I think my favourite ’Mo climber memory happened last year when we were on a bouldering trip in Bishop,” says Rio Penabella, one of the founders and organizers of TO ’Mo Climbers, in reference to the group’s trip to the small California town. “On the Friday night of our trip, we basically guerilla gay-barred the only watering hole on the main street. It was hilarious to see locals’ faces as we pumped the jukebox full of Lady Gaga and Madonna songs. We danced and drank cheap beer, and in the morning, we hit the rock and climbed our hearts out. I think we caused such a commotion that the next night, when some of us just wanted to grab a pint, there were a few ladies who came in hoping for a dance party. Pretty freaking hilarious.”
TO ’Mo Climbers began after Penabella became involved in Homo Climbtastic, the American queer-positive climbing convention. While taking part in their climbs in Fayetteville, West Virginia, the dedicated “dirtbag” (which, Penabella explains, is the climbing equivalent of “ski bum”) saw an opportunity for the Toronto community. “I wanted a climbing group that was fun, funny and focused on actually climbing. Being outside at local crags [the rock-climbing term for a cliff or group of cliffs], training regularly, driving nine-plus hours on some epic road trips and living the weekend warrior life while getting on some fantastic routes. So one day, after finishing a day of climbing at a local cliff in Milton, myself and two others were like, ‘Let’s just do it.’” Penabella says that since then, TO ’Mo Climbers has grown to a group of 25 with a core of 10, while their big trips have attracted up to 70 climbers. Although they cater to queers, they are open to queer-positive straight dirtbags — for comic relief, if nothing else. “Really,” Penabella says, “how can you not laugh when you’re climbing with your breeder buddies and they’re talking about ‘a sweet finger lock’ and ‘placing a nut in this epic crack’?”
The TO ’Mo Climbers certainly get around. “Locally, we climb all over the Niagara Escarpment,” Penabella explains, “so crags include bouldering at the Niagara Glen, sport climbing at Mount Nemo or Rattlesnake Point in Milton, all the way to Lion’s Head on the Bruce Peninsula. Pretty awesome stuff. I personally think that a lot of people in the Toronto area haven’t really discovered what Ontario has to offer.”
Beyond trips and the training they do with one another, TO ’Mo Climbers also warmly welcome new climbers, offering beginner sessions once a month, while also participating in community outreach. “Just recently, a bunch of us volunteered with Support Our Youth out of the Sherbourne Health Centre,” Penabella says. “They had planned a beginner night, so we came and quite literally showed them the ropes. It was great to not just cut a cheque to the community but use our skills for a pretty rad evening.”
Penabella stresses that the sport is inclusive and says that judgmental climbers are few and far between, because climbing is all about how hard you can push yourself, not who you sleep with. Although there’s certainly a bit of that going on. While he believes there’s not much dirtbag dirty-business among the tight-knit crew while at home, being out of town is a different story. “On the big trips there are definitely shenanigans,” he says. “But really, people, when you’re camping, there is basically only a windbreaker between you two and the rest of us . . .” Dirtbags, nuts and epic cracks? Where’s the sign-up sheet?