Pass Lake Pur­chase

Climber Pur­chases Road­side North­ern On­tario Crag

Gripped - - CONTENTS - Photos by Aric Fish­man

THUN­DER BAY CLIMBER Jody Bernst has pur­chased the land where the pop­u­lar crag Pass Lake sits on in North­wes­t­h­ern On­tario. Bernst, 50, is ceo of Gridlink, a full ser­vice util­ity in­fra­struc­ture con­trac­tor, and has been climb­ing for over 25 years. He bought Pass Lake be­cause he wanted to en­sure that climbers would have ac­cess to it for the fore­see­able fu­ture. Pass Lake is a one-of-a-kind sand­stone crag on Lake Su­pe­rior where climbers have been push­ing stan­dards for over 30 years. This is a his­tor­i­cal move in the right di­rec­tion for On­tario rock climb­ing ac­cess.

Devel­op­ment at the road­side wall started in the 1980s, when lo­cal climbers fol­lowed sandy cracks from the trees at the bot­tom of the crag to the top. There aren’t any split­ters, but the cracks are fea­tured enough to be climbed thanks to the amaz­ing hor­i­zon­tal crimps and holds. One of the first climbs es­tab­lished was Go Joe, a fun 5.7 trad route that weaves past small over­hangs. Over the next decade, a num­ber of lines were climbed via top-rope and in the late

1990s, a few routes were bolted. Like many crags in north­west­ern On­tario, a trad ethics de­bate took place and sport climb­ing devel­op­ment halted in the early 2000s af­ter a dozen routes had been retro-bolted.

Fast for­ward to the mid-2010s and a new gen­er­a­tion of lo­cal climbers dis­cov­ered a num­ber of smaller cliffs to the west of the taller cliffs. An­chors in the 1980s and

1990s were of­ten built us­ing a few feet of tubu­lar web­bing equal­ized on trees, so know­ing ex­actly where climbers had been was dif­fi­cult be­cause there were no

ac­cu­rate topos. With that in mind, the new climbers looked for pos­si­ble lines to bolt. In the end, over a dozen high-qual­ity sport routes up to 5.12+ were added. They climb through steep sand­stone roofs on small crimps and up awk­ward cor­ners.

The prop­erty was owned by a res­i­dent of Wis­con­sin who pur­chased it in the 1960s. The owner passed away a few years ago, and his estate had been try­ing to sell the land un­suc­cess­fully. A few years ago, Bernst caught wind of the sale. “My fear was,” he said, “that un­less a climber or climber’s as­so­ci­a­tion of some de­scrip­tion pur­chased the prop­erty, it would end up in the hands of in­di­vid­u­als who would pro­hibit recre­ational climb­ing. This would be a tragic loss for the lo­cal climb­ing com­mu­nity, as Pass Lake is quite unique and ar­guably one of the most pop­u­lar rock climb­ing ar­eas in the re­gion.”

Act­ing on that no­tion, he ac­quired the prop­erty alone, with­out prej­u­dice and with­out associatio­ns or af­fil­i­a­tions back­ing his ini­tia­tive. “My sole in­ten­tion is to give the prop­erty away, in whole, or at least the sec­tions which en­com­pass the cliffs,” he said. In fall 2019, he be­gan the ini­tial steps to de­ter­mine who may be best suited to hold ti­tle to the prop­erty in per­pe­tu­ity, per­ma­nently deem­ing it to be of recre­ational use. He sus­pected the process will re­quire con­sid­er­able ef­fort, which he con­sid­ered to be worth it.

“With the cur­rent state of ac­cess to climb­ing ar­eas un­der om­nipresent threat of clo­sure, we as a climb­ing com­mu­nity in Pass Lake are af­forded a unique op­por­tu­nity,” he said. “We may lead by ex­am­ple to landown­ers/man­agers who may be hes­i­tant in un­der­tak­ing such preser­va­tion ef­forts as a con­se­quence of the per­ceived risk and li­a­bil­ity of­ten as­so­ci­ated with climb­ing.”

Bernst was part of a strong group of climbers in the 1990s who devel­oped the ma­jor­ity of route in Ori­ent Bay, just north of Pass Lake. They climbed new hard aid lines and worked to push the free climb­ing stan­dard on hard trad. He con­tin­ues to es­tab­lish routes and in 2015, started a project with part­ner Steve Charl­ton which would be­come Courage High­way, a four-pitch 5.11 in Ori­ent Bay.

Bernst said that in homage to the climb­ing com­mu­nity and climb­ing en­thu­si­asts, it was his in­ten­tion to pre­serve the land in its va­cant and un­de­vel­oped state: “It is not my in­ten­tion to reg­u­late, mon­i­tor, profit from, ad­min­is­trate or re­duce climb­ing at

Pass Lake in any re­gard, all recre­ational climbers are wel­come.” To ac­cess the climbs at Pass Lake, which is named af­ter the small lake it rises above, takes less than a few min­utes. The tallest and most clas­sic hard climbs are only 20 me­tres from the park­ing area. The rock is grainy but sur­pris­ingly solid.

Bernst wants climbers to keep in mind that he’s act­ing as an in­di­vid­ual with­out fund­ing or as­sis­tance from any­one. “I would also like to men­tion that I am not do­ing this for ac­co­lades,” he said in an early let­ter to the com­mu­nity. “I feel I am no more wor­thy of such, than any in­di­vid­ual who takes the time and ef­forts to pre­serve the land to which we are for­tu­nate oc­cu­pants thereof. I sim­ply feel that one should do what one can, when one can do it.”

Ac­cess in north­west­ern On­tario has al­ways been an is­sue. There are a num­ber of crags that are on pri­vate land or that have ac­cess trails that cross pri­vate land. The On­tario Al­liance of Climbers is lead­ing the way in south­ern On­tario in terms of se­cur­ing ac­cess to crags south of Sud­bury, but the size of On­tario makes it dif­fi­cult to over­see the en­tire prov­ince. As climb­ing


be­comes more pop­u­lar around Thun­der Bay, ac­cess will be­come more of an is­sue. In spring 2019, ac­cess to the pop­u­lar cliff Sil­ver Har­bour be­came an is­sue when a group of new climbers were yelling loudly, had bark­ing dogs and were dis­re­spect­ful to the people who live on the pri­vate road that ac­cesses the cliff. Luck­ily, the is­sue was dealt with, for now.

Closer to Thun­der Bay, a num­ber of cliffs are on First Na­tions land and while there’s his­tor­i­cally been a good re­la­tion­ship with them and climbers, any neg­a­tive is­sues could re­sult in a clo­sure to crags. There are a num­ber of other user groups, such as atvers and hun­ters, whose ac­tions could also threaten ac­cess to climb­ing ar­eas. There’s no for­mal lo­cal ac­cess group in north­west­ern On­tario, some­thing that might change as more is­sues arise.

“The Lake­head re­gion con­ser­va­tion author­ity had a board meet­ing and would like me to give them a pre­sen­ta­tion near the end of Fe­bru­ary,” Bernst said about how things will move for­ward in 2020. “In the mean­time, I’ve cut the trails, re­moved an old pole line, hauled away dump truck loads of con­crete, or­dered sig­nage and a lot of bolts. The snow put an end to my work out there for the sea­son. In the spring I’ll or­ga­nize some will­ing retro-bolters and pick up where I left off.”

Con­sider do­nat­ing to your lo­cal ac­cess group this year and be sure to spread the word about ac­cess is­sues with new climbers in your area.—gripped

Aric Op­po­site: Fish­man climb­ing the Heippa Reijo 5.12a

Above: Overview of Pass Lake

Bot­tom left: A juggy rest on a warm spring day

Bot­tom right: End of the day ses­sion

Above: Rig­ging an an­chor on Long Wall

Top: Top-rop­ing on a busy week­end in the Cave­man area

Above: Work­ing moves on a re­cently bolted 5.10

Top: To­prop­ing in the Cave­man area

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