Will Stanhope climbing Magical Dog
Credit: Paul Bride

A profile of one of Canada's boldest climbers

The first time I was introduced to Will Stanhope, it was—how else these days?—through a three-minute online video. In it, he is attempting Cobra Crack, one of the hardest single-ropelength rock climbs in the world. The route, near Stanhope’s current home base of Squamish, B.C., is taken rather seriously in several other videos, though not in this one, and at that time had been successfully scaled by just four other people. “I can’t overestimate how much stronger those guys are than me,” Stanhope says, hamming for the lens. “Approximately twice as strong.”

You believe him, too. With his shirt off, Stanhope looks more like a kid skateboarder with growing pains than one of the most talented rock climbers of his generation. He’s pale in the way that’s only ever seen above the 49th parallel, and you wouldn’t say he looks muscular. His limbs are lanky; his abs are not of steel. Most noticeable is the cockeyed grin. He will soon be the fifth person on the planet to succeed on the notorious Cobra Crack, but for the moment he is still deep in doubt and obsession, and he seems to be enjoying it.
Then he floats up the overhanging wall, through those terrible, arduous moves—up to the hardest section, where a single finger he has inverted into a narrow slot pops loose with sudden violence, and he falls and is caught by the rope. He’d been holding the weight of his body on just a few square centimetres of skin and boot rubber, and the explosive fall has sliced open two of his fingers, leaving flaps of flesh hanging off of each. He shakes his head, looking at the day-ending wounds. “Self-abuse, self-produced,” he mutters, riffing on the lyrics of a local hip-hop band. Then he opens a can of beer with one bloody digit and says to the camera, “Stay in school, kids.”

Meeting Will Stanhope; why Southern Belle?

This Will Stanhope—the jokester, the prankster—is not the one who shakes my hand when we meet in a strip mall parking lot in Squamish. For one thing, his smile is shy; for another, he’s limping badly. There’s a recently discarded neck brace rattling around in the back of his eggplant-coloured minivan.

In a sport that’s known for boldness, it is saying something that Stanhope, who turned 25 in November, has made a name for himself as a bold rock climber. He eschews so-called sport climbing, in which the climber clips the rope into permanent bolts in the cliff that are spaced to prevent long, dangerous falls. Stanhope’s game is traditional (or “trad”) climbing, clipping the rope into removable cams and wedges inserted into natural fissures in the rock. On many trad routes, a skilled lead climber is as safe as if he was climbing on bolts—but those are not the ascents that Stanhope is drawn to. He is known for climbing spooky, sketchy, infamous routes, where the climbing is hard and the protective gear ranges from dubious to practically non-existent.

“I like the question marks, you know?” he tells me. “I love first ascents, and I love climbing in the mountains where it’s not necessarily 100 per cent certain what will happen. You get served whatever comes your way.”

To put Stanhope’s specialty in focus, consider the route Southern Belle in the Yosemite Valley of California. By the arcane grading scale that measures climbs by their physical difficulty alone, the route is classified as 5.12d—10 notches below the 5.15b routes that rank as the hardest on earth today. But on Yosemite’s towering granite walls, a climb isn’t legendary until it has cost someone most of their sanity or half of their teeth, and by that standard, Southern Belle stands out. The premier guidebook for the valley calls it “probably the most feared and difficult multi-pitch free climb in Yosemite.” (In “free” climbing, the climber relies only on natural features of the rock as holds, instead of using technical gear to make upward progress.) Scott Cosgrove, who in 1988 was the first to free climb Southern Belle with another Yosemite master, Dave Schultz, described his mental state on the route as “no thoughts, no fears, just pure survival.” In 1994, a climber attempting to repeat Schultz and Cosgrove’s achievement broke both ankles when the brim of his ball cap brushed against the cliff face, knocking him off the delicate holds. The route waited 18 years for a second free ascent, when two of the boldest climbers of the era, Leo Houlding and Dean Potter, teamed up in 2006. Potter, best known at that time for climbing hard routes with no rope at all, said, “On a fair bit of the upper ground, if you fall, you might as well be dead.”

“Something like Southern Belle, at 5.12, is not at the cutting edge in terms of grades, but in terms of the psychological element, it’s very demanding,” says Michael Kennedy, the editor-in-chief of Alpinist magazine. “It’s as demanding as the hardest sport climbs or the hardest boulder problems.”

In a sport where climbing the highest grades is the surest path to media attention and corporate sponsorships, making the third ascent of Southern Belle is an unusual choice: a risk of life and limb for nothing much more tangible than a few approving nods around Camp 4, the historic Yosemite climbers’ campground. Yet Stanhope’s resumé is littered with such routes: the Bachar-Yerian in Tuolumne Meadows, California; the second ascent of East Face of Monkey Face in Smith Rock, Oregon; the first free ascent of Cannabis Wall, in Squamish; the first ascent of the DNV Direct in the mountains of Patagonia. At grade levels that haven’t been cutting-edge since the year Stanhope was born, these route names are meaningless even to most climbers. But to that small cabal that still prefers climbs that test the soul as much the body, they are spoken with respect, if not awe.

“It’s just the stuff he likes to do—some people like hard bouldering, he likes scary trad routes,” says Alex Honnold, an American climber who was Stanhope’s partner on Southern Belle last November. “He’s just a real climbing dude, the kind you want to have sitting around the campfire. You know, a real climber.” It all sounds casual enough, but then, Honnold himself is an emphatic case study in how rare an ability it is to be able to tolerate terminal risks. Dozens of climbers can match Honnold’s pure power on the stone, but he is alone at the top when it comes to the death-defying arena of ropeless ascents.

Ask Stanhope what attracted him to Southern Belle, and he talks first about the beauty of the route—“about a mile long and totally golden”—up Half Dome, a massive granite monolith that has been a Yosemite icon since the days of Ansel Adams’s black-and-whites. Most of all, though, Stanhope talks about the history, the story behind the line. “I just had to stop reading about it,” he says. “Something like Southern Belle, most of the battle is in the head, you know, just really sitting down and thinking about it. At a certain point, you just have to go up there and see what it’s like.”

And what was it like? “Terrifying,” says Stanhope. During the long stretches with sickening fall potential, he remembers “internal music” kicking in—Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” in particular. Reaching the summit at sunset, he and Honnold were so mentally and physically fried that they sucked stale rainwater from the puddles they found.

For Stanhope, though, the erasing of one question mark only leads to another: What next? A few months later, in March of this year, he was looking for answers on another fabled route. The challenge this time could not have been more different—Parthian Shot ascends a crag near Sheffield, England, to a maximum height of about 50 feet. What Britain lacks in jaw-dropping topography, however, it makes up for in the sheer density of beer-hall myths and outright lies attached to even the smallest dimples in the stone. In the case of Parthian Shot, the whole history of the Empire seems at times to revolve around a single, flake-shaped block of rock in the middle of the climb.

That flake is the last place where a climber can place protective gear before scaling the blank upper headwall of the route, which juts over the moors like some dark ship’s prow punching through a storm wave. More concerning is the fact that this crucial flake itself seems barely attached to the wall. British climber John Dunne, who claimed the first ascent of Parthian Shot, in 1989, considered it a death route, believing the flake would not hold the weight of a fall, leaving the climber to plunge to the ground. Since then, the dozen or so climbers known to have succeeded on Parthian Shot have proved Dunne wrong—every one of them has fallen, and the flake has saved their lives. But as any gambler can tell you, past performance is no guarantee of future results.

“Saddling up for these big objectives, you really have to ask yourself the big questions,” says Stanhope. Then he channels the words of Yosemite climbing guru Jim Bridwell: “It’s good to be badass, but it’s no good to be a dead badass. There’s a fine line between badass and dumbass.”

Stanhope worked out the moves on Parthian Shot—which are serious, at a difficulty of about 5.14—from the safety of a top-rope set up above him, pulley-style, to catch his fall. When he was sticking the hardest move fairly consistently, he decided to lead the route from the ground up, with the full risk of the fall.

He fell. A split second later, the weight of his plummeting body pulled the rope tight against the gear crammed in behind the flake. And this time, it didn’t hold.

The great convenience of history is that enough hindsight can make any event seem to have been inevitable. That said, if Will Stanhope had decided that his passion was dentistry, or even sport climbing, he would never have ended up free-falling off a black wall above England’s green and pleasant land. Questions of pattern and trajectory do matter.
Stanhope first tried climbing at age seven at the Edge Climbing Centre, an indoor climbing gym near his family’s home in North Vancouver. Andrew Wilson, who later coached Stanhope and is now the interim director of Competition Climbing Canada, still remembers young Will from a summer climbing camp. “He was probably the dirtiest kid I’ve ever seen after that day,” says Wilson. “He was just a dirty face with this big smile, these white teeth shining through.”

Stanhope’s skills soon matched his passion for the sport. He was a fixture at the gym, and alongside his Edge teammate Sean McColl, who is now North America’s best competition climber, Stanhope became a perennial top-10 threat on Canada’s junior circuit. A bigger milestone, though, came in the form of a huge box of old climbing magazines dropped off at the gym by a patron.

A love for climbing

“Will at eight and nine years old would be reading climbing magazines from the 1970s while the other kids were playing on their video-game consoles,” says Wilson. Stanhope obsessed over mountain literature the way other kids do about dinosaurs or astronauts. He knew every legendary climb, every hair-raising tale of big walls and big falls. Above all, says Wilson, he idealized the hard men and women of Yosemite Valley, who lived the dirtbag life to keep work or responsibilities from pulling them away from the stone. “I remember him telling me that he wanted to go to Yosemite and live in Camp 4, and he actually wanted to go and get some dog food and eat it, to see what it was like to live like that.”

What Stanhope had discovered was a world where an outsider could be an insider. By all accounts, he was an unathletic boy; he tells a story about scoring in basketball and seeing the coach jumping up and down with excitement—the coach of the opposite side, that is, because Stanhope had scored on his own team. He was also preternaturally small and young looking, so much so that, when he was old enough to drive, a gas-station attendant once reported him to the police, assuming he was a runaway child who’d taken the family car. On the other hand, young Will had an unusual willingness to step into the fray. His family nicknamed him Impossible Boy for such feats as descending into the cottage well to get the pump unstuck, or swimming through a flooded seaside tunnel they called the Cave of Death.

“Climbing had a kind of counter-culture vibe to it for me,” says Stanhope. “When I started, I wasn’t one of the best, but I wasn’t one of the worst, either. It was cool—I was like ‘one of the kids.’”

Competitive climbing made Stanhope fiercely strong, but as he reached his teens, it was clear that plastic holds no longer held his interest. His attention had shifted half an hour north, to the 2,000-foot granite walls of the Squamish Chief, and its surrounding crags. With some basic trad-climbing courses under his belt, he started pushing the grades with another young friend, Jason Kruk, who is now a noted alpinist. Before either was old enough to get behind the wheel, they had climbed the Grand Wall, a classic Squamish route that is considered a gateway to long, hard climbing. Stanhope soon had a reputation for taking on serious, heady pitches.

"Your boldness is directly related to your motivation, and he was the most motivated climber out there,” says Kruk.

Kruk describes Stanhope as an artist rather than a scientist when it comes to climbing. “A lot of climbers, if they mess up one small detail, they’ve already fallen in their head. Will’s just not affected.” Kruk recalls how Stanhope often talked about “climbing lucky,” or “climbing with God,” meaning he would push onward with hopes the climbing would get easier, or he’d find a spot to place protective gear, when the more rational reaction might be to back down.

One of Kruk and Stanhope’s favourite passages from climbing literature speaks volumes about the approach the pair took to pushing themselves on walls with reputations for risk. It’s from a 2004 article by Steve House, an American alpinist whose list of necky routes, often on unsung, media-unfriendly peaks, has made him a cult hero among hard-core climbers. After a psychologically trying ascent of the North Twin, the third-highest peak in the Canadian Rockies, House wrote:

Learn something from [our climb] if you will, but you might be better off without the knowledge. I am not advocating that you ignore the lessons of the past, but neither can you allow yourself to be chained by the weight of what happened before you. Don’t limit yourself by mythologizing the past.…
Today might be your day. Go.

Stanhope goes.

Motivation and inspiration

“I like to think that I go for it, but Will really goes for it,” says Sonnie Trotter, at age 31 probably Canada’s best rock climber. “And he goes for it in life.”
For example: In 2007, Trotter, Stanhope and several other friends took a five-week road trip in Australia. They did a lot of hard climbing, but for Trotter, the most impressive thing Stanhope did was their very first route on Australian soil. Seriously jet-lagged, they approached Kachoong, a relatively easy climb but one that famously cuts across the underside of a roof, hanging the climber over hundreds of feet of open air.

Trotter recalls Stanhope saying, “I’ll just go up and see how it feels.” Then he just kept climbing—a sight-unseen, ropeless ascent with certain death as the price of any error. “He said it was a dream come true,” says Trotter. “He’d kept it quiet, but I think he’d been planning on doing that all along. When he came down, he had the widest eyes I’ve ever seen.”

Lay people have a word for that kind of behaviour: reckless. In sports like climbing, however, risk is a finely tuned thing, a spectrum with raw recklessness on one end and supreme calculation on the other. And where does Stanhope stand?

“I’d put him right in the middle of the road,” says Trotter. “He’s halfway between the two, and that’s what makes him unique. To do the stuff he wants to do, he has to be a little bit reckless. I think he wants to experience the kind of thrill that his heroes experienced, and you can’t do that by playing it safe every day.”

One of those heroes, the under-the-radar Canadian alpinist Greg Foweraker, says he’s seen death-wish climbers—“you avert your gaze”—but would not apply that label to anyone with the mental control that Stanhope displays. Andrew Wilson agrees, adding that by the time Stanhope tries a climb, he has often been reading and thinking about the route for years. It can be difficult to tell if Stanhope is scared, Wilson says, because he doesn’t melt down. “I think that is a skill: the uncanny ability to realize you’re in the crap, but to still keep seeing ways out of it. If you just lose it, if you get all emotional and start blabbering, that’s when you’re in real trouble.”

Calm in a storm, however, can also come from a refusal to acknowledge reality—foolishness and courage are difficult to untwine. Kruk, who has spent more hours climbing with Stanhope than any other person, says, “I’m not sure I fully understand the difference between boldness and recklessness. But I can recall several instances where he was certainly naive about the consequences.”

The catch being, of course, that no one is immune to the consequences. Today might be your day—those words of inspiration can cut both ways.

The great fall

March 7, 2011, was Will Stanhope’s day, or it wasn’t, depending on how you look at it through life’s pattern of light and shadows.

“I was a bit surprised, actually, when he said he was going for the lead,” says Tim Emmett, who was “on belay”—holding the rope—for Stanhope that day on Parthian Shot. Emmett, who has his own reputation for bold climbing, was struck by the fact that Stanhope did not wait until he had completed the route without a fall from the safety of a top-rope before committing to climb from the ground up. On the other hand, Stanhope knew that the notorious flake had held big falls in the past, and taking that kind of risk often gives a climber the necessary mojo to push through the hardest moves.

Stanhope remembers climbing to the flake and spending too long wiggling into place the gear that would catch his fall. Exhausted, he eased his weight onto the rope and took a hanging rest. The gear—and the flake—held. He decided to try for the top.

High on the wall, he realized he probably didn’t have the strength to make the next move. “I kind of half-assed reached and thought, ‘We’ll see what happens,’” he says. All he remembers thinking as he dropped through the air was, OK, when’s the rope going to catch me? He hit the ground on a patch of grass between two boulders, a broken chunk of flake the size of a laptop computer thudding down beside him.

“I thought he was pretty screwed up, to be honest,” says Emmett. “It was a hard landing—it was a really hard landing. The gear didn’t take any of his weight at all.”

For the first minute, Emmett says, Stanhope struggled to get air into his lungs. When he was finally able to breathe, he said, “I’m all right, I’m all right, it’s cool.” It was clear to both of them, though, that Stanhope’s lower leg was broken. Not long after that he started coughing up blood.

“I actually thought, I could die here—as soon as I started pissing blood and coughing up blood,” says Stanhope. “Hitting the ground is just gnarly.” He shakes his head in something like disbelief. “Gnarly.”

Emmett piggybacked Stanhope to a main path, where a photo from that night shows Stanhope strapped to a stretcher in a pylon-orange blanket, the Edale Mountain Rescue team wearing headlamps as they prepare to whisk him to a Sheffield hospital. Five days later, soothed by a non-medically approved blend of painkillers and Scotch whisky, he flew home to Canada.

“I broke myself,” is how he puts it today. More exactly, he broke his right talus, a large bone that forms the lower part of the ankle, and also snapped off a spinous process—one of the bony protrusions you feel if you run a thumb down your spine—in his neck. “Everyone always said that if you rip the flake you’ll probably die, so you could say I got lucky,” he says.

When Stanhope arrived at the Vancouver airport, his younger sister Emily was there to pick him up. She remembers watching the arriving passengers on a video screen. “There was this kid, he looked like he was about 12, limping along with a neck brace and crutches, and I instantly thought of Tiny Tim,” she says.

She breaks into tears at the memory, the same way she did that day when she realized the “kid” was her world-class rock-climber brother.

“I think it’s changed him totally,” Emily says of the accident in England. “He’s more grounded, he’s humbled, he knows the value of his own body. I think it was absolutely the best thing for him.”

The aftermath

It’s late afternoon in a forest outside of Squamish, and Stanhope and I are standing at the base of a crack that curves across a wall of white-and-gold granite. The route, officially named Gunslinger but known informally as “the arch,” has never been free climbed. It’s a typical modern climb: overhanging more than 10 degrees beyond the vertical, with holds that are often mere wrinkles on the glacier-polished stone. The climb is graded about 5.13 or 5.14, but as with many Stanhope projects, that’s not where the real excitement lies. To successfully lead the route, a climber would have to place a last lonely piece of protection under an overlap about two-thirds of the way up, then pull through a series of tiny, sharp edges—what climbers call “crimps”—to the top of the wall. Stanhope and a friend used a bag of rocks tied into a climbing rope to mimic the potential fall a person could take. The bag “gently kissed the ground,” as Stanhope puts it.

“It’s hard to believe this climb even exists,” says Stanhope. “If even one of the crimps on the upper wall were missing, it wouldn’t be possible. At least, it wouldn’t be possible for me,” he says. Then up he goes, his fingers touching down on the minuscule holds with what seems like a magnetic certainty. Only at the hardest move does he finally seem to strain. And then he falls.

He’s not on the lead today, though; the top-rope takes his weight and he pendulums out into space.

“That’s it for me,” he says. “I’m blown out.” It’s his third try of the afternoon.

Since his ground fall last winter, Stanhope has done pretty much everything people do whose world view has suffered a seismic slip: gone on a solo road trip, wandered the darker chambers of the mind, sought wisdom from mentors, spent some late nights with “the counsellor” (his term for an eight-pack of Kokanee beer).

His neck has healed. The broken talus doesn’t seem to be slowing him down any more. He’s planned a trip to the Bugaboos, B.C.’s finest alpine climbing area, where his project list includes both hard individual routes and link-ups of multiple mountains. He has considered a return to Parthian Shot, which has yet to be re-climbed since losing its mythic flake. This fall, he’ll be back in Yosemite Valley, where he and Sonnie Trotter will work on the second ascent of The Prophet, a route up 3,000-foot El Capitan that defines the current standard for big-wall free climbing. The Prophet would require Stanhope to be in the best shape of his life. Physically, that’s manageable. But mentally?

“Who knows how my head’ll even be for that shit—it’s pretty hairball,” says Stanhope.

Today, slumped at the base of Gunslinger, he knows his head isn’t in it just yet. “There’s something to be said for the little sixth senses, the omens,” he says. “I think it’s really important not to ignore those little senses and say, ‘Oh, I’m just making excuses.’ Sometimes you are just making excuses, but a lot of the time, you need to be heeding the signs.”

And there were, he says quietly, certain signs on the day that he fell on Parthian Shot. A fine balance was in play. On the one hand, a climber like Stanhope needs to tamp down the ordinary caution and fear that would otherwise send him home to a hot bath; on the other, he needs to be tuned in to the inner voice of sober second thought. Also in the mix are all the pressures, from the need to mark milestones for his sponsors to the climber’s own private and personal ambitions. (“I hesitate to say it’s a completely egoless thing,” Stanhope says.)

Then there is life, in general. Several people close to Stanhope pointed out that the first serious relationship of his life, with British climber Hazel Findlay, was falling apart at the time of the accident. It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that Stanhope was acting out the self-destructive urges of a heartbroken young man, but that would be unfair: The route is typical of what he would have had his sights on in England. An inner voice, though, can be hard to hear over any kind of static.

As he started up into the danger zone that day, Stanhope felt a pit-of-the-stomach sensation that told him, too late, that he had been missing the signals—that the immunity that had delivered him for so long was about to become black magic. Here’s my own best crack at what can’t really be put into words: You only see how important your intuition is to you when it finally lets you down. The trouble is, awareness changes the nature of intuition. It’s like a switch from hearing to listening, and then you need a whole new relationship with the unknowable. These days, Stanhope’s favourite saying is an old Muslim maxim, adapted for the secular West: “Trust in the cosmos, but tie your horse.”

But enough—the moment has grown too serious. The old Will Stanhope, the one who had never yet hit the ground, the one with the talismanic faith in himself and the cockeyed smile, is slowly getting back to his feet. He looks up at the arch, then mentions that Tim Emmett, the man who had the honour of uselessly holding the rope while Stanhope cratered into the moors of England, is now living part-time near Squamish. When it comes time to risk the big fall on Gunslinger, Stanhope says, he’ll be sure to give Emmett a call.
“Hey, Tim, you wanna give me a belay on the arch? Remember the last time we went climbing together? That was fun—wasn’t it?”