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Canada's Other Winter Climbing Destination: Ontario
Jack Coulis on the second pitch of Nightfall (WI3+), Devil's Track River, Grand Marais, Minnesota, USA. The geology that makes Ontario climbing interesting streches into what is called "The North Shore" of Minnesota. Many of the rivers that drain into the Lake Superior basin have sliced deep gorges and canyons into the escarpment that rings the northern shore of the lake. Many of these gorges feature fantastic ice climbing, depending on the climactic cooperation of that particular year. [Photo] Nick Buda
Author: Stephen Gladieux, aka "The Frenchman"
I don't live in Canada—I'm a commuter climber—but I head north from Ann Arbor, Michigan, and drive the seven-and-a-half hours faithfully every week to meet the motley, well worn crew centered around Mad Moose Lodge. This group has been climbing, developing and worshiping Ontario ice for years. We have nicknames: Mr. Moose, The Gatchman, KJ, Billy the Fin, The Frenchman, Wilk-i-Dukes. Every time I drive down the icy gravel driveway to the Lodge, I can see friends waving and Mr. Moose standing with a chainsaw in hand and a helmet on his head, attached ear muffs sticking out wildly.
Dragging myself out of the sauna at 3 a.m. in search of more beer, I can smell the pipe smoke and the four pounds of bacon sizzling in the pan. I can see the lake rolling up onto the spray ice and feel the excitement of new climbers as I prep them for their first climbs the next day.
I climb in Moose Country, affectionately named such after the Lodge. While there is much more ice to climb in Ontario—Nipigon and Orient Bay, Marathon and Thunder Bay, Batchwana Bay and a few places named in Spanish—Cerro de Hielo—nowhere has quite the feel of Montreal River Harbor.
From the easy-access climbs within a twenty-minute trudge of Highway 17 or the bigger climbs up the river, Moose Country is unforgettable. There's nothing like a ski up to Solo Menagerie (WI5, 90m) or Steps to Rama (WI4, 140m), and with a little more time and effort, one is quickly under the shadow of routes around 300 meters—not, ahem, counting the 100-meter snow ramp at the bottom.
Barely visible is Shawn Robinson, near the crux of Pitch 1, Titon Crack (5.9), Tajmahwall, Orient Bay, Ontario. [Photo] Nick Buda
Frequently, though, the greatest difficulty is getting to the climb. We snowshoe to the closest, take trains to farther ones, and use a combination of train, skis and snowshoes to travel to the most distant. Recently, Justin "Lefleur" Lefevre and I started experimenting with kite-boarding kites and XC skis—wearing rando bindings—to cruise up the frozen rivers and reservoirs in a fraction of the time. It's a hell of a way to travel, as there's always wind near Lake Superior.
For years, new routes have been established frequently in the Montreal River Harbor area. Due to sheltering walls of the canyons, safe, solid ice can be found very late in the season. Tired of ice? There's always virgin rock nearby. Last March Wilk-i-dukes and I climbed six pitches of ice in the morning; then, after the sun softened the ice a little too much to be safe, we put up a three pitch trad line in the afternoon warmth.
Back at Moose Lodge, Billy the Fin brought some home brew and it's a perfect complement to Dale's cooking. I hear the bravado of The Gatchman speaking in unison with the alcohol in his veins. I think his courage will last through the morning; I expect another WI5 classic by midday.
Like any community, we have the local heroes, distinguished for work related to access or simply for being talented climbers. We have climbers who never seem to leave the lodge (they're damn fine company, and I never question why they are here). And we even have the same unpleasant characters found everywhere, like the local we refer to as "The Marmot," who just cannot seem to help himself from hurting the public image of climbers.
But to all who know it well, Moose Country is a sacred home where everything is rolled together, the good and the bad—the weather, the approaches, the characters and, of course, the seductive climbing that keeps so many of us coming back.
Steve Gladieux learned to climb ice in the French Alps thirteen years ago. He is currently a guide in Ontario, when he has the time, and he does other things in the States, which he doesn't like quite as much.
Editor's Note: One of the most frequented areas on the eastern side of Lake Superior, with new routes being established annually, is Agawa Canyon. There are no roads or designated foot paths into the canyon, so travel options are limited to a very long, off-trail snowshoe, a snowmobile ride over frozen reservoirs—questionable—or the Snow Train. Leaving from Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, the train caters to the the ice climbing community, allowing a 90 kilogram weight allowance per climber, and will stop at designated mile markers throughout the canyon to drop off groups and their gear. Most groups plan at least a week stay and pack for extended camping in winter conditions. Most of the hundreds of established routes, from 70- to 150-meters long, are within a brief walk of the rail line.
For up to date conditions, crags, forums, and other information on Ontario, The Snow Train and Midwestern United States ice and rock climbing, check out www.climbingcentral.com.
Derrik Patola leading an unnamed new route at High Falls, Pigeon River, Ontario. [Photo] Nick Buda