Shadow Casting

In 1982, Greg Foweraker, Hamish Fraser and Peter Croft freed the University Wall, which is a towering dihedral line to the left of the Grand Wall on the Squamish Chief. They deeked out left in two places, most importantly down low, to avoid a gigantic, blank-looking corner: an open book of grey granite. In 1988, 6 years after their initial free ascent, Croft aimed to straighten out the University Wall and free the obvious plum line. In one of the most impressive leads I can think of, Croft did it first try, calling it, “The Shadow”.

What makes that lead so impressive is that Peter didn’t so much as give the corner a cursory once-over with a wire brush. He just started up it, into the unknown, running on ability and belief. When the crack petered out into nothingness he stemmed his way through, battling crusty smears, improvising his way through the intricate movement. Obvious to the naked eye from the pub to the post office, the Shadow was more than a climb, It was an example of perfect style, an ascent that seemed to say “If you believe enough, you can do it.”

Jason Kruk and I were plodding through the Squamish classics around age 17 when it eventually became apparent that we needed to try the infamous “U-Wall.” Greg Foweraker himself, part of the original U-Crew, gently gave us the thumbs-up to give it a go, adding that it was no joke. While most of my friends were struggling with a wheelbarrow load of gravel landscaping, I had landed perhaps the most relaxing summer job in North Van: “Nature Guide” at the Capilano Suspension Bridge. In between eating ice cream underneath the bridge, I perused the park in an old-time fisherman’s outfit, pointing out the coastal flora and fauna to tourists. This job left me with plenty of daydreaming time, and I was never too tired after work to climb. When we figured the line was dry (it stays wet most of the summer), I shed my fisherman’s vest, feigned some coughing on the phone to my boss, and called in sick.

U-Wall starts with a sweaty bramble-choked scramble up some ledges, and with every step up, we grew more and more intimidated. The route overhangs wildly. By the time we were actually roped up and on the rock, the intimidation factor was too much. Weighed down by every piece of gear we collectively owned, both of us took a few jolting, heart-stopping whippers, and conceded to mostly aiding our way to the top. We were way under-gunned on the easy version. The Shadow, U-Wall’s stiffer direct line, might as well have been on the moon.

As the years ticked by, I gained more experience and I climbed University Wall many times. I always avoided the Shadow, saving it for a distant day when I was feeling fit enough to give it a good first try attempt. In the meantime, the corner got bigger and wilder in my mind. Should I stem it? Chimney it? Climbers like Sonnie Trotter, Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell had tried to flash it and fell off. Though it was intermittently climbed, Croft’s first try effort grew more and more mythical as every summer passed. And everywhere I went, from the England’s peak district to the alpine towers of Patagonia, the beautiful corner in my backyard was never far from my mind.

A few years ago, I believe in September 2012, I could take the suspense no longer. I recruited my old childhood chum David Nykyforuk for a bid. David was never much of a trad climber himself, but he was a constant source of humour, critical for lightening the mood and calming the nerves. I started up, milking the finger jams, placing pieces intermittently up the perfect granite. Up high, near the top of the pitch, the jams ran out and things got delicate. I gently switched into chimneying, placing my toes carefully, spying the minute dips and crystals, focussing on breathing. With my back pinned to the south towards the sea, and facing north towards the mountains, I gently pushed my way up. Dragging my chalk bag from behind my back, I smeared my hand and forearms, and told myself again and again to breathe. When a long-held dream hinges on a few millimetres of rubber to rock contact, calming down is the only way forward. Close to the anchor, a smear blew, and the next thing I knew I was dangling on the end of the rope. Too dissapointed to carry on, I lowered to the belay and we rapped off.

The next year I returned up with my girlfriend Jo to climb the line. Unburdened by nerves and expectations, I relaxed where I had previously sweated bullets. The lower, crux Shadow pitch went smoothly. Close to the top of the wall, things got scrappy again. The upper Shadow pitch was covered in lichen. Silver fish, or rock lobsters as we call them, darted in and out of the crack. Peering off the belay, looking south towards Howe Sound, storm clouds were building like an accordion, building on themselves, getting darker by the hour. The sky started to spit fat droplets: a quintessential Squamish experience was in the works. I started up the corner, yanking tiny wires into the seam, shaking out my pumped calves, sneaking worried glances towards the Sound, expecting the deluge to begin any moment. I climb best when there’s no time for a second chance. The little things came into stark focus. Will that crystal explode if I weight it? Which fingers go into that tiny pin scar? The big picture hinges on the micro details. If you’re not present in the moment, you’re out of there.

This time, my feet stuck to the black lichen splattered crystals. The sky mercifully held off for a couple hours, as if to say, “go on, finish it.” The corner relented, giving way to Bellygood ledge, and the mossy slabs. When we ducked into the cedars and douglas firs the rain began in earnest. Driving the soaked Highway 99 back to Vancouver the next day the Shadow was soaked dark grey.

Every climber has an ascent that stands out to them. A gold standard climb that you strive to emulate. For me, it’s Peter’s onsight of the Shadow. The sort of climb that makes you want to try your absolute best as opposed to weasel out the easy way. I fell short in climbing it first try. But the inspiration, like the perfect grey corner above Highway 99, remains.

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