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Rock-climbing In And Around Southern Ontario
If you're new to the area or are just starting climbing, we hope these brief notes will give you a feel for some of the possibilities for rock-climbing in and around Southern Ontario. We've also compiled a list of guidebooks that you can consult for further details. If you've never climbed before, we also have a page on learning to climb.
A note about top-roping
To the dismay of traditionalists, many climbers on the Niagara Escarpment content themselves with top-roping. With a few notable exceptions (see Old Baldy and Lion's Head, below), the escarpment crags happen to be ideally suited to this practice, being a uniform 60 to 80 feet in height, normally with easy access to both top and bottom of the cliff, and a plentiful supply of sturdy trees at the top to serve as anchors. This, combined with the fact that Southern Ontario has one of the highest concentration of climbing gyms in North America, has resulted in an explosion of top-roping over the past few years. Indeed, at some of the more popular crags - Rattlesnake Point and Buffalo Crag, in particular - on a sunny weekend in spring, summer or fall, it is often more or less impossible to find a worthwhile route that does not have a top-rope on it.
If you plan on going top-roping, please bear the following in mind:
Please be considerate of others who might want to climb the route. You may even encounter somone who would like to lead a climb from the ground up, although this seems to be increasingly rare nowadays.
- It's not very sociable to set up a top-rope on more than one route at a time, or to claim possession of a climb for hours on end.
- Please take extra care of the vegetation, pad trees if you sling them and never, never sling cedars.
- Please do not rappel unless there is no convenient alternative. At most crags it's easy to walk or scramble down.
The Niagara Escarpment
The Niagara Escarpment is a limestone outcrop that runs more or less continuously from Niagara Falls in the south to Tobermory at the tip of the Bruce Peninsula in the north. There is good quality rock and worthwhile climbing at any points throughout its length. The Escarpment is the focus of most of the climbing activity in Southern Ontario.
There is a wide variety in the types of climbing to be found on the Escarpment. Some crags (Old Baldy, Lion's Head and White's Bluff, in particular) are heavily bolted, and receive heavy traffic from sport climbers; others have been left more or less in their natural condition, save for a sprinkling of rusty pitons. The cliffs are rarely more than 80 feet high.
The Southern Escarpment
Because of its proximity to Toronto (45 minutes' drive), short walk in, moderate grades and southern aspect, this is by far the most heavily used crag in Southern Ontario. It is also the only crag close to Toronto at which instructional groups are permitted. In consequence, on weekends in the spring and fall it is often difficult to see the rock for the top-ropes. Many of the routes have become highly polished, which may make them seem more difficult than their guidebook ratings.
Like Rattlesnake Point, Buffalo Crag is also south-facing, and the walk-in is only slightly longer (fifteen minutes as opposed to five), but is often a bit less crowded. Please resist the temptation to use the parking lot on Derry Road in order to avoid paying entrance fees; you are depriving the Halton Region Conservation Authority (HRCA) of much-needed revenue. Instructional groups are not permitted at Buffalo; if you see an instructor, please bring the matter to the attention of the HRCA.
A short distance from Rattlesnake and Buffalo, Mt. Nemo is a much more extensive area than either. It receives little sunlight, however, and the climbable lines are not as close together as at the previous two crags. Because of this it generally sees less traffic.
Please take note that the base of the southern part of the crag lies on private land, and the land-owner has not given permisson for climbing.
Note also that there have been calls for climbers to refrain from top-roping at Mount Nemo. This is a voluntary initiative: the land manager (the Halton Region Conservation Authority) has not taken a position on this issue.
Easily visible from Highway 401 as it passes close to Milton, Kelso was one of the earliest climbing areas to be developed in Ontario. There are some good moderate climbs here. Like Mt. Nemo, the crag receives little sunlight and is generally less busy than Rattlesnake and Buffalo. Kelso is currently closed to climbing. It is hoped we can get it open before summer 2007.
The Northern Escarpment
About two-and-half hours' drive north of Toronto, Metcalfe Rock offers enjoyable climbing, a quiet rural setting and fine views across the Mitchell's Creek valley. The cliff faces west and receives sunlight from noon onwards. Metcalfe features a mixture of traditional and sports climbing, mostly at grade 5.9 and above. Camping used to be available, but is now prohibited.
After having been closed to climbing for several years, Old Baldy is open again, thanks to the efforts of Toronto Section's Access Committee. Please note that a permit system is now in effect and this year there is a seasonal fee of $25. To obtain your permit you will need to fax or mail an application to the Grey Sauble Conservation Authority. A copy of the permit application form is available on-line.
For anyone who enjoys sport-climbing at grade 5.10 upwards the investment in a permit is well worth while. Old Baldy is one of the best sport-climbing areas south of the Bruce Peninsula; there is a good selection of bolted routes on sound rock, and there are fine views across the Beaver Valley. The cliff receives plenty of afternoon sunshine, making it climbable even fairly early in the season.
When climbing at Old Baldy, please do not use the trees at the top of the crag as belays or rappel anchors. These trees are mostly old-growth cedars and are an irreplacable part of our environmental heritage. All climbs have been equipped with bolt anchors. The anchors, however, are not accessible from the top of the cliff, which means that someone in your party has to be able to lead your route.
Lion's Head and the Bruce Peninsula
Lion's Head is three-and-a-half hours' drive north of Toronto, on the edge of the Bruce Peninsula, and is probably the finest climbing area on the Escarpment. The clean white cliffs, the clear blue water of Georgian Bay below and the cool green cedar forest above make this a wonderful destination on warm summer days.
Most climbs at Lion's Head are grade 5.10 and above. The crag is undercut in most places; access is normally from above, by means of a rappel to a hanging belay at the lip of the overhang. This can be very intimidating, particularly if you are not sure if you are rapelling in the right spot! Be prepared to jumar if for any reason you are unable to lead back to the top. Most (but not all) of the climbs at Lion's Head are bolted.
The cliff faces north and receives sunlight only in the late afternoon; this makes the area pleasantly cool on a hot summer's day but often bone-chillingly cold the rest of the year, even well into the spring.
There are several other worthwhile areas on the Bruce Peninsula, such as White's Bluff, across the bay from Lion's Head, and the T.V. Tower Crag, to name but two. Please note that many of these crags lie on private land, and formal permission to climb has not been granted. Please keep a low profile so as not to jeopardize access privileges for other climbers.
Climbing is currently tolerated as a "non-conforming activity". Get involved with the Ontario Access Coalition to help negotiate permanent access to this and other cliffs in Southern Ontario.
Bon Echo is a cliff 2km in length that rises 100m vertically out of a lake. It is not everyone's cup of tea. The rock is never to be trusted fully, even on well-travelled routes; protection is rarely abundant; the climbing involves awkward moves on sloping holds that often seem to face the wrong way; retreat is problematical (unless you are adept at swimming while wearing a full rack); and the exposure can be very intimidating. Despite (or perhaps because of) this, it is a very rewarding place at which to climb, but not a place at which to push your limits. Please see Bon Echo page for more information.