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Canada's Other Winter Climbing Destination: Ontario
James Loveridge, a prolific first ascenionist of mixed routes throughout Ontario, on the first ascent of Tryptophan (M9), The Fishery, Thunder Bay, Ontario. Loveridge and Nick Buda spearheaded the development of the area following Buda's first visit. An attempted repeat of Steve Russell's Jiggin for Cod (M5 WI6, 50m) led both men to understand that collapsing beaver dams, deadfall tree epics, January temperatures below -40 degrees (one of the few temperatures where the Fahrenheit and Celsius scales correspond), killer partridge and drunken deer hunters are simply par for the course. Climbing in the region is sometimes dictated more by the approach or the weather than the route itself. [Photo] Nick Buda
After 20 feet of fat blue ice, I'm into the business: a thin, detached ribbon leading to a blank-looking roof and, high above, a large hanging dagger. Pounding a hook into a crack, I stare with disbelief as the rock shatters and the hook falls out. I place a large cam in the gaping hole that remains and will it to stay there. A move higher I repeat the same thing with a knifeblade. This time, after the rock crumbles, I try placing a bugaboo deep in the hole I've created, to no avail. I place no pro, move higher and realize I can't reverse the moves I just pulled around the roof. I stem right to a corner, only to realize that the corner rocks gently; it's just a loose block the size of a refrigerator. I'm stemming in a house of cards. I move left and lieback off my right tool, and watch with horror as the blocks move and the crack widens around my torqued pick. One move higher, I stick the cruxy "roof reach around," only to have my pick get stuck in the thin crack. I grow scared trying to free the tool at maximum extension, my fingers going numb in the cold and slipping off the lower tool grip. With no other option, I swing onto the brittle dagger—which miraculously holds—and I'm left to battle the steep, brittle ice to the top. Doing my best not to kill Bryce with the dinner plates I'm kicking off, I'm soon constructing a convoluted belay anchor. I collect myself before we begin the mellower second pitch, the first to reach the top of this wall.
The next day I want nothing to do with a mixed route, so a partner and I head up to Nanabijou. Matt and James, both well-travelled, have proclaimed it one of the best routes anywhere, and it's currently all ice and "easy at WI4+." Somehow, I miss their 4+ exit and instead find myself alternately climbing and breaking off large, terrifying umbrellas. The climbing is definitely some of the wildest I've done, but at the top I realize I've had enough for now.
A few weeks later, nearing the end of the best season in the area's ca. twenty five year climbing history, I find I'm looking for one last fix. A spring day finds me an hour's drive from town making my third attempt at crossing Whitefish Lake to access the Artesian Wells Amphitheater. I'm with three of the "old boys," climbers from the generation before that have been important partners, friends and mentors.
Nick Buda on the second ascent of Sideshow (WI5/5+), Whitefish Lake, Ontario. [Photo] Randy Hyvarinen
Accessing this climb has proven to be a problem for me this season. The approach consists of a frozen lake crossing followed by a slog through chest-deep snow up the drainage gully. Upon reaching the climb, one often is greeted with dangerous or impossible conditions on Artesian Wells (WI3-6). The constant northwest winds result in some of the wildest ice formations imaginable: 10-foot umbrellas and fragile curtains waiting to kill anyone foolish enough to try climbing.
But often enough, the frozen lake itself is the crux. I thought I had it figured out when I attempted it with my touring skis. Unfortunately, I broke through the ice and my skins were quickly frozen into gobs of slush. Postholing to catch up to my older and wiser partners with snowshoes, I was greeted by a local ice fishermen stepping out of his ice hut: "Why don't ye jes use a snowmashen?"
Fortunately this time we get it right, and I succeed in making the second ascent of Sideshow, a climb Randy established the week before at WI5+, and one of the area's best. The climb is soft and well-protected, and is a perfect way to end the season.
But it ain't over 'till it's over. Standing at the edge of the lake, I'm debating with Randy about wearing crampons for the crossing. The rising temps have left a smooth, arena-like sheen on the ice. Randy opts to leave his on. I mutter something about old guys and walking in crampons being hard on the knees, and I charge off without them. I make it five steps before I'm airborne and staring at my feet. The impression the frozen lake ice makes in my head is almost as big as the impact climbing in Ontario has left on me.
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