If you’re a climber in Ontario you probably already know the climbing on the Niagara Escarpment or single-pitch climbing near you; The Escarpment, Kingston Mills, Calabogie and Sudbury’s crags offer thousands of short routes. There’s nothing wrong with spending the rest of your career on single-pitch routes.
Undoubtedly, however, you have seen photos and video and heard yarns about longer climbs. If these images and tales have awoken in you a hankering for the greater exposure, sense of adventure and commitment multi-pitch climbs seem to promise, but you don’t know where to get started, here’s some good news.
Although the huge climbs of the Canadian west and eastern Quebec, tower above what is available in Ontario, and traditional visits to the multi-pitch cliffs of the Gunks and the Adirondacks are cancelled due to Covid-19, all is not lost. There are a growing number of multi-pitch areas in the beautiful north of your own province.
These areas are not your local sport-climbing crags. Climbing at them requires at least intermediate climbing skills, common sense, enough equipment to rappel safely, but for cautious but adventurous climbers, they offer multi-pitch thrills and gain valuable experience within a day’s drive of the big cities. First, two important caveats. To make the jump up to longer climbs, you and your climbing partner must have your basic rope techniques in place and:
1. You should plan on being a solid leader at moderate levels and subtract a grade or two from your sport climbing level for at least the first long climbs you do, regardless of whether they are bolted or trad. Practice switching over at the belay on short routes like Median at Rattlesnake Point. There are short two pitch routes at lots of cliffs. Seek them out.
2. You will not go far without the ability to use trad pro. You don’t have to be able to rig small wired nuts on overhanging faces, but you do need to be able to safely place and tell the difference between solid nuts and cams and dodgy ones.
3. You need to be a real outdoors person. You are not the kind of climber who only goes outside to climb because the cliff is inconveniently located there. You must be able to enjoy climbing with just one other person. Groups are dangerous on many long climbs. You need to know and love the outdoors and practice Leave No Trace Ethics with pride, or, at least, glee.
4. You want to take responsibility for your own experience. Sport routes are fun, but breed the mentality that the presence of loose rock or absence of enough fixed equipment for an individual’s liking is the responsibility of the route builder. On long routes, it’s all up to the climber.
5. Most of your cell phone shots will be of your partner’s butt and look like this:
If you’re fine with all of that, where should you go first? The Alpine Club of Canada’s Toronto Section hut at Bon Echo Provincial Park is the best place to start. The crag is 100 metres high and has a good selection of easy and moderate climbs. Many of the routes date back to the 1950s and 1960s and the names of Vertigenous 5.5, One Pine 5.3 and Birthday Ridge 5.0 are legendary for being the first multi-pitch climbs of generations of climbers.
Also, at Bon Echo, where all the climbing is organized by the Alpine Club of Canada, and you will have to arrange to camp at their hut and be transported to the cliff on their boat, you will be surrounded by experienced experts on multi-pitch who can offer beta on the well-travelled routes and perhaps even advice. Bon Echo can keep you occupied for several seasons. In fact, lots of climbers spend their entire multi-pitch careers there and it’s a great place to hone techniques that can take you to bigger or wilder cliffs.
After Bon Echo, things take a wilder, less well-travelled turn in the storied north made famous by the paintings of the Group of Seven. To take this next step, you need to know how to rappel, rescue yourself, route to find and identify loose rock. You will usually be by yourself, with no one else to rely on. A wire brush will be handy. Lichen grows back on climbs that see only several ascents a season or less.
One possible next step would be a visit to the 90-metre-high granite outcrop of Devil’s Rock on Lake Temiskaming near Haileybury. Camping nearby at a municipal lot and a short, flat trail leading to the cliff top make it a good intermediate step between Bon Echo and the wilds of Algoma. Siegfried’s Difficult Way to Brunhilde 5.7, the south ridge of the Finger of God Pinnacle and Play Rough With Me 5.9, the top two pitches of the crack on the north side of the devil’s head feature are among the options here. This would give you the chance to taste of the longer, less-travelled northern climbing that awaits you elsewhere, while still remaining close to the road and amenities.
The next step is southern Algoma. Algoma is 48,735 square kilometres of lakes, rocks and forests. The southern section, roughly between Sault Sainte Marie and Elliott Lake east of Sudbury is home to some of the most adventurous climbing in Ontario. Before you consider climbing here, take into account the presence of black flies, mosquitoes, loose rock, bad roads, and the fact that you will likely be camping in remote crown land sites without facilities.
A good measure of whether you are ready to handle the conditions during the average climb in Algoma would be whether or not you could safely prepare for, execute and enjoy a canoe or backpacking trip there. if not, chances are you’ll enjoy climbing in those conditions even less. Climbing here, you need to have good judgment and a clear escape plan for any route you are on and be conservative about your climbing ability. Do not under-emphasize these requirements.
The Eyeball, in Algoma, is Ontario’s highest steep and continuous developed cliff. It’s 120 metres, high, mostly vertical and at the end of a logging road with unique access requirements. See Gripped August, 2020 for more information. Route choice there will be determined by skills and experience. Most of the routes have some bolts, and there are a couple that are mostly bolted. There are no moderate routes at time of writing, however, that require no clean protection whatsoever. If you can succeed here, and with the right training, common sense and outdoors knowledge, you can, you will truly be a multi-pitch climber. For more information on routes see these resources by Algoma guru Danylo Darewych.
“Climb conservatively and within your limits,” says Darewych. “Be prepared to retreat—carry extra cordelette, slings, a knife and quicklinks or rap rings. Wear a helmet. Help is a long way away, if it’s there at all, or if you can reach it. You are 20 km down a logging road in the middle of nowhere. It’s 43 km to the nearest town of Iron Bridge (which has no medical facilities) and 56 km to the nearest hospital in Thessalon. There are no emergency personnel trained in vertical rescue in the area,as far as I know.”