Rock Climbing Guide to Northwest Ontario/Southeast Manitoba

© Copyright by The Alpine Club of Canada, Manitoba Section. No authorization is required to reproduce this material provided that the reproduction is accurate and not sold and that acknowledgment of the source is included.

Disclaimer

WARNING! Rock climbing is, by its very nature, a potentially hazardous activity. Climbing can result in severe injury or death. You do so at your own risk.

Click here (before you proceed with this guide) for more information on the risks associated with rock climbing.

A older version of this guide is also available in PDF format.

There is also a printed guide of select climbing routes within North Western Ontario that include Roadside, Gooseneck, Jones Road, Panorama and Echo Creek. You can purchase it directly from the author (Ryan Munro) or you can purchase online or in-store at MEC (Winnipeg location).

Interactive Climbing Area Map

Introduction

In the early 1970s a small group of experienced rock climbers that had recently moved to Winnipeg began looking around for climbable rock. Without too much effort, they discovered several superb granite cliffs to the east of the city in the general area of Kenora, Ontario. Beginning with the most obvious lines at the Gooseneck Rocks near Minaki these pioneers began systematically developing this area’s vast climbing potential. By 1986, when the first edition of this guidebook appeared, nearly 100 routes had been described; today more than 350 are known and this third edition is long overdue. We hope that it will be as stimulating and useful as previous editions.

The Setting

The Kenora region occupies the southwest edge of the rocky peneplain known to geologists as the Canadian Shield, a sparsely populated land of sparkling lakes and boreal forest that covers half of Canada. The Canadian Shield is the oldest and largest exposure of crystalline rock on the earth; the cliffs that we climb on are all that remain of mountain ranges that were born 2 to 4 billion years ago. Rocks that are now exposed were formed deep within the earth under conditions of intense heat and high pressure; as a consequence, a bewildering variety of rock types occur on the Shield. Although the Kenora region is richly endowed with unmetamorphosed pink granodiorite, less solid metamorphic and volcanic rocks are also common and it pays to be suspicious of every hold you touch, especially when exploring new routes. Helmets have proven their worth more than once on these crags.

The climbing season normally extends from May through Oct, with spring and fall offering the best conditions. Summer (June-Aug) can be stiflingly hot and is also bug season – an unfortunate fact of life on the Shield. You can usually stave off these beasts by wearing loose clothes that cover your arms and legs, camping in a windy spot, and retiring to the safety of your tent 1/2 hour before sunset. Always pack insect repellant.

Wasps nest in rock crevices and can be aggressive, especially in the autumn; carry an anaphylactic shock kit if you are hypersensitive to bee stings. Black bear and moose are the only vertebrate hazards, but you’re unlikely to have trouble if you make some racket when moving through the bush, keep a clean campsite, and store food in a secure place (your vehicle, a canoe anchored well offshore, or a bag suspended at least 3 m off the ground well away from your campsite).

Route Descriptions and Ratings

Unless otherwise indicated, routes are described in counterclockwise order around the rock formation (left to right when facing the cliff). Some route descriptions are broken into pitches; some are not. Routes are described in the following format:

  1. The banner line contains the route name, difficulty rating, unusual danger (such as R or X, see below), approximate length in meters, and star quality rating (if any, see below);
  2. A short paragraph describing the route.
  3. First ascentionists and date of first ascent (whenever these are known).

Climbs covered in this guide include a mix of traditional routes (requiring gear and usually without top anchors), sport climbs (bolt-protected, often with rap hangers or chained anchors at the top), and top-roped routes (protected by rap hangers, gear anchors, or slung trees). This is done so that no limitation or expectation of style is forced or implied.
Routes are graded by the first ascentionist, usually with some verification by consensus (see “Respecting the Grade” below).

Free Climb Ratings

The free climbs are assigned a technical grade according to the Taquitz Decimal System (commonly also known as the Yosemite Decimal System). The lower grades (1-4) vary from foot paths up to terrain where although a fall would have serious consequences, one is unlikely because holds are abundant; experienced climbers rarely use ropes and other technical gear when on such terrain. All of the climbs in this guide require gear to protect the climbers against the consequences of a fall (which are the so-called grade 5 climbs), beginning with 5.0 (easiest) and following uniform intervals of increasing difficulty to 5.15 (most difficult). Grades of 5.10 and above are further subdivided by appending a letter (a-e) to the grade; again, higher letters denote greater difficulty. The most difficult climb described in this book is graded 5.12a. The grade describes the difficulty of the hardest move or “crux” of the route, based on an on-sight ascent.

Aid Climb Ratings

Aided climbs (also known as Class 6 climbs) call for the use of something other than the rock’s natural features for support, progress, or rest and are assigned an additional grade ranging from “A0 to A5”; again, greater difficulty is denoted by higher numbers.

In the case of a mixed route (one that uses both aid and free moves) the free rating is separated from the aid rating by a slash (/). For routes that have been done both free and with aid (or partial aid), the two ratings are separated by the word “or” (examples: 5.6 or A1; 5.10 or 5.6/A2). Thus, no limitation or expectation of style is implied.

Quality Ratings

No stars Some may find it enjoyable. These routes range anywhere from less fun than laybacking an expanding flake to ones that are climbed only “because it’s there.”
* Good – more fun than buying new gear.
** Very good – better than cold ale after a big day on the rock.
*** Outstanding – better than surfing the Shark to Paisley Park, having the whole cliff to yourselves for the weekend, or any route outside the Kenora area.

NOTE: In keeping with the grand tradition of guidebook authoring, two star routes / problems first ascended by the author are listed with three stars.

Abbreviations and Conversion Factors

FA First Ascent (from ground up, free or aid)
FFA First Free Ascent (lead without aid)
TR Top Roped (climbed free, but not lead)
C Clean aid (e.g., removable nut)
A Aid (e.g., piton or fixed gear)
R “Restricted”, runout, and dangerous – the leader may be subjected to a ground or ledge fall
X “X-rated”, unprotectable, extreme danger – protection is virtually nonexistent, the rock is unsafe, or a fall will probably cause a total failure of the belay system and serious injury or death
Free Lead without aid
Left and Right With reference to climber facing the rock
Pitch One section of a longer climb
m (metre) 3.281 feet
km (kilometre) 0.6241 miles
inch 2.54 cm
foot 30.48 cm
yard 0.9144 m
mile 1.609 km

Note that rating information pertaining to unusual danger assumes that the climber is skilled at placing protection. Never assume that a route is safe because it does not have a danger rating. A long or deadly fall can occur on almost any route; moreover, routes change with time. Use common sense when choosing to lead a route. If in doubt, switch to another route within your abilities or consider top-roping.

Note also that some routes designated as FFA were originally climbed via free solo first ascent – reference to free solo ascents have not been included in this guide (so as not to dare, entice or needlessly endanger subsequent climbers).

Bouldering

A myriad of challenging boulder problems and shorter routes abound in the area (and are described in a Bouldering Guide developed by Rob Hester). For the sake of clarity, climbs under 8m (31′) have not been included in this guide.

Additional information pertaining to protection on dangerous routes is also given in the route description paragraph when applicable.

Style and Ethics

Almost all of even the most difficult leads in this book can be protected with artificial chockstones and natural runners. Bolts and pitons are infrequently used, and only on very hard leads that otherwise lack protection; please don’t use technology to reduce a route to your level. Consider top-roping a route instead of placing bolts or pitons: it leaves the rock in its original state and offers total safety. Under no circumstances should holds be chipped.

A few routes contain fixed gear: chocks, pitons, bolts, bolts with hangers, chains, and slings with descending rings. In the event that a chock or piton is encountered on a route, feel free to try to add it to your rack. But if it is securely lodged and the only method of retrieval is to break the rock, leave it be. Bolt hangers, chains, and slings with descending rings should be left in place; there is nothing more frustrating than going to a standard rappel spot and finding anchors or descending rings missing. If you do not feel that these chains or slings are safe, feel free to add more gear (but please don’t leave bright coloured slings behind).

This guidebook reflects the notion that rocks and cliffs should be climbed from the bottom up. This having been said, there is a place for top-roped routes, particularly as these can push the gymnastic standard for the area and add to diversity on slabs or where natural protection is sparse, thus adding new climbing opportunities. Unless otherwise noted, all routes listed were climbed from the ground up.

First Ascents

Route names and difficulty grades given by the first ascentionist are maintained throughout this guide. Where the first ascent involved direct aid, a dual grade for free/aid is given (e.g. Autumn Glow 5.8/A1). When a route that was originally climbed with an aid move is eventually climbed free of aid, the designation First Free Ascent is used, and this first free ascentionist provides a new free climbing grade to the route. Note that the original route name is retained however, and that the original aid or aid/free grade is referenced at the start of the first ascentionist’s (FA) credit line (see Petan Crack 5.10, originally 5.8/A2). Renaming an established route when it is climbed free is considered poor form (also confusing).

Top Roping

Climbing a route on a top rope can be great fun and is good for practicing tough moves, but it is decidedly different from leading the route from the ground up. For the sake of this guide, in order for a climb to be listed as a TR route it must have been climbed without falls and without rope assistance (no hang-dogging). TR routes are considered “projects” which have yet to be lead from the ground up. Whoever first ascends a route without the TR is then considered the first ascentionist, and reference to the TR is removed. The original route name is retained however, and the new first ascentionist can adjust the grade if desired.

Respecting the Grade

Grades, standards, and indeed routes themselves change over time, but this guidebook respects the grade given by the first ascentionist or first free ascentionist, reflecting the belief that “the standard should not be lowered”. Because some of the routes in this book were first lead back in the days when 5.9 was considered the most difficult grade which could be climbed free of aid, there are some potential sandbags out there (e.g. Great Corner 5.9!). An exclamation mark is used after the grade as forewarning.

The Grid System

Apart from cliffs in the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA), which offers true wilderness climbing, all of the cliffs described in this book are close to roads and have fairly easy access. In order to give unambiguous directions to the cliffs we use the Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM) Grid Reference (G.R.) coordinate system, a 6 digit number that specifies a location to within 100 yards on standard 1:50,000 topographic maps. The easiest way to describe this system is by example: On the 52 L/2 map (the Minaki area), find the top of the letter “A” in the word “SAND” in Sand Lake, a large lake in the centre of the right half of the map. The G.R. of the top of the letter “A” is 837542. Here’s what this number means: The horizontal grid line closest to but below the point is numbered 83, and the approximate distance from this line up to the point in tenths is 7; putting these together, you get the first three digits. The last three digits: the vertical grid line closest to but to the left of the point is 54, and the approximate distance from this line to the point in tenths is 2.

Emergencies

It is worth thinking ahead of time about what to do in case of emergency. From Gunton or the Lily Pond the closest help is in Winnipeg. All other sites are closer to Kenora. There is helicopter service in Kenora. The phone number for the Lake of the Woods District Hospital in Kenora is 807-468-9861.

Climbing History

Climbing has a long history in Winnipeg. The Alpine Club of Canada was founded here in 1906 and the Winnipeg section was active right from the start. It was especially vigorous from 1925-’40 when A.A. McCoubrey, F.R.G.S. and Ferris Neave were section chairmen. Mr. McCoubrey was remarkable: besides being section chairman for most of this period, he was vice president of the club (’28), president of the club (’32-’34), editor of the Canadian Alpine Journal (CAJ) for 12 years, and chairman of two important committees (Ski Mountaineering and Glaciers). Throughout the ’20s and ’30s Winnipeg Section members prepared for their explorations in the western mountains by climbing regularly at the Gunton quarries and skiing on the steep banks of the Assiniboine River. These were serious mountaineers that routinely bagged impressive peaks, including several notable first ascents in the Rockies and Purcells (CAJ 18: 74-81, 92-95, 21: 33-41, 22: 98-101, 214, 217, 23: 1-16). Their most famous adventure was a strong attempt on Mount Waddington at a time when it was an internationally recognized prize (CAJ 22: 32-45, see also C. Jones ’76, Climbing in North America). This same group made a special contribution to Canadian alpinism in the sport of ski mountaineering (CAJ 19: 160-162, 20: 178, 21: 122-127, 240, 22: 164-166, 23: 81-85, 27: 76-80, 28: 116-119, 66: 19-20).

Interest in climbing waned in the ’40s, and by the end of World War II the Winnipeg Section was inactive. Things got going again in the early ’70s when Peter Aitchison discovered the Gooseneck Rocks and John MacKenzie put the Winnipeg Section back on its feet. Like our predecessors, Winnipeggers are now climbing at Gunton and do a lot of ski touring in the off season; we have even pursued their ski mountaineering initiatives in the Canadian Rockies (CAJ 66: 19-20).

Acknowledgements

Many people assisted in making this guide: Peter Aitchison and Hugh Spencer started the job in the ’70s; the style of their original route descriptions for the Gooseneck Rocks influenced all subsequent contributions. Liz Luginbuhl entered this early material into a computer, which made it possible to easily modify and add new descriptions. Richard Tilley and Bob France maintained the guide during the early ’80s. During this time, Everett Fee contributed most of the ELA and Gunton material and Ian Clarke and Casey Shaw did the Lily Pond. Doug Leonard and Caroline Marion did Jones Cliff, Jake and Cindy Klassen added the Roadside Crag, and Rob Hester kept track of developments in the Minaki area. Everett Fee originally brought all this material together for the guide, while Rob Peters should be credited for consolidating recent material to form this latest version of the guide.

Please contact us about any revisions, additions and suggestions.

Please Tread Lightly!

When the first edition was published very few climbers visited the Kenora region, so they could do pretty much whatever they wanted. This is no longer true. Please make every effort to minimize your environmental impact: Remove all trash and don’t chip holds. When cleaning routes, never interfere with bird nests or alter aboriginal rock art. Bury feces at least 10 cm deep, and more than 30 m from any stream or lake. If you are camping, wash dishes a similar distance from lakes or streams, and cook on a camping stove–fire scars take years to heal. Respect vegetation by using existing trails, roads, and campsites. With a little care, these precious places can be preserved indefinitely.