August 16, 2006
Rock climbing guidebooks tell you a lot. A lot about an author – and his or her lack of ability and size of ego – about a region and, more than anything (hopefully), about a place’s climbs.
So it’s telling that the new Quebec guide (120 pages) devotes nearly half its content to a “secteur” called Charlevoix, a stunningly pretty, half-million-hectare UNESCO biosphere reserve, preserved to enhance it as a combination agricultural region and outdoors tourist playground. What’s not obvious when you grab a copy of Yannick Girard and Stéphane Plamondon’s “Le Guide Québécois de l’Escalade” is that while the climbing areas around Montreal and Quebec City are decent, the climbing there is on crags of 60-200 feet. In Charlevoix, there are routes of 1,500 feet and longer. If Girard and Plamondon devoted pages in terms of feet, pitches, and sheer amount of climbing, 99 percent of their guide would cover Charlevoix. In short, this secteur of eastern Canada is a rock climber’s dream.
Having done three ice-climbing trips to Quebec (yup, it’s purty darn good) late last season, I won a week off work (we go by the lottery system at the salt mine), and I decided to drag my wife around Charlevoix in the summer, looking at fabulous Charlevoix granite and climbing as much as we could get our hands on. Ann was excited. For the past five years, I had strapped our two babies to her frontal body-nobs while foisting upon her opportunities to explore l’art du laundré (I would simultaneously disappear to Le Crag de L’homme Superieur).
Yessiree, time for “le Revenge de Ann.” She wanted to do long “mellow” routes and get reacquainted with traditional climbing. (“None of this first ascent wanking-around you always do, OK?”)After a quick flight to Quebec City and a short drive up the St. Lawrence seaboard, we settled into a tiny little hotel with a ginormous name (the Auberge Le Cormoran & Domain Belle Plage) in the charming village of Baie-St-Paul, a tiny community of artists that boasts more galleries than croissants. There we planned our massive assault on spoken, written and listened-to French.First stop, Parc des Grandes-Jardins, so named at the beginning of the 20th century by settlers who were impressed by the carpet of lichen and the northern vegetation, which is unusual at that latitude. This picturesque “Parc” is a small version of Yosemite’s Tuolumne Meadows and boasts a half-dozen large domes poking out of the lush arboreal forest. The classic eastern granite is clean and solid, and we merrily plugged cams and wired stoppers into a beautiful six-pitch line on Mont de l’Ours.
In Quebec and the notion of established abseil stations and useable fixed gear follows French thinking, and makes climbing fairly easy. Except here, the sport is still so new that some of the more adventurous outings mean that if you get off-route (we did on the descent), then you can end up wallowing through virgin forest for quite a distance. Regardless, the gastronomical delights of Quebec more than make up for any scraped shins, and that night we tucked into candied duck and garlic-infused lamb (In the U.S. it would’ve been an undercooked hamburger).The next day we explored an area known as Les Palissades, near Saint-Simeon. This is an extensive area of walls and crags, with more than 100 established routes in the 500- to 600-foot range, and a dome (Grandes Dalles) with a dozen-odd 1,300-foot routes. Unlike other parts of Charlevoix, the Palissades are well-developed. Over the years, local climbers have established an entire outdoor center at the Palissades, with hiking trails, a refuge, and even several via ferrata routes. Tellingly, the slim Quebec guidebook included more climbs here than anyplace else.
Next stop, Parc National des Hautes-Gorges-de-la-Rivière-Malbaie.If you’ve read much about climbing in eastern North America, a lot of areas boast “some of the biggest cliffs in the East” and “tallest walls east of the Mississippi” and other bogus claims. Parc des Hautes-Gorges, home to the famed Pomme d’Or ice climb, is the real deal. It has the biggest cliffs in the east (reportedly more than 10 are more than 300 meters tall), and our jaws dropped into our crotches when we crested a hill entering the Parc and saw the magnificent south face of the Mont des Erables, the left side of which looks a bit like the right side of El Capitan.
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Dreading a repeat of our descent from Mont de l’Ours, Ann and I were content to drag our chins around and just gawk. On our way back to Baie-St-Paul, we detoured to Malbaie and checked out Cap Blanc, an interesting little limestone crag, which is a bit of a weird anomaly in this region of perfect granite. The next day we climbed a popular beginners’ route on Le Dôme, in Parc des Grandes-Jardins, and encountered some of the finest granite I’ve ever touched. Its huge, tilted slabs were festooned with perfectly level horizontal cracks, offering protection in the most unlikely places. Indeed, from any stance, gazing upward brought long reflections of “where the heck should we go here?” whereas simply climbing yielded endless protectable features invisible from below.”This sure beats the hell out of doing laundry,” Ann noted several times. To say the least.On our final day, we explored Baie-St-Paul’s own little crag, along railroad tracks east of town. At first, we couldn’t follow the French description of the location, but a friendly local chef named Henri (a fat guy, so you know he’s good) led us to the crag. There, a couple of bolted sport climbs ascend an exposed chunk of quartzite, and, after a noisy train had rattled past, they turned out to be exceptional. The locals, who use the tracks for walking, stopped and watched, pleased to learn why the bolts were up there.
Like I said, rock climbing guidebooks tell you a lot. A lot about an author, a lot about a region and a lot about climbs. I think the Quebec guide should be renamed. “Le Guide Charlevoix de l’Escalade avec un Petit Peu Des Autres Areas” makes a hell of a lot more sense. And I don’t even speak French.Cameron Burns is a Basalt-based writer.