David Chaundy-Smart took it as a compliment when his high school vice-principal told him he was wasting his youth by climbing. A Youth Wasted Climbing tells the story of how he and his brother, Reg, spent the last years of the 1970s fighting suburban boredom to become, in the words of renowned climbing historian Chic Scott, “one of the leading figures in Ontario rock climbing throughout the 1980s.”
With its vivid accounts of short and nasty climbs, dubious mentors, hapless climbing partners, teenage crushes, bad cars, underage drinking and questionable climbing techniques, this is a memoir of coming of age in a simpler era of climbing, told with compassion, humor and insight.
A Youth Wasted Climbing is a finalist in the Mountain & Wilderness Literature (Non-Fiction) category of the 2015 Banff Mountain Book Competition.
Excerpt from A Youth Wasted Climbing - by David Chaundy-Smart
Judy and I pitched a tent between the emerald-leaved birches. Rain had soaked us while we crossed the cold water of Mazinaw Lake. Mike Tschipper, who I wouldn’t see again for years after this weekend, grimaced as water poured through a hole he had punched in a garbage bag for his head. Judy and I had our own source of misery. It was June 1980, and we were fighting about our plans for the next year.
In the summer, I would teach rock climbing to fund a trip to Yosemite with Brian Hibbert, Reg and Gerry Banning. In the fall, I would be free from school. Reg and Sig wanted to work in oil- and job-rich Alberta and then head to the Mojave Desert and Yosemite to climb in the spring. When I told Judy I was considering going with them, she said I was squandering my life. We’d been over it before. For her, climbing was an opportunity for education, travel and personal growth, but for me, it was just a path to more climbing.
The next morning we joined the climbers in the boat bound for a route we could both do easily. As we passed the Joke, however, Judy said that this was her last trip to Bon Echo and she wanted to climb it. She looked serious as she tightened her harness buckle. I didn’t tell her about the traverse where a fall, even seconding, could hurt her, I just grabbed my rope and rack and told the boatman to take us in.
On a tiny, wet ledge we tied in to the same rope for the last time. Judy watched nervously as I led up steep, dark rock to a menacingly protruding piton, but I wasn’t worried: I had done the climb before. Even dangerous climbs lose much of their terror when the holds and exact places for protection are known. The crux traverse started at a slanting overhang 60 feet above the lake. The hardest moves were close to the protection, and I began to enjoy the rock, the smell of chalk on sweaty fingertips and the feel of tight rock shoes on tiny holds.
There was, however, little protection for the climber coming second. From the belay, the rope swooped down across the face to Judy, who had climbed the crux and was inching towards me. Just as she reached the safety of the ramp, her fingers popped off the face and she swung out of sight. The rope zipped across the edge of the ramp, sending tufts of nylon flying. She had disproven the myth that if the second climber fell at that point, the rope would cut on the ramp, but she now hung free of the rock. She yelled that she was going to use the thin climbing line lacing her shoes to tie prusik knots and climb the rope.
Prusiking took a long time because the knots tightened when weighted and had to be loosened before being pushed upwards again. When Judy finally got to the ledge, she was breathing hard, her hair was damp with sweat and her knuckles were bloody. She tried to smile and seem ready to go on. We did go on, but after the intensity of the first pitch, the rest of the climb was almost a relief.
On top, lightning flashed in black clouds and thunder cracked in the forest. I dropped the equipment on the rock and Judy stumbled a little as she took off her harness. Heat mingled with the smells of sweat and junipers.
“I just wanted to do something hard to remember being here,” she said. “I didn’t mean to fall.”
Drops of rain became a torrent and sluiced down the rocks and through the junipers. We huddled together for a few minutes on a slab until it passed. The descent gully was still streaming as we lowered ourselves down roots and ledges to the lake.
A.J. Casson’s painting of Mazinaw Rock captures the massive grey and pink ridges of ancient granite transected by the dark face dropping to cold water. A reproduction hangs above my fireplace now. Defying the dull, art nouveau sunlight, a stone ridge glows bone white above a flicker of stone ramp. Casson took some liberties with the shape of the cliff a climber might not, but it occurs to me when I see this painting that his bright ridge is more or less the top of the Joke, where Judy and I once waited in the storm.
On the way home from Bon Echo on the weekend we climbed the Joke, I said I was going to climb the CN Tower the next morning. I had put off telling her because I worried she would see it as a sign that my obsession with climbing was no longer limited to rocks. She said it was hare-brained enough to be the kind of thing I would do, but the caper had actually been planned by Gerry Banning. I just had to show up and climb.
I would learn Gerry’s motive for the climb later, but mine could be summed up in the much-quoted words of George Mallory: because it was there. In mountain cities, you could see mountains from downtown, so people thought about climbing them. In Toronto they built the world’s highest tower, and it also begged to be climbed. The mile-high pinnacle of concrete stuck out of the railway yards where my mother had played as a child but was visible in faraway Etobicoke. It shone with the silicone of enough crushed escarpment rock to build a small city. Some of the rock came from the quarry behind Cow Crag, where dust coated the holds after dynamiting.
Class had been suspended to watch TV coverage of a Sikorsky helicopter installing the antenna on the tower’s summit. We were told that the tower was a gift to the city and nation from the Canadian National Railway Company. Construction began in 1973, when the CBC broadcast a TV series on how companies like CN had laid the railways that had united the country. The tower was both patriotic and commercial. Downtown skyscrapers were too low to broadcast the TV signals that were the lifeblood of commerce and culture. The signal sent from the CN Tower, however, would reach the TV antennae of every metastasizing suburb.
As kids, Reg and I loved the monster movies broadcast by Buffalo stations but could only watch them at my paternal cousins’ because they had a 30-foot aluminum antenna mast and we didn’t. We sat awestruck on their vinyl couch as Greek heroes fought skeletons and King Kong climbed the Empire State Building to swat biplanes. After the movie, our cousins dared Reg and me to climb their TV mast like King Kong. As the mast swayed in the summer wind curling around the cul-de-sac, we saw across miles of rooftops to the tower rising above black office buildings.
We knew you didn’t have to be King Kong to climb a skyscraper. In 1977 New York climber George Willig climbed the World Trade Center in New York City. It had briefly been a national news story. Gerry Banning discovered that an ascent of the CN Tower would be much easier than Willig’s climb. Window frames projecting a hand’s width every three feet made a ladder of holds, and a metal rail offered another grip. Bolts sticking out of the metal could be used as protection. Gerry had made bolt hangers out of nylon webbing slings with loops sealed with electrical tape and hardware-store washers glued to wing nuts. Actual climbing bolt hangers would have been safer, but they weren’t available in Toronto. With Gerry’s hangers and regular climbing gear, we could clamber up the window frames, stopping to belay every 150 feet. Passing the massive observation and restaurant pod would require drilling holes in the tower, so Gerry decided to stop at the top of the windows.
A phone call to the fire department revealed that their longest ladder wouldn’t reach from the parking lot to the tower. A tourist brochure bragged that the wind-proof windowpanes could only be removed with special machinery, so they couldn’t be opened to nab us. The window-cleaning platform was stored off-site and took a day to assemble and thus was no threat, since Gerry estimated the climb would only take a few hours. Gerry chose to climb on the tower’s fifth anniversary, June 23, 1980. The T-shirts he had made said “Happy birthday CN tower.”
Judy dropped me at Gerry’s, and I lay awake on a couch suffused with decades of dope smoke. I struggled to believe the plan was real. My parents thought I was still at Bon Echo, but starting the climb from their house would have been impossible. The first they would hear about it was when Reg phoned them the next morning.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
David Chaundy-Smart is the founding editor of four magazines, including Gripped, Canada’s climbing magazine. He is also the author of five climbing guidebooks and numerous articles in the Canadian Alpine Journal and Climbing magazine. He started climbing in 1975 and has made numerous ascents in Europe as well as North America. He has called Toronto and Calgary home and is now the editorial director for Gripped publishing. He lives in Toronto, Ontario.
A Youth Wasted Climbing ($20.00) is published by Rocky Mountain Books. Available from online retailers, your local bookstore, or direct from the publisher at rmbooks.com.