Limits: A Climbing Trip to Lion’s Head
I give my harness one last safety check and then step toward the edge. I look back and make sure for the umpteenth time that the anchors are solid. One of my climbing partners has already descended. I’m the middle. There’s one more after me. But it’s like anything else — taking that first step is often the most difficult.
I lean into the rope and position my feet on the ledge. With a little kick and a slight release from my handbrake, I’m off, rapping my way down approximately 50 feet to a small ledge overlooking the Bruce Peninsula of Ontario, ready to take on a modest 5.9 slab (which will be our exit back to the top of the cliff), while the strongest one among us tackles a burly 5.13.
Touching down, I take a look back up. I can’t imagine how or why people found and developed routes here. Above me: a 50 foot cliff. Behind and below me: a 200 foot drop into the Georgian bay.
So the wanting soul sees what’s hidden and the ever-wanting soul sees only what it wants. — Ursula K. Le Guin, translating Lao Tzu
Justin touches down. Danny, our aspiring pro, smiles at both of us. “Hope you’re ready because I didn’t bring any ascenders.” He laughs. Justin says something about him hauling both mine and his ass up if neither one of us can tackle this slab route. “Oh come on, it’s easy.” Isn’t that relative.
For the uninitiated, a “slab route” in the climbing lingo means that the route is slanted slightly in your favor. Easy slabs are some of the best for introducing the sport to new climbers. Moderate to difficult slabs can be some of the most terrifying climbs as one slip will send you scraping down the face of the crag.
Justin eyes our route back up. “You’re sure this is 5.9?” The numbers refer to the difficulty of the climb. The system we use is the Yosemite Decimal System; the higher the decimal, the more difficult the climb. Absolute monsters climb 5.14 and beyond. On a good day, Justin and I are solid 5.11/.12 climbers. Usually, a 5.9 would be an easy warm up. This one in particular has two heinous traits that we notice right away: first, calling it a slab route is generous, as the the incline isn’t as severe as others we’ve seen. And second, the first “bolt” (the spot where we hang our first quickdraw) requires us to shimmy our way out and over the ledge, slightly exposing ourselves to the expanse below, before making our way back over to the clipping spot. As luck would have it, no one thought to bring along a stick clip, a piece of gear used to set the first quickdraw.
Danny smirks and shrugs it off. “You’ll be fine.” He starts stretching for his own climb, the 5.13 tucked nicely into the face of the cliff. We’ll spend most of our time on this ledge as Danny makes his attempts before we tackle the slab together. Danny, for all his talent, is set on burning himself out on his difficult route before bringing up the rear, where we can set up a top belay for him.
As Justin gets set to belay, I take a seat and stare out and marvel at the nature all around. Part of the allure of climbing — aside from knowing and pushing your limits as you scale routes and defy gravity — is reaching remote and often untrodden regions. The best of them, like this one, are often quiet and ominous. Sacred spaces — and sacred spaces require effort to find and achieve. Each trip a pilgrimage.
Eventually I’m brought out of my reverie. Danny’s had enough. It’s getting a little late in day. So Justin and I draw twigs to see which one of us will begin our ascent back. I draw the short stick.
We perform our safety ritual. I chalk my hands and it begins again.