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Ontario Trad in 1980s – “No falls nor hangs… sling a chockstone for pro”

The story of the first ascents of cracks at Metcalfe Rock, including the test-piece Dynamic Duo 5.11

Acting on a hot tip from our mentor Chas Yonge, John Kaandorp and I rediscovered Metcalfe Rock, a gleaming white crag in the Kolapore Uplands west of Collingwood, Ontario. Imagine walking up to this pristine cliff one sunny spring morning in the early 1980s – sidestepping remaining patches of snow and inhaling the heady fragrance of the cedars – to find it almost completely unclimbed, with new routes enticing us round every buttress.

I pounced on the stellar wide crack that John named El Camino Real – and climbed it onsight using big hexes for pro. John flashed the roof of Agitez Bien after I first led the lower crack, and he named it for the instruction on his asthma inhaler. It’s Not Every Day You Get To Put Up A Nice 5.9 – but it happened back then – and I made first ascents of The Eagle Has Landed named after my new car, and Now I Is An Engineer because I had finally graduated – last in my class both alphabetically and arithmetically thus proving I did no more work than I absolutely had to.

In our search for new climbs, we called ourselves the ROCC – the Roving Ontario Climbing Coalition – and Metcalfe was such a brilliant find, we referred to it as Partridge Crag for fear of being overheard. We didn’t “develop” new routes; we put them up, starting on the ground and trying to make the onsight first ascent clean with no falls nor hangs. The term “take” didn’t yet exist, and even if it had, the word would never have escaped our lips. We climbed boldly and placed marginal pro carefully.

The obvious plum on the cliff was the striking overhanging hand-to-wide crack which I immodestly named Dynamic Duo, as we felt a bit like the superheroes Batman and Robin. John was usually the stronger of us two – with a few notable exceptions like on my route Resplendence at nearby Old Baldy – and he got the sharp end on our new steep project. We were unable to onsight it, and had to practise it on lead a few times, putting our new rigid Friends to good use.

We removed the old wooden pitons that Helmut Microys had placed on the first ascent. The Friday night before the first free ascent, John and I raced up to the cliff in darkness to look for any chalk on “our” route, because we had spotted Peter Reilly of Big Gulp fame working on nearby Kodachrome. To our immense relief, we found the crack to be clean, so the first ascent was still up for grabs – whew!

The next morning, John suggested we start on something easy. We customarily attacked the hardest climb first before we ran out of strength, but we had heard that a warmup might be a good idea. To the right of Dynamic Duo was a casual looking hand crack that some kids at a camp would toprope – they called it Superman, though it had never been led. I started up a steep section, and worked my way up and left following the line of weakness across a difficult face with little pro to reach the hand crack. I was never a stylish climber, but I could get the job done. It seemed a bit pumpy for a warmup, I thought. The guidebook later said of Superman, “you’d better not goof the crux unless you can fly.”

It was time: after a final adjustment on his homemade tape gloves, John headed up Dynamic Duo. You must jam through the roof, sling a chockstone for pro, grab a flat hold on the left and somehow wriggle your way into the wide bit above. The climb keeps coming at you, but the worst was over, and Dynamic Duo had seen its first free ascent!

John and I were later joined by Steve DeMaio to continue our roving northwards, discovering new crags and putting up new routes – Skinner’s Bluff, Indian Ladder, TV Tower Crag, Cabot Head and especially White Bluff and Lion’s Head. We always wondered how those “apartment building” walls of Lion’s Head would ever be climbed – it never occurred to us to rappel in from the top and rap bolt the place all to hell, because we considered bolts to be cheating. Still, like the man who is opposed to capital punishment yet stands in the village square to watch the hanging, I have been known to clip a bolt or two from time to time.

Epilogue: Hey, you know what they call the guy who graduates last in his engineering class? An engineer.

Dynamic Duo 5.11 trad at Metcalfe Rock. Photo Brandon Pullan

This story originally appeared in the April/May 2022 issue of Gripped The Climbing Magazine