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Balancing Act: How Leslie Timms Finds Her Flow

Based in Ontario, Timms is a successful guide, pro athlete and climbing steward

Photo by: Mike Penney

Leslie Timms does it all. Not all types of climbing — though she’s damn good at a fair few disciplines — but juggling the extraneous parts of life. You know, the weird parts of the day before you get to the crag, or when it becomes dark enough that you should probably go home? Though her life was once fully centred around climbing with a “by-any-means” attitude, she has since shifted focus to giving back to the Ontario climbing community — and providing its booming climbing scene with invaluable knowledge.

Timms began climbing 19 years ago in Pembroke, Ont. while studying outdoor recreation. Her athletic potential had, up until then, focussed on guiding white water canoe trips in Algonquin Park. Not exactly the tendon-strengthening training you would imagine while watching her dispatch 5.13d’s around North America a few years later. While Timms said she loved the adventure attached to a multi-day canoe trip, it was the intuitive movement of climbing that stole her away. 

Since her first days on rock, obsessing over the same small boulder close to her campus day after day, it was clear that climbing would take on a significant role in her life. After graduating from college, she traded her dorm room for a beat up Subaru Outback and hit the road with her college sweetheart, Kyle. The two weathered the eight-month trip in good style; Walmart bivvies, stealthy dumpster diving and a smorgasbord of North America’s best climbing destinations. They hid duffel bags of climbing gear under their car each night so they could lie down, and ran up their credit cards to continue stoking the fire. When their funds to eat or pay for gas fully ran dry, they drove back to Ontario to mow lawns for a month before returning to the Red River Gorge where they sent their first 5.13s. Returning to Ontario after that first proper climbing trip, Timms said her eyes had been opened to a future with climbing: splitters or steep caves, sandstone or granite, “I was just so motivated to get good at all of it,” she said. The seed had been planted.

Leslie Timms climbing a splitter in Thunder Bay Photo Aric Fishman

Timms proceeded to take the Ontario climbing scene by force, focussing primarily on sport climbing for the first six years of her career. After ticking off several 5.13+ pitches, she began to look for a new way to feel like a beginner again. 

Looking back now, with perspective as a climbing guide, Timms remembers her formative years of trad climbing with a mix of good memories and close calls. On a trip to Joshua Tree, Timms was handed a rack of cams and told to give it a go on lead. She credits her prowess as a solid 5.13 climber for allowing her to pass through those first 5.8 splitters unscathed, desperately laybacking hand cracks with dubious cams placed quickly in crystalline rock far below. Timms notes that most of her placements would have likely pulled if she had ever actually weighted them, but an athletic background allowed the tipped-out cams to remain solely as mental jewelry. Timms’ original motivation to become a climbing guide was wholly linked to these experiences — she wanted to teach young climbers about traditional climbing without the white-knuckle epics.

With a tonne of sport mileage, and some almost-life-altering trad climbing under her belt, Timms truly sunk her teeth into climbing. She earned her Professional Climbing Guides Institute (PCGI) certification and began guiding clinics around Ontario to fund international climbing trips. Once, after a long summer of rope management and rough calluses, Timms received an electric sander as a tip from a guest — the landscaper was impressed with her rugged, working hands. Weather, humidex and wind direction updates became a regular part of Timms’ morning routine; the information was critical for hunting down hard redpoints throughout the Northeast. The 12th and 13th of each month were her lucky climbing days and Timms based her guiding schedule around them. 

The singular passion Timms has for rock climbing is alive and well in her current home of Thornbury, Ont. Just ask the real estate agent who was tasked with finding a garage big enough to house her massive home wall. Along with this passion, though, are added responsibilities. Timms is the owner and head guide of one of Ontario’s largest climbing guiding outfitters, On the Rocks Climbing. She co-founded the Beaver Valley Climbing Festival, taught clinics at the Arc’teryx Climbing Academy, served on the board of the Ontario Alliance of Climbers and developed a number of moderate and difficult routes throughout the province. Not to mention her up-and-coming career as a pilates instructor.

This balancing act sounds like a challenge for any mere mortal who just wants to go rock climbing. Timms said it is especially demanding to juggle these responsibilities while achieving the professional-level of climbing she has come to expect from herself. While running a successful guiding business, Timms said it is usually her personal goals that suffer. “Guiding has slowly been breaking me down,” she said. “I love it, but it hasn’t helped my career as an athlete in any way.” Timms said it can be especially hard to return to the crags after a week of guiding and find the motivation to go a muerte. With a nasty ligament tear to her middle finger almost behind her, Timms is shifting her focus away from full-time guiding and towards more effort on her own projects.

Though taking a break from guiding will undoubtedly improve her climbing, Timms said pilates is actually the ace up her sleeve. She began to perfect the practice while rehabbing her finger and has since found it to drastically improve her body awareness. “I feel like I’m coming back [to climbing] with a new view on movement,” she said. Pilates helps Timms approach body positioning in ways she’s never done before. It also seems to strike the professional balance she has been searching for. Timms said she can teach online pilates classes from anywhere in the world, allowing her to sustain a professional career and take her personal climbing to new heights.

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Some climbs make you jump higher, reach further, and try harder than others of the exact same grade. Do you walk away because it feels “hard for the grade” and “not your style”? These climbs can be the best learning (and training) opportunities if you are willing to listen to the lesson. Leave the ego at home, it’s in it for all the wrong reasons! When my soul leads the way, I grow into the best version of myself ? and that’s what it’s really all about. Thanks @roarkfitness for the ? of me stoking that ‘Eternal Fire’ 5.13+??? @arcteryx @sterlingrope @lasportivana #grades #soft #hard #whocares #keeplearning #playthelonggame #egovssoul #motivationmonday #sportclimbing #redrivergorge #sterlingathlete #celebratewild #freedomtofocus #lasportivana #arcteryx

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It appears that wherever Timms invests her time and energy, the Ontario climbing community benefits. Just ask the hundreds of climbers who visit Metcalfe Rock each week. Timms’ Rock Respect program introduced signage to high traffic areas of the crag to avoid trampling an extremely sensitive ecosystem and displeasing land owners. Rock Respect launched in 2018 when several Ontario crags saw an increase in climber traffic and poor ethics. Her initiative educates the unenlightened climber about the inherent dangers of climbing, interacting with others at busy areas and how to protect the environment and future access at Niagara Escarpment cliffs. Timms is slow to admonish new and oblivious climbers; she recognizes that it is the responsibility of experienced climbers to educate and empower the upcoming generation. She’s also the first to admit her own shortcomings while learning to climb — like cragging with a friend who brought a boombox and Biggie Smalls to improve the ambiance. “I was once that new and inconsiderate climber. But I learned the hard way,” she said. 

With the benefit of hindsight, Timms realizes that climbing is a consumption culture, where we take and benefit from the work of our larger community. “[Climbing] is such a self-operated community,” she said. “When you’re starting out as a young climber you think, ‘They need to fix this, or do that.’ Then you realize, ‘Who’s they?’” This realization inspired Timms to continue her route development throughout Ontario, especially routes which can be enjoyed by the masses. She notes that while her traditional test piece Above the Clouds 5.13 at Lion’s Head may be a high watermark for other climbers to aspire to, it is the moderate grades which truly give back to the community that she has grown to love. 

Timms’ interest in route development helps her feed the fire for climbing even though she primarily guides and trains during the summer months. “It’s like I wear two hats,” Timms said. “In the summer I’m a professional guide; in the winter I’m a professional climber.” Looking forward, Timms said she is excited to wear her climbing hat more often. Though she may not be eating canned olives for dinner in the back of a Subaru anymore, or trading Clif bars for a meal at Miguel’s Pizza in the Red, her motivation for hard rock climbing is as high as ever — and a bit more balance in her life is a welcome change. 

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Lead photo: Mike Penney