Modern Day Pioneer
“Well, it’s six of one, half-dozen of the other,” Paul McSorley rationalized before crashing for ward through the thick and unforgiving foliage. I looked down at my r ipped pants, legs bleeding underneath and sighed. We lost the trail again or whatever semblance of a trail we were fol lowing. The thick jungle beneath our objective seemed to be intent on slowing us down. False paths led to dead ends, giant thorns appeared out of nowhere and low hanging clouds hit our faces. It was pouring rain.
McSorley and I were in northern Africa, intent on establishing a f irst ascent on a gorgeous piece of Moroccan limestone. A newbie in all senses of the word when it came to route development, I had no idea what I had gotten myself into. It was day one. We couldn’t f ind the trail to the cliff, so our solution was just to beeline it up the hillside. After three hours of heinous bushwhacking, we weren’t even close to the wall. I was soaked, bleeding and miserable. McSorley, on the other hand, was a bundle of energ y, charging up the hillside with enthusiasm. If there wasn’t a trail, McSorley would make one.
For McSorley, taking the path less travel led or perhaps not travel led at a l l is the best direction. Toronto-born and raised, the young McSorley was into the standard vices of ever yday youth. From troublemaking and skateboarding to making music. Life was f lowing along as societ y had planned. That is until a fr iend convinced the 15- year-old McSorley to play hooky from a track and f ield meet in order to hit up the Buffalo Crag on Ontario’s Niagara Escar pment. With basic climbing skil ls, McSorley and his fr iend Bill MacFarlane climbed barefoot with a borrowed rope. “That day was my crossroads,” McSorley said, “I was al l in.”
McSorley stayed in Ontario to complete a degree in English and philosophy at the Universit y of Toronto. The mountains were cal ling his name and after the last day of his f inal exam, he left the metropolis behind in search of adventure. McSorley was looking for a higher education and it was in the Canadian Rockies he discovered the mountains, which became his most important teacher. McSorley honed his sk il ls in the high alpine, climbing rock in the summers and ice in the winters. Raft guiding and slinging climbing equipment at the local gear shop in Banff al lowed him to support his newfound passion. Before long, he found a new career based on passion and transitioned into alpine and rock guiding, which led to mountain safet y work and r igging.
McSorley cur rently works as an aspirant alpine and rock guide. While guiding provides McSorley with the freedom to pursue his dream as a ful l-time rock climber, he does admit that it is an exhausting career. “It’s rough guiding people who have become so disconnected from nature that they can barely walk of f trail,” McSorley admits, “Once in a while you get through to those people and they realize that being in nature is better than star ing into a screen.”
After cutting his teeth in the Canadian Rockies and developing rock and alpine skills, McSorley was ready for more. “In 1992, I saw a f ilm by John Catto called about climbing a f irst ascent on Cerro Cathedral in Torres del Paine, Chile. It looked like the adventure I’d always dreamed of having.” Floating in the back of his mind for close to a decade, Patagonia was to become a realit y. In 2002, he completed the Bonnington/Whillans route on the Central Tower of Paine. “Climbing that rocket ship of granite was a dream come true,” said McSorley. “It was a stepping stone to bigger things.” His experiences amongst the inspiring Patagonian spires led him to realize that so much more was possible.
For McSorley, life is not about following well-worn paths. Climbing was not meant to be about grades and hard moves. Discover y and creation are at the root of McSorley’s thriving appetite for the mountains. “I am willing to put in a ton of effort to make a f irst ascent,” said McSorley. “I’d walk all day to f ind the perfect pitch.” And walk he has. McSorley has travelled all over the world to pioneer new routes. From North America to Chile, Argentina, Morocco, the Philippines, India and Cambodia. Whether it is sport and traditional single pitches or big walls, McSorley has a list of f irst ascents that most climbers could only dream of repeating. Fittingly, The Canadian Route on Fitz Roy is his proudest ascent. It was established over two days with fellow Canadian Jon Walsh in 2005 on the granite spires that taught him to follow his own path.
These days, McSorley resides in Squamish. If he’s not guiding, climbing, scr ubbing cracks or travel ling then he’s probably above you, paragliding from a distant peak. “Flying is as good as it sounds. It’s like sur f ing or powder sk iing, but you’re in the sky,” said McSorley. “I’m only a 5.10 pi lot, but in f ly ing there’s no take.”
McSorley’s per petual enthusiasm for his pursuit of adventure is contagious. With no plans to join the nine-to-f ive crowd, McSorley continues to fulf il l his dream of climbing ful l time. Next is a winter climbing tr ip to Norway. After that, who knows where on the map McSorley wil l land. But one thing is certain, it wil l be of f the beaten path.
McSorley’s Top-Five Favourite First Ascents
Above: McSorley enjoying the road less travelled in Morocco