Rock Climbing

Rock Climbing

The Crown Jewel of Canadian Stone

Northwestern Ontario has some of the greatest recreational opportunities in Canada, from canoeing and biking to rock and ice climbing. Paleo-Indians mined the rock around Thunder Bay over 7,000 years ago for copper. They traded it for flint from North Dakota and shells from the Atlantic Coast. Since the settlers inhabited Northern Ontario hundreds of generations ago, the rock has been an important source for a variety of things. Now, in 2014, the rock is equally important, but not for trading. With the boom of rock climbing around the globe more people than ever are searching for quality climbing experiences.

The Golden Age of mountaineering started 300-years-ago and as the mountains in the European Alps were climbed there were fewer challenges for able climbers. Climbing evolved from standing on a summit to taking more difficult paths to the summit. Some of the paths were ridges and some were faces on the mountains. Often climbers were confronted by steep rock which proved to difficult to climb. The answer was to train on the shorter cliffs around the towns and villages, to practice rock climbing so when climbers returned to the mountain they had the needed skills to pass the steep rock. Eventually rock climbing became its own sport in the UK, over 100-years-ago. Now every continent has not only rock climbers, but rock climbs. The worlds geology lends itself to people who want the challenge of pulling themselves up a piece of stone. The stone in Thunder Bay is some of the oldest on the planet, intrusive basalt, and best to climb.

Climbers began scaling the cliffs around the North Shore of Lake Superior in the late 1970s. As more people climbed, more routes were developed. The first routes climbed were on Sleeping Giant, at Silver Harbour and at the Centennial Bluffs. In 1980, the Face High Climbing Club was formed by Paul Dedi, Shaun Parent, Bill Ostrom and Randy Frietag. In 1983, the Thunder Bay Alpine Group became the Thunder Bay section of the Alpine Club of Canada.

The climbing culture evolved as Lakehead University encouraged the sport and organized practicums for students. With dozens of climbers taking part in the sport, more climbs were established and more areas found. In 1992, the Banff Mountain Film Festival was hosted by the local Alpine Club. This year it will be having its 24th anniversary.

The mid-90s rock climbing saw an explosion in popularity. As word spread that the rock in Thunder Bay is some of the best in Canada, more people ventured to Northern Ontario. Frank Pianka dedicated countless hours to weekly ACC club outings at the Bluffs where he introduced young people to rock climbing. The discovery of Squaw Bay rock by Shaun Parent, Peter Powell and Dave Pagel was a huge leap forward. Turning the century marked another important shift in local climbing, there were more sport climbs being added to the cliffs. In rock climbing there are two ways to keep your rope connected to the rock: traditional and sport. In traditional climbing the climber brings pieces of equipment which fit into natural features in the rock and when the climber leaves the climb they bring their equipment home with them. Sport climbing uses fixed bolts drilled three-inches into the rock because there are no natural features for traditional equipment. Sport climbing has been around for over forty years and is the preferred form of climbing by many climbers, depending on geography and expertise. Both forms of climbing are accepted in Thunder Bay and local consensus determines when are where the specific types might be used. For example Pass Lake is a steep sandstone cliff which does not lend it self to traditional equipment, therefore bolts are used. However, the local Bluffs have many places for traditional equipment and therefore there are no bolts.

From 2000 to 2013 the new sport climbs have added to the increase in standards. With many climbs nearing the difficulty of the hardest in the country. In Orient Bay, near Nipigon, routes as big as 100-metres (300-feet) have been climbed. At Claghorn, near Red Rock, dozens of beautiful, world-class 30-metre (90-feet) sport routes have been established. From 2000-2005, Randy Reed, Matt Pellett, Jeff Hammerich, Steve Chalton and Dave Benton put in hundreds of hours developing three-star route at Orient Bay, Lost Falls and Squaw Bay. From 2005-2010, locals Kyle Brooks, Duncan Hutchinson, Sean Robinson and Derrik Patola established some wild traditionally protected routes all around the area.

At Mount Godfrey, in Thunder Bay, a dozen maximum quality routes have been climbed. Last year locals Mitch Marostica, Aric Fishman, Sam Matteer and Zach Watson established a number of cutting edge climbs. Dr. Patrick Martel has volunteered countless hours over the last few seasons established safe and fun climbs at Silver Harbour and Pass Lake.

Rock climbing is one of the safest outdoor pursuits people can partake in. Hollywood and media glorify the risks and tragedies, but the reality is climbing is very safe, slow and predictable. Every day, tens-of-thousands of rock climbers scale cliffs around the world, very rarely are people injured. Safety equipment and standards are higher than ever.

With feet dangling, imagine your hands squeezing coarse sandstone at Pass Lake, followed by pie and coffee at Karen’s Kountry Kitchen across the street. As waves crash behind you, imagine grabbing small sharp ledges at Squaw Bay. With your shoulders rubbing on maple trees, imagine climbing to the top of Silver Harbour. With the city far below you, imagine pulling down on unique basalt on the cliffs of Mount Godfrey. With nothing, but air on all sides, imagine standing on Dorion Tower, near Ouiment Canyon. Squeezing your hands into cracks that were first climbed by the climbing pioneers; imagine working your way up the rock at the Bluffs. As the western sky turns from blue to glowing orange, red and crimson, imagine watching the sun set from atop the exposed cliffs of Claghorn. With nearly 1,000 climbs to choose from, go experience the world-class rock climbing your home has to offer.

Brandon Pullan spent five-years scaling the walls around Thunder Bay. He is an Association of Canadian Mountain Guides member, the Editor for Gripped, Canada’s Climbing Magazine and makes an annual journey to Thunder Bay every summer for the world-class rock.

By Brandon Pullan



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