One is the Loneliest Number
A sneak peek of Ontario Climbing: Vol 2 The Northern Escarpment
When we decided to split the book, we immediately went to our guidebook collections for reference. One thing we instantly noticed was that a lot of the intro text was the same, and that approach didn't appeal to us. Why create two books just to have the identical opening content?
Instead, we decided to try and tailor the content for each book. Of course, the “How to Use this Book” stuff would be the same. But what about the history? Why should we just run the same history in both books? Why not focus on the specific areas and events covered within each book? Just like the activity space created by the split, splitting the history allowed us to create a more detailed and richer final product.
The original single-book Escarpment history was already done, and there is no reason to let it just go to waste.
So here is a teaser for what to expect in the actual books.
Dave Smart getting funky on Sister Morphine, Mt. Nemo. Harry Hoediono belaying (he's also funky).
In the late 1800s and early 1900s a sizable number of climbers lived in Toronto, as evidenced by the popularity of various alpine club chapters in the area. However, they didn’t pursue climbing on the short cliffs of the Niagara Escarpment. These affluent mountain climbers would gather in homes to watch lantern slides of expeditions to the Alps or Western Canada. Club records refer to trips to the Niagara Glen and Rockwood in 1922, but the first reference to rock climbing came in 1926 with “some simple climbing being done” at The Devil’s Pulpit (unknown whether this refers to same named feature near Belfountain or on the Peninsula). The World Wars and Depression would put an end to the leisure time of the era.
The post war years brought an influx of climbers coming from war torn Europe to a better life in Canada. Those that settled around Toronto would be the first to thoroughly explore and climb on the crags of the Niagara Escarpment. Climbers from Britain were already accustomed to cragging, and took readily to the local cliffs with a staunch ethic of free climbing with no bolts or pitons. Continental climbers were more flexible with the rules, taking the anything goes approach used in the mountains, and seeking out crag climbing opportunities only because there were no mountains. Pioneers like Ray and Boris Dopta, Alf Muehlbauer, and Jim White were putting up the first recorded climbs at places like Kelso and Mt. Nemo.
In the late 50s, an Austrian climber would show up and change the face of the Escarpment forever. Helmut Microys initially did not fit into the mold: he used pitons (homemade angles and wooden wedges) and employed aid techniques to establish countless routes. His rap bolting on Two Pieces would foreshadow the future of Escarpment climbing being on the blank faces. His initial explorations with the U of T Outers Club would reach as far as the peninsula with “a number of routes at Barrows Bay and surrounding faces”, as well as into Beaver Valley. The Beaver Valley explorations led to the purchase of land at Metcalfe Rock and the construction of a cabin while he was president of the Club. (He designed the trusses). Initially, his tactics were unwelcome among the local Alpine Club members, but since they still did not climb locally it didn’t matter much. It was not until 1964 that the Toronto Section had its first trip to Rattlesnake Point, and they asked Helmut to provide a guidebook. This fruitful period of exploration laid the groundwork for the next generations, but unfortunately a lack of communication between this generation and the following ones would lead to many accomplishments being lost or forgotten.
The 1980s, when your choice of climbing socks was just as important as how hard you climbed. Pete Reilly on The Big Gulp, Mt. Nemo.
Around the world the notion of free climbing was taking root, but nowhere as profoundly as in Southern California. The first published guidebook to Southern Ontario climbing, the “red book” by Jim Mark, came out in the early 1970s. Many of the routes in the book still had aid grades attached to them, which was perfect for the Californian wave of climbers that had just arrived. George Manson, Tom Gibson and his cousin Greg Cameron (part of the Poway Mountain Boys group), together with British ex-pat Chris Rogers, brought high end free climbing standards and techniques to Ontario. Starting with the freeing of the Export overhang, the first 5.10 on the Escarpment, they would systematically free almost all the aid problems at Rattlesnake in a couple years, cementing not only the 5.10 grade but also 5.11, and possibly even 5.12! No longer was climbing a regimented Alpine Club activity – these Yosemite-hardened rockstars would shock and awe with their impressive ascents. This team would not only leave their own mark on the crags, they would inspire and mentor the restless teenage suburbanites of the area. At the same time, a climbing fatality at Rattlesnake caused Conservation Halton to force climbers in the area to formalize instructional teaching standards for climbing – the Ontario Rock Climbers Association (ORCA) was formed. Brian Hibbert, a Toronto area school principal, would be instrumental in the creation of ORCA, and his guiding company would introduce climbing to thousands of people. Probably the most prolific youngster to come out of this melting pot was David Smart – but we’ll get to him. The climbs of this era, while still linking features on the fractured rock, would start taking on more and more of the blank faces in between, again showing that the future of the Escarpment would be on these faces.
A separate scene of young climbers had sprouted up in Hamilton, and while not far from Toronto and its scene, it was far enough to create its own microcosm. The Hamilton scene was led initially by Chas Yonge, who imbued his British ethics onto his oddball apprentices, Pete Zabrok and John Kaandorp. Not fitting in with the Rattlesnake crowd, the group would begin a second wave of exploration: first as part of the development of an until-then overlooked Buffalo Crag; then to pick off many of the remaining plums at Nemo; on to the rediscovery of Metcalfe, Old Baldy and Devil’s Glen; and finally up on to the peninsula. Later joined by the young Steve De Maio, their ethic would push groundup standards to the breaking point. The group climbed anything they could find – gullies, chimneys, cracks, loose rock – didn’t matter to them. What did matter was the bold statements they made with their routes like Orange Wall, Operation Evaporation, and Iguanadon. Even though the style was different than what was on the horizon, the terrain was the same – steep faces of more compact rock.
The 80s dawned and the high standards of the previous generation were basically unmatched – the rock just wouldn’t allow for progressively higher grades without being insanely dangerous. Dave Smart came back from a trip out West where he saw an acceptance of bolts not seen in Ontario at the time. The light bulb came on: he’d dreamed about numerous blank faces back home and those dreams could be a reality. Immediately he got to work cleaning and placing fixed pro on rappel to make the routes safe for groundup onsight attempts. Routes like Moby Fly and High Society were instant classics of brilliant face climbing. This wasn’t without controversy – rap bolting was in its infancy globally, so of course the early adoption in Ontario would stir the pot. Still, the routes were good and the climbing difficult, which appealed to the younger generation. The Mid-Atlantic style took off. The proponents of this style sparingly pre-placed pins and bolts only where there was no gear. The compact crackless rock of the Northern Escarpment that was overlooked by earlier generations was seen in a new light. Rattlesnake was no longer the centre of rock climbing in Ontario. The fuse was lit, and the explosion of new routes was coming.
Steve De Maio rocking slightly more understated socks while new routing at Mt. Nemo in 1985. This route was never finished. Photo: Pete Zabrok
On the endless limestone walls of Europe a new style of climbing was emerging – fully bolt protected climbs that showcased the physical, graceful and gymnastic qualities of moving over rock. It took a long time for much of North America to accept Sport Climbing, but the controversies over rap bolting had come and gone for the Escarpment. The players made trips to France and the preeminent North American sport area Smith Rocks, and realized they had similar potential back home. Armed with battery powered hammer drills they dropped the Mid-Atlantic ideals, and the guidebook doubled in size overnight – mostly due to the work of Chris Oates and Judy Barnes. The 5.12 grade was a regular thing, and even 5.13, pursued with controversial ferocity just a few years before, was now a common occurrence. The Escarpment was being regularly featured in climbing magazines, and getting visits from top climbers like Jerry Moffat and Todd Skinner. Limestone was the rock of the future, and the Escarpment had some of the best in North America.
The Dark Years
The Bruce Peninsula’s numerous walls of gorgeous streaked limestone overlooking the pristine blue waters of Georgian Bay were the new centre of climbing activity. Being so far from Toronto made it difficult to develop and climb, so it wasn’t long before some climbers started buying land up there. These places became social hot-spots for the elite climbers. Unfortunately, this was also the downfall of the era – much of the vibrant energy went into partying around big bonfires. The real nail in the coffin was research on the stunted cedar trees clinging to the sides of Escarpment cliff faces, research that pointed a finger squarely at rock climbers for destroying an ecosystem. Later research would disprove some of the early results, and exonerate climbers from some of the impact, but the damage had been done. Climbers were the enemy, and the easiest solution was to just ban climbing. Numerous cliffs closed, and whatever energy was left in the community fizzled away.
While new route development halted or continued in secret, the number of climbers grew to unbelievable numbers due to the popularity of indoor climbing gyms. Thanks to gyms and the climbing media, bouldering became a phenomenon, and the Niagara Glen and Halfway Log Dump were hit hard with brushes and pads, until landowners noticed. Again, the access dragon would bare its teeth, but this time climbers were ready. The best thing to grow out of those Dark Years was the Ontario Access Coalition (OAC) – a group of climbers representing climbers’ interest to landowners, and vice versa. The OAC’s first major win was the reopening of the beautiful Halfway Log Dump boulders. Numerous individuals picked up the torch dropped by the previous vanguard. A new wave of development began, new cliffs were found and old cliffs rediscovered. Visionaries like Randy Kielbasiewicz would see past the fields of poison ivy to the compact faces of Devil’s Glen, which he singlehandedly turned into one of the best crags on the Escarpment. Even more shocking was the discovery of the massive cliff band of The Swamp hiding right behind the ever popular Metcalfe Rock. Climbers are looking at the cliffs with a new set of eyes and finding amazing new routes everywhere.
Finally, there is still time if you’ve been holding out on us. Have an awesome Escarpment related photo? Have info on a new, previously forgotten or updated route? Have a great story to be told? A cool illustration? Something else even cooler? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org