Jasmin Caton was born and raised in BC’s Selkirk Mountains and was skiing and hiking in the backcountry practically before she could walk. In her early 20s, she was introduced to rock climbing and instantly felt she’d found her place in the obsessed, road-tripping, dirt-bagging circus of traveling rock climbers. Caton is now an ACMG (Association of Canadian Mountain Guides) Rock and Ski Guide and the owner/operator of Valhalla Mountain Touring, a ski touring lodge in the Selkirk Mountains that specializes in steep trees and deep pow. She currently calls Squamish, BC home.
About her presentation:
In the summer of 2015, Caton and Kate Rutherford journeyed deep into the Purcell Wilderness Conservancy with packs stuffed full of climbing gear and a hunger for good rock. Their trip resulted in the completion of two new routes and a heightened appreciation for the capacity of high quality, unexplored alpine rock climbing within BC’s vast mountains, as well as the importance of protecting wild places for generations of mountain adventurers to come.
Interview by Brian Peech
Are you excited to present at this year’s MULTIPLICITY?
Oh, for sure. I’m going to talk about the Purcell Wilderness Conservancy. It’s a provincial park in the interior of BC. It’s a crazy story: I was actually conceived on a hiking trip my parents took in 1979, on a trail called the Earl Grey. At that point the Conservancy was a pretty fresh provincial park. It was conserved in 1974 due to the action of a group of committed Canadian citizens who’d started seeing a lot of mining and logging in the area, but really believed in its wild potential and qualities. So they toured the country lobbying to have the area saved. And it was. It’s one of the first areas in Canada to be considered saved due to the activism of citizens.
“I was actually conceived on a hiking trip my parents took in 1979, on a trail called the Earl Grey. At that point the Conservancy was a pretty fresh provincial park. It was conserved in 1974 due to the action of a group of committed Canadian citizens who’d started seeing a lot of mining and logging in the area, but really believed in its wild potential and qualities.”
You were conceived on the trail? I guess it has a lot of personal significance.
Yeah. So fast forward like five years: my parents did this hiking trip, I came to be, and I subsequently grew up one valley over, in the Slocan Valley in the Selkirk Mountains. I became a rock climber in my 20s, and I’m now a ski and climbing guide. And while I’ve spent a lot of time living in Squamish now, I’m still traveling the world rock climbing. This summer, a variety of circumstances drew me back to the Purcell Wilderness Conservancy, seeking alpine, granite rock climbs. So my presentation will be about my connection with the Conservancy, but also about this weeklong trip that I took with another climber, Kate Rutherford, who’s a fellow Patagonia ambassador.
Tell us about that trip.
Well, I scouted out some potential climbs we could do in the Conservancy, in a group called the Leaning Tower. It’s quite deep in the mountains; it’s a two-day hiking approach. You’re not allowed to fly helicopters or use any mechanized modes of transport into the Conservancy, so we spent a lot of time and energy hiking ourselves, with climbing and camping gear, into this zone where there are these beautiful, spectacular granite spires. Over the course of a week, we put up two new routes, two first ascents on two features, Wall Tower and Block Tower. We had an amazing climbing trip, but it really opened my eyes to a couple things. First, the amazing potential that the mountains in BC have for climbing—I mean, you think of the common areas like the Bugaboos or Squamish, there’s a lot of the trade route kind of areas—but if you get creative and look beyond those, you can get into some great adventures. And the second thing that really stood out, was really how that whole area might have a different feel to it if those people back in the ’70s hadn’t lobbied to preserve it as pristine wilderness, and to not allow mechanized access. It just makes it that much more special and unique.
Sounds like an amazing presentation. Can’t wait to see it. What were some of the highlights of that trip?
We camped in this little spot I found on Google Earth, far below the two peaks we wanted to climb. Beneath the peaks there was this rugged glacier and where the glacier recedes there is this granite basin with a beautiful turquoise blue alpine lake, rimmed with white granite boulders, and the only vegetation was this alpine fireweed. The lake forms almost an infinity pool, because it just drops down into the valley. Even better, right next to this lake, and our camping spot, was an even tinier lake with a sandy bottom, and it was fairly shallow, so it was quite warm. So coming back from our climbing adventures, we’d have this beautiful clean, fresh water, but we could also peel off our clothes and have a not-freezing dip in this little lake. I’ve traveled to a lot of places in this world, and this was probably the most stunning campsite I’ve ever had the pleasure to spend a week at.
“I feel that I’ve become a bit of a prisoner of the valley. I mean, all the climbing is right there; you can drive right up to the base of the Chief and have an amazing, world-class climbing adventure that is super satisfying. But in the last few years, I’ve been seeking adventure deeper into the mountains, where you have to put in more time, energy and research, where the outcome is way more uncertain.”
We live in a great place in the Sea-to-Sky Corridor, where there’s a lot of adventure to get into. But how important is it to get outside your comfort zone and explore areas that are a little bit deeper and further, that aren’t exactly handed to you on a platter?
I think it’s very important, for sure. I’ve been at least a summer resident of Squamish for the last 15 years, and as a member of the climbing community, I feel that I’ve become a bit of a prisoner of the valley. I mean, all the climbing is right there; you can drive right up to the base of the Chief and have an amazing, world-class climbing adventure that is super satisfying. But in the last few years, I’ve been seeking adventure deeper into the mountains, where you have to put in more time, energy and research, where the outcome is way more uncertain. You might travel way into the mountains and find out your objective has crappy rock or the weather doesn’t pan out. But the depth of your experience—when the outcome is a little more uncertain, whether it goes well or it doesn’t, when you have some sort of adventure—those are the things you’re going to remember for years and you learn tons about yourself, and have a deeper connection with wilderness and nature.
Are you concerned about the potential dwindling of appreciation for these wild places? Do you feel we’re not being as vocal as say those concerned citizens were in the ’70s?
Absolutely. There are a lot of factors. There are a lot more people getting into using the backcountry, which is wonderful, but then, of course, I have concerns about the way the backcountry is used. We want to make sure there are areas to protect wildlife and areas that are designated non-mechanized zones, but I hope that generations to come can have the same experiences in the wilderness that I have. It’s so important for all of us that care about these things to find our own way to commit to the cause of saving the places we care about, and make sure that generations moving forward can enjoy them the way we have.
“I think there’s something kind of primal about it, going on an adventure and challenging yourself physically and mentally, taking yourself to a bit of a max, whatever that max might be. It could be different for me than someone who’s a bit of a weekend warrior, but that max exists for everybody at some point.”
Why do you think it’s important, in general, for people to adventure?
That’s a really good question. There are a lot of people I know who can’t relate to what I do at all. I think there’s something kind of primal about it, going on an adventure and challenging yourself physically and mentally, taking yourself to a bit of a max, whatever that max might be. It could be different for me than someone who’s a bit of a weekend warrior, but that max exists for everybody at some point. I think our easy, civilized pace doesn’t take us to that place very often. So taking ourselves to an environment where we don’t feel comfortable, and we have to push ourselves to get where we need to be, I think it’s just huge for understanding ourselves. For me it’s a spiritual thing; it’s how I connect on a deeper spiritual level—pushing myself on a deeper plane in a natural environment where I feel challenged. On a primal level, it keeps me feeling alive.
“I think our easy, civilized pace doesn’t take us to that place very often.”
What first attracted you to climbing?
I grew up with athletic parents, who certainly took me out into the backcountry, but they weren’t climbers; they weren’t technical mountaineers at all. So when I first came out to Squamish, a friend took me climbing, lent me shoes and took me to the Smoke Bluffs, and pretty instantly, I fell in love with the community of climbers in Squamish. I was probably 19 and hadn’t really found my people yet. I loved to be outside and loved to have adventures, and all of a sudden I found this community of climbers who were so dedicated, who were living on no money, but were so passionate about climbing, and that was really intriguing to me. And then the mental challenge that climbing provides, and the adrenaline and the physical challenge it offered really pulled me in.
What was it like to get your ACMG certification?
It was huge. As soon as I realized you could make a living as a guide—it had been something I’d been striving for since my early 20s, both in the ski guide realm and the rock-climbing realm. It certainly wasn’t an easy process for me; I failed exams and it was a huge learning process. Its time consuming and expensive and you have to be really dedicated to it, but it’s also really fun and memorable. The people you bond with and come to know through your exams become lifelong friends. We’re lucky in Canada that a guiding career is respected and recognized and you can build a pretty good career as a guide.
And now you’re an owner/operator of your own lodge?
Yeah, my family started Valhalla Mountain Touring in ’93, so I kind of grew up around the backcountry skiing industry. I started working up here in ’98 and took it over in 2009.
“We’re lucky in Canada that a guiding career is respected and recognized and you can build a pretty good career as a guide.”
How do you find balancing that with your wanderlust, or desire to travel to adventure?
That’s the million-dollar question. I’m still working on that. There are times I feel kind of augured in, as a business owner and a guide, but every year I’m trying to build more balance into my life. Luckily, winter being the big season up here, summer allows me the time to carve out my own climbing expeditions.
How has climbing changed over the years?
Bouldering, which was pretty new when I started climbing, that’s become huge. Now people come from all over the world to Squamish to boulder every year. So that’s a huge change. But mostly I’ve noticed just the numbers of climbers has skyrocketed. Summer time in Squamish, the number of climbers on the Chief or in the bluffs is probably five times what it was 10 years ago.
“It drives creativity. A lot of my friends in Squamish are putting in new routes, and that’s their way of expanding beyond the beaten path. For me, that’s driven me into the mountains in search of the solitude and adventure I’ve always looked for.”
Is that a good thing?
Yeah, I think that’s a good thing. Anything that draws more people in, I think is a good thing. And I’m happy more people are going to enjoy climbing because it’s such an awesome sport. But then of course, on a selfish level, it’s tough when it’s really busy or the climb you wanted to make, you can’t because the wall is busy. But it drives creativity. A lot of my friends in Squamish are putting in new routes, and that’s their way of expanding beyond the beaten path. For me, that’s driven me into the mountains in search of the solitude and adventure I’ve always looked for.
And that circles back to keeping these areas wild?
Absolutely. I think if all people realize why these areas are so sweet, then they’ll be more willing to help continue that cause along.
What do you hope the audience takes away from your presentation?
I just really hope they take away that wild places are sacred, and that wild places are worth protecting as a necessary part of finding adventure, and if you want to have adventure in the mountains, you need to be able to go somewhere a bit wild and untouched. And to those qualities in a place, you might need to go somewhere that is protected. So I just hope the audience understands the importance of that protection, and understands that it doesn’t happen on it’s own.
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