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.