Pass Lake Purchase
Climber Purchases Roadside Northern Ontario Crag
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
“IN HOMAGE TO THE CLIMBING COMMUNITY AND CLIMBING ENTHUSIASTS, BERNST INTENDS TO PRESERVE THE LAND IN ITS VACANT AND UNDEVELOPED STATE.”
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