Checking Out The Chief

By Jane Cassie

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The Sea to Sky Highway has always been one of my favourite drives. Whenever we head up Whistler way, I love to check out the sights: the seascape and inky-blue backdrop of Howe Sound, B.C.’s Mining Museum and historic township of Britannia Beach, and the coloured spots that inch their way up the Stawamus Chief. At least that’s what they look like from the base of this sheer granite slab that soars 610 metres (2,000 feet) skyward, just outside the city of Squamish. With my face pressed against the window and head cranked mountain-side, I strain to catch a glimpse of the rock-hugging daredevils as we whiz on by. Like gravity-defying ants, they scale the vertical rise, a challenge conquerable only by the boldest and buffest.

So, it comes as a total shock when my husband suggests that we choose the Chief for our next hike. What’s he thinking?! Sure, we might be on the same playing field as other active boomers, but this adrenaline-secreting ascent is totally out of our league. I’m about to tell him he’s crazy, when he pulls out a map of an alternate way up. “This back-door route offers the same view and without the grunt work,” he reassures.

But when it comes time for the big climb, I discover this so-called “grunt” work comes in varying degrees. Although nothing comparable to the nimble rock climbers, it’s as close to a natural Stairmaster as I’ll ever get.

One access to the trailhead can be found at the Stawamus Chief Provincial Park. There are even a few gravelled campsites here for those who wish to do an overnighter. But we veer off the highway a little sooner and begin our trek from Shannon Falls. It’s a wee bit longer but the brief detour to check out this 330 metre (1,083 feet) cascade is worth the extra wear and tear on our Timberlands.

From here, our dirt trail does an about-face, cleaves through a grove of second growth stands, crosses the trickling Olesen Creek and eventually unites with the other upward route. Then, our 45-minute step class begins. If you love the heart-thumping Grouse Grind, this hike will be right up your alley. Strategically-spaced log treads, etched into the mountainside, soar upwards like a stairway to heaven. Though the footing is made easier, my pulse continually pounds and beads of sweat cool my brow. Families with kids of all ages fall into line - and like our tag-along senior schnauzer, many pass on our left at a much perkier pace than mine. But it doesn’t matter. We’re here to connect with nature, get in touch with the great outdoors, and be rewarded with a view - and, in my mind, this easier route sure beats doing a crab crawl up the face.

After a lot of huffing and puffing, we come to a junction where there’s a fork in our footpath. Left will take us to South Peak and right veers to the Centre and North Peaks. Although many adventurers check out all three, the five-hour trek is a little too much for my treads.

We opt for the shorter trail to South Peak, a three-and-a-half-hour round trip route that provides a great vista reward. But before we get to this scenic summit, there’s work to be done, energy to expend and cross-training in store. Guardrail ropes border sections of the steep-pitched pathway, ladders wedge between crevices of Jurassic-Park-size boulders and chains cling to the slippery slick surfaces. Although I was never a winner of the obstacle race on sports day, as we reach the final ascent, I feel that familiar resurgence of youth-like adrenaline. My boomer muscles magically go into power mode and I take on a new-born confidence. If young tikes and aging canines can master this climb, so can I!

We soon discover why this granite precipice is so popular. Our panorama expands beyond the miniscule grid of Squamish to the embracing backdrop of snow-glazed peaks. In between are the sapphire waters of Howe Sound, industrial landmarks of Woodfibre and Port Mellon and unpopulated mountain valleys. And snaking along the ocean’s edge far below, is a ribbon of asphalt, the scenic Sea to Sky Highway that will eventually take us home.




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