No better way to celebrate Canada Day than to look back at 100 years and 10 great ascents from coast to coast to coast.
As Canada turns 151 this year, be sure to pick up the current issue of Gripped magazine for recent stories, current climbers and more.
Climbers have been exploring Canada’s vertical places for nearly two centuries. In 1827, David Douglas made the first ascent of Mount Brown in the Rockies as the first recorded ascent in the mountains.
Over the next few decades, more mountains would be climbed, from the Alberta and B.C. up to Yukon.
Below are dozen ascents that made the history books, but there are hundreds of others just as worthy to be on a list like this.
In 1916, Conrad Kain, Albert H. MacCarthy, Mrs. MacCarthy and John Vincent made the first ascent of Bugaboo Spire. The route is now one of Canada’s most famous and is known as the Kain Route.
The first ascent team hoped the climbing would be easy going, but a gendarme high on the route forced them onto technical terrain on steep rock. With no climbing harnesses, modern protection, helmets or sticky rubber shoes, Kain led them to the top.
After the climb, A.H. MacCarthy wrote the following: “Relieving himself of his rucksack, he gradually worked up this face by means of several diagonal cracks until he succeeded in getting both arms over the top edge, and here he stuck for a long time.
“Feeling about and looking for some little thing that might afford him a hold long enough to pull himself over; at last he found it, although it was not apparent to us when we followed, and slowly crept over the edge, much to our relief, for we supposed the difficulties were ended, but they had really just begun.”
It took three expeditions over two years to succeed in climbing Mount Logan, Canada’s highest mountain. Before the age of flight-assisted expeditions, climbers had to walk to the mountains and Mount Logan is a big walk from the nearest town.
A.H. MacCarthy led a joint American Alpine Club and Alpine Club of Canada team to the summit on June 23, 1925. The round trip from the nearest town took 65 days and everyone made it back alive. The climbers who reached the summit inlcuded A. H. MacCarthy, H.F. Lambart, Allen Carpé, W.W. Foster, N. Read and Andy Taylor. J. W. A. Hickson wrote the following about A.H. MacCarthy after the expedition:
“Of all the party he was perhaps the least exhausted on the final stages of the climb, and seems to have suffered but little from cold and fatigue, to which he was doubtless more inured than the others. Nothing seems to have disturbed his balance and good humour.
“To him is owing the use of the willow switches without which the climbers might not have found so readily their way down from the higher snow fields to Windy Camp, and to safety. Mr. MacCarthy has declared that the Expedition was very lucky.”
On August 17, 1931, Hans Wittich and Otto Stegmaier made one of the most difficult climbs in Canada when they climbed the East Ridge of Mount Temple in 13-and-a-half hours road to summit.
Soloing most of the ridge, which included 5.8, with no harnesses or climbing protection, they roped up for short sections and on the upper ice ridge.
With long wooden ice axes, they chopped steps for their leather boots. On the steeper knife-edge ridge they would au chavel. Wiitich wrote after their climb: “The ice ridge was now cruelly steep, and sharp as a knife.
“Otto hewed the steps for a while on the glacier side of the ice-ridge. Soon we reached the limit. If only we had crampons; then it would be easy. But alas, they were lying down below in the auto camp. With determination, I worked hard below the knife edge, hewed a saddle on the very crest and swung myself on the saddle in cowboy fashion. Now we rode and jumped from saddle to saddle, up the ice-edge.
“Not very far above us was a mighty ice-nose. It must be the top. Shortly under the nose, I traversed very carefully and then went up to the top of the nose, step by step. The summit at last!”
Swiss climber John Brett makes the first recorded climb in Quebec called La Valse on Mont Cesaire in Val David. Within the next two decades, there were a dozen routes added to the now-popular climbing destination. A few include l’Arabesque, Chico and l’Imperiale.
Brett is considered the grandfather of Quebec climbing with his many first ascents. In 1942, he founded the Montreal Section of the Alpine Club of Canada (ACC). He was the president of the ACC during the late 1950s.
In 1960, John Turner 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 metres. 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 is potentially still unclimbed.
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. Attempts have put the grade in the 5.11s.
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.
After the first ascent of the Grand Wall in 1961 by Jim Baldwin and Ed Cooper, a new wave of climbers hit the scene.
In 1966, Tim Auger, Glenn Woodsworth, Dan Tate and Hamish Mutch make the first ascent of University Wall in Squamish. Their ascent was a breakthrough in technical Canadian big-wall climbing and it paved the way for what was to follow.
In 2009, Ivan Hughes wrote the following in Gripped Magazine (full article here): “For the second night in a row it was almost midnight when the final rope was ascended, the bags of gear were hauled and the team united once more on the top of the Chief. They celebrated, shook hands and laughed.
The climb of University Wall set a new standard in Canadian climbing. Whereas Baldwin and Cooper had climbed the Grand Wall using 138 bolts, this group of young locals had only used 14. They had performed well beyond their experience and challenged themselves like never before.”
Don Serl, Greg Foweraker and Peter Croft made the first traverse of the Waddington Range over five days in July, 1985.
They traversed Serra 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 with Mount Asperity, Mount Teidemann, Mount Combatant and Mount Waddington. The traverse has been repeated by Colin Haley and Mark Bunker and after Haley said it was similar to the Mont Blanc Range.
In his guidebook to the Waddington Range, The Waddington Guide (Elaho Publishing, 2003) Serl wrote: “The Waddington Range Traverse is one of the great alpine outings in America. It travels the highest crest, the very backbone, of the Range, covering about 18 km of climbing terrain and including about 4,000 m of ascent while overcoming 11 summits between 3,500 m and 4,000 m.
“Surprisingly, the technical difficulties are not very high, but the commitment is huge—the central portions of the route lie on exceptionally isolated ridges 1,500 m and more above the surrounding glaciers, and escape in bad weather would be serious.”
The Cirque of the Unclimbables in the Logan Mountains in the North West Territories are a remote range.
That didn’t stop Paul Piana, Galen Rowell and Todd Skinner from establish The Great Canadian Knife on the Southeast Face of Proboscis on August 13, 1992. The first ascent of the wall in 1963 was by Jim McCarthy, Layton Kor, Royal Robbins and Dick McCracken.
The Great Canadian Knife is a 17-pitch grade-six 5.13b that took nine days to equip and has stacked 5.12s and two 5.13 pitches, and was likely the most difficult remote alpine wall in North America at the time.
After their ascent Skinner said: “What we just did may be one of a kind in the world. There may not be another piece of rock so well suited to hard free-climbing.
“That 800-foot section of 5.12 and 5.13 is the most continuously difficult stretch I’ve ever heard of on any big wall, alpine or not, without a move of direct-aid. Even on El Capitan, the hard pitches weren’t all in a row like that. What shall we try to free-climb next year?”
Sonnie Trotter made the first free ascent of The Path 5.14R at Back of the Lake at Lake Louise.
Originally bolted in the 1980s, Trotter chopped the bolts and sent it on run-out gear. It took about five weeks of attempts to eventually link the moves through the V10 bouldery crux. It has been repeated a number of times and flashed by Alex Megos in 2016.
In 2006, Trotter made the first free ascent of Cobra Crack 5.14b in Squamish and in 2004, he made the first ground-up gear ascent of East Face of Monkey Face 5.13dR.
After his send, he noted, “By rapping in, I discovered that the route can and should be climbed entirely on natural gear, all trad. So after two days of top-roping the climb using cams for directionals, I knew for sure that it was meant to be climbed in a traditional style, not sport.
“So I went up and chopped all the bolts off. It was a hard decision to make at first because it is now rated R, but I have gotten a lot of great responses from people and it was ultimately the best choice to make.
“I then worked on the climb for about 10 days spread out over five weeks before redpointing it, placing all the gear on lead, and avoiding any fixed gear. It was the best style I could imagine doing and it was a great relief to finish it.”
Tim Clifford climbed a new Squamish V14 only eight days before his 40th birthday on May 21, 2007. The problem was known as “the room project” and Clifford named it The Singularity. It’s a technical line up perfect granite and had booted the world’s best.
Originally from the U.K., Clifford became a resident of Canada and arrived in Squamish in 2007. Having sent a number of the most difficult local problems, he set his sights on the long-time project.
After the send, he said: “I suppose climbers, especially boulders, have a very strong relationship with gravity. From my understanding the singularity is the theory that, at the center of a black hole, the gravity is so strong that even light cannot escape. I suppose that’s what we’re trying to do every time we climb — escape from gravity.
“It’s definitely the best first ascent of a boulder problem I’ve done, and ranks with one of the best hard problems I’ve done. It’s always very satisfying to be the first person to work out how to do a problem. For me, it’s a perfect problem.”
Vikki Weldon, who was the third Canadian woman to climb 5.14, made the second ascent of Yamnuska’s most difficult route at the time Blue Jeans 5.13b.
Weldon put a lot of energy and time into working the route, which was first climbed by Derek Galloway. Since Weldon’s send, the route has had a number of repeats and a 5.14 direct variation by Sonnie Trotter.
Weldon wrote after her send: “Into the final crux. Each move that had been rehearsed over and over in my head at night was executed with precision. The last move, rocking over on a high left foot, reaching blindly for the jug over the bulge. Reaching. Reaching. Where is it?!
“A moment of panic, followed by a moment of complete euphoria as my hand clasped over that wonderful piece of rock. A whoop explodes from my chest. Followed by a whoop from Tom below. “I’M SO PSYCHED!” I scream into the air, as I make the final few moves to the anchors. “I DID IT!!””
In 2016, Alex Megos made the first ascent of Fight Club, Canada’s first 5.15. The steep 5.15b climbs an arete feature at Ravens Crag above Banff.
The first section of the line was bolted in the early 1990s by Peter Arbic and freed by Megos at 5.14. Sonnie Trotter added bolts to the top of the line, which Megos worked for a week before sending.
After his send, Megos said, “I think the most challenging part of the route was the section in the middle where I decided to change beta after trying it for a couple of days already. That was the move where I fell most and which was the most unsecure move in the whole route.”