The Shoulder Season Shuffle

Before moving from Ireland to Canada I had never heard the term “shoulder season” before. Largely because Ireland only has 1 Season, which is that it’s rainy, a little cold, a little warm, sometimes sunny, all year round. Whereas Canada, more specifically, Southwest British Columbia where we live, definitely has 4 distinct seasons, well, that isn’t entirely true, it’s more like 2 seasons with 2 shoulders abutting them.

The two main seasons are Winter and Summer, or, colloquially for outdoor enthusiasts, Snow Season and Bug Season. Spring and Fall feel like blips on the radar, as soon as they start it feels like they’ve already ended. Which is why they’re known as the shoulders, Fall is the trailing edge of Summer leading into Winter, and Spring is the trailing edge of Winter. They’re periods of transition and flux, before the relatively stable conditions of Summer and Winter settle in.

This flux creates, predictably, unpredictable weather. You can have daytime highs in temperatures that feel like Summer and nighttime lows that feel like Winter. Trusting forecasts even a day in advance is usually a fools errand. At this time of year, personally, I try to look at the forecast the morning of a trip and even then I take it with a pinch of salt as the weather can vary, dramatically, in the mountains from valley to valley.

At this time of year, in the Fall, if you want to continue experiencing the outdoors, you have to be flexible and zen about it. You have to be mentally prepared for the fact that, even though the forecast is for sunshine it may in fact start snowing on you on the top of a mountain. As the song goes “Que Sera, Sera…”

Last weekend, the first weekend of October, was a typical Fall weekend. The preceding weekend had seen the mountains in our corner of British Columbia turn, almost overnight, from Summer to Winter. A large storm had rolled in and dumped massive amounts of precipitation on everything. People sometimes say to me “You’re Irish, you must be used to the rain”, I can tell you, we don’t get rain like that in Ireland. It was “biblical” as the expression goes, with curtains of rain coming down.

We were signed up to run the Rubble Creek Classic that Sunday, a ~25km trail race through a high mountain pass in Garibaldi Provincial Park. By early on Saturday though the organizers postponed it to the following weekend. In typical fashion, we shuffled things around with word of the postponement and went for a run locally.

This weekend the forecast looked good and I imagined the race would go ahead as planned. But, early on Saturday, the organizers sent out another email saying the race was now cancelled for the year. They attached photos showing that they’d been on the trail, in advance of the race, and were sinking in up to their waists in the snow at higher elevations.

We were bummed for all of 10 seconds before doing the shuffle and changing gears. Spring checked online for anything going on that we could join. “There’s the Club Mud Vertical Beer Kilometer?” she said. “What’s that” I replied, “actually, doesn’t matter, lets do it!”.
Sometime later that day we were standing among a troupe of athletic looking individuals, clad in various forms of sartorial peculiarities, holstering beers and other accoutrements that added to their chosen personas.

The plan was to race to the top of a particularly steep trail on Grouse Mountain and to drink a beer at the start line and then at 3 more subsequent waypoints along the way. Spring wanted to be our designated driver so she opted for drinking a litre of chocolate milk instead. As soon as I opened my first beer and started drinking I knew this was going to be interesting. The carbonation instantly made it hard to drink fast. Within seconds the first few were away running up the trail. I finished my beer and joined the pack. As I climbed steeply, the bubbles expanding in my stomach, while trying to belch them free, I thought about a time in the future when such races might no longer be a grassroot event like this one, but an official sport, with brands like Salomon making ultralight beer containers with quick access pulltabs, beer being brewed especially for beer races and having high calories but low fizz… etc.

The race up was a blur. It certainly wasn’t my finest race, but it was fun. Everyone was on a quasi-level playing field, trying to get the balance between drinking their beer fast at the waypoints, but not so fast that it would make them feel sick as soon they started exerting themselves uphill. As we crested a rise and came upon the finish line the party had already begun. Everyone was some form of Winner in this race, getting gold coins, badges, medals… etc. We hung around for a while at the finish line, celebrating with everyone who was either part our group or just out for a stroll on the trail. We moved the celebrations a short ways further uphill to a restaurant at the top, and had more beer and nachos, and got to talk to some new, like minded people.

The topic for the evening was generally “I know you from somewhere?”. Everyone recognizes everyone, but you’re not sure from where. The community of outdoor nuts in Southwest British Columbia is pretty small, probably only a few thousand people that are here year round and extremely active in a lot of areas of outdoor recreation by my estimates, so there is always some overlap. Facebook and its ilk mean we’ve probably seen everybody we meet doing crazy stuff in the outdoors in the photos of our friends or their friends.

Thankfully, after we finished up in the restaurant, we didn’t have to hike back down. We could take a tourist gondola from the top back down to the parking lot. We all made it down and drove to the organizers house nearby to continue the party. After a while there myself and Spring headed home to Squamish.

The next morning, Sunday, was supposed to be our race day, but that had now been cancelled and replaced with a bit of a headache from the beers and merriment of the preceding evening. I was planning on just taking a rest day, but, as I lay awake in bed my phone buzzed from a text. It read: “Leaving in 5. Meet you at the Bluffs.”

I scratched my head for a second and then remembered that I had tentatively told a friend that we’d meet up to go rock climbing together. The Bluffs or Smoke Bluffs are an excellent cragging location in Squamish with quick access and rock that dries fast, even after heavy rains. It had been raining on Saturday but now the skies were clear and the Sun was drying everything off. I was sure that a lot of the climbs would still be wet but that, with some tenacity, we could find something that was dry.

I got up and ready and, after coffee and breakfast, my headache was easily replaced with some stoke to get out on some rock.

We met up with our friends and spent the first portion of the morning looking for dry climbs or free climbs. The rock that dries quickly in this area is advertized in the guidebooks and, due to the areas ease of access, a lot of climbers will come here after it rains rather than chancing a longer hike into somewhere else that might still be wet.

We eventually found a free climb at an area called “Alexis Cracks”. It was a little wet, known in climber lingo as “greasy”, but we’d had enough hiking around by this point and wanted to just get climbing. We spent some time leading and top roping on the two crack climbs at this crag before moving on.

Myself and Spring climb at the Smoke Bluffs more than anywhere else in Squamish so we’ve hiked around most of it looking for climbs, even old areas that seldom see people anymore. Due to how busy the Smoke Bluffs get, especially on a Sunny Sunday, we decided to check out some of the less popular areas. I was surprised to see that some of these areas were actually quite busy today. We decided to have lunch now, wait for the sun to dry off the rock a little more, and maybe some of the morning crowds to start leaving.

We took our friends to a bluff nearby that hardly sees any traffic anymore so it’s quiet. We ate lunch and shared stories. Spring passed around her Amazeballs (recipe here) which were loved by everyone.

Conversations when out climbing are almost always hilarious. The very nature of the terms in climbing lend themselves to this. You spend your day talking about wet cracks, dirty nuts, big racks… you get the picture. It’s like you’re a school kid all over again for the day. We tried to steer our conversations over lunch to more civilized and mature topics but they inevitably devolve back to the puerile, not that I’m complaining.

After a lazy lunch we headed to a climb that myself and Spring love. We stumbled across it recently when comparing the latest climbing guidebook for this area with an older edition to see which crags had been added and omitted with the new edition. We noticed that a whole bunch had been removed due to an area of the Smoke Bluffs being made private land.

We headed down there to investigate and found a climb tucked away in the trees called “The Zip”. It used to be one of the Top climbs at the Smoke Bluffs in the older edition but now, even on a busy Sunday, there was nobody around. The climb, which should be a Smoke Bluffs classic, now has moss and algae starting to grow back across it in places due to how infrequently it sees a visit and the fact that it won’t be cleaned anymore.

“The Zip” is 5.10a, above myself and Springs current leading ability but our friend that was with us, Adrian, can easily climb at that level. We scrambled up to the base of it and realized that it was still greasy from the rains. Not only that but the moss and algae on the face of it was damp and slick also, meaning the few available faces holds and ledges would be harder to use.

Adrian decided to go for it anyway. Higher up the rock dried off and Adrian powered through and finished his lead. He wasn’t too happy with it, but myself and Spring were impressed. It’s sustained for the grade and steep so if you aren’t careful you can easily pump out on it. Adrian had fallen on his gear at one point and was kicking himself for losing the onsight. But he’d climbed it under less than ideal conditions, balancing on holds of greasy algae, which is equivalent to coating the rock in teflon.

Myself and Spring climbed it after Adrian, and found it pretty hard. We had climbed it before ourselves when it was dry so we knew how different it felt. Nevertheless we both made it to the top. I look forward to when Adrian is back and Sends it clean, and when, hopefully, I will be able to do likewise (maybe next year).

After this we headed to the climb that had really brought Adrian to Squamish today, “Kangaroo Corner”, 5.11a. It’s in the large area of the Smoke Bluffs known as “Neat and Cool” and sits right on the main hiking and biking trail. It’s distinct because it looks like it narrowly avoided being demolished when this trail was originally built and a large section of rock was drilled and punched out to clear the way. The deep drill scars are still visible on the face of the rock beside it.

Gear placements on it appear tricky, as there aren’t a lot of options. Generally, if you place a piece of gear you have to sacrifice a hold. Foot placements also appear technical, with variations of stemming and laybacking being needed. Adrian led up, placing gear, and after a few warm ups, cruised past the crux and topped out successfully. After that myself and Spring decided to give it a shot. We haven’t climbed anything at this level before so it would be interesting to see how we’d fair.

Spring took a while to work out the first few moves on Top Rope and eventually she got up to the crux of the climb but couldn’t pass it. The feet, like I guessed, are technical and you have to be really conscious about how you move them and how you weight them. It hadn’t helped that Adrian had made it look easy. She got pumped out after a few tries so came down to give me a shot. Before I got on the rock though Adrian wanted to run up it again. He made quick work of it this time as he could use the holds now that had been taken up by his cams and nuts when he had led it.

After he came back down I decided to give it a shot. I got up on the first move and into a good layback position, but when I went to reach for the next hold my right foot inexplicably slipped out and I fell. This usually isn’t an issue on top rope as the rope catches you quickly but my hand did not want to come out of the crack that I had jammed it in. It pulled loose, gouging into one of my fingers and making the rest of them feel like I’d just dunked them in boiling water. I decided it would be better to leave this climb for another day.

Even though myself and Spring didn’t get to the top of it, we actually left stoked that Adrian introduced us to this climb. It’s a climbing project for us to work on, and it can be accessed quickly from the parking lot. My favorite climbs are always the ones that I can’t get up on my first try, that require you to solve the puzzles of the rock and figure out how to position your body to move up them fluidly.

We went home after that. Another weekend spent well, shuffling with the seasonal shifts. What the shoulders lack in consistency they make up for with unexpected silver linings, like this weekend, spent in the outdoors with friends new and old, discovering places and having experiences we might otherwise have never had.

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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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