Fun on the rise for local climbers

Life is an uphill battle, but for Happier Climbers of East York creator Johnny Westgate, that’s the best part of it.

“Even a bad day of climbing is still a good day,” he said.

Westgate, 38, started climbing 11 years ago when he was introduced to it by then co-workers at Mountain Equipment Co-op, where he worked in the cycling department. The Happier Climbers climb at the Toronto Climbing Academy near St. Clair and O’Connor Ave.

“I’d like to be able to canoe and mountain climb and do all those sorts of things for a living, but I know I wouldn’t be a very good guide,” he said.

He is currently getting his PhD in environmental chemistry at the University of Toronto in Scarborough. He studies the way certain pollutants are transported in the air and those that end up on the tops of mountains.

“I also wanted to be able to have an impact on improving the environment, not just by my day to day choices, like riding my bike or taking the TTC, but actually to have a larger impact if possible,” he said.

He started his group after climbing with members of another group called Happy Climbers in Oslo, Norway, where he was attending an academic conference.

“(With) climbing being very social, I just met a women walking down the street with a rope and I asked her where the climbing gym was,” he said. “When I got back I thought I better start a Facebook page for us… because we are more active.”

He tried to get everyone involved, including colleague and fellow East Yorker, Trevor Brown.

“He needed to recruit some friends to go climbing with him because his wife thought he was having an affair. So he recruited me and after the first time I was hooked,” Brown said

Brown, 31, has been climbing for about two years. He loves the exercise, but more importantly, the challenge of figuring out how to complete a climb.

“It’s great exercise and there’s also the mental aspect of it which is even greater. The strategy of climbing and the focus that it induces; it takes a lot of concentration to climb on lead. It’s very relaxing.”

He also enjoys the closeness he experiences with friends.

“It builds bonds between people because you’re trusting people with your life, so you better like them,” he said.

Westgate agrees that climbing is hard, but thinks anybody can do it because it’s not a competitive sport. He says it’s a social sport and people are always willing to help.

“Everyone should try it at least once, just to get over any initial fears,” he said.

Happier Climbers member James Armitage, 35, started climbing in Stockholm, Sweden. He enjoyed the city’s plentiful granite outcrops that he could climb.

“Here, you have to go to Milton to climb outside,” he said.

Westgate and Brown’s favourite outdoor Ontario climb is in Bancroft, at a granite crack by a highway called the Eagle’s Nest. It’s where Brown did one of his first climbs and he says he will never forget it.

“I had to climb up last and I had to (do) what’s called top-out, where I actually climb out to the very top of the cliff and gather up all the rope and carry it down,” he said. “When I started climbing the sun was already touching the horizon. I just barely made the sunset up the cliff. It was a very surreal experience.”