Between a rock and a wet place

When peering down from the dizzying wall of limestone, gravity's a menace, while your belay partner -- 18-metres below -- quickly becomes the best buddy you've got in the world.

WHITE MOUNTAIN

When peering down from the dizzying wall of limestone, gravity’s a menace, while your belay partner—18-metres below—quickly becomes the best buddy you’ve got in the world.

This sport is not for the meek, which is probably why they are fiercely defending their territory.

After scaling walls all winter, climbing enthusiasts weren’t happy to learn this favourite wall of rock was scheduled to be blasted by road construction crews this summer.

Beginning with the clearing of trees and brush, work has started paving and widening Atlin Road (about 90-kilometres southeast of Whitehorse) next to White Mountain.

One section of the road-widening project is squeezed between Little Atlin Lake and the White Mountain Climbing Area.

“The White Mountain area is probably the best sports climbing area in the territory,” said Ryan Agar, president of the Climb Yukon Association. “It’s quite popular as a result—it’s definitely the best developed sports climbing area in the territory.

“It’s also one of the easiest to access, which is leading to some of our issues with road improvement now, because it’s so close to the road.”

After seeing the cleared section of trees next to the site, and learning of the plan to blast sections of the cliffs to make room for the road, climbers feared the site, which has been used by climbers for more than a decade, would be wrecked.

“It seems (construction workers) ignored the site during their engineering and their walk-through,” said Stanley Noel, a longtime climber who has spent years developing the site privately. “They walked through this local improvement area that taxpayers didn’t pay for—climbers had paid for and built for years. Ten or 12 years of work have gone into that site.

“If it’s blown up after 10 years of work, people aren’t going to do the work anymore.”

Since learning of the construction plans, the climbing association held an information session last week, attended by more than 30 climbers, and has since been in talks with the government to preserve the site.

So far, things look promising.

“The climbing area wasn’t really in jeopardy,” said Robin Walsh, director of transportation engineering with highways and public works. “We are blasting adjacent to it and the climbers were concerned they might lose some of their anchor points. But we’ve been able to do a good check on the location of the blasting and we’ve determined that the anchor points are not in the blasting area.”

The site will be unharmed, said Walsh.

“The construction contractor is our contractor, so we’re responsible for his operations,” said Walsh. “He’s working for us and he does what we tell him to do. He can’t go out and do some blasting independently.”

Unfortunately, with heavy construction in the area taking place between June 15 and sometime in August, climbers will have to find other rocks to scale throughout the summer.

“It’s a big chunk of the summer that’s gone, which is a shame,” said Agar. “But we’re hoping one of the side benefits is it will drain some of the swampwater because the bugs around June and July are absolutely miserable. So there may be some unanticipated benefits to all this.”

Also, the development may create a legitimate parking area for climbers. Currently, they simply pull off onto the highway shoulder to park.

“In terms of parking, it’s a safety concern—obviously we don’t want cars parked willy-nilly at the side of the road,” said Agar. “They have to do some blasting in the area, so there might be the option to use the road that they build to get on top as a parking area.”

Another option would be a parking area for hikers not far down the road from the site.

Apart from its easy access, the climbing site is considered Yukon’s best for its high density of climbing routes—about 25—with some reaching as high as 18-metres. Even in the last week new routes have been added, with new anchors and bolts installed in the rock face.

“Basically we’re in a holding pattern,” said Agar. “What’s happening next is we want to keep climbers engaged. We want to raise the profile of climbers and climbing in the territory. So we’re getting out, using White Mountain before the construction happens, making sure people know we’re there.

“Our next step is documenting what’s at the site and the current state of the site and then setting up more conversations with the Yukon government.”

Blasting is set to take place in late June, after the mountain goats in the area are done their kidding season.

Despite their thirst for outdoor ascents, climbers will be heading back indoors on Thursday to participate in the Yukon Bouldering Championships to be held at FH Collins Secondary School. The event starts at 5:30 p.m.

Contact Tom Patrick at

tomp@yukon-news.com

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