Mountain Fellowship winner Eli Simon reports on his 2008 expedition to virgin walls on the coats of Newfoundland. Eli found great rock, terrible rock, and loads of fun. Read on for the full report!
On September 5th I awoke at five o’ clock in the morning, shivering in the v-berth of the small fishing vessel Royal Oak. Through the companionway I could see the outline of two men methodically loading bait onto the deck. George and Ron Fudge (uncle and nephew) respectively; the Captain and First Mate of the boat who would act as are liaison officers through out our time in Newfoundland. These kind men had agreed to taxi myself and my climbing partner Peter Fasoldt to Cape La Hune Bay with the understanding that we wouldn’t be dropped off until they set all 1200 feet of line they had on deck. We were grateful for all their help and told them we would be awake when they boarded in the morning, to at least witness, if not participate, in some north Atlantic commercial fishing.
Once I saw their outline and heard the 250 horsepower marine diesel turn over, I shut my eyes and returned to sleeping in my safe haven below deck. I didn’t awaken or do any fishing until we turned north toward the gut of Cape La Hune Bay, about 25 miles west of Francois, Newfoundland. Francois, the village in which both George and Ron were born and raised, is a small fishing outpost of no more than 130 inhabitants. No road of any kind comes anywhere near Francois, To get to Francois one must first drive to Burgeo- the end of the road- and board a passenger ferry dubbed Marine Voyager and sail almost due east for four to six hours, depending on the sea conditions. The people here, as one would imagine, are about as real as it gets. Fishing cod was, is, and should be their way of life for years to come. However, in 1994, the Canadian government decreed a moratorium on fishing cod, slowing the fisheries to a halt. Now, 14 years later, it’s one of the very few places on Canada’s coast that allows fishing for cod. Unfortunately, their population is so depleted by large-scale fishing ventures from overseas that they simply “ain’t catching what they used to.”
Despite the hardships they’ve endured, the people of Francois remain the friendliest and most pleasant people I’ve come in contact with. George and Ron offer two classic examples of Newfi hard work and hospitality. George, the Captain and owner of Royal Oak for the last 41 years, stands almost one full head higher than my five feet and ten inches. Even at 61, with hip problems causing a pronounced limp in his left leg, he moves as efficiently as any other fisherman on Francois’ wharf, except for Ron. Picture a wicked gritty energizer bunny with a thick accent and an even thicker mustache and you might have an idea of Ron Fudge. This happy-go-lucky workhorse seemed to be fueled by his curiosity toward us and our outrageous plans to climb these unexplored walls. Our opposing worlds came together on our voyages from bay to bay and it was here where we saw glimpses into the newfie way of life and some of the history of this rugged island.
Our plan was to climb in three different bays, moving from west to east, beginning in Cape La Hune Bay, then heading to Ron Contre West Bay, both of which were unexplored by climbers. Concluding our trip in Devil’s bay where lies blow-me-down: a 1500 foot sea cliff which now hosts over 20 routes. This big wall above the sea was first climbed in 1994 by Joe Terrevecchia, Jeff Butterfield and Chris Kane.
The relentless swells of the north Atlantic eased as we turned north in to the protection of Cape La Hune Bay. This barren fjord runs for miles with granite walls on all sides. The sun had just risen as we stood on deck, jumping up and down, eyeing line after line of what looked to be immaculate granite running into the sea. We were like kids in a candy shop, staring up at the bay’s steep sides, dying to get a taste of what lay ahead. George and Ron didn’t quite understand our excitement and thought we were absolutely nuts as we examined every wall and hummed with excitement. We eyed a potential base camp at the mouth of a stream in an area known by the locals as “Dead Man’s Cove”. Royal Oak steamed towards our new home as we readied our gear and Delmar, our 14 foot aluminum canoe that would be our only mode of travel after Royal Oak steamed away. We shuttled our gear to shore, arranged a pickup time, thanked our new friends for all their help, and watched as they headed off to check their fishing gear and to return to their families in Francois.
We set up a base camp a hundred yards from the beach and a few feet from a beautiful stream. It was now just us and Delmar. The landscape surrounding us was unparallel to anything I had ever seen. No sign of human life in all directions for as far as the eye could see. We were now hundreds of miles from the closest road. We shared this land with caribou, moose and the elusive bunny.
As soon as our camp was established, we slid on our harnesses and headed to the closest feature: an unclimbed, unnamed, sweeping 800 foot wall, just a stones throw from our camp. The first 300 feet of this wall was a clean slab split in the middle by a single finger crack. As we swapped leads on our first route, the rock quality began to deteriorate just as quickly as the weather. By the sixth pitch we were completely socked in by a thick wet fog, and the climb had changed from perfect granite to what Pete described as “kitty littery run out death gardening.” At around 650 feet, we stood behind a crumbling chimney, cold, wet, and scared. This was day one and we were already in over our heads. We descended using sketchy terrain rappels and scary down-climbing. We arrived back on the ground amazed at how fast both our beautiful day and our climb had changed. Our first routeTouch my Caribou was our ruff-and-tumble introduction to climbing virgin Newfi granite. We kept a positive attitude and waited for our next weather window.
Unbeknownst to us, this inclement weather was the beginning of hurricane Hanna. After weathering out the storm for 28 hours in our little four season tent, the skies began to clear. We peered our heads out of the vestibule, and for the first time we could see across the bay. Splitting the clouds was the Tote: a beautiful granite dome with a 400 foot south east face.
This was our next objective and we were ready to climb. We readied Delmar for her maiden voyage across the icy waters of Cape La Hune Bay. Two ropes, a double rack, foul weather gear, and two crazy Mainers began yet another journey, with nervous anticipation in their wake. At first the mile long crossing seemed feasible with good visibility and calm seas. But soon, Mother Nature decided to play a cruel joke on us. As we reached the middle of the bay, the wind picked up from the south, bringing with it a steady swell, a heavy fog, and a light rain. Disoriented in the fog and without any navigational tools, the pucker factor increased, as did the speed of our paddle strokes in the direction which we hoped was west. After what felt like an eternity, we spotted the faint coast line ahead. With our heart rates retuning to normal, we followed this desolate coastline until we found an ideal spot to set up our advanced camp. Once ashore we sat in the fog, wondering what this wall in the clouds would reveal.
A long night of high winds and heavy rain made the sunrise all the more welcome as it dried the miles of shimmering granite. In full foul weather gear we racked up and headed to the base of the south east face. With our spotting scope, we had eyed our potential route: A thin hand crack splitting the tallest portion of the cliff. As we arrived at its base, this splitter crack turned out to be just a closed-out seam. With rain clouds on the horizon, we headed to the cliff’s most defining feature, a right leaning crack system splitting the cliff in half. Some easy fifth- class terrain led to a few long pitches of fun 5.9 crack climbing. As we approached the top of the cliff, we were once again socked in by a heavy fog and it began to rain. Pete burled through the final corner system to the summit in a downpour. We descended in the clouds back to our wet camp, hungry, happy and drenched. Our route Boat n’ Tote was on great rock with enjoyable climbing on the bay’s most impressive feature.
The bad weather continued, so we spent our time as hunter-gatherers. We set a dozen rabbit snares, which we checked frequently enough to scare away all the rabbits. We attempted to catch lobsters with a spear (Pete got a crab), and even attempted to use homemade traps. At low tide, we gathered urchins and mussels for a maritime feast, and in the fields we gathered berries for our pancakes. This closeness to the land was a refreshing change from our life as guides in the bustling tourist town of Bar Harbor, Maine
A week after our arrival in Cape La Hune Bay, we heard the light hum of a diesel engine, and soon we could see Royal Oak in the distance. We broke down our camp in frenzy and ran our gear to the beach. Ron and George seemed happy to see us and had a million questions about our adventures. Moose hunting season was about to open so they were getting ready for adventures of their own. Our time in Cape La Hune Bay was amazing and we were excited to explore yet another new bay. Our plan was to head east to Ron Contre West Bay, where lies St. Albans, a 1,400 foot unclimbed sea cliff; the reason we wanted to climb in Newfoundland.
George steered Royal Oak under St. Albans, and we quickly discovered the rock quality to be as poor as petrified dinosaur crap, George and Ron could sense our disappointment, but hurried us to make a decision; for they had fishing to do. Do we attempt a route in Dinocrapville or do we head east to Blow-me-down? Ron interrupted our pouting by pointing out St. Elias, a 600 foot wall further down the fjord. Ron and George agreed to take us to the base of this wall for some reconnaissance. As we approached the cliff, we could already see superior rock quality and countless cracks systems. Smiles returned to our faces and we once again readied Delmar and our gear for our new home. We chose to set up camp a few hundred feet from the cliff’s base, where a beautiful stream met the ocean. Ron waved farewell as Royal Oak headed back out to sea. We were once again left in the solitude of this rugged coastline.
With clear skies, we went to work. We racked up and headed towards the base. With potential lines everywhere, we were back in the candy shop. We picked a very aesthetic line and battled through the tuckamore to its base. Our route required extensive gardening and a few pendulums, but overall was a fabulous five pitch route that ended with the first technical ascent of St. Elias. Delmar’s Nose Job 5.10 A0 130m was the beginning of a very successful stint in Ron Contre West Bay. The days were spent putting up new routes on great rock, and in the evenings we caught brook trout from the stream at our camp. Over the next two days, we put up three more routes on this immaculate wall. What’s a Bunny, a three pitch off-width chimney route on the northern flank of the cliff. Royal Oak; a 400 foot long wide hands crack in a dihedral. And finally, the jewel of the cliff, Rose’s Cantina; III 5.10 A1 200m. This route follows wide crack systems through the middle of the cliffs south-east face, the tallest aspect of the cliff.
After returning from Rose’s Cantina we contacted George with our satellite phone and requested a pick up the following day. By mid-morning, we heard the now familiar hum of Royal Oak as it entered the bay. The once stressful task of shuttling our gear to the boat was now a well-practiced ritual filled with laughter and excitement. We told George that we named a route after his boat and his contagious smile seemed to grow with pride.
Two bays down and one to go. We headed east to Devils Bay, where lies Blow-me-down (Jabo as it’s known to locals). Upon our arrival, we set up our base camp and began to set up fixed lines across 600 feet of slab that gain access to the main part of the cliff. The next day we climbedCentral Pillar of Aestishetism IV 5.10 A2, the cliff’s first route, established in 1994 by Jeff Butterfield, Joe Teravekia, and Chris Cane. This climb went smooth but ended in typical Newfie fashion with a thick fog, and a driving rain. Well versed in newfie weather, these conditions affected us not, and we topped out with out incident.
As we descended back to camp, we discussed what was next. Our plan was to attempt the unrepeated route Heart of the Matter V 5.10 A3+, put up by Jeff Butterfield and Chris Cane. As we sat and looked at the cliff, we realized that there were many possibilities for new lines and we had the experience and the gear necessary for an attempt. After a day of rest and scoping our options we choose a line. The route we chose followed the prominent right arching roof system that runs the length of the cliff. This feature essentially splits the cliff in half. At dawn the next day, September 19th, armed with three ropes, 28 bolts, six drill bits, a triple rack, a light aid rack, 15 runners, a double ledge, food and water and our trusty foul weather gear we started climbing. The first four pitches followed discontinuous crack systems and corners linked by short sections of runnout slab. The climbing was of great quality and went free at 5.10. The top of the fourth pitch shares the two bolt anchor which is the top of the fifth pitch of Central pillar of ethsteditism. This anchor and the 30 feet of climbing above is the only non-independent part of our new route. From this anchor we could see our potential line following the right arching roof system for 110 meters to its apex. It was here under the protection of this roof that we spent our first night on the wall. After wrestling with our ledge for awhile in the dark we discovered it was time to wrestle with our food. We had forgotten a can opener and the majority of our food was in cans. As seasoned aid climbers we soon found an A5 beak to be the ‘almost’ perfect piece for the job. I fell asleep our first night with the sounds of waves crashing beneath me and smelling terribly of tuna juice, and beef stew, due to our faulty and improvised can opener.
As the sun rose the following day we went back to work. Pete led the first block but on his first pitch injured his ankle when he hit a ledge on a swinging fall. He had to turn the lead over to me. The following pitches followed the roof to its apex where I hammered my way through an improbable seam. A 12 hour lead with only a few 100 feet of progress. On this block I drilled four of the routes six bolts, scary aid climbing and slow going. I pulled over the roof to find a protected corner and we set up the ledge for our second night on the wall. As soon as I was horizontal I was asleep. We woke tired sore and surrounded by a thick penetrating fog. Pete wrapped his ankle and began what would be the final block to the summit. The last 400 feet of the climb followed steep beautiful wide cracks to nice belay stances. Jugging the final pitch I saw we had core shots in both our lead line and our haul line. Scary to jug passed but scarier to lead on. Just after noon we arrived at the summit. With smiles the size of boomerangs we stood together 1,300 hundred feet above the sea, tired and sore, but happy and proud.
The Seal Harvest V 5.10 A3 was an amazing route following the cliffs most defining feature. It hosts great free climbing as well as intricate aid. It not only put our technical skills to the test but also our will and perseverance.
After an easy descent and a full rest day at camp Royal Oak steamed North into Devils Bay. It was time for us to go home.
The three and a half weeks we spent in Newfoundland was one of the most amazing trips of my life. The remote beauty of this forgotten coast was truly remarkable. The people we met were so hospitable, helpful and warm. They brought us into their homes and they taught us of their history. Without their help we would have drowned in Delmar somewhere off the coast of Maine. The climbing as a whole was spectacular, clean untouched granite as far as the eye could see. I would like to thank George and Ron Fudge, Kim Courtney, and all the other wonderful people we met along the way. I want to thank Pete Fasoldt for being a great friend and climbing partner. I would like to thank The American Alpine Club and the Mountain Fellowship Fund for all their support.