In 1960, John Turner, a British ex pat and his climbing partner at the time, Dick Strachan, made the first ascent of the Joke 5.9, at Bon Echo, one of the most important climbs in Ontario climbing history. The Joke was revolutionary for its time, a long slender orange ramp rising out of Mazinaw Lake for 120 m. The protection, in the form of pitons, was marginal at best. Most climbers broke left at the top of the ramp, and the last pitch envisioned by John Turner, which went more or less straight up, and on which he apparently had one of his legendary falls, has possibly gone unclimbed until now. It reportedly took Turner four attempts to climb the original finish, but skeptics raised their brows and the lack of proof or witnesses has kept people wondering about the line.
Helmut Microys and Urs Kallen repeated the route in 1966, but continued the obvious line to the top of the ramp. Their finish became the standard Joke. In 2007, Turner confirmed the original line he took to Kit Moore and Ray Rutis was not the one Kallen and Microys took. Turner dubbed his last pitch The Last Laugh (the original last pitch of the Joke,) which breaks up the steep upper face above the third pitch. This October, 17-year-old Sam Eastman-Zaleski, seconded by Matt Norman, climbed the last pitch. Eastman-Zaleski has been repeating many of the harder trad routes in the province, including a rare ascent of Should Shrimps Learn to Whistle, a poorly protected, rarely climbed 5.11 at Bon Echo and The Awe-Inspiring Rites, a 5.12c at Devil Rock. Eastman-Zaleski recounts:
“Starting off a recent bolt belay, I found myself in a surprisingly hard set of moves. I was climbing Turner’s original last pitch, The Last Laugh. The rock was coated in lichen, and to make matters worse dark clouds threatened rain. The climbing was thin and tricky, protection was not obvious. The natural line seemed to go up and left. I later learned that the actual line went up and right to some trees. Blindly, I reached around a small roof looking for a hold when my hand brushed across a slice of metal of an old piton. I clipped a draw to it and it popped right out. The blade was no longer than a postage stamp and the head had seen a few too many hammer swings. I threw the relic in my pocket and climbed on. A few metres later I topped out. Overall, the climbing had seemed in the 5.10d/5.11a range. An unheard of achievement for the time.”
The piton was stamped Longware, an old California brand from the 1960s, and was hardly rusted. The 1970s in Ontario saw a few Californians, most notably George Manson, leave their mark on the local climbing community. Manson and friends were no strangera to Bon Echo, or the Joke. The mystery remains, did Turner climb the Last Laugh pitch? If so, then he was climbing at a standard far beyond that of the day; or was the Last Laugh first climbed by visiting Californians in the 70s; or was if just climbed by Eastman-Zaleski for the first time.