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Soft rock adulation

May 29, 2010

Duncan Hutchison inspiring at Pass Lake.

The bright sandstone cliffs of Pass Lake are a welcome anomaly among the usual diabase cliffs and rotten shale bands that make up much of the Norwester topography lining the northwest shore of Lake Superior.  Driving east along the TransCanada highway on a crisp, clear, late summer evening, you can’t help but notice something different about the cliff strata visible along the northern parts of the Sibley Peninsula, glowing white, then yellow in the evening light.  In stark contrast to the shadowed forest surrounding them, they almost levitate above the dark waters of Lake Superior.  Turning south from the highway towards Sibley, you experience a special feeling like you’re entering somewhere magical, perhaps enhanced by a gathering evening mist.  The car descends easily into the valley, and an impressive rail bridge spanning the valley acts like a gate, through which you’ll find a perfect evening cragging experience.

Just a few short steps from the car, you’re treated with a spectacular variety of climbs – if you can avoid the tasty treats served up at Karen’s Kountry Kitchen across the road!  A small number of high-quality routes, most at a relatively moderate grade attractive to experienced climbers, are mixed in with a handful of excellent lines regularly enjoyed by beginners.  “Sport” climbers, preferring to climb routes with protection bolts already in place in the rock, will find a handful of excellent routes, with a trio of steep and challenging routes immediately in front of the parking lot among the best the crag has to offer.  Beginning climbers will appreciate the easy accessibility of the cliff-top trails and in-situ anchors for top rope setups.

But that’s not what I’ve come here for today.  Most recently, this crag has seen a resurgence in the popularity of its “traditional” or “trad” climbs – routes climbed by trailing a rope and inserting various pieces of “protection” in existing natural cracks and features.  This in and of itself is not significant, and the relatively moderate grades of most such routes here certainly aren’t newsworthy.  Unlike the sounder forms of rock at most other cliffs in the region, the softer, crumbly nature of the sandstone at Pass Lake does give climbers pause for reflection though.  Trad climbing here is often a battle with your headspace, for the crux moves on a route are often protected by suspect gear.  Since the sandstone absorbs water and weakens significantly after heavy rainfall, success on these routes and the relative safety of climbing them in this manner can be very dependent on ideal conditions, hard to come buy during wetter summers.

Just a few weeks ago, the route I’m about to attempt was led ground-up by a couple of strong young climbers from Thunder Bay, very likely the first time it was climbed in this style.  Their excitement after the send was palpable, and it got me fired up to give the line a go myself.  Despite dozens of visits to this crag, and countless top-roped laps on this route in particular, I find myself tying into the rope with a sense of trepidation.  Assurances from my partner aren’t helpful.

A sharp gust of wind through the birch trees gets me moving, and I feel overwhelmingly committed as I place my sticky rubber shoes on the band of conglomerate rock at the bottom.  A few moves higher, I fiddle in another disturbingly small piece of protection as the wind blows sand into my eyes.  With the crux looming a few feet higher and my forearms tiring rapidly, the consequence of a fall here is suddenly all too clear.  Reaching for the next hold, I’m still not certain I’ll make it without consequence.

This entry first appeared in the summer 2009 edition of Superior Outdoors.

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