to the top.

Andrew takes it to the top.

3. The Malamute (The Doggy)

We topped out, we went back to sea level, we ran along the highway and filled our water bottles up at the Chief carpark. Then we sauntered across the bridge and down the side of the Malamute, hungry for the next leg of our skyline stroll. We hit the railway.

Running along the base of the Malamute via the logging yard.

Running along the base of the Malamute via the logging yard.

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Andrew led the first pitch on our way to the top. Lay-backing on wet rock. Mint conditions.

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L-l-lie-back!

I got the second half of the Malamute.

I got the second half of the Malamute.

4. The Chief (“Siam Smanit”)… Big Daddy

We continued onwards and up the Chief – Big Daddy – the second biggest granite monolith in North America and all that… Second comes right after first. Squamish legend says that the Chief was once a longhouse which, at a time of great flooding (e.g: the melting of the great glaciers, probably), was transformed by two magical brothers into a refuge for the Squamish people. The Chief is Canada’s very own Ark. Pretty cool, really. Wondering where the Transformer Brothers had been two weeks ago when my van had been leaking like a sieve in a rainstorm, I climbed on.

The lower half of the Apron took us twenty minutes. We’d both climbed the route before. We started up the second half on a route that neither of us knew. It took us two hours. Easy slabs. Much wondering. Mostly run-out. Forgettable. We got lost a few times.

Bomb-squad.

Yellow cam in a hollow flake. No more protection on the pitch. Bomb-squad.

We carried on up the Squamish Buttress. I snaked the sharp end for the crux pitch. I huffed and puffed. I sent. The Buttress was the first big route I’d done in Squamish so what better way to herald in the end of the climbing season than with a re-send of my first route up the Chief?

Top of the Squamish Buttress

Top of the Squamish Buttress

From the top of the First Peak, I gazed over the Coastal Range, spying out the jet black knife-point of the Black Tusk off in the distance. It’s a nice little peak. I’d hiked it with my girlfriend earlier in the season. The Black Tusk is known as “T’ak’t’ak mu’yin tl’a in7in’a’xe7eh” in Coastal Salish (but really, who can pronounce that?) meaning “Landing Place of the Thunderbird” – and having found itself in plum position in the heart of the Garibaldi wilderness, it remains one of the more inspiring pieces of choss I’ve ever laid eyes on.

Artful contemplation...

Artful contemplation overlooking Squamish… #MYMERU

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Ellie getting to know the meaning of the word “scree” on the Black Tusk, earlier in the summer.

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Another Steve Jobs panorama from the Black Tusk

5. The Squaw (Slhanay). 

We descended from the First Peak and looped round the back toward the Squaw. We weren’t running anymore. We traced along the base of the Second and Third Peak and around the Cirque of the Uncrackables Wall.

We decided against including the Cobra Crack into our link-up

We decided against including the Cobra Crack (5.14b) into our link-up

We arrived at the col between the Chief and the Squaw just as the sun was setting behind the Tantalus Range. The view was OK I guess.

The Chief and the Howe Sound at sunset

The Squaw was given its name by the first Western settlers – beer-swilling types probably who came to town with lumber on their minds and the displacement of others in their hearts. I guess they thought that the big granitic dome next to the Chief, rather resembled a devious wench chained to her master’s left-hand side. Bit sexist, the council later decided, so with the McKinley/Denali debate in mind, they picked a new First Nations name – “Slhanay” – which still ended up meaning the same thing. Everyone still calls the Squaw, the Squaw. Anyway, the final pitches up the Squaw were horrific. She proved to be a bitch indeed. We were wasted, cruxing out on 5.7 lay-backing. Alex Honnold eat your heart out.

Tonight there was a lunar eclipse but the red moon was shielded from view by the looming walls to which we had chained ourselves. We still had a bit to go at around 10 o’clock. I was starting to feel less like Sisyphus and more like Tityos – the Greek giant who was chained to a rock to have his liver feasted on by a pair of vultures – big-wall climbers can probably relate. Down in town, our friends were watching us from Mag’s – two little pin-pricks of light, doddling up a rock in the dark.

We topped out, cheered a little bit, wondered why we had just done that and headed back down to the road, running the last few kilometres along the Mamquam Logging Road to the car. Ellie was waiting there with fresh chimichangas and mexi-fries and a large Coke to wash it all down. Then I went to bed.

Happy is a climber back on flat ground after 19hours of verticality.

Happy is a climber back on flat ground after 19hours of verticality.

The next day I posted a short excerpt about our climb on social media and then I wrote this blog post about it. And as I did so I saw that #Meru and #TheNorthFace was still trending on “InstaTweetMyFaceGram” and people were hashtagging their adventures everywhere, all the time. Which leads me to wonder if perhaps – despite all the theories about “deep play” and “Type III fun” – if perhaps climbing does have a “function” after all.

Cultural capital” (see Pierre Bourdieu). But that’s another blog post.

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Mother of the Wind

We are homo sapiens – the tool users. We earn the name by developing tools to increase our leverage on the world around us, and with this increased technological leverage comes a growing sense of power. This position of advantage which protects us from wild nature we call Civilization. Our security increases as we apply more leverage, but along with it we notice a growing isolation from the earth. We crowd into cities which shut out the rhythms of the planet – daybreak, high tide, wispy cirrus high overhead yelling storm tomorrow, moonrise, Orion going south for the winter. Perceptions dull and we come to accept a blunting of feeling in the shadow of security. Drunk with power, I find that I am out of my senses. I, tool man, long for the immediacy of contact to brighten my senses again, to bring me nearer the world once more; in security I have forgotten how to dance.” – Yvon Chouinard, “Climbing Ice

Everything is quiet in my little glass box as it rises through the clouds. The rain has subsided. Only the mist – thick and grey – remains, clinging to the green hillsides. The leaves of the Douglas firs shiver, renewed and alive. I know the air outside is cold and wet but inside the gondola cart, the air is warm and dry. I am comfortable as I ferry a cartload of French fries from the base to the summit lodge.

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The day grows older and the clouds begin to part, the first rays of sunlight piercing through the white. I return to the base again with a new shopping list. When I arrive back at the summit later in the afternoon there is a horde of tourists lined up in the cafeteria hall. They file along the bain-marie with the relentlessness of a factory assembly line. The cooks in their black uniforms pile mac and cheese, burgers, pork ribs and poutine onto freshly-wiped plastic trays. The horde moves on. They reach the till, they swipe their cards and with their trays overflowing, they move out onto the observation deck – a grazing ground with a view.

After eating, the iPhones and SLRs come out. Buttons are pressed, shutters flicker, high-powered lenses click into place. Here, as anywhere, it is not the view itself but the photo of the view which is important. It is not what the eyes have seen but what the wide-angle lens has captured. The panoramas, the selfies.  The view is what you pay for. The scene becomes pixels, memories reduced to data. Instagram snaps, Facebook profile pics – they’re all here waiting for you. Ride the gondola. Eat some food. Take some photos. Make some garbage.

Another busload arrives at the base and a conga-line of packed glass carts arrives at the summit. The daily cultural tour begins – a representative of the local First Nations arrives. With a crowd thronging around her, she gesticulates wildly at various points of interest. She’s wearing a feather in her hair. Designer sunglasses – made in Italy. North Face jacket – made in Vietnam.

“Natural medicines were sourced from plants in the woods around us,” she says. “The Squamish people never had need of a drug store.”

She points up at Skypilot, the rocky peak watching over the Shannan valley. She begins talking about it. Bare of snow and ice to keep it glued it together, Skypilot is crumbling beneath itself. The glacier which feeds Shannan creek is almost gone. Last winter was the driest on record. The falls have become a trickle. At the height of summer, the gondola was taking water from Shannan creek. An emergency agreement with First Nations and BC Parks. The toilets must keep flushing. The kitchen faucets must keep running. The customer does not like to go without.

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Now the cultural tour is over. There are no more pictures left to take. What reason is there to linger? The horde begins to thin. No one takes the walking trail back to the base. That’s what the gondola is for.

Remaining at the summit, on the back end of the assembly line, I pile garbage onto a cart, prepping the detritus for downloading.

I board a glass cabin of my own. The doors close behind me. Everything is quiet again on the way back down. Below, the contours and colours of the landscape – the forested hills, the bulges of granitic mountaintops, the wide flat expanse of the Sound and the distant glaciers of the Coastal Range – meld one into the other: shades of green, of grey, of blue, of whitest white. To me, on the other side of the glass, the view may as well be a postcard – a messy watercolour of jumbled hues and shades. There is no texture, no depth of field, no ignition of the senses – just a scene.

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I look to my right. It is the white of the mountains that arrests my attention more than any of the other colours. the far-off, the cold, the uninhabited. Inside my box, I feel a disconnect between me and the world outside. I am aware that a seaborne breeze is blowing hard against the cabin but I do not feel it cold and fresh and salty on my skin. I see the colours but I do not feel myself amongst them. I observe but I am not apart of.

High on the Chief, a day later, I slide my hand into a crack in the granite and flex my palm and thumb. My hand jams into place and I climb higher, hanging off skin and bone. I reach a small ledge. Two ring bolts and two hangers await me, affixed to the wall. I did not place these anchor bolts but I clip myself to them, trusting them implicitly, and belay my friends towards me. As I pull in the slack, I take in the granite walls around me, rising up on either side. I hear the rumbling of a truck in the distance and look over at the mine site across the way. The sound of exploding rock in the quarry. A copper mine. Sometimes I’ve wondered if the green deposits in the Sound are glacial or man-made.

Rowdy car horns are sounding on the highway below. A traffic jam has built up on the road back to Vancouver. A tugboat chugs down the fjord, dragging a bundle of wooden logs, bobbing side-by-side, through the water. Kitesurfers wallow about in the shallow water either side of the spit. A busy scene.

Squamish. An old logging town. An old mining town. An outdoors town. I hear the shouts of climbers elsewhere on the walls of the Chief. I pull in more slack and my friends climb higher towards me. Here I am, hanging from a pair of bolts that I did not place, climbing a granite big-wall with just four abseils between me and a supermarket. Somewhere below, a long-line helicopter waits dormant on a helipad – a search and rescue team always on standby. I am insured against calamity.

My friends arrive at the belay and we climb on, navigating the complex ridgeline of the Angel’s Crest – climbing toward the second summit. A gust of wind rustles through my hair as I traverse the razor-backed knife’s edge of the Acrophobes tower. I feel comfortable in my sticky rubber shoes and I remove one hand from the rock. I look down at the town again.

The Acrophobes, The Angel's Crest.

The Acrophobes, The Angel’s Crest.

Squamish. Skwxwú7mesh, in the Native tongue. When said aloud, it seems more a whisper than word. Whispered with the sighing of the wind through the spruce trees. Whispered by the last glimmer of the sun as it sets behind the Tantalus Range. Whispered by the waters of the Sound as they change from green to blue and from blue to ultramarine in the evening. It sounds old – primordial. Squamish. “The Mother of the wind”.

There was not always bolts on the Chief. There was not always the hustle and bustle of the town below. In earlier times, Squamish warriors would scale the low-angle faces of the Chief in barefeet and full battle garb to harden their minds and bodies. What must the fjord have looked like in those days? Before the copper mine? Before the pulp mill? before the golden arches next to Highway 99? Before the gondola? Before Man? What must this place have looked like?

The author high on the Chief (Photo: Pete Harris)

(Photo: Pete Harris)

Standing at the base of the Chief, in the climber’s campground, I look up at a prominent line of basalt – the Black Dyke – which snakes its way from sea level to summit. Squamish legend tells of a mythical serpent – Say-Noth-Ka – who, fleeing the might of a Native hero, slithered up the walls of the Chief, leaving this glistening path of geologic slime in its wake. Say-Noth-Ka fled across the landscape, carving out mountains and valleys and runnels for rivers and waterfalls. After hiding in the pools at the base of Shannan Falls, the warrior finally tracked Say-Noth-Ka down and slew the beast. Shannan Falls thus became a sacred site for the Squamish people. Today, with the glaciers bare and the rivers dry, the falls are reduced to a trickle. A line of bolts goes the whole way up the Black Dyke.

Down from the wall and back at work, I sit in my little glass cabin, moving French fries, once again, up through the mist. Working in logistics means keeping the summit fridge stocked. I arrive at the top. The crowds are thronging as usual – a camera lens between iris and panorama. There is the sound of French fries in the deep fryer, the chink of glasses at the bar, the rachet and jingle of the cash register as another North Face jacket goes into a shopping bag. The customer, his pockets a little lighter, his stomach a little fuller, steps outside into the mist. He rips the jacket from the shopping bag and pulls the new jacket around his shoulders. He struggles with the sleeves but then zips it up tight to the neck. The shopping bag and receipt goes straight into the garbage…

Eager are we to armour ourselves against Nature. So eager, in fact, that our armour has become inescapable. It has smothered us. It is only by breaking free from this armour, by leaving Civilisation behind us on the trail of the known and the comfortable, and by exposing ourselves, our whole selves, to Nature and her rawness, that the worth of Man can truly be found.

On the gondola ride back down, I gaze up at the mountains – Garibaldi and Atwell and the Coastal Range beyond – hanging white and wild and mighty. The Mother is calling me to be with her children amongst the tops.

At the Rubble Creek trailhead, I slide an ice axe into the straps of my backpack. I watch the sun rise over the Douglas Firs, and with my gear stripped down to the bare essentials – the minimum I need to survive – I shoulder my pack and walk into the wild.

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The New West

Words by C August Elliott

Photos by John Price (check out more of his amazing photos here and here)

cave route

It is spring which means that winter is over and the ice is all gone. So you leave your settled life on the East Coast of Canada because even though you are comfortable and well-fed and happy enough I suppose (all things considered), you head west on the Great American Road Trip to live out of a van and go climbing and not eat as much as you did before, because travel is good for you and travel is about pushing beyond the frontiers with which you are familiar.

You don’t really know much about “the American West” other than what you know from people’s general soliloquizing and from the idea that America was born on its western frontier. So, because of its unknownness, you want to go discover what the West is all about. And someone told you that “the Wild West was only a construct anyway” which may be true but isn’t the same true of all ideas – including the names we give to the clusters of houses we call “cities” and the labels we give to the ultra-high points on the orogenic zones called “mountain ranges”. So you pay no attention to this “it’s only a construct” argument and you start driving – off in search of the Old West.

The big motorways running along the underside of the Great Lakes are four-lanes wide and pockmarked with the fast-food restaurants with which everybody is familiar and you stop for gas and then walk over to Dunkin’ Donuts™ because a two-donut and hot chocolate combo is only three dollars ninety-nine and because “America runs on Dunkin’™”.

You reach the end of New York state and look at Niagara Falls and look at the town surrounding Niagara Falls which is also called Niagara Falls and you look at the last of the remaining snow from winter, banked next to the footpath covered in the dirt kicked up from the wheels of a passing car. It is a grey, windy day and you stand on the footpath behind two barriers – because they erect a second barrier for the winter to keep people away from the dangers of Nature, because Nature is too dangerous to get too close to. And you look at the water falling off the edge of the cliff and you wonder what this place must have looked like when Jack London saw it and stared at it all night. And inside it makes you feel a little sad to be imagining what the thing used to looked like when you have the real thing in front of you.

So, with your hour-long visit complete, you walk away from the falls and walk back to your car and you can’t help but notice that the photos on the billboards next to the visitor’s center don’t show the buildings around the falls because nature photographers sometimes use deception when selecting the photo’s angle.

Then you drive through Ohio and Pennsylvania. And then you drive through Indiana where you learn from the billboards over the motorway that “Jesus Christ is your Lord and Savior”. And then you pass through lower Illinois and it is still early spring so there is not much to look at as you drive down the motorway next to the stubbly wheatfields. And finally you reach St Louis and you cross the Mississippi and even though you marvel at the amazing bridge-like sculpture that they’ve constructed on the west side of the river, you wonder where are the steam boats that you think of when you think of Mark Twain and the Mississippi and the state of Missouri.

But then when you turn off towards Jefferson City, you are in Mark Twain country because there are rolling green hills and trees with pink flowers and there are towns with “Population 409” on the signposts which even though you know comes from the town’s last census, you can’t help but think that with a number so small and so specific someone must have gone and changed the sign from “Population 408” when such-and-such’s daughter had a baby. And there is the sound of a light drizzle on the tin roofs of the houses when you stop to sleep.

And the next day, you drive through Kansas and it is springtime so there is no corn to look at and you don’t see any tornadoes either which makes it seem like there is no such thing as Dorothy. But there is a Wendy’s. And as you drive between corn towns, the road is dead straight and on the left side in the distance you see a curtain – an actual curtain of falling rain – fluttering and shimmering and behind that there are darker clouds riven by intermittent lightning and on the right side of the road the sun is setting and rays of yellow-white light are piercing through a layer of clouds and resting on the roofs of the red farm houses. And you are driving between the storm on one side and the sunset on the other, toward the water tower in the distance.

And soon you will not be in Kansas anymore because you’ll be in Colorado. And then you cross the Colorado stateline and you’re in what you always thought was the “real” American West. But there is still McDonald’s and Steak ‘n’ Shake and Dunkin’ Donuts like in the other places. But you’re driving away from all that because you’re in search of the Old West and you’re quite sure that such a place still exists, just as the Old Elsewhere probably exists too if you’d bothered to stop and have a look, which you hadn’t because you were in a hurry like everybody else.

And the best thing about driving west is that at the end of every day you’re driving into the setting sun and you’ve seen the sun set over the Great Lakes, and the sun set over the Mississippi, and the sun set over Kansas, and the sun set over the Rockies and then finally when you arrive in the deserts of the New West, the sun setting over Utah. 11159996_10153278300206974_4280406062366980568_n

A lonely see-saw in the American West

A lonely see-saw in the American West (Elliott collection)

And you head straight for the Canyonlands and you pass through country that looks like it’s been transposed from a John Wayne movie or a Cormac McCarthy novel and your destination is Indian Creek where thousands of crack climbs split sandstone mesas for miles and miles either side of a lush belt of desert grasses and cottonwood trees where an old rancher herds cattle sometimes on horseback and sometimes in her four wheel drive.

And you climb there for weeks and weeks, jamming your hands into the cracks and placing cams above your head and taking big lunging whippers on the ropes you’ve bought with you. And at the end of every day you watch the sun setting over the North Six Shooter and the South Six Shooter and you can’t help but think how lucky you are that you – you of all people – are finally in the American West, climbing in the desert as one of the desert crack climbers which has been your dream for so long.

Moab - Red stone and Rednecks

Moab – Red stone and Rednecks.  (Photo) John Price Photography

The Cave Route (5.11)

The Cave Route (5.11).  (Photo) John Price Photography

Generic Crack (5.10-)

Generic Crack (5.10-). (Photo) John Price Photography

Supercrack (5.10), the first route climbed at Indian Creek

Supercrack (5.10), the first route climbed at Indian Creek. (Photo) John Price Photography

And last of all, you head into the Castle Valley to climb one of the classic desert towers and you follow a cracked, dry creekbed for many hours passing by wild desert flowers still blooming pink in the last few weeks of spring. And you ascend a steep moraine wall and reach the base of the tower you have come to climb and you begin climbing it. And you struggle up it – grunting, groaning, falling, resting, but climbing nonetheless. And then you reach the top and you can see all the other desert towers all around you – an impossible number of future objectives. And the Colorado River, winds its way, cold and brown and fast in the valley below. And you descend back to your car by the river and head back to town for an ice cream and a beer.

The Castle Valley

The Castle Valley. (Photo) John Price Photography

Larry Shiu and the author high on Sister Superior

Larry Shiu and the author high on Sister Superior (Photo) John Price Photography

Jah Man (5.10+), Sister Superior, Castle Valley

Jah Man (5.10+), Sister Superior, Castle Valley (Photo) John Price Photography

Larry Shiu descending from Jah Man

Larry Shiu descending from Jah Man. (Photo) John Price Photography

And you arrive back in Moab and you step out of your van and smell the desert air and you feel it hot against your skin and you feel like a cowboy getting off his horse next to the saloon and pulling his neckerchief from his mouth even though you’re not really a cowboy and you know it.

And you see across the street from you a police officer who is looking at you and your van. And you feel a little bit like an outlaw – because you’re a climber and he’s the Law and you’ve heard that the Law don’t much like the climbers because the climbers are a bit like Jack London’s “hoboes” or Jack Kerouac’s “beatniks” – poor and unemployed and free. But there’s nothing wrong with being an “outlaw” because being an outlaw is a bit different to being a criminal because criminals are nasty crime-doers and outlaws are just “outside of the law” and whose to say that the Law is always right? And the police officer (or the sheriff as you might call him) – he’s got a bag of food in his hand which says Dunkin’ Donuts™ on it.

And then you open the back doors of your van and look inside at your cams and karabiners and they are gleaming like stolen gold in the dying sunlight. And if the Utah desert was a veritable goldmine for a climber then you’ve cleaned the place out. And then you realize that the Old West still exists for anybody who might want it to. 11205109_759555617491119_2808043510074725849_n