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Five Things to Know About Val-David Climbing

A series of climbing 101’s about the history, people, routes and gear that shaped the sport

Some of the first rock climbs done in Canada were in Quebec over 80 years ago. As we head into 2020, climbers now have everything from V13 boulders to project, WI6 ice lines to climb and A4 big walls to epic on.

However, it was near the town of Val-David that rock climbing in the province was born.

Over the years, many historical moments have played out on the walls and boulders at the famous climbing area and below are only a few of the many noteworthy climbs.

La Valse

Swiss climber John Brett was an engineer living in Montreal in the late 1920s. An avid skier, he visited the trails around Val-David in 1928 and found the many granite walls.

In 1932, he climbed the first recorded rock climb in Quebec and called it La Valse. Throughout the 1930s, he continued to climb new rock routes, including Fatman’s Misery and Valse Normale, both in Val-David.

Climbers in Val-David over 60 years ago

Alpine Club of Canada

In 1942, the Montreal section of the Alpine Club of Canada was formed and the first meeting took place at John Brett’s home. More climbs were opened over the next few years in Val-David.

Pete Covo, a Mexican climber attending McGill University, made the first ascent of Chico 5.4, which became a popular route. That same summer, Brett made the first ascent of Arabesque, a three-pitch 5.4.

The Montreal Section became the must-join club if you wanted to be a climber and it grew by the dozens over the next few decades.

Alpine Club of Canada climbers from Montreal in 1951 at Val-David

Fritz Wiessner

In the late 1940s, German American climber Fritz Wiessner heard about the potential at Val-David and visited John Brett in 1949. By then, Wiessner had attempted K2 and opened some of the hardest free routes in the U.S.A., mostly in the Gunks.

In 1949, Wiessner set a new standard at Val-David when he made the first ascent of L’Imperiale, 5.9, on Mont King. In the early 1960s, Dick Willmott climbed a direct variation at 5.10a.

Top climber at the time, Alan Rubin, later said, “I can confirm that Wiessner’s route L’Imperiale s a very hard and serious route. Back in the mid-1970s, Al Long and I seemed to be climbing pretty well during a visit to the Val-David climbing areas but were stopped cold by L’Imperiale, couldn’t even see what to do, though had little trouble with the supposedly harder ‘direct’ put up by Turner or one of his compatriots a decade or so later.

“Though Canadian John Brett was apparantly the first to climb on the Val David crags, it was Wiessner’s subsequent visits that really began the development of the area and of rock climbing in general in Quebec.”

L’Imperiale climbs the slab/crack/dihedral on the left. On the right is le Sceptre

Le Toit de Ben

Le Toit de Ben is one of Canada’s most famous roof cracks. It was first climbed by aid in 1958 by Bernard Poisson and Erwin Hogson. They used wood pegs, a homemade chest harness and a hemp rope.

The first free ascent of the 10-metre horizontal crack was in 1987 by Quebec climber Francois Roy. It became the first 5.13 in the province. It’s been repeated by many top climbers, including Sonnie Trotter and Mason Earle. In 2010, Canadian Nathalie Malo ticked the first female ascent of the burly climb.

Nathalie Malo on Le Toit de Ben Photo Andrew Burr

La Zébrée

La Zébrée is a steep crack climb on Mont King, which is one of Canada’s hardest trad routes at 5.14a. It was first freed by Jeff Beaulieu, who climbed it on pre-placed gear. Crack master Jean-Pierre Ouellet made the first redpoint.

He climbed it with a pre-placed first piece and then Sylvain Masse freed it while placing all of the gear on lead, including the first piece. Read the full story about La Zébrée here.