Lying in my tent, listening to “No Hard Feelings” by The Avett Brothers, I went through a mental list of every person I loved in this world and pictured them smiling. Occasionally David’s feet hit my shoulder as he tossed and turned in his sleeping bag. There were no more rest days, no more warm up routes. In a few hours, the alarm would go off and the dream would begin. The entirety of my experience had woven its way into one odyssey: climbing The North Howser Tower via All Along The Watchtower (VI 5.12).
The alarm went off at 3 a.m. I almost pressed the snooze button but forced myself up. My friend David Tan remained buried under his sleeping bag. I sparked a lighter, lit the stove to make coffee, and listened to the calming sound of the stove whirring. David rolled over, his normally bright eyes and tan face looked stern and tired. He said he didn’t sleep well. I greeted his concern with a tired nod.
I double-checked our kit. Two breakfasts, eight Clif bars, three gel blocks, rack, ropes, climbing shoes, stove, protein powder, and Carl’s ashes. Wait … I’d packed both the protein powder and ashes in Ziploc bags, but … which one is which? We laughed, then made sure Carl’s ashes were packed somewhere that they wouldn’t be mistaken for whey. It’d be a shame to lose them now. I’d been carrying Carl’s ashes for over a year, when his girlfriend Sophie gave them to me in a mason jar on a sunny June day.
This was the third time in as many years that I had found myself sitting in a tent at the Applebee campground in the Bugaboo Provincial Park, considering a bid on North Howser tower. Once before with Carl’s ashes, and the first time with Carl himself.
Carl Hawkins and I first met in February 2018 at the Canmore rec center, where we began climbing together consistently. I was 17, and had graduated high school in Calgary a semester early and promptly moved to Canmore. Carl was 25, living in an unheated van in the Save On Foods parking lot, working odd jobs to fund his climbing habit. We were an odd pairing. He was much taller than me and often sported the shadow of facial hair I couldn’t yet grow. Both of us were constantly sporting patched-up puffy jackets. His was a soft purple.
Over that winter, we became friends, climbed a bunch of ice and trained indoors together. We soon schemed about tackling big objectives in the Bugaboos that summer. All Along the Watchtower was atop our list.
The Bugaboos are a group of dramatic, glaciated granite spires in eastern British Columbia full of wonder and mystery. The prominent Howser Towers, with their steep and massive west faces, are Canada’s slice of Patagonia, as they’re often described. An El Capitan-sized hunk of granite, the west face of North Howser is the biggest and most committing feature in the Bugaboos.
In 1981 Ward Robinson and Jim Walseth pioneered the first ascent of All Along the Watchtower, discovering a striking line that included a perfectly cleaved corner crack, running for hundreds of meters up the wall. In 1996, Topher Donahue and Kennan Harvey freed, at 5.12, what has become one of the Bugaboos’ most iconic lines.
In my youthful ignorance and exuberance, I seriously thought that with one 5.12 sport route and a couple of months in Squamish under my belt, All Along The Watchtower would be a fun challenge for me. This was a sign of just how inexperienced I was.
On that initial trip to the Bugaboos, I remember feeling rather small amid these grand mountains—yet even this didn’t deter me. I wanted to climb All Along the Watchtower. Being a few years older and more experienced, Carl questioned whether this was the best first route.
“Perhaps we should warm up on some other routes first,” he said, wisely.
“But this will be the adventure of our lives!” I insisted.
My enthusiasm deflated like a balloon in a freezer once I laid eyes on the grand east face of Snowpatch Spire and saw how big that was. Suddenly I wanted nothing to do with the west face of North Howser, which I understood was bigger, badder, and more than a scream for help away from camp.
Fate saved us from ourselves that trip as a blizzard moved in and collapsed our tent. We spent the rest of our trip sitting in a cave drinking whiskey. We made plans to one day return—stronger, braver, and more experienced—to climb All Along the Watchtower together.
I ripped the topo out of the guidebook, pinned it to the ceiling of my minivan, and hit the road to cut my teeth at the iconic destinations of the West: Squamish, Smith Rock, Yosemite, Indian Creek. Each night, wherever I was, I would lay my head down and look up at the topo. Each night, the dream dug itself a little deeper. I would close my eyes and imagine free climbing through the corner, gracefully pulling through the roof crux, reveling the air below my feet.
In December 2018 I found myself broke and living with my parents in Calgary, looking for a job to fund an upcoming trip to China. I met up with Carl, and we climbed a Rockies classic ice climb called Moonlight. He danced through the frozen air with silent elegance and confidence. Coming straight from the desert, and shitty at ice climbing to begin with, I clumsily followed his lead with frozen hands. We returned to our vehicles and cracked two frozen beers. We thawed them on the heater in my minivan and did our usual scheming. The Watchtower came up. Now (somewhat) wiser, I knew we would need to put in real time preparing, climbing lots of granite together. Eventually, the beers ran empty and we parted ways. On the advice of my friend Jordan, I had recently adopted a habit of telling my friends that I loved them more.
“Carl, I love you!” I shouted at him from my van.
“I love you too?” he replied, looking confused. Then the prodigal stoic Rockies hard man drove away. I never saw Carl again.
A week later, over breakfast I read online that a climber had died soloing yesterday, Christmas day, on Cascade Falls, just outside Banff.
“Bummer,” I thought, and continued to scroll, not thinking much else.
About 10 seconds later I got a text from my friend Dan:
Hey Nat. I don’t know how to say this. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but the guy who died on Cascade was Carl. I’m sorry, my friend.
I cried and cried. I’d only known Carl for 10 months, yet I felt as if I had lost a brother. The pain was so deep. I spent the next few days sad and afraid. The permanence of death pierced through the romanticizations that were justifying my lifestyle. Suddenly, it all felt like a lie. I just wanted blissful ignorance again. I was so scared of being scared.
So I did what any 18-year-old climber who had just lost a friend soloing would do: I went soloing.
On a dinky frozen waterfall, I was shaky and horrified. I had hoped to find flow, to forget, and move on. Instead, I backed off and cried alone in the forest.
At Carl’s memorial, his father said, “I had some friends lose a child a few days into its life. You know what they said to me? Wow. We got a few days with our beautiful child. A few amazing days. Me? I got 26 amazing years with my son. Of course, I’m sad. My heart is broken. But I’m also grateful.”
So I did what any 18-year-old climber who had just lost a friend soloing would do: I went soloing.
Using these words, this brave gratitude, as a compass, my fear waned. I chose to view mortality as a catalyst not a hindrance. Carl’s death rocketed me deeper down the rabbit hole of climbing, and I blasted off into adventure after adventure.
Carl’s ashes sat in my glove box and accompanied me to many beautiful places that he never got to visit. I considered spreading them in many places. Glacier Point, overlooking Yosemite Valley, where he never got to climb. Indian Creek, where he never got to see the sun dip between the Six Shooters or the sandy grins on everyone’s faces at the crag. In 2019, I returned to the Bugaboos for another attempt on The Watchtower with another close friend, DC, though this attempt never got off the ground. I considered spreading his ashes on a glacier or a different route in the Bugaboos, but I knew it wasn’t the right place.
“The right place,” however, still scared me, though now in a new way. Now more experienced, I knew enough to understand how serious Watchtower is. I also knew that I was now ready to try it. Maybe that’s what scared me most. The topo on my van reminded me every night of a quest that I felt compelled to complete.
In the summer of 2020, I returned to the Bugaboos with David Tan. David and I didn’t know each other terribly well before the trip. We had met in Squamish the summer prior, and had shared a rope and a lot of laughter in Vegas and Joshua Tree over the winter. But we’d never done any big committing routes together, which caused some anxiety for us both.
My nervousness about our partnership faded away as soon as I saw the way we naturally looked out for each other on our “warm up” routes in the Bugaboos. As our time in these mountains went by, our comfort zones expanded and our friendship grew stronger.
And then, it seemed like it was time.
So it began. David and I quickly ascended the boot-packed staircase to Bugaboo-Snowpatch col, catching the sunrise as it filled the Columbia Valley with orange hues. I felt consumed by the beauty of the expansive glacier. Soft snow made the descent down the Pigeon-Howser Col a fast glissade. In the East Creek Basin, a cirque of beautiful granite walls surrounded us.
As we neared the rappels—the point of no return, of finally committing to climbing a route I’d only ever seen as a hand-drawn topo, taped to the roof my van for the past two years—I grew increasingly nervous at the ominous sounds of rockfall clamoring down around us. Anxiety grew as we neared the rappels.
At some point, David said, “I think we should definitely go to the rappels, but I am far from being totally committed to them.” I felt the same way, and felt guilty about feeling the same way. If we bailed, I wondered if I would return.
David reached the first rappel station before me. At last we saw the reality of the dream. There was no more romanticizing or going along half-heartedly. Three thousand feet of rock bore down on us, as if to ask if this is really what we want. Never before have I stood in such a tense place. I felt sick.
“If we don’t thread these ropes right now, I don’t know if I can do this,” David said. “Fuck. Fuck. We are fucking rapping into fucking El Cap!”
The Canadian Rockies legend John Lauchlan once said, “Once you commit, there can be no hesitation.” It was 7:50 a.m. We were hesitating, shitting our pants, listening to the voices in our heads screaming how bad this idea is. The next thing I knew, the ropes were threaded through my belay device and I was descending into a quiet and powerful world.
“Here we go, buddy,” David said, pulling the rope.
We ascended the rockfall-prone access gully as if running up the stairs of a dark basement from an unknown menace. It felt surreal to be at the base, flaking our ropes. Then were moving up the rock, gunning for the bivi ledges seven pitches up. This went according to plan, as much as anything goes to plan in the mountains.
We got off route, and then back on. We climbed a wet crack with a “5.10 bouldery move,” according to the topo, and a 5.7 pitch that was a torrent. We ran two pitches in one and David, on lead, ran out of rope, resulting in simul-climbing insecure terrain for some time. I sat there, two hand jams plugged into a crack running with water, wondering if David was okay 70 meters above. The rope would come tight, and with absolute trust in each other, I continued climbing. These moments felt like dodging punches in the ring. Full survival mode.
We reached the bivy ledge a few hours before dark. Our gear had time to dry and our weary hearts had time to rediscover their courage through hot food and mountain vistas. We laid down our rope, half of a Thermarest, and a single sleeping bag, and settled in.
The quiet mountains lulled us into a decent rest. We knew we’d need it. Day two is the big one.
Morning came. We didn’t anticipate our stream would freeze overnight, so we had to spend time melting snow. Soon, I was leading while David tended to filling up water bottles. He greeted me at the belay with the news that we were out of gas.
We had a long time to go before we stopped, and there would be no hot meal awaiting us this time. At least we had water—and a radical corner system ahead.
The corner was surreal. No ledges or natural breaks; just one big, clean corner zooming skyward. We swung 30-meter leads, always ending at hanging belays. With every strange stemming move, every painful shallow foot jam, every look at the valley a thousand feet below my heels, I was reminded that I was living the reality I had dreamed of during so many nights in my van.
And yet, the reality of the experience was proving tougher, grittier, and without the gracefulness and composure I had envisioned so many nights before. And yet still we had managed to free all of the 20something pitches that were now below us. Ahead was the crux roof pitch. I really wanted to free this route. I felt nervous, excited, and ready to seize an opportunity.
My “all free” dream, however, was quickly extinguished by the soaking-wet crux holds. Without frustration or regret, I began to aid through the four-meter section. Due to my principled distaste for aiding, I haven’t practiced it much, and I was slow. It was comforting to have David on the other end of the rope. He turned up the reggae that had been playing out of the phone in his pocket all day, and smiled.
David led the next pitch in a mix of free and aid, and it was beautifully frantic and fast. The sun began to set. We were drops of water in a golden ocean of granite. In that moment, I was overcome with emotion thinking of Carl, wishing he was here, and feeling humbled by how much I had to grow and learn just to be here, now, doing this route and bringing this dream to fruition.
The tears stopped as I recognized that our vision quest was from over. Even though I hadn’t freed those four meters at the roof, and even though David was climbing in a mix of free and aid, it was important to me to follow his leads free, simply because it was what I wanted to do.
Atop the headwall, I wrestled a 5.8 offwidth with a cramping body as night descended. The crack ultimately spit me, leaving me totally drained. A long, convoluted ridge lay head for us to climb by headlamp.
David took over, making most of the major decisions—or at least the good ones. We navigated the ridge under a night sky that defined wonder: surreal meteor showers, flashes of a distant thunderstorm, and no wind to speak of. Midnight became 1:00, then 2:00. Sometime around 3:00 a.m., we arrived at some nice flat ledges. David suggested we stop and spend the night. We had no food or water, but some rest would do us good. I stubbornly disagreed, insisting that we go until we find a spot with water. Wrong move. He obliged. I can be a real turd sometimes.
By 4:00 a.m. we encountered a tricky section of ridge that took an hour to safely navigate. The ridge became easy again, and we saw a bump ahead. We scrambled on to see if we could put the rope away. We arrived at the bump at 5:00 a.m., and found no more terrain to climb. David and I stood on top of the summit of North Howser Tower, just as red began to appear in the east.
The summit was calm and the sky clear. We laid down on our Thermarest under our sleeping bag, listened to The War on Drugs and Eddie Vedder, and enjoyed the scene. For two hours of the most supreme peace I have ever known, we watched the world be beautiful.
I awoke from a nap to a blue sky and a hot sun. We knew that it was time to begin our rappels down the east face, and begin our journey home. While he rolled the sleeping bag and organized gear, I quietly walked over to where the summit overlooks the steep west face with a Ziploc bag of Carl Hawkins’s remains in my pocket. The right place. I was here. It was time. I scattered the remains of my dear friend, letting them go but holding on to his memory. “Do not let sorrow die for it is the sweetening of every gift,” wrote Cormac McCarthy. It was wonderfully underwhelming.
David and I rappelled, freed a stuck rope, hopped over the bergschrund, and stumbled back to camp with our cups very full. We were greeted by a strong force of community. Hugs, relief that we had returned. Congratulations on our adventure. It was overwhelming and humbling.
And it all began with two friends merrily drinking whiskey in a cave, dreaming about what it would be like to one day climb All Along the Watchtower.
Rock climbing is everywhere these days. From the Dawn Wall to your Instagram feed to the new gym going up in town, climbing is no longer the fringe sport it once was. Kids are starting to climb almost before they can walk, and now more than ever, there’s no reason for you not to give it a try as well. However, climbing can be one of those intimidating hobbies to begin. Many ask, “How do I get started ? ” citing fear and feeling overwhelmed with gear and safety as huge barriers to entry. We get it, and so what follows is everything you need to know to get out on the rock'n'roll.
The term “rock climbing” encompasses a great number of techniques, from bouldering to big wall climbing, to mountain climbing and mountaineering. Before you begin, it might be important to first identify what style of climbing you are interested in, or perhaps to ask, “Why do I want to climb ? ” Do you want to summit peaks, boulder at your local gym, or perhaps learn to lead climb at the local crag ? Do you want to make friends, be outdoors, or get in shape ( or all three ) ? Once these questions are answered, you can work out the potential steps you’ll need to take to get there. Below ( in the Sport vs. trad vs. bouldering section ) we attempt to inform this decision by breaking down the various types of climbing; each has its own specific culture, gear, and learning curve.
Climbing is a complex sport : it’s potentially expensive to get into, difficult to find mentors, and can be dangerous if not done correctly. With the evolution of climbing gyms, however, it’s easier than ever to give climbing a try : just grab a friend and head to the nearest gym, rent a pair of shoes and a harness, and jump on the bouldering wall. However, if and when your progression leads you to climbing on ropes and outside, technical skills become essential to safety. Many choose to learn from friends; however, safety is so important that we recommend enrolling in a formal chic. The easiest and best way to learn the essential skills, which include belaying and tying proper knots, is by taking an introductory course at your local gym. Or, if you’re interested in climbing outside or even more specifically climbing in the mountains, seek out a class either through your gym or a local guide.
The first indoor climbing gym opened in Seattle in 1987. Now just 30 years later, there are 430 gyms across the nation, with over 50 more in construction at the time of writing. Areas like the Denver metropolis have as many as 10 gyms, all stuffed to capacity each day. Whereas climbers used to be a tiny community of mostly adult men with access to the wilderness, the climbing gym revolution has brought climbing to the masses. It’s safe to say that more people now climb indoors than outdoors. The climbing gym has developed its own culture, and climbing inside - “pulling on plastic, ” as climbers often say - is vastly different from climbing outdoors. It is arguably safer, much more convenient to access, and far more social; for these reasons, the gym is an extra place to begin climbing. Gym passes cost anywhere from $6 to $30/day, with monthly memberships being the best option for those who go regularly. Outdoor climbing takes place on boulders, on cliff bands, and in mountains - anywhere where there is solid rock'n'roll, climbers can be found. Some of the most popular types of rock'n'roll to climb include granite, sandstone, limestone, basalt, and conglomerate blends. Each of these kinds of rock has its own style of climbing, from overhanging jugs much like gym climbs, to technical slabs, to splitter cracks. Climbing outdoors demands a higher level of expertise than climbing in the gym, as there are more variables and risques on real rock. Weather can be a factor, as well as rock fall. Climbers will also need to possess a great deal more gear to climb outside, including their own rope and harness, quickdraws or other protection, a personal anchor and locking carabiner, and a helmet. Although many climbers begin in the gym, some learn to climb immediately outside, most commonly with the help of a guide or an instructional course.
Rock climbing is generally broken down into three categories : sport climbing, traditional ( trad ) climbing, and bouldering. Climbers tend to specialize in or prefer one discipline over the others, though many climbers participate in all three. Sport climbing is a style of climbing where the leader attaches quickdraws to pre-existing bolts, looping the rope through the quickdraws for protection while ascending the cliff. Sport climbs are often one-pitch climbs where the leader then comes back to the ground after fixing the rope to the anchor, though in some cases these climbs might continue up larger faces for multiple pitches. As a discipline, sport climbing focuses on difficult movement, endurance, learning to face fears, and risking a fall ( and being caught by the rope, oui ! ). Trad climbing is the most rootsy and historical form of climbing, in which the leader climbs weaknesses in the rock'n'roll ( generally, cracks ) and places gear in these weaknesses that will hold the rope in the case of a fall. Although trad climbs can be single-pitch routes like the majority of sport climbs, they often ascend features that are more than one rope length and end at a summit ( these are called “multi-pitch climbs” ). Trad climbers generally love long and adventurous days of climbing in wilderness areas, focusing on movement, logistics, technical rope and gear skills, and partnership. Bouldering is perhaps the most modern form of climbing, and certainly the fastest-growing. Boulderers ascend boulders or bermuda cliffs ( generally 20 feet and under ), using pads and spotters at the base for protection instead of ropes. Bouldering is a form of climbing that focuses on difficult movement and problem solving, and is more social than the other techniques. We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention a few other forms of climbing : aid climbing, alpine rock climbing, speed climbing, and deep water soloing. Pick your poison ( or shall we say passion ) : each has its own set of joys and challenges !
One of the first things you’ll learn when starting to climb is how to choose a route that suits your ability level. In the gym, climbs generally are labeled with a difficulty rating; outside, climbers use guidebooks and often a phone app called Mountain Project to identify the difficulty of climbs. In the U. S., climbs are rated using the Yosemite Decimal System; in bermuda, 5. 3 is a very beginner climb, and 5. 15 is an expert-level route. These ratings do not denote danger, only difficulty. As a beginner, you’ll most likely be choosing routes 5. sept and under, and often routes that can be top-roped. Top-roping means that the climber establishes an anchor from the top of the climb so that the rope is already in place, rather than leading the route from the bottom. Many routes in the gym are set up with top ropes; outside, climbers can often hike to the top of the cliff or feature to drop a rope down over the climb.
Each discipline of climbing necessitates a different set of gear. For all types of climbing, however, a beginner will need a pair of climbing shoes. For just starting out in the sport, we recommend finding a comfortable pair of climbing shoes ( don’t be persuaded by the salesperson at your local gear shop to purchase painfully tight shoes ). Delicate footwork will come later in your climbing career; for now you will just be developing an ability to stand on your feet and trust the rubber of your new shoes. All climbers will generally want to carry a chalk bag and chalk as well, which they will either wear around their waist or keep on the ground ( sometimes the case while bouldering ). Climbers dip their hands into chalk to dry off sweat and keep them from slipping off the rock. Boulderers will need the above two pieces of gear, in addition to a bouldering pad ( and friends with bouldering pads ! ). Bouldering pads are placed in the fall zone of a boulder problem, and the more the merrier ( and safer ! ). tera climb on ropes both in a gym or outside, climbers will need a climbing harness. Climbing harnesses come in a range of weights and specifications - some for sport climbing in particular, some with larger gear loops or more padding for trad climbing. Harnesses need to be replaced every few years for safety reasons, so we again recommend purchasing an affordable harness and replacing it when you have a better understanding of your needs. Along with a climbing harness, it is essential to own a belay device and locking carabiner. This equipment will enable you to belay your partner in the gym or outside, and rappel if needed. If climbing outside, a helmet is extremely important in case of rock fall. The above-mentioned gear provides the basics for personal gear needed for a day of climbing or bouldering, either in the gym or with an experienced and well-equipped partner. If you are looking to buy gear so that you can be fully self-sufficient ( and not need a partner or a group with shared gear ) you’ll want to also purchase a climbing-specific rope ( 60-70 meters, 9-10mm in diameter, dynamic ), a personal anchor ( PAC ) or daisy chain, extra locking carabiners, cams, nuts, quickdraws, and slings. It is extremely important to buy new gear or to know the history and age of the gear if acquiring used. Both soft materials and metals degrade over time and with wear and should be carefully assessed before using.
We wholeheartedly recommend taking a course taught by professionals before attempting to climb or belay on your own. Climbing is inherently dangerous, though when done correctly can be very safe. After all of the proper skills have been learned, it is still incredibly important to stay on top of safety at every moment. Before leaving the ground, or transitioning from climbing to lowering/rappelling, there are a number of safety checks that must be completed.