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216parent2Shaun Parent hangs out - and over - spots around Lake Superior like Orient Bay and Agawa Canyon, both in Ontario.
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216climbersThe annual ice fest at Cascade Falls in Ontario attracts a lot of “social” climbers.
By Shaun Parent
When water freezes around Lake Superior, that’s when things really get moving for ice climbers.
Some 17 years ago, ice climbers in the Midwest states began annual pilgrimages in search of early season ice climbs along the shore of Lake Superior from Pigeon River at the Minnesota border east to Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario and Michigan. This area has the only guaranteed ice in the Midwest from December through May, and sometimes the ice forms mid-November and stays to June. In this 700 kilometer stretch, there are more than 300 frozen monoliths for ice-climbing enthusiasts to scale.
Some of the best ice climbing in the world is found around Lake Superior, considered the third best climbing destination in North America (after Colorado and New Hampshire).
There are places to climb all around the lake, in each of the three U.S. states and the Canadian province. In Orient Bay alone, on Ontario’s Lake Nipigon, there are about 128 climbs along 12 miles of highway: A higher concentration than anywhere else in the world and incredibly accessible.
I’m not that old at 43, but I’ve been called the “grandfather” of ice climbing along Ontario’s Lake Superior shore. Maybe it’s because I’ve written six guides to local rock and ice climbing (my seventh, “Superior Ice,” should be out early in 2000).
Or maybe it’s because in 1979, Paul Dedi, Joanne Murphy and I climbed the frozen Kakabeka Falls, just west of Thunder Bay. Our climb was the first completed ascent of a frozen waterfall in the Lake Superior region. It probably started the sport of ice climbing here. It was risky because open water and varying water levels at the bottom of the falls can cause the ice wall to disintegrate.
Why did we make that first climb? Two reasons. First, in 1979 I was invited to climb in Nepal and, having had little ice climbing experience, I needed to learn the sport and to train for a Himalayan peak. Second, none of us - Paul, Joanne nor I - were into skiing, and in Thunder Bay in winter, it’s good to find some way to keep active.
Paul and Joanne make excellent climbing partners and agreed eagerly back then to join me in the realm of frozen water. Joanne’s enthusiasm was a bonus because we felt “a lady” climber would give a unisex touch to the sport. Once we decided to climb, the next step was to search east of Thunder Bay for a suitable site that was close to Highways 11 or 17. None of us owned a car, and hitchhiking or the bus were our only options for getting to a waterfall.
In 1981, Paul and I completed a climb now called “The Tempest.” It has become the most popular ice climb in the Orient Bay area just north of Nipigon. Most regional climbers pay annual homage to “The Tempest” by ascending it first each year. It’s my own superstition to do just that to assure that my climbing season will be safe and successful.
What might seem strange to those who don’t climb is that the waterfalls freeze just about the same way every year. The same main ledges and contours return each winter when the water turns solid.
Climbs are judged on two levels. The “grade” measures the physical difficulty of the climb from 2 (easiest) to 5 (hardest). At the highest grade, the wall might be steeper or the ice more brittle or even overhanging. The second measure is the quality grade, again with a rating of 2 (least interesting) to 5 (best). It is similar to how fine restaurants or hotels are graded 3 to 5 stars, except we use “ice screws” instead of stars. An ice screw is what we use to secure ourselves to the wall.
The Tempest, for example, is about a Grade 2 in difficulty, but a 5 Ice Screw. The Tempest and nearby Cascade Falls (a Grade 3) get the top “ice screw” ratings because they are both classic climbs, both are located within 10 minutes from the road rather than the usual half hour to an hour for most climbs around North America and because both are great social climbs. You might have 20 to 30 climbers at Cascade on a good day. The falls are 40 meters tall and 50 meters wide and you can set up eight ropes. Also, non-climbing friends and spectators can see you from the top by walking up a side trail, the only Orient Bay climb with this option.
Ice climbing, in general, is easier than rock climbing. When you pick a route in rock climbing, the route usually follows a crack or line. With ice climbing, you can go anywhere you want on the wall.
That doesn’t mean ice climbing around Lake Superior can’t be a challenge. In Kama Bay, south of Nipigon on Highway 17, there is a Grade 5-plus climb that attracts world-class climbers. In 1986, I did the first ascent of a climb there called Orient Bay Express with Conrad Anker. Some fellow climbers say Anker is one of the most experienced ice climbers in the United States. It was a real privilege and an honor to climb with him. He recently did a story for National Geographic Magazine on his discovery of legendary George Leigh Mallory’s body on Mount Everest.
Ice climbing comes in all levels. In courses through my North of Superior Climbing Company, I’ve had students from ages 6 to 70 (see LSM’s February/March 1996 issue). Students have come from around the world, even a pilot from South Africa who arrived in Thunder Bay, his first time ever to walk in snow and to see a frozen waterfall.
Ice climbing is gaining popularity around Lake Superior. Some of my courses fill well before the season. Visits to Orient Bay have gone from about 40 in the early 1980s to about 3,000 annually.
In ice climbing, the idea is to choose a path up that keeps you in a comfort zone. You want to feel enlightenment, you want to feel positive. You don’t want to feel scared. You also don’t want to be bored.
It’s like becoming a runner. The first time you run around the block feels great, but you don’t just keep running around the same block every time you run. You find another, more challenging route.
When you get to the top of your ice wall, it’s the same as crossing a finish line or like when you’re canoeing and you come to the end of your journey. You feel accomplished.
When you get to the top of an ice climb, you look around, you bring your partner up, you celebrate the enjoyment of the ascent and then you go back to the bottom by rappelling down.
Along the route from bottom to top, you’ve demonstrated physical fitness, challenged mind and body and developed trust, camaraderie and teamwork. As I tell my students, you have generated an atmosphere of trust and relaxation, from passive enjoyment to active decision making.
Not a bad reward for a winter afternoon’s outing.
Ice Climbing Hot Spots
Orient Bay - 40 kilometers north of Nipigon on Highway 11. 128 ice climbs ranging from 20 to more than 100 meters tall; many of them less than a 15-minute hike from the road. All grades of difficulty. (Each March there’s an ice fest for climbers. In 2000 it will be March 9-12).
• Kama Bay - 26 kilometers south of Nipigon. 20 climbs, more difficult and with less variety than Orient Bay; access sometimes hard through deep snow. Ice sometimes brittle.
• Ice Station Superior - South of Kama Bay on Highway 17. Unique southwest face on Lake Superior offers many intermediate climbs. Access tricky and, although the CP Railway runs along the base of the cliff, climbers should respect CP’s request to find alternate access such as along the shoreline or the top of the cliff off of the highway.
• Agawa Canyon - In Lake Superior’s east shore canyon, 49 climbs, including the highest mid-continent climb, named Pin and Needles after the way I felt during the first ascent in 1989. Accessible by the Agawa Canyon Railway. (Its first ice fest was in 1999; the second will be February 17-19, 2000).
There are areas all along Lake Superior’s Circle Tour, which features an abundance of waterfalls. There are many ice climbing areas from Thunder Bay to Sault Ste. Marie in Ontario. In Michigan, there are ice climbs along the Pictured Rocks area and in Munising, which draws many Midwest climbers during an ice fest the first weekend of February (4-6 in 2000). It features the draping ice walls of Grand Island and climbs found along the Sand Point Road. (Bill Thompson, organizer of the ice fest, wrote a useful guidebook.)
There are several smaller climbs in Wisconsin. In Minnesota along Highway 61 there are a few ice-climbing areas. The Casket Quarry within the city of Duluth has several ice climbs. To the north, near Little Marais, lies the Little Manitou River, which offers several curtains of ice. Devil’s Track River has a major ice climb. Called Nightfall, the climb is more than 150 feet high.
Lake Superior ice climbs and festivals are highlighted and updated on the website: www.climbingcentral.com