Northern Ontario Ice Climbing

Northern Ontario's Superior Country is a great place for avid and newbie ice climbers. One avid climber takes on one of the region's most popular routes, and reflects on why the sport is having a moment.

The morning was cold. The kind of cold where breath hangs in the air and ice forms on eyelashes. I felt a keen sense of relief to start the day in the car where frost was clinging to the edges of the windshield, even with the heat on full blast. We were driving to Orient Bay in Greenstone, which is about a half an hour north of Nipigon, Ontario on Highway 11. The drive there is always spectacular as you travel beside the beautiful shoreline of Lake Helen and enter the valley of the Pijitawabik Palisades. As you drive into the corridor, steep cliffs surround you—a heavenly sight for climbers.  There is something particularly beautiful about this region of Superior Country in the winter, when the cold has a magical, twinkling, crystalline presence.

At our destination, we parked, had a last swig of strong coffee and trekked through the short snow-covered trail to the base of a frozen waterfall. Excitement builds rapidly in anticipation of hanging from a frozen cliff side with giant axes in your hands and huge mental claws on your feet. I was looking forward to the feeling of exhilaration as you rise above the earth into an icy world above the ground.

Climbing a Frozen Waterfall

Top rope lines were quickly anchored and before I knew it, I was tied in. I looked up and was overwhelmed by the breadth of the task above me. Towering cliffs and huge formations of ice looming over my head. The sun was peeking gently over the side of the cuesta and I closed my eyes to calm my nerves and warm my cheeks. I raised my arm and struck my axe into the waterfall on the first swing. My crampons searched for foot holds and chopped their way carefully into the creamy, opaque yellowish ice. I slowly began my journey up.

Excitement and nervous energy quickly shifted into determination and a powerful rush that was almost inexplicable. On the wall, it’s just you, connected to your surroundings. The higher I got the more energy surged through me until I was at the ice anchor, the top of my journey. I paused. I felt victorious and took a moment to sit in my glory. I sank back into my harness and threw my hands above my head and gave a whoo-hoo! It was so loud that it echoed through the Orient Bay corridor. I am positive they heard me in Beardmore!

Looking over my shoulder I could see the sunlight illuminate the valley. It was beautiful. The winter world above the ground is a magical one. The view of frozen landscape with the sun shining and the whole world ignited, energized, and sparkling. It was the ultimate reward.   

Ice climbing is a rewarding, exhilarating winter sport. In Superior Country, we are at the gateway to some of the most incredible ice climbing. We are fortunate enough to have the right geological configuration, the right temperatures which allow for fantastic, thick ice formation, and the most accessible ice climbing in Canada.

Why would you want to try it though? For some, spending the day in the cold hanging from a frozen waterfall might not be up your alley, however let me implore you.

The Benefits of Ice Climbing

The rush you get from climbing is like no other feeling. Peering over your shoulder and consuming your surroundings from a completely new perspective is astonishing. The world looks entirely different, and there is a glorious element of thrill. I mean, you are hanging awfully high from a tiny little rope, right?!

Ice climbing also offers a truly holistic challenge. You must challenge your fears, problem solve through a route, pay attention to technique and use your own strength to get there. Even if you don’t get to the top of a climb, it is a completely rewarding experience.

Lastly, climbing is a fantastic way to connect with others. One of the most wonderful aspects about doing something new is meeting new people and getting to know your friends in a more profound way. The bond you create while taking on a challenge is a strong one. You build connections by facing fears together, celebrating successes, and supporting one another through something difficult.

Plan Ahead For Your Superior Ice Climbing Experience

Ice climbing is not something you can just go out and start doing. To have fun, learn the sport and most importantly, be safe, you must connect with experts, guides and clubs. In Superior Country, there are a few ways to do this! You can register with the Thunder Bay chapter of the Alpine Club of Canada. This inexpensive yearly membership will give you access to many opportunities for outdoor adventure and put you in contact with knowledgeable people who will help to show you the ropes and ensure you are safe.  

You can also hire a guide. Outdoor Skills and Thrills is Superior Country’s leading rock and ice climbing guiding service. Aric Fishman, founder and lead guide, is a knowledgeable, positive and patient leader with a contagious energy and enthusiasm for the sport of climbing. He has over 15 years of experience professionally guiding and is a Wilderness Survival instructor. Aric is also the president of Nipigon Ice Fest Committee. Ice Fest is a weekend event in Nipigon, Ontario held in March. It offers an incredible selection of clinics, presentations and a legendary raffle. It is a fantastic opportunity to make connections in the climbing community and learn new skills. So, whether you book a public or private outing with Outdoor Skills and Thrills or check out Ice Fest, it will leave you feeling inspired and wanting more!

Ice climbing really is a wonderful way to challenge yourself and gain a new and beautiful perspective of the outdoors in the winter. We have ideal conditions to experience this sport in Superior Country, so get out there and climb!

About Deana Renaud

Deana Renaud is an adventurer at heart and a mental health professional by trade, living, working and wandering in Nipigon, Ontario. She has a Masters degree in Social Work, and is the author of ‘Getting Lost on The 49th’, a blog about her adventures hiking, travelling, momming and enjoying everything outside on the Northwestern shore of Lake Superior and beyond.  She thrives on new experiences, building connections with interesting humans, strong coffee and sugary carbs. If she’s not outside, you are most likely to find her face buried in a good book, mouth full of dark chocolate. 

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