Renowned rock climber advocating for vehicle living in Squamish

Lifestyle Sports | Lifestyle

Thomasina Pidgeon, a UVic student, is leading a group fighting a city bylaw that would disallow van living in public spaces

van life graphic

For the longest time, there was one boulder problem in Squamish, B.C. that Thomasina Pidgeon couldn’t solve. But one day, Pidgeon dug deep down to find a perseverance that helped push her over the edge. 

She’s climbed in over 15 countries, became the first Canadian woman to scale V10, V11, and V12 boulder problems — three of the highest-rated boulder grades on the commonly used V scale —  and was a national team member for over three years. But that one boulder in Squamish sticks out in Pidgeon’s memory. It is memorable partially because the triumph happened in front of her daughter, Cedar, who had a front row seat to her mother’s accomplishment — whether or not she was paying attention. 

“I wasn’t thinking, I was just doing it. It was one of [those] zen moments,” says Pidgeon over the phone. “When I was at the top I was like, ‘oh wow! I just did it.’ I couldn’t believe it. Cedar was a little kid, and sleeping behind the rock and my friend was shouting. I wanted to shout, too! But we were going to wake her up.” 

Although Pidgeon remembers the success over that boulder in Squamish, she can’t recollect exactly how she started living in a van. But she broadly remembers the idea taking form in a Whistler parking lot.

Pidgeon, who was born in Newfoundland, left her home province at the age of 18 and spent time in Lake Louise, Alta. before relocating to Whistler. At the time, she lived in an apartment with a roommate, but met a group of people living out of their vans and fell in love with their lifestyle. 

“I would hang out with these guys, and they were just the coolest guys ever,” says Pidgeon over the phone. “They were just down to earth, fun, and they were all just living in this parking lot.”

From there, Pidgeon lived in a vehicle with her roommate for a Whistler winter. The van didn’t drive, it was stuck in the mountain side, and had mice in it. Looking back now, Pidgeon says that winter was “insane,” but a fun introduction to van living. 

“My friend, Diana, wouldn’t kill a spider. There were rats or mice in it, we had to get these friendly mice traps, catch them, and drive them somewhere. Then they’d come back,” says Pidgeon while laughing. “It was so funny.” 

After that winter, Pidgeon visited her home in Newfoundland where she picked up the sport of climbing at the age of 24 and moved back to the west coast to pursue climbing in Whistler and Squamish — two of the biggest climbing hotbeds in the country. 

“I’d always drive by Squamish and I knew there was climbing, but I thought it was a crazy thing that people did. Then I tried it and liked it, so I moved back.” 

Pidgeon has now spent over 20 years living out of various vans and exploring different continents. She doesn’t like to live in houses, and enjoys the freedom of living in a van. Pidgeon says living in a van has also allowed her to develop a strong bond with her daughter. 

She also owns the oldest gym in the city, Squamish Athletic Club, took online summer courses through UVic, and co-directs the Vehicle Residents of Squamish Advocacy Group (VRS). 

The group was formed in May of 2019 after Squamish City Council proposed a bylaw that would prohibit individuals from camping or sleeping overnight in public spaces. Eventually, after consultation with the VRS, council agreed to prohibit overnight sleeping in certain zones of the city. 

However, in July, Squamish City Council proposed an amendment to the bylaw that would remove the zones designation and make camping throughout the city illegal — unless it is in a designated camping spot. 

As tensions mounted against the proposed amendment, Pidgeon drew attention from the CBC, and Squamish Council agreed to delay and review the policy before coming back with a new “comprehensive plan.” 

The VRS proposed two alternatives to Squamish Council: a safe-lot system, a designated area where van residents would also have access to washrooms and running water for a fee, or a permit-paying system — the option Pidgeon is particularly found of — where van residents would pay a fee, like a property tax, and be given a sticker on their car to signify they are allowed to live in their vehicles outside one designated spot. 

Like the tricky Squamish boulder Pidgeon struggled to solve years ago, she hopes, after taking time to step away and reflect, that the Squamish Council will take the right steps to come up with a solution that will ensure vehicle residents in the city have legal places to live for years to come. 

“To stay in a campground, where I don’t necessarily want to be,” she says. “The safe-lot would work for a lot of people, but for me it doesn’t work because I like the freedom, for me it always comes back to the freedom.”