Climbing’s current fixation on youth teams and 12-year-olds crushing 5.14s has created a myth that the sport is purely the domain of adolescents and young adults. In this three-part series, we look at three Ontario-based climbers who destroy the popular notion that climbing is just a young person’s sport.
Mike Sheehan has an enthusiasm for climbing normally only seen in teenagers that are new to the sport. The obvious difference is that at age 66, Sheehan is not only old enough to be their father (grandfather?), but he has also been climbing longer than many of them have been alive.
We caught up with Sheehan and talked about crag development, staying flexible and extreme top roping.
Mike Sheehan enjoying some Deep Water Soloing (DWS).
How did you get into climbing and how old were you at the time?
Mike Sheehan: I didn’t know anything about rock climbing when I wandered into a local outdoor store looking for a Bruce Trail guide. I saw a small poster with a photo of people climbing on ropes at Rattlesnake. That looked like more fun than hiking, so I signed up for a day of climbing with Equinox Adventures. I was immediately hooked, and within a couple of weeks I had my first regular partner and all the fancy gear we needed for some extreme top roping. It was early 1989 and I was 38 at the time.
What is it about climbing that has kept you involved in the sport for so many years?
Mike Sheehan: There is a never-ending challenge to refine my skills, to do things more efficiently and naturally. Part of this challenge comes from the need to change how you climb as your body changes over the years. Staying healthy and reasonably fit, and having the good fortune to climb with great people, have been important. And over the past 10 years or so, climbing related activities like crag development and maintenance, trail work, etc. has been very satisfying. But basically, I just like to climb stuff. Hard or easy, new routes or routes travelled many times, it is all good!
Mike Sheehan sampling the steep limestone in Kalymnos.
You’ve tended to focus more on sport climbing. What is it about sport climbing that you find particularly compelling?
Mike Sheehan: Like everyone at the time, I started out as a trad climber. There were some local (Nemo) sport routes, but most of them were too hard for us and often, by today’s standards, poorly bolted. As we got stronger, we were able to get up more of the sport routes. In fact, we discovered that we were stronger than we thought we were. Without having to worry about falling on our too-often questionable gear placements, we could really push ourselves. This suited our somewhat competitive natures. I’m glad we started on gear though, as it was an important learning experience and gave us the skills to climb some classic “mixed” lines like High Society and Seventh Origin of Alfred. Working out the “perfect” beta on a project is part of the fun as well. I also do quite a bit of TR soloing, especially in the winter.
Any advice for staying fit and injury-free as you get older?
Mike Sheehan: I might not be the best role model, as I should probably be doing some weights and paying more attention to my diet. In addition to climbing regularly, I do lots of scrambly hiking and work on my flexibility to remain agile. Agility, especially as you get older, is underrated as something you need to climb well.
Tendons and muscles don’t recover as quickly as they used to, so a few more and/or longer rests will likely lead to more success and fewer injuries. Maybe the most important thing to avoid injury is having the discipline to back off when you know you should. Minor tweaks can quickly become chronic.
Mike Sheehan displaying excellent flexibility for an old guy.
What are some of the more interesting changes that you’ve noticed in the sport (both positive and negative) over the years?
Mike Sheehan: Modern sport routes are bolted to be as safe as reasonably possible for climbers of all abilities. Some of the older routes were safe enough if you were strong at the grade, but if you might actually fall on the route, you might think twice about getting on it. Sport routes that required one or two pieces of gear are thankfully becoming extinct. The whole idea of what should be bolted has changed, particularly routes under 5.10 and lines that could be done on bad gear.
A big positive has to be the Ontario Access Coalition (OAC). There was nothing like this to lobby for and represent climbers when I started climbing. Biggest negative from my perspective is crowded crags. Climbing isn’t unique in this regard. National Parks and recreation areas from the Grand Canyon to the waterfalls in Dundas, where I live, have been forced to deal with over-crowding.
Why do you think many climbers drop out of the sport as they get older?
Mike Sheehan: Part of the fun in picking up a new sport is the rapid improvement in skill level. Some folks lose interest when continued improvement becomes more difficult, or when their redpoint level inevitably begins to decline. Your motivation for climbing in the first place may have a lot to do with how long you continue to climb.
Lots of other obvious reasons. Life events like work and children, nagging injuries, burn out, lack of a reliable partner, etc.
I suspect that it’s difficult to find climbing partners who are your age. Who are your usual climbing partners?
Mike Sheehan: I have always climbed with younger climbers, mostly because there are a lot more of them. I usually don’t think too much about age. I want a reliable, enthusiastic and capable partner whose goals and schedule are compatible with mine. I usually do most of my climbing with my current “go to” partner. I have been extremely fortunate to have had reliable partners pretty much from day one.
Mike Sheehan cruising his way up another classic route in Kalymnos.
What are some of your favourite climbing areas in Ontario and outside the province? Why?
Mike Sheehan: Favourite climbing area in Ontario has to be the Swamp. High-quality routes and I have such great memories of contributing in a very small way to its development. Thanks Oz! Favourite international destination would be Kalymnos. Fantastic climbing and the trip was a reunion with some friends who had moved back to Europe.
OK, what are your thoughts about climbing gyms?
Mike Sheehan: I was a long-time regular at the original Rockheads, and later at the current location. We initially thought the gym was pretty cool as a more reliable alternative to winter bouldering at Sunset Rock, and useful for mid-week climbing after work. Gyms can be good for training and newer climbers can improve rapidly because it is so easy to climb frequently. Personally, I’ve had enough of gyms and unless the weather is really miserable, I would rather spend my climbing time outside.
Gyms are new-climber generating machines. This isn’t a knock against new climbers or gyms; they are what they are. We were all new at one time, but I expect that we have only begun to see the impact of climbing’s growing popularity.
Finally, do you have any climbing goals for this season?
Mike Sheehan: My most important goal is the same every year: lots of fun, incident-free climbing days. We are planning more visits to the Beaver Valley area this year, as we haven’t been up there much the past couple of years. Probably do a few projects, which helps keep me motivated. Most of my longer trips are non-climbing with my wife.
Mike Sheehan is undaunted by steep tufa pulling!
Gus Alexandropoulos is a freelance writer who has been involved in the outdoor industry for over 25 years. During his career he has been the editor at Canada’s national climbing magazine, as well as the gear editor for a national cycling magazine, triathlon magazine and running magazine. His work has been published in Canada’s national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, and he has been a guest on television and radio broadcasts. His passion for climbing began in Ontario in the mid 80s and he continues to travel extensively in search of crisp conditions and steep rock.