Climbing the Rock – rock climbing in Newfoundland.
By Jonathon Reynolds
“Look, a whale!”
“There’s two of them!”
Tonia wedges two of her fingers in an tiny crack and cranes her neck around to look out to sea.
“Take”, she yells and dropped into her harness falling several feet in the process. She was at least four feet out from her last clip.
Twisting around away from the cliff Tonia watches the whales slowly and gracefully surface and submerge. Three times they come up for air, plumes of spray marking where they blow then they silently dive. Their tails hang suspended for an instant then the humpback whales slide into the depths.
For a moment we stare out over the water wondering if they would come back up. After a minute or so we turn back to the rock and focussed on climbing again. Whale watching is not an activity normally associated with a person attempting their first 5.12 lead but then climbing in Newfoundland is not normal compared to the rest of North America. In three weeks of climbing in Newfoundland, the “Rock” as it is affectionately called by the locals, I saw whales every day.
I was climbing with Leo Van Ulden and Tonia Kung. Leo is the manager of the local climbing gym, Wallnuts. I had met them the previous day when I dropped by the gym. Today we are at Flatrock, the most developed climbing area in Newfoundland. St. John’s, Newfoundland’s capitol city is a short twenty minute drive from Flatrock.
Flatrock rises out of the North Atlantic like a huge stone ship. There is a large almost flat area at the base of the cliff sloping up towards the sea and then falling again in a short cliff to the water. Access is either via a trail around the south end of the cliff or by rappelling down to the base from one of the climbs in the middle of the cliff. The rock is a conglomerate which can be challenging for gear placement but most of the routes here are either sport leads or a mix of sport and trad.
Tonia had told me earlier that she was nervous on lead but I was seeing no evidence of that so far today. I was a little surprised when she said all in the same breath,”I am really nervous about leading so probably shouldn’t do anything to hard to start – I guess I’ll try this 5.12a.”.
To me 5.12a is never easy – in fact for me it is likely imaginary. I look at her to see if she was pulling my leg but she is determinedly looking up at a beautiful overhanging line with a scattering of bolts that look too far apart for my comfort. A 5.12a is not what I would consider easy but then I am not the one leading it. She is and she seems both determined and confident.
It is a glorious July day, gulls wheeling and overhead and the muted sound of waves crashing against the secondary cliff drowns out all other sounds.
Tonia ties in and starts up the first overhanging section. She flows smoothly up the rock feet and hands hitting tiny crimpers right on with no wasted effort. She floats by the first clip hardly slowing down to clip the rope. At the first big bulge she reaches smoothly up and over quickdraw in hand and neatly snagged the second clip. With her right hand on a tiny pinch and her legs balanced on virtually nothing her left hand shoots up for the next hold. Not fast enough though. A fraction of a second later Tonia is hanging from her harness looking back up at the bulge.
I can hear her muttering about something but the wind carries her voice away and then with a short terse, “Okay?” to Leo she is again smoothly moving up the rock. This time she doesn’t even slow down as she glides over the bulge on one long continuous movement, her weight never on one point for more than a second.
Two more clips and she is at the second crux of the climb. This is when the whales arrive off shore. Once she has taken a long break looking at the whales and with a couple of moves that look damn near impossible to me she flashes by the crux and is at the finish.
As she clips into the anchors at the top she turns and says, “I was so scared.”
Leo lets out a shout, “That was awesome!! Great climbing, Tonia!”
She never really looked uncomfortable let alone scared but then climbing, especially leading is such a personal experience that onlookers rarely understand what a climber is feeling.
A couple of other climbers had joined up with us now and I was inspired by Tonia’s lead. I am going to try one of these routes myself! Not one as hard as Tonia’s though!
Half an hour later I am under a bulge of rock on what is supposed to be a classic 5.9 climb. I am having a problem figuring out just where to go and where to place gear. There is a spot for #4 stopper and then nothing until well after the bulge. Two tries and one fall later I decide that I will get lowered off and let Mark, my belayer, finish the route. Mark has been off climbing for a few months due to an injury but he flashes up the route in no time, not even slowing down much at the bulge. Seconding after him cleaning the gear I realise that the climbing is not hard – it is the head space of leading I need to get back into. I move onto some sport routes so I don’t have to think about placing gear so much and quickly get back into the groove. A couple of climbs later I am at the base of a short 5.10a. It is a mixed route with two sections protected by bolts and the rest natural gear. Everything clicks and this climb seems much easier than the earlier 5.9. Clipping into the anchor bolts I feel great. I am not going to be able to climb at the level of Leo and Tonia anytime soon but climbing here in Newfoundland has given me back my confidence on lead.
The next morning we head out to a different climbing area. In the summer Styles Cove is mostly a bouldering destination – in winter it is an ice climbing spot.. Half an hour drive from the Wallnuts gym we pull off Satellite road into a side road that ends in a narrow lane. Today there are about ten of us. The lane turns into a trail and 20 minutes walking brings us out on top of the rock at the sea shore. The cove is off to our right with two waterfalls arcing down onto the beach. The water is crystal clear and incredibly cold. It would be a beautiful place to go just to visit but the real reason we are here is just below us on a long slightly overhanging rock wall. Solution pockets with very sharp limestone points offer good if painful holds. There is a nice breeze keeping the bugs away. No bugs, no people, whales offshore and excellent boulder problems – what more could you want?
There is a long training traverse running almost the entire length of the wall. Big blocks of overhanging stone with a few pockets make for an excellent if exhausting warm up. In fact after the warm up I have to take a break to cool down. These folks climb hard! In the winter months Wallnuts sets up a bouldering training regime and several of the folks from this gym go to the Blurr Nationals in Toronto – generally putting a few in the top ten spots. The temperature today is around 25 Celsius, not warm by many people’s standards but a positive scorcher in Newfoundland. After a couple of hours of bouldering everyone is starting to complain about the heat. Not to the extent that anyone is interested in swimming in the frigid water but we were all too hot to climb anymore.
We head back to town and arrange to meet later at the club where Leo is in a DJ competition. St. John’s has a very alive and active music and pub scene. George Street has over 60 bars in three blocks and for over a week in the summer they hold the George street festival in which the road is closed to traffic and the entire three block strip becomes one big party spot. Definitely worth checking out if you are there when it is on. Every night there is live music – I believe it was Great Big Sea the night I was there – and the people watching is wonderful.
Dragging our butts out of bed the next day is not easy but we slowly get on the road heading out to a place called The Barrens for another round of intense bouldering. Pulling off the Trans-Canada highway in a spot that looks much the same as any other spot on this long barren stretch of country which looks a lot like tundra we unload the crash pads from the car and strike out across country towards some gray granite boulders in the distance. These large erratics left over from the last retreating glacier offer almost limitless bouldering options. One of the local climbers started a summer project to map and name all the boulder problems in this area. That was three years ago and he is still finding not only new problems but whole new boulder fields. This is very representative of climbing in general in Newfoundland. Almost every day for the three weeks I was there someone would come into the gym or be at the bar or kitchen party that night talking about another – “small crag, only 40 metres or so of solid overhanging rock that looks like it has several good lines on it”. Here in Newfoundland climbers are not trying to hide new climbing areas – they are actively asking new climbers to come in and start putting up new routes. Quite a change from the antics of crag bagging in other areas!
Three hours of hard bouldering leaves us sore, fingertips smarting and myself feeling very humble. There are some very hard problems out here!
We are heading back to Flatrock tomorrow and I am planning on conquering my nemesis – that simple classic 5.9 climb with one very exposed move above a single #4 stopper. Seconding it was easy – now I have to lead it. Tomorrow is the day to face that climb.
The day dawns sunny and warm (for Newfoundland 25 is warm -almost hot). After a stop at the bagel place for fuel we head out to Flatrock. Half an hour later I am roping up to lead my nemesis. Today the bottom flows easily. I reach the bulge plug in the stopper and reach high with my left hand to a sloper handhold. Right foot up, rock the weight over that foot, a little boost and I am up and over and on easy big handholds. A few minutes later at the top of the climb I clip into the anchor bolts and reflect on how simple the climb seemed today. It occurs to me that this is the essence of climbing here in Newfoundland. Here it is not about the hardest climb or the scariest route it is about coming to terms with your own personal nemesis with the support of a close knit group of climbers. As I look out over the ocean a pair of humpback whales dive, their tails looking like a wave goodbye.
For more information:
Wallnuts Climbing Centre
57 Old Pennywell Rd.
St. John’s, NL Canada
phone: 1.866.579.WALL (9255)