Squamish Series: The Early Days

Posted on: October 4, 2013

Mt. Garibaldi (2678m) and Diamond Head Meadows as it appeared on August 10, 1958. Here, Ira Spring, a well-known photographer from Seattle, photographed Fred Beckey and Les McDonald for a Canadian Club whisky ad. [Photo] Ed Cooper

In the Alpinist 43 Crag Profile of Squamish, British Columbia, Tami Knight writes:

"Nostalgia comes easily to climbers, who are apt to recall their youthful adventures as a period when soft, yellowed light infused the air and angels sang.... Generations have been bound together...[in Squamish] by a long suffering of rain, a love of beer or bongloads and a deeply rooted attachment to that powerful spirit derived from this place."

The late 1950s and early 1960s marked the arrival of Highway 99 in that small logging town, and a shift in climbers' interest from peaks with pointy summits to rock faces with technical challenges. In this Web feature, Ed Cooper and Dick Culbert reflect on those early days leading up to the first ascent of the Grand Wall in 1961. —Ed.



Much of my early attention in Squamish focused on a group of rotten volcanic pinnacles that we called the Touch and Go Towers, because everything that you touched "went." All but forgotten, they still stand above the mouth of the Squamish River. There was a swinging bridge across the lower Squamish River in those days that also gave access to the southern Tantalus Range. I continue to be surprised that the bridge has not been replaced despite the fevered development of the area.

Although I was certainly there in the early days, I was never a major fan of the Chief, and used it mainly as something to do in winter and spring when the mountains were under snow. Hence my early recollections are of greasy slabs and mossy cracks in mountain boots or running shoes.

Around 1955, at age 15, I was a timber cruiser's summer assistant, and I scrambled up the backside of the Chief where the trail is being turned into a stair-climbing exercise today. The only trails then were related to an active logging operation. In fact, the road arrival at Squamish found a sleeping town based on logging and the railway. (Even in the 1960's it was easier to jump a freight train in Squamish for points north, than from North Vancouver rail yard.) My memories of early bivouacs on the Chief were of looking down on a dark and quiet town. There would be yelling and fights around the time the pubs closed, lots of barking dogs and roosters at dawn.

The mountaineers in Vancouver who were interested in the challenging stuff were a small band indeed, and when confronted with the Chief in 1958, we were a bit perplexed. As self declared "climbers" we felt we should do something with it, but then, "Look for yourself, there are no holds on the damn thing, and any crack you could get your fingers into is full of dirt and bushes." There was also an early reluctance to think of rock climbs that did not lead to a real peak as more than "practice climbs."

Fred Beckey, belayed by Les McDonald, climbing near Garibaldi Meadows. Mt Garibaldi (2678m) is in the background, August 10, 1958. [Photo] Ed Cooper


The first time I saw the Chief was in 1958, when I accompanied Fred Beckey, Les MacDonald and Ira Spring on a professional photo shoot near Garibaldi Meadows for a Canadian Club Whiskey ad. Ira Spring, a well-known Seattle photographer specializing in mountain photography, was the photographer of choice. I was merely a "hanger-on" to give climbing support, if any was needed, to the main climbers. It just happened that I brought along my not-very-sophisticated, medium-format camera and also took pictures, albeit not very sharp ones. (Fortunately, those pictures have survived, despite my many moves in my early years.)

At that time, Fred referred to the Chief as "Goose Rock," a very inelegant name for such a great formation. I have no idea how this nomenclature originated. I do remember looking at it, and wondering how anyone could climb the face of that rock. The details of the first climb of the Grand Wall have been written about elsewhere [That includes the Issue 43 Crag Profile of Squamish.—Ed.], but I would like to add some comments about it.

In 1960 I met Jim Baldwin climbing at Castle Rock near Leavenworth in Washington, still a very popular rock climbing area. At the time, he was a student at University of British Columbia (UBC). We talked about climbing a direct route on the face of the Chief and decided to have a look in the fall of 1960. In the process of making some other climbs on smaller cliffs (most first ascents), we had a chance to study the Chief, and picked out a route that led up to a pillar with a long crack on the right side.

Fred Beckey, center, Les MacDonald, right, both legendary climbers, sipping Canadian Club whiskey after a climb. Man at left is unidentified. [Photo] Ed Cooper

The following May, we returned, and as our first order of business, we cut a trail through the rain forest, using saws and clippers, to the base of the face that is most prominently seen from the highway. Jim Sinclair, now a historian of all things about the Chief, helped us. This is the face now known as the "Grand Wall," a term coined by Jim Baldwin early on. This is the trail that is still used today.


Although there were purists in those bygone days that considered people who used pitons and bolts as mere "hardware merchants," the real problem was that the quality and availability of the things in the late Fifties did not give them all that much advantage. I was with Jim Baldwin on a tower in Tumwater Canyon when we drove our first piton—it promptly pulled out when we put weight on it. Much of the early piton driving on the Chief was because you could get one to go into a dirt-filled crack, where fingers were blocked. I am perfectly happy to see cracks cleaned out, although some of the gnarled little trees clinging to the face had real character.

Fred Beckey climbing above Garibaldi Meadows. In the background is the Garibaldi Neve, a small ice field that feeds several glaciers. [Photo] Ed Cooper


One question that has been asked of me recently is whether the tree growing at the base of the Split Pillar should be removed, or whether, in general, vegetation on the Chief should or should not be removed from climbing routes. I don't have a really good answer to this question. When we climbed the Grand Wall, the tree at the base of the Split Pillar was only a small shrub. That the Split Pillar will eventually fall I have no doubt. When we climbed it using the bombproof pitons made by the local blacksmith (which weighed in at almost a pound apiece and could probably have held a large truck), these pitons actually moved the Split Pillar a fraction of an inch or more. This I know because, after placing a number of them in the large crack in the Split Pillar, I looked down to find that all of the lower "bombproof" pitons had fallen out. It was at this point I placed a bolt in the wall besides the crack in the Split Pillar for protection in such an event.

In those early days, the most amazing thing to us was that there were very few climbers visiting the Chief, and all of them were climbing on the periphery of the really steep walls. We speculated at that time, and in fact were sure of it, that it was only a matter of time before large numbers of climbers would be attracted to climb the walls of this large granite formation. It was a natural with such a large population center only an hour's drive away. And of course, the passage of time has proven our early speculations correct, to the "nth" degree.

Les McDonald,in Garibaldi Provincial Park, August 10, 1958. [Photo] Ed Cooper
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The "unidentified man" in the middle photo is Emil Brandvold, brother of Ottar Brandvold who owned and operated the Diamond Head Chalet visible in the background. They built the chalet together in the 40s with Ottar's wife Joan.

2013-10-13 14:02:52

Great article and photos of Les and friends by Ed. Les was also involved in ski racing for many years. Good to hear the news on the Order of Canada. Ian, I have a cool photo of your Dad helping with a race with some Tyrol members and others from the mid 60's. It is taken by pro Frank Grundig. It is on my Facebook site Feb 28 2012. Yours to download. If you want the negative, I can get to you. My Mom and Dad Walter and Marie Preissl say hi to you all.

2013-10-08 15:05:20

Great story, and even more interesting to read a comment from the son of the subject matter! Exciting world we live it. We have the power to share knowledge and information, lets put it to good use and make sure we're properly represented by our governing bodies! Excellent that Les will be recipient of the Order of Canada!

2013-10-07 20:20:38
Ian McDonald

My Dad, Les McDonald, is now 80 years old and still living in North Vancouver with my Mom, Monique. He obviously loved rock climbing, and was very good at it (he had a multitude of first routes on the Squamish Chief and elsewhere, some recorded for posterity, others not), but blocked my attempts as a teenager to follow in his footsteps as he had lost too many friends "on the wall." I eventually became a high school and university wrestler.

Following a tumultuous time as part of the “militant minority” in the trade union movement of British Columbia in the 1960’s, and also of the left (he was an NDP candidate in the 1972 Provincial election), Dad embarked on a long career in sport. He was a five-time Ironman (+50) champion in the 1980's, but, more importantly, pioneered the building of the sport of Triathlon in Canada and the world, becoming the founding President of the International Triathlon Union (ITU). He successfully guided Triathlon as a sport into the Olympic Games, with its first appearance on the programme in Sydney in the year 2000. Just as important, he instituted the commmon-sense measure of equal prize money for men and women in the ITU World Cup circuit, making Triathlon one of the first Olympic sports to do so.

Dad is now retired from Sports administration and its attendant political ups and downs. He will receive the Order of Canada later on this Fall in Ottawa from the hands of the Governor-General of Canada for his contribution to sport.

2013-10-06 11:08:15

It's great to see photos of Les McDonald. Though his name is not at all familiar to climbers in the PNW he left a significant number of serious first ascents and traverses on the brittle and frequently loose rock of Mt Shuksan and its surrounding peaks. Examples include a horseshoe traverse of Nooksack Tower, Nooksack Ridge and Jagged Ridge. While only rated 5.7 this involves miles and miles of exposed, poorly protected, loose rock surrounded by horribly broken glaciers. Huge commitment and never repeated. Curious if any of the old timers know what happened to this reticent legend?

2013-10-05 11:41:51
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