I would not have thought that the flat Ontario would become the place where we start to climb outdoors. And yet, here we are: we have now survived our third day out at the crag on our own! We are at the very beginning of our, hopefully, life-long journey of climbing, and here’s what I learned so far.
I think it is important to get properly trained before you head out on your own. We wanted to become self-sufficient as soon as possible so that we didn’t have to rely on other people to take us climbing outdoors.
In order to transition to climbing outdoors, we completed a weekend-long training with Steve Andrew from On the Rocks Climbing. At the time of training, we have been leading indoors for about 4 months. We learned to lead indoors by taking a course at our local gym.
Our outdoors course with On the Rocks Climbing was customized to cover the following basics: anchor building, sport climbing outdoors, cleaning gear, rappelling, bailing off the routes, and the basics of placing gear for traditional climbing. We got to see and try out all the gear necessary for climbing outdoors and learned more about the local climbing areas. The weekend was packed with information which we recorded with extensive notes and photos. At the end of the weekend, the process of transitioning to outdoors climbing was demystified.
We had to spend about $1200 on the necessary gear for climbing outdoors. Pricey, but this gear should last us 3-5 years. This included a 70 m rope, two helmets, webbing for building anchors, many carabiners of various sizes, a dozen or so quickdraws, and a few other basics.
Ontario Climbing Spots
The crags closest to Toronto are the Rattlesnake Point and Mount Nemo in Milton/Burlington area. We can get to both of them in 35 minutes of driving with no traffic from our apartment in the West End. Rattlesnake Point is good for top rope only, while Mount Nemo has many sport and trad routes.
We learned that it is quite difficult to make sense of the routes outdoors. We ended up investing in two books–the comprehensive Ontario Rock Climbing and the Volume 1 of Ontario Climbing–that have photos and information on various routes around the crags in Ontario. The books explain the easiest way to get to the cliff face and give information about the routes in the order they are placed from the access point. In Ontario, the crags are part of the escarpment, which means you have to make your way down to the bottom of the cliff in order to start climbing.
Even with the books, many of the routes are difficult to see. Also, the routes often get updated (bolted or re-bolted by setters), so some of the routes you see at the crag might not be listed in your book. This means you have to do a lot of asking around and talking to other climbers at the crag.
If you thought climbing outdoors meant going out alone into the wilderness, you thought wrong. There were many people at the crag every time went. In fact, there were more people at the crag than at our local gym. This meant we had to line up and call out our turn for a route we were interested in. On the one hand, the presence of people was frustrating at times; on the other hand, it made the transition to rock less scary. We felt like they were others around us and we could ask for help if anything went wrong.
Although populated by climbers, the crag had some wildlife as well. On one of our very first climbs, we nearly grabbed a snake when reaching for a ledge. Many of the natural holds in the rock become spider nests in the summer. There are also turkey vultures, mosquitos, and blackflies. The adrenaline of climbing outside was intensified by the possibility of touching a snake and having a spider crawl up your sleeve at the next handhold.
Do not accept gear from strangers
We had to learn this one the hard way. First, there is some danger in relying on gear of others because you cannot be sure how thoroughly they check it for damage, expiry, etc. Second, you can never be absolutely certain that you will be able to finish a route and retrieve the gear of others that was left behind.
The latter is exactly what happened to us: somebody offered that instead of waiting for her to clean the route, we could go ahead and use her quickdraws left at the anchor. Unfortunately, we had to bail off the route because we could not finish it and the stranger’s two quickdraws were left hanging at the anchors. I ended up giving two of my own quickdraws to the owner, since we were partially responsible for accepting the offer of gear. Had we bailed off the route that was cleared from gear, we would not be in the position of leaving expensive gear behind.
Know what you’re climbing
Part of the issue with the scenario above was that we were not entirely sure what was the grade of the route we were about to climb. We asked around and the route looked doable, but upon trying it, we realized it was not. Even if you know the grade of the route you’re about to climb, be prepared that it will be much more difficult than a route of the same grade indoors.
Learn to rely on yourself and your partner when outdoors, but ask lots of questions to learn from others around you. There will be people at the crag with much more experience than you who climb at different gyms and have traveled to different climbing spots around the world. You might pick up a thing or two by talking to them. That being said, don’t ever try something you’re not confident in doing yourself only because an apparently more experienced strangers told you so. Self-sufficiency and safety should be your first and foremost concerns and if you and your partner are not confident enough outdoors on your own, invest in more training.
Look after your stuff
The two crags in Ontario we have visited so far were messy. The rocky trails at the bottom of the cliff are small and become quickly populated by people and their gear. I thought I found an abandoned stick clip and walked around the crag trying to find the owner. It turned out the owner was down the trail from the stick clip and he had to run after me to retrieve it.
Make sure you are aware of your belongings so that they are not in the others’ way and don’t get mixed up with the gear of other climbers.