The Squamish Nation name of this waterfall is Kwékwetxwm, meaning “rumbling noise”. This seems especially appropriate as I’m standing on a few inches of ice through which all of the water making up what most of us know as Shannon Falls, churns through a small pool and into a narrow tube creating an incredible jet engine sound. Something I’m acutely aware of while attempting to kick into the ice as delicately as possible with my crampons.
It’s rare to actually see this waterfall fully frozen. In the 15 years or so that I’ve lived in Squamish, we’ve had several strong cold snaps where ice forms all around town. These various flows of ice are the result of all the moisture that soaks into the ground and snowpack of our coastal valley. Kwékwetxwm however is an extremely high-flow stream that almost always continues running through even the longest multi-week cold snaps. Every few years, a continuous strip of ice will form on the granite slabs to one side of the falls but water continues to run down the middle and ice dam breakages threaten to deluge the area with water.
This year, we had the driest October on record with barely any measurable precipitation the entire month. Glorious fall rock climbing weather overshadowed our concern for how the dry fall would impact our coming winter season. November and December brought a switch in seasons but the tap remained shut off. As it grew colder and colder, our streams were barely flowing, Shannon Falls included. So, when just two days after the arctic weather warning began, I was driving past the Falls and got a glimpse of the lower tier – I was shocked to see that it looked almost completely frozen!
That night, Peter Watson and I were discussing plans to climb the next day. I suggested that despite the short cold period, I thought Kwékwetxwm might be frozen enough to give a try. We agreed to meet at 8am the next morning and give it a look. I arrived a few minutes early and made the short hike up to the viewpoint below the falls. Barely able to believe my eyes, it was solid ice all the way across. I ran back to the car park and met Peter as he pulled up. We both could barely contain our excitement and skipped over the pleasantries while quickly stuffing our packs with equipment and heading back up the trail.
Kwékwetxwm has seen many ice climbing ascents over the years since the 1978 first ascent of the route by John Knight and Malcolm Macfadyen (followed shortly that day by Don Serl and John Wittmayer) and any time it shows a sign of freezing, it’s under intense scrutiny of local climbers. It’s the first major tourist destination you pass heading into town and is a spectacular waterfall with 15-20 m3/sec of water (that’s a LOT). Today was no exception and we found two other parties had gotten a jump start on us. It would be a busy day for Squamish climbers!
The climbing itself is never terribly challenging. We found several pitches of excellent and consistent WI3 climbing taking us to the top of the main falls visible from the highway. Then we had another few pitches wandering through pools and cauldrons carved into the granite rock with icy steps. The ledges of the upper route made it easy to stay out from under the other teams on the route and avoid dropping anything on those below us. Nice plastic ice made for easy climbing and we spent two hours climbing and exclaiming how incredibly lucky we were to be climbing a route we’ve fantasized about for years – Squamish’s very own Cascade Falls.
I’m happy to have climbed the route in what I consider “safe” conditions. Partially frozen conditions have tempted many climbers before but patience paid off for us and we ticked one of what I’d consider a crown jewel of Squamish adventures. It was also a conflicting realization of how much climate change likely played a part in how well the route formed up. We were happy to have the opportunity but it’s concerning to consider the implications for future climbing.