by Eric Binion
Growing up with access to Squamish, B.C and Alberta’s Rockies had spoiled me with world-class rock climbing. So, upon touching down in Yellowknife two years ago, I was promptly on a quest to find out what the climbing scene was like. After some kitchen party discussion, I found a local who graciously piloted me in a boat across Yellowknife Bay to Burwash Point. There is a small crag (for the uninitiated, a glossary of climbing terms accompanies this article) there nestled in the midst of a birch grove. The rock was a bit choss, but there was certainly potential. A raven had constructed a nest on a fine-looking sharp ridge, or arête, the summer before and so this part of the crag was deemed off-limits. Regardless of the crumbly rock and defensive raven, it was enough to get me pumped by the end of the day, and excited about other opportunities. Since then, I have continued the hunt when out paddling or skiing, looking for new cracks and crags. That was until I heard about the indoor climbing gym.
Constructed by volunteers and made possible through various grants and generous donations, the Yellowknife Bouldering Wall at 113 Kam Lake Road came to life through sweat equity in February 2013. Prior to this public indoor climbing gym, members of the Yellowknife Climbing Club (YKCC) had built a smaller co-op version in a storage shed at the old dairy in Kam Lake. The new gym promised to advance the goals of the club: to introduce people to the sport of climbing and facilitate an open and inclusive environment for climbers of all levels and ages.
I dropped by the gym to find Susan Saunders hanging around. Susan started climbing early on in life as a family activity in the mountains around Calgary. She was excited when she discovered the YKCC was planning a public bouldering gym. “I instantly wanted to be involved,” says Susan, who is an active board member of the club. “I saw this as the next big step for climbing in Yellowknife.” Susan, like many of the members, volunteers her time to keep the non-profit gym afloat. Her motivation is simple. “Climbing is so much more than just climbing, it is a mental, a physical, and a social activity.”
Hanging upside down from a jug, she continues to clamber along the ceiling before dropping down on the blue mattresses that cover the floor. “I like being able to focus my mind on trying harder routes. Climbing has always been a very important part of my life. It keeps me focused.”
As more folks trickle into the gym, you can’t help but see that it’s become more than just a space for climbing. It’s a welcoming place for socializing too. “When I first moved here, the ability to continue indoor climbing helped me feel more at home in Yellowknife,” says new board member Laura Malone. “I’m driven to keep the momentum of the club going, so that other people new to Yellowknife can feel that same way.”
When the gym opened last year, the YKCC membership increased to 73 people. The gym has become progressively busier, with 100-150 monthly drop-ins, plus a handful of birthday parties and lessons with students from schools in Yellowknife. Susan notes that the YKCC sees itself as an affordable secondary sport option for families and youth, but she worries about volunteer fatigue. “The club manages and administers the gym on behalf of the climbing community,” says Susan, “but the club does not want the gym to become its ‘modus operandi.’”
As the snow begins to melt, members head for the bush carrying their crash pads, looking for a taste of the real rock. Emrys Prussin spent last summer actively exploring the Yellowknife area. “For anyone keen to explore, there are many small pockets around Yellowknife, but there is no central sector with a large concentration of climbs as you’d find in some southern destinations,” he says. “But what it lacks in density it makes up for in wilderness and isolation.” He adds that other climbers have been busy down the Ingraham Trail, finding solid climbing rocks at Cameron Falls. “All around you is the sound of the waterfall and looking back all you see is water and forest.” There are mythical tales of resourceful climbers who set out scaling cliffs above open water while having their partner belay them from unsteady canoes. You have to be creative and willing to take a few risks when climbing in the North.
In the meantime, I head back to the gym in Kam Lake. I squeeze into my cold, tight rubber shoes, check out the new routes posted on the board, and proceed to bust my fingers powering through a crimper route. As I am packing up my gear to leave, Laura Malone reminds me why we subject ourselves to, what at times can feel like torture. “I’m motivated by climbing as a way to build strength, endurance, and balance,” she says. “After each climb, I love surprising myself with what I’m capable of doing.”
Arête: A small ridge-like feature or a sharp outward facing corner on a steep rock face.
Belay: To protect a roped climber from falling by passing the rope through, or around, any type of friction enhancing belay device.
Choss: Loose or rotten rock.
Crag: A small area with climbing routes, often just a small cliff face or a few boulders.
Crash pad: A portable landing pad.
Crimper: Very small holds which allow only the use of finger tips.
Jug hold: Big, comfortable handholds.
Pumped: When forearms are flooded with blood and you lose grip strength.
Route: The path of a particular climb, or a predefined set of moves.