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Understanding Rock Climbing in Ontario

Understanding Rock Climbing in Ontario (PDF)

Since the early 1900s rock climbing has found a home in Ontario. Climbing gained momentum and a significant following in Ontario and elsewhere in the 1970s. Over the course of the last century the sport continues to mature into a well-loved outdoor activity across North America. This page covers frequently asked questions about climbing in Ontario.

Where do climbers climb?

Climbers scale up or across natural rock formations. The goal is to climb a pre-defined route up a rock formation without falling. Participants climb for recreation, to enjoy natural places, and for social interaction.

Climbers typically select cliff faces with minimal plant and animal life when establishing routes, as the presence of flora and fauna on the climb is unenjoyable and can make climbing less safe.

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What are the different types of climbing?

Top-ropeBefore climbing, a climber will set up an anchor at the top of a route and send a rope from the ground, through the anchor, and back down to the ground. The climber is attached to one end of the rope, and a belayer controls the other end. This is the type of climbing that most people do when learning to climb, and it requires access to the top of the cliff.

Lead: In lead climbing, a belayer feeds out rope to the climber as s/he climbs. The climber repeatedly clips the rope through intermediate points to limit the length of a potential fall.
Traditional lead: uses removable protection placed into pre-existing cracks in the rock; routes follow crack systems up the face.
Sportuses fixed protection (bolted into the rock) to scale blank faces of rock.

BoulderingClimbing on smaller rock formations (boulders) without the use of ropes. Bouldering mats (large, thick pads known as “crash pads”) are placed at the base of the boulder for safety, and fellow climbers assist one another to land properly (this is known as “spotting”).

In North America, hiking and climbing difficulty is measured on a scale called the Yosemite Decimal System:

Class 1 to Class 3: Walking on an even (often planar) surface, through to steeper terrains that may involve some scrambling, increased exposure and a greater chance of injury, e.g. difficult trails.

Class 4can involve short steep sections where the use of a rope is recommended and un-roped falls could be serious, e.g. a steep, rocky hill.

Class 5is considered true rock climbing, predominantly on vertical or near vertical rock, and requires skill and a rope to proceed safely. Un-roped falls would result in severe injury or death.

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Is it safe?

Movies, magazines, and other media portray climbing as a thrill-seeking dangerous activity. Unfortunately, this exaggerated depiction forms the basis for many people’s impressions of the level of risk involved. In fact, the majority of outdoor climbers are experienced, prudent, and well-equipped for climbing outdoors. They are able to assess and accept any potential risks, as well as their own personal limits. Many climbers have the skills and/or equipment to rescue themselves, as well as other people.

OAC annual surveys have repeatedly found that Ontario climbers were at least ten times more likely to be involved in the rescue of a hiker than to require rescue themselves.

Research by the Access Fund and the OAC found no record of any legal action ever having been filed in which an injured climber successfully sued a landowner or an agency on the basis of liability. This is a result of the broad liability limitations that landowners, land managers, and agencies are given for recreational opportunities like climbing.

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Where does climbing occur?

Ontario climbing activity occurs on the Canadian Shield and Niagara Escarpment. Many climbers enjoy the close proximity of granite climbing areas in Eastern Ontario, such as Bon Echo and Kingston Mills, while the sheer volume of rock in Northern Ontario — in the Lake Superior region especially — offers numerous developed areas for climbers to explore.

The Niagara Escarpment is close to many highly populated areas and is, therefore, an obvious and common destination for climbers. Rock climbing takes place on the Escarpment from Niagara Falls all the way to Tobermory. Some of the most popular areas are Niagara Glen, Rattlesnake Point, Old Baldy, and Lion’s Head. Ontario has become known to climbers around the world as a rock climbing destination and is featured in numerous magazines and films.

Climbers Reduce Their Environmental Impact from Elli Levene on Vimeo.

Who climbs?

The demographics of the rock climbing community are quite broad, varying widely in terms of age, religious activity, political affiliation, and socio-economics. That said, OAC annual surveys found that the average outdoor Ontario climber was male, between the ages of 26-35, with an average income of CAD$52,000. Ontario climbers typically have an above-average level of education and income and are likely to travel both in Canada and abroad to climb. Participants of the OAC surveys indicated that the primary reasons they rock climb are for the personal challenge and to connect with nature. Climbers make a significant economic contribution to local tourism in many areas. There are an estimated 8 million climbers living in North America.

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What kind of equipment is used?

Different types of climbing require different kinds of equipment. However, special shoes and chalk are used almost universally to improve adhesion to the rock. Ropes, harnesses, carabiners, and belay devices are used to protect against injuries from falls. Many climbers use helmets to protect against rock falls or other serious injuries that can occur while climbing. Advances in technology and the establishment of international safety standards and testing have resulted in extremely strong and reliable equipment.

A popular question asked by non-climbers is: What happens if you fall? Falling happens more often than successful ascents. During a fall, the climber’s weight is simply absorbed by the stretch in the rope, which is held taut by the belayer.

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What impact does climbing have on the environment?

Some of the top research on the environmental impacts of climbing is carried out right here in Ontario. Research has repeatedly shown that climbing routes have half the plant richness of unclimbed cliffs. These studies have given climbers an unfavourable reputation by many concerned individuals and led to the closure of many climbing areas.

After sampling 20 different Ontario cliff faces, leading researchers Kathryn Kuntz and Doug Larson at the University of Guelph, Ontario, uncovered a fatal flaw in earlier studies of climbing areas. Early studies neglected to test whether the cliffs climbers chose to climb had less vegetation before any climbing activity occurred in those area. Kuntz and Larson deduced that if climbing destroyed vegetation they would see signs of damage in crevices and ledges that normally support plant life. They found none.

“What the plants are looking for is what climbers don’t want,” says Larson. Plant roots break up the rock, making climbing perilous. So rather than climbers damaging the ecology of the rock face, they select bare cliffs in the first place, Larson believes.

The study also advises that recommendations made by land managers to restrict development of new climbing routes should be re-evaluated.

Rock climbers can make excellent stewards for climbing areas because they return repeatedly to the same locales and often develop a deep appreciation for the location and promote it to others. OAC annual climbers’ surveys consistently show that over 85% of respondents climb for, “a connection with nature.” All published guides to rock climbing in Ontario contain sections dedicated to ensuring that climbers understand the environmental considerations of climbing on the Niagara Escarpment. 

Nevertheless, like any human activity, climbing does have an impact, and as a result the OAC encourages climbers adhere to “minimal impact” and “leave no trace” practices.

See our Press & Publications page for more information on environmental impacts of climbing.

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What kinds of climbing management strategies exist?

Climbing presents unique management challenges due to lingering misconceptions, the equipment used, the different forms of climbing activity, and the diversity of environments where climbing takes place. Strategies for management of climbing depend on many factors, including whether the land is public or private, the mission of the agency or land manager, and staffing or budgetary resources. Each natural area is unique, requiring land managers to exercise discretion in managing recreational activities.

Please contact us if you have questions about climbing management strategies:

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How can I develop a climbing management plan for my jurisdiction?

Climbing Management Plans are an effective way for land managers to oversee climbing on both public and private lands. A successful Climbing Management Plan will:

  • Build cooperative relationships between climbers and resource managers.
  • Provide management direction that is the minimum necessary to protect resources and is implemented on a graduated scale from indirect measures (e.g. education) to direct measures (restrictions).
  • Satisfy statutory requirements and internal agency guidance (where applicable).
  • Provide information about status and contextual importance of resource values, climbing activity and provide information about contextual use patterns, and effects of climbing activity on identified resource values.
  • Articulate climbing as a recreational experience, and describe the variety of climbing opportunities as values.
  • Identify management alternatives that address climbing impacts in a manner that is consistent with how other recreation groups are managed.

Climbers’ compliance with different land management plans is generally good in areas where management priorities are well publicized and there have been opportunities for public involvement in development of management policy.

Poor compliance often arises in situations where there has been limited communication between climbers and resource managers, where management policies show poor understanding of climbing activity and use patterns, or where new restrictions have been implemented without the identification of problems through field observation.

Climbers give back to their local trail and park systems by volunteering on public land, protecting the environment, and preserving open space. For example, the Shawangunks of New York — one of the most renowned climbing sites in the U.S. — is owned and managed by the Mohonk Preserve as part of a 7,000 acre nature preserve. The Nature Conservancy owns climbing sites in Utah and Connecticut. In Colorado, the Access Fund owns and manages the Golden Cliffs Preserve, an open space preserve that offers hiking and climbing, in additional to several other climbing areas.

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About the OAC

The Ontario Alliance of Climbers (OAC) is an incorporated, volunteer, non-profit group that works with landowners, conservation authorities, property managers and members of the climbing community to keep climbing and bouldering areas open in an environmentally responsible manner. The OAC has over 1,500 individual and corporate members and is growing daily.

We encourage our members to follow a code of ethics characterised by our focus on environmental stewardship, resource protection, and risk management. We put our principles into practice through our partnership with Leave No Trace Canada and volunteer-run events common throughout the year, including: clean-up days, invasive plant species removal, tree planting, and other activities. These stewardship activities take place on climbing lands and is our broader communities’ way of supporting and working alongside land managers. The OAC currently has strong active working relationships with Bruce Peninsula National Park, Grey Sauble Conservation Authority, Halton Region Conservation Authority, and the Niagara Parks Commission.

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Route: the line of travel up the cliff or mountain. This zone is typically 6 to 8 feet in width, follows a line that may be straight or very irregular, depending upon the climbing terrain, and will extend from the base to the summit.

Anchorany piece of protection used to secure climbers to a cliff face for belaying or rappelling. Some are removable. “Fixed anchors” are left in place permanently for all climbers to use.

Belay or belayingThe method by which one climber secures the rope to safeguard another climber in the event of a fall

Carabiners: These are snap-links, generally of aluminum alloy, used to connect a climber’s rope to intermediate protection and anchors.

Protection: Any form of anchor removable or fixed used between belays to protect a climber.


If you are a Land Manager looking for guidance on how to best manage climbing activities on your land, the OAC can help open communication with the climbing community, explore management and funding options, and offer consultations regarding best practices for managing climbing activities. To find out more about rock climbing in Ontario please contact us at

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