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Canada's Other Winter Climbing Destination: Ontario
Posted on: October 10, 2007
Barry Blanchard on the first ascent of The Distant Sound of Thunder (WI5/6), Little Oulmet Canyon (now known as Eagle Canyon), Ontario. [Photo] Nick Buda
Canada is a world class winter climbing destination. Of course, most equate this status with the Canadian Rockies. But for many, Ontario is the hotbed of near-limitless winter possibilities. While the landscape lacks the vertical rise of the Rockies, the sheer volume and quality of climbing make it a great winter—and summer—playground.
At Thunder Bay, in the far northwest, the accessibility of classic routes makes pre-work solos and post-work first ascents easy. Orient Bay, Nipigon and Kama Bay, in the far north, offer "alpine cragging" that is "more like mountain mixed climbing than actual mountain mixed climbing." To the east, Marathon, Agawa Canyon and Montreal River house hundreds, if not thousands, of rock, ice and mixed routes on everything from 25-meter ice curtains to 300-meter walls that contain dozens of traditionally protected mixed lines.
This week, Alpinist presents the words and photographs of Ontario's fixtures. Dedicated local, Nick Buda, relates some (mis)adventures while being mentored on the winter climbs of Kama Bay, Orient Bay and Thunder Bay. And a commuting climber, Stephen Gladieux, offers a window into the community on the eastern side of Lake Superior.
Rodney Swatton descending Icebreakers (WI5+), Kama Bay, Ontario. [Photo] Nick Buda
DAYS IN THE BAYS
Author: Nick Buda
Matt Giambrone is cursing. Loudly. His Twin Cities accent amuses me, and it becomes more pronounced the angrier he gets. We are standing at the base of a potential new route at Kama Bay, having completed a long and circuitous slog through rotten cliff bands and overgrown alders, over bottomless hoarfrost overlying knee-wrecking talus. I've just noticed his clip-leash missing from his ice tool. Fortunately for us, it's just a few minutes back down our hard-won trail, and Matt's soon racking for the lead.
James Loveridge on the first ascent of Shelob's Lair (M8 R/X), Kama Bay, Ontario. [Photo] Dave Pierce
I take in the vista of boreal forest and Lake Superior's magical north shore before gasping at the seriousness of our proposed route: a steep, ephemeral smear of ice barely an inch thick for the first 80 feet, and apparently devoid of protection until the top. The ice coats an inset, rounded column with an icy, flared crack along one edge. Matt begins tapping and hooking tentatively but soon transitions to slow, deliberate movement. Watching him lead, I get lightheaded from holding my breath. It's the first time I've been involved with a route like this, and I'm terrified. For three hours I watch Matt climb desperate ground, placing no real gear. Finally, he tops out with a kink in his side from constant, off-balance stemming. Following, my eyes are born to the possibilities of hard ice climbing and the massive new route potential here. The radio suggests an appropriate route name on the drive out: "Asymmetric Warfare."
A few winters later, conditions are exceptional at the roadside crag of Orient Bay, and I'm holding the ropes for James Loveridge. Since spending a good chunk of the previous winter establishing bolted mixed routes at The Fishery, near Nipigon, James and I have become good friends. I look forward to his wild weekend visits from Duluth. This time, the adventure comes in the form of a volley of rocks, just as James is drytooling the delicate crux of our second new route of the day. The rocks land in the snow around me, the whoomphs ever closer to my stance, exposed to the bitter northwest wind.
I grow concerned about the late hour and the building snowstorm, especially because I am content with one route and not motivated for a second. But James insists on attempting the unlikely looking line. He's soon out of sight after traversing around a cedar tree that points out of the cliff's solid diabase. A few calls of "watch me" are followed by elated shouting about the quality of the route. "That's just to psyche me up," I think. I decline following the route.
It was not until a couple of weeks later when I returned and repeated the route that I appreciated his vision, and assessment of the route's quality. Adventures with James have developed my own potential as a climber—and have yielded a number of excellent new traditionally protected mixed routes.
Bryce Brown takes a scenery break on the long approach to the Sleeping Giant Icefall, Sleeping Giant Provincial Park, Sibley, Ontario. [Photo] Nick Buda
Later that winter, Bryce Brown and I decide to take advantage of some untapped potential within the city limits. We leave our car for the three-minute approach to the intimidating east face of Mt. McKay. Perched atop a short talus slope overlooking the city and the magnificent Sleeping Giant, the 200-foot face sports several large, yellow daggers flowing out of lichen-covered diabase—and an 80+ foot band of the most unstable shale imaginable. It's home to four established routes, and there's potential for a couple more.