CANADIAN ROCKIES – Looking directly at a jagged rock face, Andy Genereux methodically eyes over the crag for the best climbing line.
There are lots of things to carefully consider when establishing a new route such as cleaning the rock, opportunities to create a multi-pitch ascent, its difficulty and accessibility, safety and natural protection, and, of course, making a route that people will actually want to climb.
When ready, the nearly 65-year-old climber will chalk his hands a dusty white, put on his gear like a durable climbing helmet, make sure his trusty hammer drill is fully charged and start up the wall.
“I want people to climb my routes, so I tend to do a good job [building them],” said Genereux.
For avid rock climbers in the Bow Valley, chances are very high they have darted up one of Genereux’s routes. After all, the master of the mountain has established more than 2,000 pitches and 600 sport climbs in the Bow Valley and Canadian Rockies from 1982 until now.
Considered to have helped usher in modern era rock climbing to the Canadian Rockies for making safe, maintained, and well-used sport climbing routes, Genereux was presented the annual Summit of Excellence Award during the 2023 Banff Centre Mountain Film and Book Festival.
"It's a huge honour to get the award and recognition for what I've done over just about 50 years since I first got introduced to climbing," said Genereux. "Hopefully I've helped people, like, I've been part of the movement in the Bow Valley to make climbing safer. Although, I've got roots out there that are still from the old days that are still pretty pushy and dangerous, most of my new stuff is much more reasonable in that regard."
The national recognition is given to an individual who has made a significant contribution to mountain culture in the Canadian Rockies. The award was first presented in 1987 during a time when Genereux was at the forefront of route building – or some young punk ruining the traditional purity of it all – depending on who you asked back then.
“[The older guard] had a really anti-bolt attitude,” said Genereux. “The standards of the rest of the world were going up and here in the Rockies and the Bow Valley, the standards really hadn't moved for many years."
Early on, Genereux started to build routes because he ran out of them to climb.
Back in the ‘70s when he first got started, the Bow Valley to Calgary climbing community was only about 300 strong and they only had a few hundred routes to choose from. Today there are roughly between 12,000-15,000 climbers and thousands of routes in the area to choose from.
When Genereux creates a new route he places bolts, which is a permanent anchor in a rock face that helps with safety during a climb. It’s one of the steps to building a sport climbing route.
“A group of myself and others, we started to develop these shorter climbs and we started developing for technical difficulty in the early days … we were still using that old traditional value of ground up approach," said Genereux. "Then it eventually evolved into what's called modern day sport climbing, where the bolts got closer, then we started coming from the top down.”
Genereux says today's route building is significantly different than in the ‘80s and throughout the decades. One thing that stands out for him is that modern equipment is far superior – making the process go much faster and with less weight. Genereux appreciates the latter.
The first hammer drill Genereux purchased in the ‘90s weighed 18 pounds, which is more than an X-large bowling ball. Add on another five pounds in the drill’s battery and bolts and a crowbar to knock out loose rock.
“So you're lugging up 20-plus pounds just in a drill in order to drill a bolt,” said Genereux.
In comparison, Genereux’s hammer drill now weighs three and a half pounds.
With a drill in hand, some of the mountain man's best handy work has come at the iconic Mount Yamnuska, including 40 new multi-pitch routes and doing the first ascents of famous climbs such as CMC Wall Direct 5.11b, Master Mind 5.11d, Glory Days 5.11c, Direct Mail 5.10c, Mixed Emotions 5.10c and East End Boys 5.12a.
Yamnuska has been sort of a pleasure and pain thing for Genereux. The climbing hot spot is the location of all three of Genereux's helicopter trips off a mountain because of injuries. All were caused by rock failure, with the worst being a “refrigerator size” boulder smashing into him and snapping his leg “like a toothpick” during routine maintenance of a route.
“So I lost over 20 friends, mostly in avalanches and alpine climbing, but a few of them in rock climbing as well because something went wrong,” said Genereux.
“I've been lucky. I've had some massive chunks of rock I've pulled off over the years, and I'm really good at judging that stuff, but I've still made mistakes.”
The pioneer has taken time to penned his knowledge of building and climbing as author of five guidebooks including Yamnuska Rock: The Crown Jewel of the Canadian Rockies and Ghost Rock: Front Range Rock Climbs Near Calgary.
A living legend, Genereux is rewarded daily with the knowledge that many of his routes are well-loved and well-used.
“My climbs are gonna be my legacy, good or bad," said Genereux. "I've left enough of them out there and I think not all my roots are fantastic, but a number of them are outstanding, that's my opinion."