In February 2017, Bronwyn and I packed our lives into our red van and drove 4000km across the Canadian winter-scape to Squamish, BC. We’d never even visited the town but decided it would be our new home - granite pilgrims from the East.
February is usually a washout in Squamish, but upon arriving we were delighted to find the winter air crisp and the rock sticky. My friend Marc-André Leclerc drove up for a couple of days and enthusiastically showed us his favourite slabs in the Smoke Bluffs. He kindly suggested I try one of his projects. I ended up making the first ascent a few weeks later and it became The Magician 13d/8b, by far the hardest slab I had climbed. It was then that I fell in love with the unpopular style of low-percentage granite slab climbing, an obsession that Marc shared.
I think what drew both Marc and I to hard granite slab climbing is the mental focus required. More than any physical attribute, to succeed you have to be present with the uncertainty of an unknown outcome - keep weighting the feet and hoping even though you are certain they will slip. Marc embodied this acceptance of uncertainty in all aspects of his life, but especially when he went into the mountains. He seemed to intuitively understand that true adventure lay beyond the horizon of familiarity, away from the stopwatch and our sports current obsession with heavily rehearsed feats of athleticism.
Marc’s eyes were wide as he told me about his biggest slab project, a free version of the aid route Wrist Twister on the Squamish Chief. The way he spoke about it made it clear it was a step above any slab climbing he had done before, and therefore probably very hard indeed!
Marc’s infectious enthusiasm for adventure and obvious pure love of the life he was leading meant that even the smallest interaction with him left a lasting impression. When he tragically died in Alaska in 2018 the climbing world mourned. I was deeply saddened to have lost my slab buddy, good friend and inspiration. I decided to try and finish his wrist twister project as a lasting testament to his unique vision.
Three and a half years after that first winter in the Smoke Bluffs, the route had become my longest standing obsession. Many times it seemed hopeless, but the fact that Marc clearly believed it was possible kept me coming back season after season to beat my head against the wall trying the same sections. The route acted as my measuring stick to see my improvement over the years, gradually I noticed I was able to read the subtle textures of the granite in new ways and unlikely sequences began to present themselves. In 2018 I sent the first pitch, sustained 8a slab with many low percentage moves, but still by far the easiest of the three independent pitches. In 2019 I sent pitch 3 at around 13d/8b, a long splitter tips crack protected by small cams and copperheads into a wild slab boulder crux as the crack petered out to nothing.
All that remained was the crux, pitch 2. I decided to commit the Autumn 2020 season to finishing the route. After several sessions I was able to do all the moves in isolation but the idea of linking them together seemed almost unthinkable. Many extremely low percentage moves stacked one on top of the other - a Tomb Raider style tunnel of lasers - the path through the lasers so narrow and twisty, requiring a subtle combination of focus, try hard and acceptance. Even if I tracked perfectly, to send would still require an elusive mixture of conditions, sticky rubber and luck.
On Sunday I fell on the last hard move. On Tuesday I fell on the move after the last hard move, rocking onto the first good foothold after a long string of time-bomb smears. I couldn’t believe it. I very rarely get frustrated with climbing, but this time I let out a real yell!
On Wednesday afternoon I sat looking at the forecast in dismay, the weather was rolling in that night. Rain forever. Frantic texts ensued. My friend Duncan O’regan rallied to support a last ditch headlamp attempt that night! We got up there and it all felt pretty hopeless; very humid, my arms were tired, my skin was a train wreck. But I gave it just one more go, hitting that magical flow state that makes climbing so special. I lowered down to the portaledge quietly, hardly daring to believe that it had happened. We sat on the ledge and watched the mist roll into Squamish below us. Within 20 minutes we were in a thick cloud of moisture. I had sent the pitch in the last possible moments before the storm. Sitting up there with Duncan and watching the clouds whip past in our headlamp beams was the perfect reward.
This was far from a continuous ascent, but I am proud to have brought Marc’s vision to life and left a challenge for future Squamish slab pilgrims to try and maybe improve on my style. Climb on Marc André!
Jacob Cook is a climber form the UK who specialises in hard, multi-pitch trad routes, of which he has established many across the globe. He is also renowned for adding his own crazy twist to his adventures, like a Hawaiian-themed portaledge party, and riding a flamingo down a Baffin island river. He is currently based in Squamish, BC.