Southern Ontario Ice Climbing Adventures with Janet Wong
We reached out to Janet Wong and asked them to write a little blurb about ice climbing in Ontario! Janet Wong is a very close friend of mine and an extremely talented climber who is driven by adventure. Because we have limited ice climbing experience here at Kanga Climbing, we had a lot of questions for Janet! Following this blog post is a short Q&A we had with Janet to help us and our readers better understand ice climbing. Enjoy!
You wander through the forest in a winter wonderland, then don what looks like medieval footwear and weaponry. All is silent, except for a rhythm of thunks and crunches, and what vaguely resembles the sound of glass shattering. You feel the teeth of your crampons dig in like claws. A sense of adventure fills the air as you make your way up a frozen waterfall.
Ice is an ephemeral medium to climb. Their natural beauty and limited existence capture my attention. It engages me on every level of my being and it’s as if I become part of the artistic masterpiece, nature’s ice painting. Here, I’ll share with you the beginnings of my ice climbing journey and how winter can be a great time for climbers to get outside.
Where it took off…
My climbing journey began on the rocks, glaciers, and mountains of New Zealand in 2016, but my passion for waterfall ice climbing unexpectedly took off once I came back to Ontario and had the chance to climb at Granary Lake with the Alpine Club of Canada in 2018. It was a Family Day long weekend trip organized by Danylo. There was something enchanting about crossing a frozen lake towards a cliff covered with ice and then climbing 40 metres up a thick patch of ice attached to the rock wall. I looked up at it the way you might look at the Grand Canyon and ponder how time and natural cycles have played their part to create this: ice formed from seeping water that froze layer upon layer over time to create this giant structure weighing many tons. The trip leaders and assistants set up top ropes and soon enough, us little humans were picking our way up this humbling space. Everybody was friendly, excited and happy to belay and climb together. When an experienced ice climber and volunteer, Ray, at the event began leading up the ice pillar, I was filled with amazement. He looked so smooth and confident on what was an intimidating freestanding column of ice. I definitely wanted to be like that! I gave it a go on top rope as my final lap of the day and my forearms burned for mercy at the steepest section.* I wondered how anybody could have the endurance to stop here to place an ice screw for protection?
Toproping the pillar at Granary Lake in Algoma
After that trip, I knew that ice was in my future and I wanted to know how to lead in order to open up more climbing options. I stumbled upon Will Gadd’s sage advice on the internet. He recommended top rope climbing at least one hundred and fifty 30m pitches of ice before getting on the sharp end. So, for my first season, I observed the changing nature of ice and practiced becoming solid on ice movement and technique before trying to lead. I even kept track of the estimated “metres” of ice that I climbed – because it’s not often one finds 30m pitches of ice in Southern Ontario! *
Southern Ontario Ice Festival
Later that February, I attended my first Southern Ontario Ice Festival. My climbing partner, Sarah, and I headed out to Hidden Gems, the “other Diamond Lake”, to avoid the crowds at Papineau Roadside. We walked along the presumably thick frozen lake ice. A thin superficial layer had formed above the solid ice from recent weather events and it would crack and break, occasionally freaking us out.
I top rope climbed every line that the Alpine Club of Canada had set up. Jade was challenging because it had been so sun-affected* that it resembled loosely held together grains of snow rather than ice that I pondered if I was better off with shovels rather than picks. In contrast, the route, Onyx, was in fat ice* conditions, it looked gorgeous. The bluish-green curtains of ice draped over the cliff like a cape. It was 12m worth of climbing, so to make my training laps full-value, I amped up the difficulty by using old school straight shaft tools*. It definitely gave me a good forearm pump!
In the evening, festival goers all headed to the Arlington Pub in Maynooth, a quaint little town centered amongst a plenitude of ice climbing areas. That night, it was crowded with psyched ice climbers! I was blown away by the energy in that place and how friendly everybody was! There were climbers of all ability levels from never-ever’s, who were taking advantage of the affordable and professional instructional clinics being taught by mountain guides, to the very experienced, for whom ascending ice was second nature, and others who have spent countless days traipsing the backcountry to find ice routes or bolt mixed routes* that were included in a relatively new ice guidebook for Southern Ontario. There was so much excitement. It was wild. The festival itself was relatively small, ice climbing being a very niche outdoor activity, so the community felt very tight-knit in a cozy way. It was very welcoming.
The next day, freezing rain turned into actual rain during the morning. When it stopped, it didn’t dampen our spirits from going outside and trying to find ice to climb. Mark, a fellow ice climber I met at the festival, and I hiked around Diamond Lake and set a top rope off of Where Egos Dare. I was belaying Mark when a random ice climber named Kevin showed up and asked if he could have a turn on our top rope. I agreed and proceeded to belay him after Mark finished climbing. I was already set up on an awkward belay spot on a slope where I was secured to a small tree. Kevin was fast, but I had already made my mistake to agree to belay two people in a row. When it was my turn, I was as cold as a popsicle.
The start of the climb was more water-fall than frozen waterfall. Thankfully, I dressed for success in waterproof shells, top and bottom. The start of the climb was the crux, where I needed my jacket hood on. I couldn’t look up at all because too much water was pouring on top of me. My gloves were getting wet as I blindly swung my tools above me. Once I was past that, I had a choice of climbing the ice or the rock slab. I chose to climb what little ice was left in the rock corner. When it disappeared, I had to make the transition across a slab of slush. The final ice bulges were in hero ice* shape, where my tool placements would feel super secure on the first swing. When I topped out, I started to feel a painful tingling sensation in my hands. I wrenched my soaked gloves off. My hands were cold and numb. I stuffed them in my jacket under my armpits, shivering from my cold shower at the beginning of the climb. I wanted to start cleaning the anchor but the pain climaxed and I could not will myself to do anything other than bend down and whimper for several minutes. Yes, this is the notorious “screaming barfies” experience common in ice climbing. But I assure you, when it was over, all my fingers were intact! Overall, the festival was a phenomenal experience with a lot of psyche and try-hard from everyone. I loved swapping belays with my new friends in an incredibly positive social atmosphere.
Exploring the Algoma Region
Running off the adrenaline of the festival and having fallen in love with ice climbing, I saved money (that I was supposed to use to pay off my student loans) to buy ice climbing gear. I couldn’t afford a car either, so for a trip during the March Break, I took public transit for two hours from the east end to the west end of Toronto to meet Danylo for a carpool. I looked like a ridiculous pack rat on the TTC with 3 giant bags of stuff: ice climbing gear, sleeping bags, snowshoes, the works. It was in preparation for a 9-day ice climbing trip that would involve some winter camping. After six hours of driving, we were in Algoma, planning to explore a myriad of areas north-east of Sault-Ste. Marie. The next morning, we drove down winding roads where we could see cliffs dribbled with ice. Our necks were like rubber chickens, looking intently out the window as our eyes were locked onto seeing what ice had formed and in what conditions. We would bushwack in the backcountry with our snowshoes through deep snow to look for unclimbed ice lines, for first ascents!
Our winter camping trip involved pulling our own sled full of equipment for 3 km to camp in the Canyonlands near Kynoch. We climbed a rambling WI3* route called Electric Toothbrush before retiring for the night. It was -38 degrees Celsius and I was fairly uncomfortable before I finally figured out the perfect number of layers I needed – I slept in my down jacket and two sleeping bags.
The next morning, we snowshoed deeper into the Canyonlands to have a look at a climb called Hunter. It was completely sun-baked and Danylo deemed it unsafe to lead. It was the biggest ice climb I’d ever seen at that point, a full 50m! We walked around to look at a few other climbs. The sun was out in full force, scorching us with heat, a complete reversal of what I had felt the night before. The snow quieted the landscape where we were miles away from civilization. We were enveloped in silence, save for the crunch of our snowshoes. I turned a corner towards Raven Creek Ravine and happened upon 15m of moderate rambling ice! Danylo had said that he and the others hadn’t come across this one before. It was in wonderful condition, so we climbed it. It faced west, so you could see just above the tops of the trees around you and the dip into the valley beyond. I remembered hearing birds chirping, so following along the theme of bird-related geographic names in the area, we called it Birdwatcher. My first ever first ascent!
We explored many more areas of Algoma (without the winter camping) for ice and were spoiled with “virgin” ice conditions – where the ice has not been climbed by anybody yet for the season – as well as a sense of solitude that popular climbing areas cannot offer. From this experience, I also developed a deep appreciation for what was outside and not too far from home, when we take the time to explore.
Ice Climbing is Fun!
Southern Ontario had a lot to offer my early ice climbing career. The community was small, close-knit, and friendly. The majority of ice that I climbed was almost always in virgin ice condition. Snowshoes were essential for the approach, often in remote backcountry areas, where no other tracks are visible nor beaten in. There were plenty of ice and mixed routes to play on. The drives were often quite long, but worth it when shared amongst good company! Ice climbing in Southern Ontario often felt like I had a piece of heaven to myself.
Climbing ice seems improbable. When the sun’s rays shine just right, it illuminates the ice so that it seems translucent, as if you were holding onto nothing but an illusion of something solid. Part of the fun is that features can form differently every year and conditions can vary wildly, so that it’s a new adventure every time, even on the same routes!
Ready to try out ice climbing? Join your local Alpine Club of Canada section for trips, courses and more resources. If you live in Southern Ontario, check out the Southern Ontario Ice Festival. Additionally, you can check up on ice conditions here. Be safe, stay warm and have fun!
*How long did it take you to complete one hundred and fifty 30m pitches?
It took 23 days. I reached my goal by the end of my first season of ice climbing. I calculated that it consisted of 4500 metres of toprope climbing in total. After each climbing day, I would estimate the length of the route, which was sometimes provided in the guidebook, and numbers of laps to log all of my metres. I managed to climb quite a lot of days when I ice climbed every weekend from mid-February to mid-April.
*How did you learn to ice climb?
I practiced my ice technique and movement on toprope. I also pretended to lead while on toprope, aka mock leading, so that I could safely work on my strategy and risk assessment. I soaked in every little climbing tip that people would blurt out, I would read voraciously, I watched a few videos on youtube, I would practice my wrist flicks and do pull-up’s when I wasn’t outside. I would’ve liked to take courses but they were neither affordable nor widely available so I sided on spending more time gaining climbing mileage, I tried to learn from and observe other ice climbers, and, most importantly, I stuck to a conservative decision-making process.
*What is fat ice?
Fat ice is when the ice quality is great because the ice is thick and well-bonded, it is confidence-inspiring, climbs well and offers quality protection.
*What are straight shaft tools?
These were the first tools designed specifically for ice climbing. The shafts are straight and there is no pommel. They are not as ergonomic or light as modern tools.
*Can you describe the difference between ice climbing vs mixed climbing?
Ice climbing is what it sounds like whereas mixed climbing involves using ice tools and crampons on terrain that may involve ice as well as rock.
*What exactly is hero ice?
When you can get one hit sticks with your tools and crampons, ice climbing seems so easy that it makes you feel like a hero!
*How do ice climbing grades work?
Here’s a great resource: http://www.alpinist.com/p/climbing_notes/grades
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So cool to read about your ice climbing experience, Janet! Thanks for sharing this epic journey. :)