Climbing Skaha Bluffs

Bolting in the Skaha Bluffs: not just another clip-fest

Skaha Bluffs was my first climbing destination road trip. I was an 18-year-old greenhorn ready to immerse myself in a world of bolt clipping and spandex, when a fellow staff member at the Vancouver MEC store invited me along for the annual classic Easter long-weekend adventure to the Okanagan.

At that point, my climbing career consisted solely of top rope climbs around the Smoke Bluffs in Squamish, BC, so a sport climbing trip felt like a delicious dessert buffet for my insatiable sweet tooth. I gorged on a shiny new set of DMM quickdraws, some Verve capri spandex and a tight pair of Boreal Ace’s (Peter Croft’s sending shoe, I was told). I packed it all up and prepared to become a sport climber.

The leader of our crew – the Vancouver-MEC-hipsters-Skaha-Madness-1999-roadtrippers – was a gruff, bearded 30-year-old. He saw the green behind my ears and took me under his wing, dolling out a combination of encouragement and peer pressure, convincing me to climb at my limit at every go. He would then gleefully watch me flail, taking monster whippers (as he had predicted). As my fingers let go, I would look down and see a loop of rope on the ground, and scream as I came lurching to a stop (heart in my mouth all the while). He had inadvertently taught me the importance of trusting the rope system and that it was more exciting to be bold: fail and fall, than to give up: take and hangdog.

Climbing Skaha Bluffs

Following that first trip to Skaha, I went to the Rockies and continued my apprenticeship on the traditional and bold faces of the mountains. When I eventually returned a couple years later, I was excited to hone my skills as a trad climber – I started carrying a rack, looking for steep face climbs with cracks, runouts and big whippers. Test of the Ironman, The Professional and Flight of the Fledgling were hidden gem trad and bolted routes. I had discovered the original Skaha.

The Bluffs have gone through many transitions over the past three decades, from route development to access and ultimately, land management. It has long been a sensitive ecological area as well as a significant area for local First Nations. Climbers arrived in the 1980s, adding to its popularity. Access was always an issue, and things came to a head with the loss of the privately-owned parking area and access.

Thankfully, with forward thinking and coordinated representatives, access and land management was secured. After decades of hard work, Skaha Bluffs became a BC Provincial Park on April 21, 2010. Together, climbers, The Land Conservancy (TLC) and partners (including MEC) raised one million dollars to secure the land required for developing the current access. Thanks to the climbing community, BC Parks listed climbing at the Bluffs as an important visitor experience, one to be protected for future generations.

Skaha Provincial Park

I moved to Penticton, BC, from Canmore, AB, last summer to follow my girlfriend and her career, so I now call the Skaha Bluffs my local crag. It doesn’t have the same trad factor that Squamish has, or the sheer wilderness that the Rockies serve up, but the Bluffs make up for it with convenience and retirement-style living (if you’ve been to the Okanagan, you know what I mean). Of course, it is the brilliant gneiss canyons, the Skaha Bluffs Provincial Park, as well as a super tight climbing community dedicated to the preservation and responsible development of the Bluffs that make it such a huge draw.

While becoming acquainted with my new crag I started noticing routes, both mixed and bolted, which I had previously climbed, had new bolts added – a bevy of coloured bolts as well as additions in challenging sections or runouts. I was finding the Skaha that had taught me about the importance of headspace was being drilled away. Climbs that were memorable had become just another 5.10 clip-fest. I thought back to the routes I had climbed on my first trip and how they had been modified. Did it really matter? Were the routes really that different?

Doug Orr has been a key character in the development of the Bluffs, having recognized the beauty of the Southern Okanagan and its climbing potential over 20 years ago when he left the Rockies. He has developed classic routes from 5.9 to 5.13+ and scrubbed or bolted in most of the canyons throughout the Bluffs. When I met Doug, he was immediately friendly and excited to show me around, including all the unknown and hidden crags. While we walked, he would take the effort to pick up the smallest trash in the sand, demonstrating a deep affinity for the Bluffs. I started to see him as more than just a visitor to the park – he was happy to be showing me his backyard.

Skaha Provincial Park
Climbing Skaha Bluffs

Once we were acquainted, I probed Doug about the turns in development. I felt like something was being lost in the madness. Why had there been so much chipping and retrofitting of the gear and mixed routes? Routes had been “sanitized.” The topic of bolting ethics usually emerges in conjunction with the ebb and flow of developers and their practices. Routes like Test of the Iron Man now bore the scars of multiple different visions of the route, with chopped bolts littering the wall. Ascents were changed to accommodate the increased traffic for safety and convenience (although not always inclusive of each other).

Doug was leery to dive into another style debate about bolting. He never really went into depth about the development history or much controversy, but he did mention a few strong characters and egos, as well as the long arguments he would have with his best friend about route manufacturing and development, and ultimately the importance of staying friends in the face of their disagreements.

I decided that I wanted to erase some of the development and return some of the routes to the original state they had been climbed in, but I wasn’t about to go about chopping bolts, so instead, I did the polite Canadian thing. I started carrying a rack in my pack and climbing bolted routes – au naturel. Test of the Iron Man, Wings of Desire, Fire Wire – all beautiful routes that are much more memorable (though runout and less convenient) when done on gear. Carrying a small rack and using it whenever possible became my silent protest (though I am still happily clipping bolts most days; convenience is appreciated on quick after-work sessions). It’s more than just a nostalgic throwback to the good old days too – it’s a great way to beat the crowds when everything is slammed. You can find some new adventure on the well-travelled classics while keeping the skills sharp for when life throws you a curve ball and you end up tied into the sharp-end with no bolts in sight.

Climbing Skaha Bluffs

Lax Okanagan living, filled with fruit trees and downhill approaches, has helped me settle into a rhythm that is a little less feverish, especially around over-bolted or manufactured routes. I have started ignoring what I don’t like and embracing what is well done. Like my friend Simon says, “If you are going to chip, at least make a good route.”

Increased climber traffic is adding pressure on the Bluffs. Ongoing retrofitting is needed in high traffic areas. Visitor experience and safety are important goals of the community, as they should be, but development for the sake of reducing a manageable risk or in the name of convenience should be considered by the community, as well. Skaha still has lessons to teach.

Photography by Delano Lavigne

Joshua Lavigne
Joshua Lavigne

MEC Ambassador with a lengthy resume of alpine FAs, hard trad sends and road trip sagas.