Definitely dirtbag and sure-as-heck hair-raising, rock climbing is not a sport for the weak. What is it that moves these athletes of ascent to their happy places? Squamish climber Will Stanhope helps us understand why the sport has brought him joy since he started at the age of nine. By Jayme Moye.

Will Stanhope, 31, Squamish, British Columbia

The first piece of “rock” Will Stanhope ever climbed was a series of synthetic holds drilled into a plywood wall at the Edge Climbing Centre in North Vancouver. He was nine years old. Soon after, Stanhope joined the indoor climbing competition circuit, drawn by the fun and inclusive vibe. Once he had his driver’s license, he started climbing outdoors, regularly making the 45-minute trip to the 700-metre-high granite monoliths and sheer rock cliffs that define the literal heart of Canada’s climbing community: Squamish. “I was quite taken by it,” Stanhope says. “In a way I hadn’t been by anything before, not even skiing.”

Top photo by Kyle Berkompas

He remembers the outdoor climbing community folding him in, not because he was the most talented youngster out there (he wasn’t), but because he was so darn psyched. Stanhope loved the long, adventurous routes, especially the ones that weren’t bolted, where he had to find his own way. “It was just so engrossing,” says Stanhope. “Way more interesting than what was happening in high school.”

The summer after his first year of college, Stanhope went climbing in Yosemite National Park, America’s big-wall climbing capital, which he says blew his mind, and confirmed his suspicion that he was never going to be happy in school. After doing some gruelling tree-planting work in northern British Columbia, Stanhope pursued the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (ACMG) Rock Guide Certificate—a career path he says was far easier on his body. Today, Stanhope has the sponsorship dollars to accomplish his goals on the rock, but says being a climbing pro was never his intention. “It’s just the way the cookie crumbled,” he quips, “because I was so passionate about climbing at the start of the line, I guess.”

As to the driver behind his passion for climbing, Stanhope acknowledges it’s hard to explain. He thinks part of it has to do with coming into the sport at such an impressionable age. “Being in places like Squamish, Yosemite, Patagonia, doing those climbs,” he says, “it was the coolest thing I’d ever done. When you feel that, at like 19 years old, there’s no way you can’t follow it.”

Twelve years later, Stanhope has no regrets about following the path he did. He still feels much of the same passion, and is working to channel it into the present moment so that he’s not always chasing the next bigger, harder, scarier project. Looking back over his accomplishments, he cites the first free ascent of the Tom Egan Memorial route as his greatest, a 5.14 climb he completed with Matt Segal on the east face of Snowpatch Spire in the Bugaboos, British Columbia. The two spent more than 100 days on that granite spire, over the course of four years, attempting to climb it “free,” using only their hands and feet to ascend, without the aid of gear. But for Stanhope, the best moment wasn’t finally topping out. It was all the time he spent on the rock.