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For the Love Of Climbing with 5.14 Climber Jared Nelson

The Ontario climber talks about living on the road, hard sends and what's next

In many ways, the age of the dirt bag has ended. Van-lifers are increasingly difficult to find, and the strongest climbers in the world appear to flock to competition instead of the gear ripping routes of climbing’s ancestry. Even among outdoor climbers, the appreciation of all climbing disciplines can seem like it has disappeared…

At the age of 19, Jared Nelson fell in love with rock climbing. He finished high school and was working at a Toyota factory when he found the sport. Nelson had just recovered from a BMX-broken collar bone and had subsequently lost the psych for boofing doubles in the dirt. He wanted something to do for himself.  Before long he was pulling plastic at his local climbing gym.

The Canada Van  

Nelson’s approach to the sport reflected those of almost all climbers that began within the last decade. Nelson said, “At first it was just this cool thing that I thought would make me strong. I was psyched on the mechanics.”

Going outside, Nelson was up on a rope at Ontario’s glassiest crag, Mt. Nemo. After eyeing down the barrel of a poorly placed tree, Nelson swore off sport climbing to pursue bouldering. He and his buddy Zach would blast their way to Halfway Log Dump with dreams of hard moves and plans to sleep in caves.

Though Halfway was a good place to start, the long drive and limited bouldering led Nelson to the Niagara Glen Nature Reserve. The Glen, as it is classically called, became the training ground for Nelson and JC Reinosa. Today, Reinosa works at The Hive as a routesetter and coach.

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The pair got themselves jobs working on oil lines at another car-parts factory. Nelson said, “We worked side-by side, goofing off all shift. It was a night shift, and we worked 40 hours, but we still climbed at the Glen at least three days a week. We would work all night, get into my Chevy Cavalier, I always had this pad strapped to my roof and one sticking out of my trunk, finish our night shift, sleep in the front seats of the car for like an hour, then drive to the Glen, climb all day long, drive back to work, get food on the way, sleep another hour in the parking lot, and go back to work.” Nelson laughed at the memory.

Eventually, the trio got psyched on the idea of doing a big trip out to Squamish. Nelson said, “We bought this ‘84 Ford Econoline. It had blue and white stripes and a big maple leaf on the side. When we rolled up into Squamish, we were known as the ‘Canada Van Guys.’

The Canada Van Guys: Nelson, Reinosa and Zach

“Just getting out there was this huge epic because our gas gauge didn’t work. We were just using the odometer. I knew we could make it 500 km before we had to fill up,” but sometimes cruise control got away from them and they would break down.

Nelson said, “This one time we ran out of gas in the middle of Saskatchewan. We called CAA and it took them like three hours to get out there. We had an oven in there and this 32-inch flat screen tv. When they showed up we were just mowing pasta and watching a movie on the big screen. They knocked on our door and we were like, ‘You want some food?’”

The trip was awesome. Upon their return to Kitchener, Nelson was buzzing. He said he wondered, “How do I do more of this? How do I make this more sustainable?  I wanted to do something through the States. I wanted to do something on my own. I just saw how easy it was to make friends.” When he came back, he started work sandblasting truck frames. He began saving.

Soon after, Nelson had sold the Econoline and his cavalier for Chevy Optra. He began his second trip, a seven-month odyssey. He began what would become his first largely solo journey with Joe Skopec. Nelson said, “We went to Wyoming, we went to Ten Sleep, went to Lander, then we went up to Alberta.”

“We were having so much trouble finding inexpensive camping in Canmore. We found this campground but they were charging per tent. We had three different tents at this site, but we knew what time the park rangers came around.” They would wake up early and pack two of the tents into the third, so they would only have to pay for one. This reduced overhead costs.

“We were climbing in Acephale mostly, but it wasn’t too busy because it was getting cold. We had this routine where we would get up, do the hike. As soon as you are up there you collect as much wood as you can and you have a fire. By the time the fire is warm, you are starting to cool down so you do your warm ups. It was so perfect.”

While they were getting used to the Alberta cold, Skopec received a text that said Sonnie Trotter wanted a climbing partner for the day. According to Nelson, “he had heard that some Ontario boys were in town and wondered if we wanted to climb with him.”

Nelson had been planning a rest day in preparation for redpoint goes on his project Army Ants, but upon hearing this news he ran up the hill to meet Skopec. Nelson said, “Sonnie’s there, I’m trying not to be starstruck. He is so personable, so chill, he’s got this huge bag of M&Ms and he is sharing it with us. Then he’s saying that he’s gotta go, and he asks if I want a belay before he goes, and I’m like ‘Oh, well, I have been working Army Ants, I’ll give it a try.’” Nelson fires the lower crux for the first time. He shakes out on the rest and finishes the route. Nelson remembers thinking, ‘’This is the best day of my life! This is so sick!”

Eventually the Ontario boys head back home, and Nelson is out on his own. He spends five days in the Kelowna Boulderfields and decides to head down to Leavenworth, Washington. He said, “Just as I am leaving the city, I get a call from Sonnie and he is like ‘Hey Jared, I got your number off Joe, what are your plans right now? Any chance you want to go climbing in Skaha with me?”

In a moment, he’s there belaying Trotter on his project. “It’s now called Family Man, but, before he had done, it he was calling it the 50-50 project, because it was 50 feet tall, 50 degrees overhung, and you run out of gear halfway, so there is a 50-50 chance you hit the deck if you mess up the top. He’d only climbed it on top rope before that. He wanted to start giving it lead attempts, and he thought I’d be psyched, and obviously I was.”

Belaying his hero and cleaning up the classics was fun. Within a week, Nelson had climbed everything established in the area. He and Trotter had become climbing partners and friends, and, needing something new to work on, Trotter asked Nelson if he’d ever bolted before. Nelson had not.

He said, “Being Sonnie, he used his connections and we met some local developers. They let us borrow a drill, they gave us all the bolts we needed, and Sonnie taught me how to bolt. I actually got to belay him for the send. I was so nervous, at first, belaying him on that thing. I didn’t want to kill Sonnie Trotter haha.” The route would ultimately be graded 5.14b, a difficult and steep trad line. Before long, Nelson had established his climb as well and, after a month in Skaha, without ever making it to the Bluffs, dubbed the route Where’s the Bluffs 5.13c.

Nelson then travelled to Leavenworth and then Bishop. He said, “You wake up and there’s Grandma and there’s Grandpa, you can see the mountains all around, it’s so beautiful.” Before long, Nelson was in the Kentucky’s Red River Gorge setting up camp. He said, “Someone comes down and warns us ‘there is some rain in the forecast, that low spot is really prone to flash floods, maybe you should move it up hill.’ We appreciated that, so we go way up to the back of this field. Sure enough, it just starts downpouring to the point that there are a couple of inches of water in my tent that night. The whole time I am worried about my tent and getting wet, not thinking about my car.”

Remembering the storm, Nelson laughs. He went onto say, “I wake up in the morning to my friend Chris knocking on my tent. ‘Hey Jared, you better put your bathing suit on, we gotta go swimming to get your car.’ I come out and the lower parking lot is absolutely flooded. My car is the only car in the parking lot, which now looks like a lake, and there is water up to the window. We push it out, and to this day people recognize me as that guy that got his car flooded in the Red.”

“I let my car sit in the sun for a couple days. Miguel was super nice. He let us borrow a shop vac. It finally started up, smoke piling out of the exhaust, and all the electricals were all messed up, like every light on the dashboard is on, and the wipers won’t stop.”

He calls his insurance company, and they effectively relay that he will have to get the car back to Canada if he wants to get something for the vehicle. Fortunately, his buddy’s parents were coming down to help with their RV and agreed to follow behind the Optra on their way back to Ontario.

With a little luck, Nelson said, “I made it back, I took it in to get an appraisal to see what my insurance company would do, and they just wrote it off. My insurance company wrote me a check for almost what I paid for. A perfect circle.”


Since that trip, Nelson has spent a lot of time on the road. He lived in a van for three, years, learned how to trad climb and fell in love with multi-pitching. Nelson has completed all of the routes on The Big Show in Check with grades from 5.13c to 5.14c, sent his favourite route of all time: Teddy Bears Picnic 5.13 multi-pitch in Squamish and climbed Evilution Direct V11 in Bishop.

He has a dog named Mona and is once again climbing in Ontario. His recent trips out to Lions Head with Skopec have got him stoked on the area, and he is looking to climb the Sends of Anarchy list with Jordan Baker.

The list is composed the 15 most horrifying trad lines at Lions Head and ranges in difficulties up to 5.13a. When asked about the cons of van life, Nelson smiled and said “You’ve convinced me, there are no cons. (except for maybe the cold)” Perhaps another generation of Van climbers will take up Nelson’s mantle and enjoy the pursuit of the gumby. Enjoy climbing in a style that is new.