You probably can’t find a more convenient or beautiful place to try an outdoor rock climbing lesson
I look up, up, up at a rock cliff that’s bordered by endless blue sky and bright green cedars. Far above the 32-foot-high (10-metre) formation at the north end of Thunder Bay, a turkey vulture circles lazily overhead. “Shoo!” I shout. “We won’t be needing you today.”
A beginner rock-climbing course offers plenty of opportunities for laughs, fuelled by adrenalin, excitement and nerves. Aric Fishman has seen this countless times: A professional climbing guide, wilderness survival instructor, friendly outdoors dude and owner of Outdoor Skills & Thrills. He regularly leads beginner and intermediate courses in rock climbing and ice climbing right within city limits as well as areas surrounding Thunder Bay.
“The climbing in Thunder Bay is world class,” he says. “It’s very easy to reach climbing areas and the quality of the rock is impeccable.” He also loves the variety of the terrain. “There are so many different landscapes – canyons, high hills, incredible views over lakes. It’s made for adventure.”
A bit of adventure sounds just right to our group, seven women whose climbing experience ranges from complete climbing newbies like me to those who have several ascents under their belts. (Our four-hour beginner’s course costs $60 per person and includes all equipment but not meals or snacks. You can join an existing course or Outdoor Skills & Thrills will create a custom group outing for you and your friends. A digital photo package is an additional $25.)
The morning starts off on a high note in the hilltop parking lot, which offers stunning wide-angle views over the city and Lake Superior, complete with ships, sailboats and the iconic Sleeping Giant rock formation. We’re at the Bluffs, part of Centennial Park, an extensive recreation area at the north end of the city with plenty of trails for walking, running and biking both through the bush and in the park around Boulevard Lake.
Aric Fishman gives a lesson
After Fishman passes out our climbing shoes, helmets, harnesses and chalk bags, we head out for a five-minute trek along the top of the bluffs. As we hike, a fawn bounds across the trail, all white spots and delicate legs, and we get glimpses of that oh-wow view through the trees plus another photo op in a clearing called the Lookout. There are a remarkable 120 or so climbing routes just on this crag, used by both novices and experienced climbers who want to scale a few walls after work.
While Fishman pauses to secure ropes to the anchors embedded in the top of the rock, we wind down a dirt path to the clearing at the base of our four routes, which are named C is for Clowns, Richard’s Crack, Walk Up, and, most memorably, Ass Gripper. (For the climbers out there, they’re rated 5.6 to 5.10.)
The mottled grey rock is classified as diabase, which was formed from molten magma that cooled under water a billion years ago. “It’s extremely strong rock,” explains Fishman. “When it cooled, it created cracks and really good climbing holds all the way up the cliff. It’s almost sculpted for climbing.”
Fishman gives us a thorough run-through of safety protocols, gear and knots. Properly buckled into our harnesses and helmets, the group consensus is that we look legitimately badass. We pair up and practise climbing a short distance and belaying, an essential rock climbing skill that involves having a partner on the ground taking in the slack in the line as you move, and also being ready to halt your ascent if you fall. Next, we practice slowly rappelling down, legs at a right angle to the cliff face (humming the Mission: Impossible theme song here is optional but totally recommended).
And then it’s time to give’r with some longer climbs – or attempt them, anyway. Flattening yourself against a cold, sheer rock cliff and searching for the tiniest of ledges to hook your hand around or dig your toe into is one of the ultimate mental and physical puzzles. It’s an exhilarating payoff when it actually works and you can shift yourself up another few inches or feet. And at the top of the climb, there’s that view again (or, ahem, so I’m told by my companions). It’s frustrating and fun, with plenty of muttered curses and grunts, and positive feedback as we encourage each other with whoops, claps and calls of “you’ve got this.” Fishman is somehow three places at once, cheering us on, offering tips and making sure everyone is safe and sound.
A few hours of rock-climbing will leave you with quivering muscles, a fierce thirst and a raging appetite. Fortunately, the Bluffs are just a 10-minute drive from the hip Bay & Algoma neighbourhood and its assorted coffeehouses, bars and restaurants, perfect for refuelling after your epic day out. Fist bumps all around.
Ice climbing is an option, too but, like, in winter