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Ontario Local and Grandad Garry Reiss Sends His First 5.13 at 64

"I had stood there in awe, 35 years earlier, when my buddy Kevin Lawlor got the FA of what was possibly the first 5.13 in Canada."

Photo by: Juan Angel

Garry Reiss, 64, of Puslinch, Ontario, sent Hand of Fate, his first 5.13, last season. During his four decades as a climber, locals have known Garry for his trad climbing, careful route development and mentoring climbers, but many were especially impressed to hear that he had just ticked his first 5.13. We talked to him about life, forty years of climbing, and sending 5.13.

How long have you been climbing and how often do you get out? In the spring of 1982, I saw an ad for an introductory rock climbing course offered by the now defunct Ontario Rock Climbing Association. We spent a Friday evening in a Toronto school gym going over the basics, learned how to make harnesses out of tubular webbing, and then got in a full day of top-roping at Rattlesnake Point. I could barely move my arms the next morning but I was totally hooked. One of the instructors was a kid named David Smart who impressed me with his experiences in Yosemite. He was like those people I read about in the back issues of Mountain Magazine that I had picked up in Banff the previous winter.

The first chance I had, I paid a visit to the basement shop in Oakville where Terry Monk ran Canadian Mountain Supply. I bought a red Edelrid rope, webbing for anchors and harnesses, a few carabiners, the local guide book, and a still treasured copy of Freedom of the Hills. Shoes had to wait but it wasn’t long before I went back and for whatever reason, picked the orange ones over the blue ones. To this day, the smell of melting nylon takes me straight back to Terry’s shop.

While my daughters were growing up, I was too busy with work and family to get out much, but Sunset Rock is only a 10 minute drive and I’d boulder there regularly. One day local activist Pete Zabrok turned up and showed me his favourite problems. I was chuffed to be able to do them since I knew his name from the guidebook and he was a hero of sorts.

Now that I’m semi-retired, I’m free to climb way more often, usually 2-plus days a week locally and a few weeks a year further afield. I don’t really have a favourite crag and choose where to go based on conditions and what my partner is interested in. Despite having traveled to a lot of incredible places, I still love the Niagara Escarpment and feel blessed to have so many great routes on my doorstep.

Garry Reiss on Hand of Fate. Photo: Juan Angel

When did you decide to climb 5.13? Starting out as a trad climber, I figured I couldn’t get hurt if I didn’t fall off, so I usually picked routes that I thought I could onsight. My favourites were ones that I could just barely do, and there seemed to be no shortage of those. That mentality carried over to any sport climbing I did as well. It was Mike Moore, Trevor Wentzel and Ryan Brown that introduced me to bolting in 2012 and I’ve been having a lot of fun with that ever since.

In 2020, a particularly energetic partner named Ryan Ritter had begun to succeed on some harder routes. It was his encouragement and effective beta that helped me bag Knuckle Ball in just one session. That was my first 5.12.

He’d been training and making great progress, so I was impressed but not too surprised when he told me that he was working Hand of Fate. Ryan had the crazy idea that I should try it as well. “You can do it man! Can you imagine us doing it together?” I laughed out loud but agreed to at least belay.

Watching him climb was inspiring; in between some big falls, he was actually making the moves. Then he said it was my turn. Not a little anxious, I tied in and hangdogged my way to the top, eventually unlocking the crux sequence that had at first felt impossible.

Unfortunately, Ryan injured himself over-training and had to take a break. I stayed motivated mostly because I had other supportive partners. Dave Brown, Tyler David and Heather McKetchnie were all keen to belay and see me plummet. Another factor was that I made incremental progress on each of my 15 attempts in 2020. Still, imagining sending Hand of Fate was surreal. I had stood there in awe, 35 years earlier, when my buddy Kevin Lawlor got the FA of what was possibly the first 5.13 in Canada. Kevin was hesitant to give it such a lofty grade, but fresh off of climbing Survival Of The Fittest in the Gunks, he thought them comparable. I really wanted to tell him what I was up to but held off.

Come spring, I was in OK shape, but not too optimistic. I got in a few more sessions with Dmytro Shevchenko who was working on Early Bird, but without a hang just before the crux bulge, a redpoint still seemed unlikely.

By early afternoon on June 5th 2021 it was 30+ degrees. Right before my 21st attempt, Dmytro checked my knot and sent me off with his “Relax, Don’t forget to breathe, Have fun” mantra. Forty years of construction and woodworking has left me half-deaf but I clearly heard him gasp when, going for the clip after the crux, my heel-hook popped. Regrouped, I shook out long as I dared and that night Kevin Lawlor got a text with a picture of Dmytro and me standing under Hand of Fate with the caption: “Guess what happened today!”

Garry Reiss nailing the crux on Hand of Fate, Photo: Juan Angel

What kind of training and prep did you do? What was new was going to a crag and then spending the whole day falling off of the same route. Apart from that, nothing really.
Thanks to Covid and the fixed draws installed by James Walker just after lockdown, a surprising number of people were either trying Hand of Fate or had recently done it. I spoke to a few of them and they were all very encouraging; I learned a lot from our shared experience.

What’s next on your tick list? Gear routes of the same grade? Not thinking about any 13b’s, but there are a couple of 13a’s that hold some allure. As for a gear-protected 13…that is very unlikely. I’m still a chicken when it comes to falling on gear and have only climbed a couple dozen 11’s, and some of those were not by design since I didn’t know how hard they were. Well-protected easy 10 is kind of my trad sweet spot, but as my dear friend Dave Brown can attest, if it’s an offwidth, even a 5.9 can have me calling for my mommy.

Any advice for aging climbers? Try real hard to stay injury-free. I tore my shoulder kayaking and couldn’t climb for a year which was a real drag, and dynos on that side are still a no no. Every six months, my back goes out and I have to crawl around for a week. You could set an equinoctial marker by it. That started after decking on my one and only ice climbing fall 12 years ago. My eldest daughter is a PT and she shows me all these great exercises that I foolishly do only when I’m hurting. No doubt regular physio would allow me to train and reduce the chance of injury but that would cut into my sitting around time. Bare minimum, I try to eat right, warm up properly and keep climbing, whatever the grade.

Garry Reiss on Slithering, Restoule, Ontario Photo: Jon Newman

You’re known as a passionate Ontario climber, what do you love about climbing there? I like the scale. To paraphrase Stuart McLean: Our rocks may not be big, but they’re small. And they’re usually approached through a lush forest, often with a delightful lake or river nearby. Mountains and big walls are awe-inspiring, but climbing them is a lot of work and way more stressful. I certainly can’t push myself in that environment.

Yes, there’s some choss (OK, a lot!), but minus that and the polished limestone at the busier escarpment crags, I think we have a lot of really fabulous climbing, and when it’s good, it’s about as good as it gets. And, of course, there are all the keen, interesting people that make up our community. The sticker on my helmet says: “The best thing I ever got out of climbing was friendship” and my many new and lifelong friends are a testament to that. Looking back, I’ve seen a lot of changes over the past 40 years and I’m happy to say that most of them are for the better.

Lead photo: Juan Angel