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Tying In: Ruminations on Climbing in Alberta

June 1, 2019

Wild Lands Advocate article by: Lindsey Wallis

The rock is warm under my fingers as I work my way up a crack in the limestone face. I slide a metal nut into a narrow spot in the crack where it sits perfectly. I take a moment to think about the ocean that was here millions of years ago and all the creatures and plants whose remains have formed the limestone cliff I am scaling. I can hear the knocking call of a raven and look down to see another soaring beneath me. The river snakes through the valley, a ribbon of blue-green against the deep green forest. My attention returns to the rock where I feel about for another handhold. Then one foot at a time steps up and I return to the rhythm of the rock, moving slowly, testing the rock for solidity, in touch with the movement of my body across the face. One small movement at a time, nothing but a speck in the vast sea of rock. I feel utterly insignificant, but at the same time, intimately connected to the landscape.

I love playing in wild places. Whether hiking, canoeing or on skis or snowshoes in the winter, every activity offers a different way to interact with the landscape. When I am climbing my perspective is micro – I notice the cracks in the faces, the small fossils I pass as I make my way up, the differences in the rock colour and texture. When I take a break at the belay I can shift my attention outward to soak in the beautiful vista, before refocusing on the movement of my body and the tiny details of the stone once more. Climbing allows me vantage points above the landscape I wouldn’t get otherwise. It is also a great way to spend a sunny day in the mountains with friends and family where everyone can challenge their own physical skills.

What does it mean to be a “climber”? These days there are so many varieties of climbing, from scaling bright plastic holds at a gym, to climbing on boulders with only a mat beneath you, to climbing bolted sport routes with a rope, to big alpine missions, and many shades between. Whether you are looking to test yourself physically, mentally or just have a pleasant day out in the mountains, there is a style of climbing for everyone.


A short history of climbing in the Bow Valley

The Bow Valley has been the epicentre of climbing activity in Alberta, beginning with Lawrence Grassi’s 1925 ascent of First Sister. After a couple of quiet decades, the 1950s saw a spurt of boundary-pushing first ascents on Yamnuska, the iconic mountain guarding the eastern edge of the Rockies west of Calgary.

The first ascensionists were bold and adventurous as the following story from Chris Perry’s guidebook Bow Valley Rock(2000) attests:

“‘We had no plans of really going anywhere. Leo [Grillmair] had brought a nylon utility rope with him, but we were only going to go up a little to see what it was like. We tied the rope around our chests, Leo in the front, me [Hans Gmoser] in the back, and Isobel Spreat, a young British girl, in the middle. Leo wore only crepe-soled street shoes, and by the time we were most of the way up the climb, they had huge holes right through to his socks. But he led the climb with no hesitation.’ This first ascent, up the great gash in the centre of the face, now known as Grillmair Chimneys, followed the Canadian ethic of the day—not a single piece of protection was even carried by the team—but only because the trio hadn’t planned on the climb, and couldn’t buy the pitons they were comfortable using in Europe.”

As sport climbing became more popular in the United States, routes with bolts began to appear in the canyons of the Bow Valley, such as Grotto and Heart Creek. Bolted routes proliferated during the 1970s and 1980s. Chris Perry, John Martin, Andy Genereux, Greg Tos, and Jon Jones are all names that climbers will recognize from guidebooks and all have been pioneers in the field in their own way. There are too many climbers to name who have tirelessly developed areas so that we can enjoy climbing today. It is possible to find climbing at any difficulty and in many different styles throughout the Bow Valley as well as many other places in the Rockies and along the Eastern Slopes.

At the crag (an area with lots of climbs grouped together) one often sees families and folks of all ages enjoying the sunshine and beautiful surroundings. The other weekend I visited Grassi Lakes, a popular early season climbing area, with my partner Kyle, some friends, and our three and a half year-old daughter Karina. It was incredible to climb alongside Karina as she pointed out things I take for granted: “cool holes” in the rock here, seams of sparkling white quartz there, tiny plants growing out of a crack in the rock, and the jewel-hued lake far below. For her climbing is about the adventure, and she changes my perspective on my surroundings as the things she notices can be so different from what I see. I love that this is another way I can share the beauty of the outdoors with her and in return she reminds me of the joy of discovery in nature.


Challenges ahead

Unfortunately, with so many people discovering the joys of climbing, our climbing community will soon have to address our impact on the landscape. Boot-beaten approach trails that used to see a trickle of climbers are now becoming eroded and braided as the trickle becomes a flood. There are no washroom facilities at many crags, which becomes a problem as the number of people using the area increases and not everyone is either educated about, or adheres to, the leave no trace ethic. Just look in the bushes at many popular crags and it is easy to find toilet paper clinging to the grass, or worse, colourful baggies of dog poop.

According to Ian Greant, a director of the Climbers’ Access Society of Alberta (CASA) andCommunications Officer for the Association of Bow Valley Climbers, the most significant measures that need to be taken involve creating infrastructure to help minimize the impact of climbers. This includes good parking areas, well-defined trails, human waste facilities, and infrastructure to minimize erosion, such as platforms at the base of some of the cliffs at Grassi Lakes.

Groups such as CASA and the Association of Bow Valley Rock Climbers (TABVAR) have been working with land managers for decades to advocate for access and infrastructure for climbing areas. Greant says: “While the government is typically receptive, it falls onto climbing organizations to encourage the government to engage in long term planning and maintenance of the areas.  [The government] simply does not have the resources to actively manage/monitor all the various recreational user groups.”

Another challenge is creating a group of climbers who are educated and respectful of natural areas. As Greant says, “it doesn’t take very many people ignoring trail changes and continuing to tread on erosion-prone soil to ruin things for the rest of us.” Older, experienced climbers used to mentor those new to the sport and instilled certain ethics in their students. But the wealth of information on the internet may diminish that mentorship’s presence. Today so much information is available online but it doesn’t always include a course on “Leave No Trace.”

Different organizations are addressing this in different ways according to Greant. The Alpine Club of Canada offers many learning opportunities for new climbers, and guiding services now provide a broad range of entry level climbing courses. Even online publishers like Gripped are shifting their focus to include more beginner-friendly content.

Every time I guide people climbing outdoors for the first time, or bring Karina with me to the crag I hope I am introducing more people to the beauty of our wild spaces, and doing my part to bring up a generation of citizens who love and respect our wild spaces and will have a fierce passion to protect them.

As a way forward for all of us recreating in Alberta’s natural spaces who want to continue in a sustainable way, Greant has some sage advice, “It is going to be up to the current and future community to accept responsibility for determining how climbing will look in their future…Sometimes the best results come from remembering the personal relationship that we all have with each other and with the land.”

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