Land Purchase Enlarges the Approach to the Old Baldy Crag. Written by Ned Morgan. Photos by Glen Harris.
Old Baldy – also known locally as Kimberley Rock – is a high rambling outcrop of dolostone overlooking southern Ontario‘s Beaver Valley. Parallel to its 152-metre crest is a section of the Bruce Trail named for Malcolm “Mac” Kirk, the late forester and conservationist who spearheaded the effort to protect the area in the 1960s. Working for the Grey-Sauble Conservation Authority (GSCA), Kirk secured much – but not all – of the property surrounding the cliff from the family who had owned it since the 1800s.
Rock climbing began here in the ’60s and today the face – comprised of the hardest stone the Niagara Escarpment has to offer – boasts over 100 recorded climbs. With real estate development on the upswing in the region over the last decade or so, this big bioherm – a 400 million-year-old coral reef – needed a bigger buffer zone. When a cliff-bottom 45-acre plot that stretched nearly to the village of Kimberley came up for sale in 2012, the GSCA knew they had to act. And they knew they’d need a partner to help raise the funds.
That’s when conservation met sport climbing. The partner turned out to be the Ontario Access Coalition (OAC), a not-for-profit volunteer group that works with landowners and conservation authorities to keep climbing and bouldering areas open and environmentally sound. At a multi-user group meeting for the Kolapore Uplands, GSCA Land Management Coordinator Chris Hachey approached OAC Executive Chair Randy Kielbasiewicz about the impending Old Baldy sale. Here was an opportunity, Hachey explained, to protect the climbing access and a significant parcel of prime conservation land. Old Baldy is a postcard-ready icon, its face photographed, painted, and climbed countless times. Development would undermine its incalculable value to the biosphere and to the surrounding communities.
“The OAC wants to become more involved in preserving the Escarpment,” says Kielbasiewicz. “What good is a cliff if the land around it looks like a subdivision? If you go down to Milton now, on top of the Escarpment where you used to look out onto farm fields – you see housing developments and suburban sprawl.”
So Kielbasiewicz and the OAC applied for a MEC Land Acquisition grant. “In early 2013 we heard about the sale of the property and the opportunity to support the OAC with the possible land purchase,” says MEC’s Regional Sustainability & Community Co-ordinator Dave Robinson. “The OAC did a lot of work on their end and applied for and received the funding [$100K] from MEC. The GSCA will be the actual landowners and will use their expertise to manage the land and provide access for climbers.”
The OAC, Ontarioclimbing.com, the Alpine Club of Canada, The Bruce Trail Conservancy, and The Nature League raised the remaining funds to meet the asking price. The purchase went through last fall. The GSCA is currently finalizing the legal details of the land transfer.
This Old Baldy acquisition signals a fruitful partnership between groups that have not always agreed on land use. Some Niagara Escarpment conservationists, for example, once considered climbers a threat to the ecosystem.
“There used to be this image of the ‘dirtbag’ climber – this is a leftover from the ‘70s and ‘80s,” says Kielbasiewicz. “It doesn’t exist anymore.” He explains that climbers’ views of the Niagara Escarpment changed alongside everyone else’s in the late ‘80s and ‘90s after research spearheaded by University of Guelph’s Douglas Larson and his Cliff Ecology Research program identified rare and ancient eastern white cedar trees growing on crags. UNESCO declared the Escarpment a World Biosphere Reserve in 1990. Mindful of these cultural shifts, the OAC maintains a code of ethics that includes no top-roping off trees, no disturbing flora or fauna, and no chipping or drilling holds.
Kielbasiewicz adds that today’s sport climber has no interest in treed crags: “Rock climbs tend to follow obvious features,” he says. “And those features today are often on blank faces, devoid of trees – like Old Baldy. When climbing standards rose with the introduction of indoor climbing gyms, the interest in groveling your way up a gully of loose rock and trees went by the wayside. Now our interest is mainly big faces. Climbs that fall into disuse are re-evaluated. And if there’s no point in it being there, we remove it. Those routes that didn’t respect the modern understanding of the ecosystem don’t get climbed anymore.”
“Old Baldy has some of the best stone and concentration of high quality 5.11-5.12 sport climbing on the Escarpment. But what really separates it from other crags in the Beaver Valley is its exposure and view, as it sits proudly high up on the hillside. The approach is especially beautiful in spring and fall – in the spring there is the most remarkable display of trilliums in bloom that I have seen in the Beaver Valley and in the fall it is one of the best spots to see the fall colours. Its mix of sun and shade and position make Old Baldy climbable in a variety of weather conditions too. It was one of the areas that made me really appreciate the quality of climbing in the Beaver Valley, hence leading to us moving here in 2008. It has become my outdoor training crag and each year I will go out to repeat the classics to test my skills and see where I am at. It is also home to my favourite route in the Beaver Valley: Christina’s World, a long, steep and exposed 5.12d.”
–Leslie Timms, guide and owner of Ontherocksclimbing.com
“Old Baldy has a significant history and a number of climbs that date back to the ‘60s. Climbing in Ontario has a very rich history and the standard of climbing here in the early days was unique, globally speaking… after the war you had an influx of Europeans with an understanding and skill-set that didn’t exist prior to that. And Old Baldy is unique in Ontario for the high quality of the rock – very dense, very featured. It represents good climbing that doesn’t impact the ecology of the Escarpment. [Canadian-born pro climber and The North Face athlete] Peter Croft has first ascents on Old Baldy that haven’t been repeated. No one wants to do them because they’re too scary. No bolts, and really poorly protected.”