Halifax on the rocks

Rock-climbing opportunities of all sorts abound in Halifax. Here's what you need to know to boulder, builder and rope climb.

All I hear is grunting, crashing waves and the overexcited yapping of miniature dogs on the beach. My scraped, sweaty hands lose their grip on the crevice I'm clutching. I don't fall far, because I've only managed to climb a few feet. Feeling like the chubby kid in gym class, I take a seat in the sun and sip lemonade. I observe a group of Climb Nova Scotia members scaling vertical boulders like spiders. They make it look easy, but bouldering is tough. That doesn't mean I wouldn't try it again. It's an exhilarating way to get outdoors and meet some new folk. This guide should make it lots easier for newbie climbers than it was for me.

Indoor Rock Walls
Staying safe is key: Before you climb outdoors, learn the basics on an indoor wall. Ground Zero (on the corner of Wright and John Savage Avenues, 468-8788) and Dalplex's Rock Court (6260 South Street, 494-1935) are both great places to climb, but I head to the navy dockyard gym (located under the Macdonald bridge in Halifax). There's quite a protocol to enter on "civilian nights" (Tuesdays and Thursdays, 6-9pm), but they have the cheapest drop-in rate ($5). Call the volunteer supervisor, a lovely Frenchman named Philippe Pautel (427-3518), to arrange to get in and present your photo identification at the gym gate. You'll have access to a gigantic 32-feet-high wall and a limited selection of climbing shoes. The supervisors teach me how to belay without killing my partner, to secure myself with figure-eight knots and to climb using friction when there are no holds. Pautel began climbing in Europe 32 years ago using hammers and pitons (nails). "Climbing is like a puzzle and it's a dance on the wall," he says, smiling.

Rent a pair of shoes ($8) at Mountain Equipment Co-op (1550 Granville Street, 421-2667) and a safety mat ($6) that you can strap onto a backpack. To keep your hands from slipping, you'll need a chalk bag and chalk (MEC and The Halifax Trail Shop, 6210 Quinpool Road, 423-8736).

If you plan on climbing cliffs, you can find variety of ropes, harnesses, draws, carabiners and the hardware you need at MEC. The Halifax Trail Shop sells smaller items, such as carabiners. It's not a good idea to buy used rock-climbing gear, as your life is at stake. Pack a headlamp for climbing at night, when it's cooler and the rocks are less slippery.

Nova Scotia isn't known as a mountain-climbing hotspot, as our mountains are mostly hills with inflated egos. But glacier movement during the last ice age left our beaches dotted with large five-to-six-metre granite boulders. Climb Nova Scotia is a non-profit group, promoting and facilitating climbing throughout the province, and Mick Levin, the group's president, says Nova Scotia has over 800 established bouldering "problems," attracting climbing enthusiasts from all over. "The climbing scene is definitely growing," says Levin. "Our bouldering is world-class."

You can take the number 20 bus to go bouldering in Herring Cove. Head down Purcell's Cove Road toward York Redoubt until you see a gravel pit, then head along the coast for some bouldering on seaside rocks and short walls. You can also bike out to Crystal Crescent Beach. Trek right after the beach parking lots and walk until you've reached some beginner and intermediate bouldering. There's plenty of bouldering in Prospect, Musquodoboit and Chebucto Head as well, which you can find maps of at climbnovascotia.ca.

You can get out to some breathtakingly beautiful bouldering areas through Climb Nova Scotia's Monday Night Bouldering Club. Forty of us gather in the parking lot of the St. James Church on the Armdale rotary at 5:45 pm. Those without vehicles carpool with others. We head just outside the city to Polly's Cove, a marshy, boulder-filled area referred to as The Land of Confusion.

Rope Climbing
The Eagle's Nest, in Bedford's Admiral Cove Park, is the most accessible urban climbing location and a renowned hangout for drunk teenagers. Expect colourful spray-painted rocks, smashed bottles and massive cliffs overlooking the Bedford Basin. It's a good idea to use multiple anchor points, as the creaky trees could snap and some of the bolts are in rough shape. Climb Nova Scotia hopes to replace the old hardware. For somewhere less trashed, head to Musquodoboit Harbour. Get directions on Climb Nova Scotia's webpage to climbs such as Skull Rock, The G-Spot, Main Face, First Face and Columbus Wall, a scenic forest crag.

Once you've got more gym training and improved your technique, you'll start noticing local climbing possibilities everywhere. Chances are, you'll start scaling every vertical surface possible. Urban climbers can be found buildering---or scaling buildings and other urban structures---in places like The Crotch Problem, the concrete pit outside Dalhousie's Killam library. The imposing concrete walls of banks, malls and universities suddenly become challenges. Despite my bruises and sore arms, The Crotch Problem looks tempting!

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