Definitely dirtbag and sure-as-heck hair-raising, rock climbing is not a sport for the weak. What is it that moves these athletes of ascent to their happy places? Calgary climber Jon Walsh helps us understand their personal peace and joy. By Jayme Moye.

Jon Walsh, 45, Calgary, Alberta

Jon Walsh wasn’t a climber when he moved to Whistler, British Columbia, from Toronto, Ontario, at age 18. Climbing entered his repertoire by default—his new friends in Whistler did it and literally showed him the ropes. “At first [climbing] was just something fun to do every once in a while, when I wasn’t skiing or biking,” Walsh says. “Then it kind of grew and grew on me and became an obsession, a lifestyle, whatever you want to call it.”

Top photo by Tim Banfield

With luxury home construction projects booming in Whistler at the time, Walsh found a way to support himself by working in carpentry, a career that gave him the flexibility to climb nearly as much as he wanted. By 1997, he was living most of the year in Squamish. He remembers his tight-knit crew in Whistler thinking he was crazy. “There wasn’t much in Squamish,” he says. “It hadn’t developed at all yet.” But Squamish had the one thing Walsh cared about most: easy access to seemingly endless granite rock formations.

Walsh’s obsession, and rapidly expanding expertise on the rock, would take him to some of the world’s most iconic climbing destinations, including the Bugaboos, Chamonix and Patagonia. It was a seminal time in climbing’s history, when athletes were starting to experiment with going fast and light on big walls, turning what used to be multi-day ascents (which required hauling up food, water and overnight camping gear), into single-day, or even single-afternoon, pursuits. “We’d be in these faraway places, surrounded by this really beautiful natural environment, and climbing really big routes, like 30 pitches long, and just blasting off without being encumbered by haul bags and all that,” Walsh says. He remembers that he didn’t always succeed, but it was always an amazing adventure.

Today, Walsh remains a pioneer in climbing, taking on new adventures on rock and ice, and in mixed climbing, which has elements of both. He continues to set new routes, especially in the Bugaboos and the Rockies, a satisfying experience that he compares to putting together a huge puzzle. He also considers himself a lifelong collector of the world’s classic rock climbing routes. Still, Walsh admits that, these days, there are two things that may be more important to his happiness than rock: his seven-year-old daughter and his thriving custom cabinetry and fine finishing business in Calgary, which is fine by him. “My age only allows me to climb three days a week now, max, anyways,” he says.