Acorns, Part 3: The Stawamus Chief

<Acorns, Part 2: Starvation Lake

“The Chief” is a large dome of granite that overlooks the main core of Squamish (official name: Stawamus Chief Mountain). If you’ve been through Squamish you’ve seen it.

When we started meeting people in Squamish for the first time and told them we were getting into hiking almost everybody asked us “have you hiked the Chief?”. We did some research and found out it was a steep hike up the backside of of this granite dome which eventually leads to some scrambling and walking up granite slabs before reaching the most popular summit, the South one.

People generally rated it as difficult and, I’m not going to lie, we were pretty apprehensive about attempting it at first. It was going to be the first summit that we’d hike to the top of in Canada.

At that time we still didn’t really understand how elevation gain would affect the difficulty of a hike. We put it off for a while, convincing ourselves that we weren’t ready yet. We began to hear more horror stories from people who’d slipped on the wet rocks or had pushed themselves to the point of throwing up due to how steep and sustained it was. It all just added to the notoriety of it.

The Park Entry sign

Eventually, cautiously, we decided to attempt it.

This was back in 2010 and the Chief wasn’t near as popular back then as it is today. Today the trail has been vastly improved. Wooden staircases have been installed for the lower scrambly sections and the trail has been rerouted higher up to avoid difficult wet sections.

Back then you couldn’t actually just start hiking the trail, it started with a section of rock that you had to scramble up to access the trailhead, beside a large sign that read “This is not a walk in the park”.

Should we do it? Eek!

Should we do it? Eek!

We scrambled up these boulders and began heading up. Within a few meters the quads on my legs were burning with a searing pain and I could feel my heart working overtime in my chest. Every 5 minutes I had to stop from the pain in my legs and to catch my breath. My face was turning various shades of red and purple.

I remember that first ascent taking a long time. In reality it took us about 2 hours to get to the top but our progress was excruciatingly slow. Spring was definitely more capable than I was at that point so she waited patiently as I stopped every few feet to rest.

About 2/3rds up the trail you pass a lookout with a large boulder on it. We decided to stop here and have something to eat before pressing on. I remember at this point feeling extremely light headed and ill. My body had no clue what I was trying to do to it. I could feel the heat from my skin pulsating from my face with every heartbeat. My legs felt like jelly.

We waited here for a while before pressing on to the top.

Eventually we got to the top slabby rock sections which have fixed chains and ladders to surmount difficulties. We used them cautiously, and slowly. We still didn’t have enough experience back then to trust the friction of granite against the rubber on the soles of our shoes.

We reached the last section of slabs that lead to the top. I remember walking up this slowly, bent double, trying to keep my hands close to the ground to halt a slip. I didn’t trust that my shoes wouldn’t just slip out from under me on this inclined rock.

After a few minutes the steepness eased off and we could see the top. Spring was ahead of me and looked back to see how I was doing. She stopped and exclaimed “Leigh, look behind you!”.

The view behind us

We had been so focused on tentatively ascending these slabs that we hadn’t noticed that we’d burst out of the trees and the views of the surrounding mountains had opened up around us.

We pressed on to the top and promptly collapsed at the summit.

Here we stayed for a good while, resting, watching the clouds pass overhead, trying to spot our apartment in Squamish below us. We still didn’t know the names of any of the peaks around us at this point but we were glad that we could now see them from a better vantage point.

When we started getting cold, from bringing an insufficient amount of insulating layers, we started heading back down. The trip down, while easier, was pretty hard on my knees. I remember still feeling sore from that trip for at least a week afterwards.

While descending we were passed by some runners moving in almost freefall through the rocky and rooty sections. We looked at each other and commented “that is really dangerous, we’ll never do that”.

Nowadays we regularly run up the Chief for exercise during the week. While it took us over 2hrs to ascend it the first time, we now run/fast hike to the top in about 30 minutes and we expect to get faster as time goes on. We always run down now and I actually find it safer and easier on my joints than trying to go slowly. When running I use the natural ligaments and tendons in my feet, ankles and calves that act like springs to absorb the impacts on the ground. My knees rarely feel sore now unless I am forced to go slowly from congestion of people on the trail or from wet rocks and roots after a rainfall.

“It never gets easier. You just get better” – Unknown

While the trail has been improved, it’s difficulty has not been greatly reduced in my opinion. From gaining perspective and experience on subsequent trails and making my own trails through the mountains I view this hike up the Chief as something great to test my speed and strength on now and not the Everest that I once did before I had climbed it.

If you have the opportunity then I’d highly recommend testing yourself on this hike. If you’ve already been up it then I’d love to hear about your first encounter with ascending it.


Author: Leigh McClurg

I grew up in County Dublin, Ireland and moved to British Columbia, Canada with my wife in 2010. I fell in love with being in the Backcountry and Mountains that are all around me here and try to spend all of my free time exploring those wild places. My main goals are to chase happiness, see as much of this planet and its cultures as possible and grow every day through knowledge and experiences.

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  1. The first time my husband and I climbed the Chief we thought we’d camp overnight in the walk-in campground but when we arrived in the dark after work on Friday it was full. We went for dinner and ended up curled up in the back of our Jeep Cherokee at the pull-out just south of the Chief. We slept horribly and were up before sunrise. We started the hike as the sun was coming up and we had the whole place to ourselves. It was pretty stunning to be up top that early in the morning! We were back down and home to Vancouver for a nap by 11am!

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    • It is pretty stunning up top early in the morning or at sunset. We’ve been up there at all times of the day now. We’ve yet to camp up top but it’s on our radar. We’ve noticed a few little nooks on our explorations that would make for an excellent little bivy spot to take in a sunset/sunrise.

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  2. Great post. I think we both had the same introduction to hiking in Vancouver! I grew up locally but never had hiked before, until my early 20s when my gf at the time suggested we climb the Chief. It was a cold, rainy (RAINY) May day and we only saw two other people the whole time. I don’t even think there was much of a view at the summit but I remember being blown away that hiking something like that was even possible to do in Vancouver, and how much fun it was. Fast-forward to just last weekend – I decided to take advantage of the rain and hike the Chief (hadn’t been up it in years) when I knew it wouldn’t be so crowded. I went up to peak 2 and 3 and back down in 1:40 at what I’d call ‘leisurely pace’, whereas the first hike probably took us 2 hours just to reach the summit of peak 1, same as you! It’s a special rock indeed.

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  3. The first time I hiked up The Chief, believe it or not, was as part of a friend’s stag, back in about 1990 or so. About six of us hiked up to the first summit, on a beautiful early summer day. Later we returned to a friend’s home in West Van for an evening barbecue. A somewhat unusual stag, it was nice to do something kind of different.

    I don’t remember many details, but was not a hiker at all, at the time. I did work in a physically demanding job at the time, though, so was fairly fit. It was probably six or eight years before I made it back.

    Now, despite living way out in Tsawwassen, I usually end up climbing The Chief anywhere from once a month to once a week, depending on the season. Most ascents are to the second and/or third summits, though hitting all three is pretty common as well. And my dog LOVES this hike! I certainly agree with him.

    In some ways, I sometimes miss the older trail features. The proliferation of stairs is a necessary evil, though, as there is just so much traffic these days, with the associated erosion. Taking the back route in, between the second and third summits, is a nice tonic for that, with a more rugged, strenuous feel to the trail.

    I never tire of this hike, or the views (when they are visible!

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