What’s in Your Pack is a series where we speak with some of climbing’s leading athletes to learn about the gear that fuels their success. We recently had the pleasure of chatting with Canadian crack expert Will Stanhope.
Will has a long resume of inspiring first ascents, impressive repeats, and difficult free solos. In 2015, he made the first free ascent of the Tom Egan Memorial Route, likely the most difficult alpine free climb in the world. He and his partner in this adventure, Matt Segal, starred in Boys in the Bugs, a film featured in the 2016 Reel Rock Tour. Make sure to put it on your movie list and then settle in to read this interview about climbing in Squamish, finding first ascents, and moving on after sending big projects.
Tell us a bit about climbing in Squamish.
Squamish is a scruffier, smaller, hell of a lot wetter Yosemite. It’s certainly not El Cap or Half Dome, but Squamish is pretty unique in that it’s one of the only towns where you have a legitimate big wall right at your back door. There’s also a lot of granite in the woods, but none of it rivals the Chief in the amount of rock.
What advice do you have for a 5.9/5.10 climber heading to Squamish?
Climbing is more popular than ever before and Squamish is the summer hang. I hadn’t really noticed because I was in the Bugaboos for so many summers, but when I finally came back I was like, “Holy shit! There are so many people here!”
A lot of people definitely gravitate toward the old classics and neglect the newer soon-to-be classics. Don’t feel like you’ve gotten snuffed out if you arrive at the base of Exasperator and there are people on it. Keep an open mind and be ready to explore. There’s just so much rock out here! So don’t be afraid to climb some of these newer routes, because they’re amazing! We have a really dedicated crew of people that are developing all the time, unearthing new gems.
It must be getting cold up there, do you have any plans for the winter?
I’m going down to the Torres del Paine in Patagonia with my friend Jesse Huey in February. I’m really excited about it. We’ll skip the portaledges and try to go fast and light. Fingers crossed for high pressure down there; it’s a windy place.
So last summer you sent the Tom Egan Memorial Route, a huge project. Did you think that was the season you’d send it?
Yes and no. I knew that we were fit enough and good enough to do it, but it’s a finicky project subject to mountain weather. It’s really difficult climbing, totally at the mercy of the elements. I knew that if we had a splitter weather window and we were feeling really peppy and rested, we’d have a really good shot. We got lucky, but we worked hard to get lucky.
You’ve got a reputation as a great climber who doesn’t train too much. Did training for the route push you over the edge?
I feel like all climbing is training. I think people get too wrapped into training and don’t climb enough, don’t expose themselves to enough real rock. For me, I needed to go the other direction and get my fingers stronger. It’s not always doing the more fun thing to do.
Sometimes it seems like a crime to go into a climbing gym on a splitter sunny day, but that’s what it took. That season was the first year I got really serious about training. I blew off climbing outdoors to go climb in a gym, climb with a weight vest, that kind of stuff.
A lot of athletes experience feeling lost after finishing a major goal. After working on something for such a long time, you can lose a part of yourself in it. How did you handle sending the route?
Right after that project was over I went straight into a guiding exam. It was a double whammy, basically going from the hardest project I’ve ever done straight into getting examined. It was cool to bang off a couple things I needed to do, but I was burnt out. I needed to take a minute, and gather my thoughts as to what’s next.
We were trying so hard for so long up there. It was difficult to let go of the singular focus we needed to send that route. It didn’t even seem real once we climbed it, and it took me a while to process all of that.
What have you been up to since then?
I definitely cooled off a little bit just for a couple months after that. There are stacks of projects, it never ends really. I just needed to give my mind a break. I changed gears a little bit, and I’m not too amped on taking on such a long project right now.
Leo Houlding came out last summer and we went into the Bugaboos and freed a route (Retinal Circus, 5.12+) on a feature called the Minaret. That was a cool trip!
So, how do you find lines like the Tom Egan Memorial Route?
For the Retinal Circus, we just rolled in and it was one of the most dreamy unplucked first free ascents in the Bugaboos. We were shocked that nobody had free climbed it; it was just staring right at us.
I think a lot of it comes from the campfire lore of climbing, which is super important to me and something I really cherish, just getting tidbits of info from other climbers. It’s also about the visual aesthetic and things that really call to you. For me, it’s never just a difficulty thing. There has to be some kind of mysterious element, instead of just straight up difficulty.
Are your first ascents a creative expression of who you are as a climber?
Yes and no. The routes are already there, I’m not really creating anything. I see the lines and imagine something. I hesitate to call it creative expression. It certainly takes blood, sweat, and tears to establish a route like the Tom Egan. I rolled into the Bugs when I was 21 and that line just called to me. It was so obviously appealing. I thought,
That is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.
Photo: Kieran Brownie
What word would you use to describe that process?
Imagination or belief that something is feasible. Look at a guy like Tommy Caldwell; people have been staring at the Dawn Wall for decades. He’s the only one that truly believed it could be free climbed. Maybe it’s even blind faith. It certainly was on the Tom Egan. We had no idea if it was possible, but that blind faith eventually led to success.
Is this a belief in yourself that you’ll overcome obstacles? Belief that the route will have climbable rock?
A little bit of both. Climbing is a leap of faith. You’re looking at these unlikely objectives that haven’t been attempted for a reason; there’s a reason they’re not trade routes. You need the willingness to try and the willingness to fail. That willingness to fail is huge because there are no guarantees. I think a lot of people are quicker to repeat routes because there’s less of an unknown quotient, you already know the route is going to go.
Partnership is also such a huge thing. If it wasn’t for having a buddy like Matt, the Tom Egan would never have gotten climbed. He’s the consummate optimist. You’re sitting in your tent in the absolute hammering rain with shredded fingers thinking,
What am I doing with my life?
and he’s got the amplitude. We brought out the best in each other, especially when the other was a little despondent or unpsyched.
Is there anything that you feel as passionately about as the Tom Egan? Any long term projects?
When I was younger, I would totally divulge it, but I’ve had a negative experience with that. Nobody owns any one project or idea, but sometimes people go after things you’re psyched on because they’ve heard of it. Having the imagination and idea in the first place is such a hypercritical part of the process. There are a ton of objectives I’m really amped on, but I’m more reluctant now to spill the beans.
You’ve put more miles on the new Metolius Ultralight Master Cams than anyone else, how do you feel about them?
I thought the original Master Cams were the best cams on the market, and the new ultralights are stellar. It took me a minute to get used to the lack of thumb loop, but I just gave it time and now it feels really natural.
What carabiners do you use with them?
I have Bravos on my cams, because when I’m really pumped I prefer a bigger biner. I use the FS Mini IIs for anchors, water bottles, double length slings, things like that.
What’s your racking strategy?
It’s totally a preference thing, but I like to have my gates facing out. I like having cams on both sides with smallest in front. So for example, I’ll have a purple Master Cam on one side and a purple Master Cam on the other side, a blue Master Cam on one side and a blue Master Cam on the other side. If I’m in a pinch, I can pull a piece off my harness blind. My rationale behind having the smallest cams at the front of my harness is that if I’m pumped out of my mind, chances are the crack is going to be really thin.
All the cams are on the front loops and then I have my draws, my wires, and my double length slings on the back. I have a bunch of quickdraws and then a few slings around my shoulder. Too many people have a stack of shoulder slings and it becomes a tangled mess. So I’ll just have a few; 3 or 4 at the max.
Predictability also goes a long way. Have your own strategy and stick with it.
Photo by Kevin Ziechmann
What do you eat when you’re out climbing?
I need a tasty sandwich! I have to have a good lunch, instead of just overdosing on Clif bars. Taking the time to have a real lunch with a water bottle and apple and sandwich goes a long for keeping the psych high, and not just feel like you’ve been eating candy all day.
What shoes are you using?
I wear 5.10. On the Tom Egan, I was wearing Anasazi Blancos the whole time. They were discontinued, but they’re about to be brought back which I’m really excited about. [Editor’s Note: Five Ten has now released the new Anasazi Blancos, available here.] They’re high performance, really stiff lace ups. I think they’re a ridiculously good shoe. That’s for when things get really technical and hard, but 80% of the time I’m using the Moccasyms.
How about your rope?
Always the 9.1 Maxim Airliner. It’s pretty thin but incredibly durable. I think it‘s the best rope on the market. I can use it for a whole season in the Bugaboos and the rope is fine. When alpine climbing, it’s incredibly important to have a cord that’s not going to get core shot easily.
What’s your favorite piece on your rack?
I love the Metolius Chalk Pod. It’s a chalk bag that has a pocket for a bar, a topo, your phone, anything like that. It’s a big chalk bag that you can get your hands into.
What’s the one thing you always need at the crag?
An amped partner!
One very amped Matt Segal (not for sale).
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