For anyone familiar with ice/mixed climbing in North America, the name Sean Isaac is synonymous with some of the sport’s hardest and earliest routes. Here’s the story of how Sean went from stein pulls to six strings.
Away from the bolted caves and hard multi-pitch mixed climbs, Sean was known for searching out unclimbed big walls around the world. But over the last decade, Sean has reinvented himself once again.
Born in New Brunswick, he grew up snowboarding, kayaking and enjoying the outdoors. In high school, he picked up a guitar and found a passion in playing music. He moved to Thunder Bay, Ont, to attend Lakehead University where he would play jam nights at the university pub with his friend Brendan Madden. Having always wanted to try climbing, he went with a friend from and soon joined the Alpine Club of Canada. Wanting to pursue climbing as a lifestyle, he left university and moved to Canmore.
For the next 12 years Sean was one of Canada’s leading climbers, and with the likes of Will Gadd and Ben Firth, revolutionized gymnastic-style mixed climbing. He established more than 70 mixed routes ranging from hard single-pitch horizontal roofs like Phyllis Diller M11 to multi-pitch test-pieces like Cryophobia M8+ WI5+ 240 m. He climbed 16 new routes on the Stanley Headwall and made an early repeats of the famous Musashi M12 and Rocky Mountain Horror Show M12 at the Cinpelex cave. During his competition days, Sean placed fourth in Festiglace du Quebec, third at Ouray Ice Fest and first in the Canmore Speed Competition.
Outside of the Rockies Sean went on 14 major mountain expeditions and climbed new routes up remote and obscure alpine peaks in Patagonia, Northwest Territories, Peru and Pakistan. He went on three expeditions to the ex-Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan resulting in nine alpine ascents. In Alaska, he made the first ascent of The Voice of Unreason M7 WI5 700 metres on Kichatna Spire with Rob Owens and Roger Strong.
In the Bugaboos, Sean climbed six new routes including the difficult Spinstone Gully M7R and, with Marc Piche, made the first winter ascent of Pigeon Spire. Proving that he was more than just an aid or mixed climber, he established Wild Fire 5.12 360 metres with Matt Maddaloni on Wide Awake Tower. His impressive new routes landed him a starring role in the films Beyond Gravity, Unleashed and Higher Ground.
These are just a few of the highlights from the years Sean was an elite climber. Things started to change in 2003 when he had his first son, Noah. Two years later he became an apprentice rock guide with the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides. In 2006, his son Mica was born. Within a year after that, Sean became editor of the Canadian Alpine Journal and a full alpine guide.
Sean hardly picked up a guitar after he left university, there just wasn’t any time. Then in 2013, he met Julie Chang at a jam and was inspired. “Julie’s voice was smooth and sultry,” Sean said, “I knew I had to play music with her, so I did.”
Sean dusted off the old six-string and began jamming with Julie, Candice and other Canmore talent. There was a game at the first jam, to say what animal each other would be. “I said Julie would be a raven and she said I would be a fox.” He soon found himself playing his first live performance in two decades. “I was so nervous,” Sean said. “I’d given countless climbing presentations and shows, but music is different, you really put yourself out there.” Their first song was a cover of Ray Lamontagne’s Jolene. They realized their chemistry on and off stage was too amazing to pass up and they’ve been together ever since.
Over the last two years, they’ve have practiced for hundreds of hours. They play regular gigs in Canmore and always fill the house. What’s more amazing are Sean and Julie’s original songs. While Juile was away at school in Ontario, Sean would write lyrics and send them to her. In turn, Julie would work on the melody. When the timing worked out, the duo practiced their songs together. Before they knew it, they had written five songs.
At 42, Sean is a seasoned alpine guide. He no longer chases remote alpine walls or mixed-cave roofs, instead his spends he time with his now 12- and eight-year-old sons. Noah and Mica are two of the keenest youngsters in the mountains and, like their father, are passionate musicians.
Sean has reinvented himself time and time again, from dirtbag climber to sponsored athlete to family man to songwriter. Now, in 2015, Sean and Julie have recorded demos of their originals and if you’re wondering what they named their band, it’s The Raven & The Fox.
-Written by Gripped editor Brandon Pullan who first met Sean while ice climbing in Northern Ontario many years ago.