Spring in Canada has many faces… this year it was cold and wet. The usual mix of grey misty days and glorious warm days that gave one a sense renewal, and awakened in each of us a sense of life that often lies dormant throughout the winter months was in absentia. Since mid March when Spring had begun winter had refused to relinquish its grip on the land, with heavy snow storms until the end of April. So I was growing restless waiting for spring’s gentler side to reveal itself as I knew it would.
In anticipation of this day my friend Adam and I began to plan a trip to Killarney. We had only recently come to be friends, but it was one of those bonds that seemed fated to happen. We were both a little crazy, constantly in search of the next adventure around the corner, and we both had a love for the gleaming ridges of Killarney. In Killarney we uncovered a sense of belonging that neither of had even realised was missing from our lives.
So as April ended and May began, the long range forecast gave us a glimmer of hope. The second weekend was supposed to be beautiful, so we went forward with our plans. As the weekend approached things started looking sketchy but fortunately Killarney was three and a half hours away and the weather system that was moving in was supposed to stay to the south and leave Killarney with glorious sunshine for the entire weekend.
As the sun broke the horizon on the Friday we left, determined to max out the weekend. Leaving behind the leaden skies we were exuberant and as we neared the park turn off we skies cleared and we began to realise that the mystique of the park was going to be with us for the duration of our stay.
As we topped the crest of the hill we both had an electric thrill run down our spines as the first siting of Silver Peak’s rocky summit greeted us. We were quick to load the canoe and paddle off into the park interior. Stopping along the way to scale the main ridge on George Lake to do some free climbing and explore the ridge top. We didn’t linger for too long as we had a long three hour paddle ahead of us and many other mountains along the way that would sorely tempt us. The plan for the weekend was simple, climbing, climbing and more climbing… with Silver Peak serving as the focus.
We set up camp, had a hearty meal of Magic Pantry lasagna and watched the northern lights unfurl over the ridges on Norway Lake. Both Adam and I were anxious for what the following day might bring so we rolled into our bags well before midnight and were up with the birds only a few hours after dawn’s roseate blush licked the horizon.
We hiked through bear country, ever alert for fresh droppings or any sounds that might betray a large animal moving through the woods. It took only an hour of bushwhacking before we were onto the main ridge that dropped into low valleys and rose to clear white ridges until it culminated at its highest point, Silver Peak.
Adam and I began hiking eastwards across the open ridge flowing the path of least resistance until the ridge began to dip into the first valley. We stopped and planned our path looking out at the sheer 40m wall that awaited us on the far side. Adam had never rock climbed before, but was eager to learn and at this time I lived for it. So we hauled ass across the valley floor and were soon standing at the base looking for a route up the rock, instead of a way around it. The trickiest route we ever climbed (before equipment) was probably no more than 5.5 or 5.6 with most falling around 5.2 but it was still fun and challenging much of the time.
This climb was straightforward, the handholds were plentiful and the rock was firm. There were only two tricky sections that required some route finding. I left Adam to find his own route to the top, only shouting down directional ideas so that he didn’t get stuck along the way. He turned out to be a natural, he had little difficulty negotiating the rock and had no fear of the height.
We continued along the ridgeline descending down into two more valleys and ascending to the ridge above before we came across a lower but more formidable series of bluffs. It again required us to climb a vertical section but this time the route was trickier, requiring us to following a more circuitous route to the top. It required us to follow a series of cracks to the left and then taking a series of ledges up to the right before we were able to head straight up the rock.
There was only one more series of peaks and valleys we had to cross before we were atop False Peak, Silver’s sub-summit to the west. Like many of the summits in Killarney it was a broad, clean dome of rock with only a few scrub bushes. On this summit was a huge erratic pretty marking the center. It was here that Adam and I stopped for lunch and our first real break of the day. The view from here was fantastic you could look to the south and through to the northern sections of the La Cloche Mountains. All around were a myriad of lakes forests and rocky crags… we were in paradise.
The skies were crystal clear and it was unseasonably warm, the temperature hovering around 28°C and we decided to laze on the summit of false peak for close to an hour and a half before crossing the final valley and making it to the summit of Silver Peak. This final stretch was easy hiking across boulder fields and gentle ridges.
We were on the summit by about 1:00pm and soaked up the view for about a half hour and encountering people for the first time in a day and a half. Silver is the highest point for hundreds of kilometers around, so the views were exceptional, especially to the north and the east… the whole of Killarney’s northern section spread out before us, with the northern section of the La Cloche rising out of the afternoon haze. To the south were a series of over a dozen interconnecting lakes that provided access to Silver from the parks easternmost access point.
The hike back was relatively uneventful we still took some time out to climb a few other craggy sections, but we were simply hungry and eager to make it back to camp as we had a long day ahead of us on the ‘morrow.
We had another long paddle ahead of us to start with but we were buoyed by the reward awaiting us about half way. We had noticed this peak on Killarney Lake with a pie shaped valley cut out of the main face creating a series of some of the most dramatic cliffs in the park. This was our destination for the day and we were looking forward to it with undisguised glee.
Split Face Peak dominates Killarney Lake and is part of the Blue Ridge a sub range of the La Cloche, which features all of the major peaks in the park. The peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains aren’t particularly impressive in altitude but they have an alpine spirit that is infused in the very rock itself, a legacy of the time hundreds of millions of years ago when they were the dominant range in North America higher than the Rockies are today.
So after about 2 hours of paddling we beached the canoe and scrambled up the steep rocky slopes to the forests that lead up to the base of Split Face. After only about ten minutes we were near along the eastern summit ridge, a wall of rock that lead up to the summit and rose anywhere from 25-60m straight up. Each of us immediately began looking for a spot to do some free climbing. Adam found a spot up closer to the highest section whereas I found a particularly interesting spot. The cliff face was smoothened quartzite except where two parallel cracks ran diagonally up the face. As per usual I didn’t bother to study the route, I simply started climbing. The first half of the climb was tricky but doable, but I noticed that the depth of the crack was becoming an issue.
What I also noticed and became a real danger to me was that the cracks which were a comfortable five feet apart were becoming uncomfortably close… until I came to the realisation that I was clearly stuck and could go no further. Down climbing wasn’t really an option so I froze. Adam was watching me closely and asked if I was alright. I responded with my atypical bluster that I was fine... but he was no fool. He could tell what was up. I started looking around for an alternate route directly above me. The lactic acid was starting to build in my muscles as between my nervous indecision and the simple act of maintaining my grip on the rock; my arms and legs were beginning to strenuously protest. Finally after a lot of craning I noticed a small handhold and reached up with my right arm and then began groping for anything for my left until it too found purchase. From there it was only two moves before I was on top of the summit ridge and happy to have come away from this climb having learned a valuable lesson about reading the rock beforehand.
After I rested for a moment and gathered myself I scrambled back down to the valley below where Adam and I joked with atypical bravado about our joint stupidity as we made our way up to the end of the valley. Here we began a climb up to a ledge only about 5 meters below the summit proper. We scrambled up a slippery section onto a thin ledge that we had to inch along for a full minute before we came across the crux of the climb. Already we were a full 20 meters up and this section was about 15 meters high. There was a huge boulder the size of a city bus that was wedged up against the cliff face. So we worked our way methodically up the cliff utilising the narrow chimney provided to wedge ourselves little by little up to a series of ledges above. Afterwards we worked our way slowly up over a series of ledges until we reached the final ledge directly below the summit proper.
The downclimb was particularly tricky there was one section that required us to edge around a boulder hand over hand while our feet dangled over a 30m void. This was our final climb of the trip and at the time was a serious test of our climbing abilities.
It was while we were climbing that the sun was obscured for about 2 minutes a fact we were sure to rub in the following morning when the two of us arrived at school browned deeply from the sun while everyone at home suffered through yet another rainy weekend during the spring of 92 that just couldn’t seem to shake off the grip of Old Man Winter.