Ice & Easy

Words and photography by Will Tam

As temperatures drop, climbers trade shoes for crampons and chalk bags for ice axes. Curious about ice climbing? Dive into the frozen world of Escarpment waterfalls this winter–discover the thrill and learn how to get started!

Ice climbing originated in the early 19th century as an offshoot of mountaineering. High in the snow-covered mountains, climbers often navigated glaciers and crevasses using straight-shafted ice axes and crampons with spikes pointing downwards. These tools allowed climbers to traverse low-angle ice and snow safely. As technology advanced, so too did the tools used by climbers. Curved ice axes, now known as ice tools, allowed climbers to swing the axes into the ice more easily and without bashing their knuckles. Front-pointed crampons allow climbers to kick into the ice so that the climber can stand and balance on more vertical ice terrain. Ice climbing has evolved beyond scaling vertical frozen waterfalls to include climbing bare rock cliffs to reach overhanging ice daggers.

If you’ve tried indoor gym climbing or rock climbing outdoors, then you already possess the basic skillset. If you’re new to climbing, don’t worry; it’s not as difficult as it appears. Physically, ice climbing movements are repetitive: kick, kick, and swing, swing. With each kick and swing higher than the last, you ascend the ice. With practice, you will find that you don’t need a lot of strength to swing an ice tool into the ice for a secure “stick”. Accurately swinging your sharp ice tools to the same point of contact will break off enough ice for the teeth of the ice tools to catch. Breaking off too much ice leaves you with nothing to hold onto.

Managing the “pump” in your forearms is crucial. Lactic acid buildup from overworked muscles can make your arms feel stiff and heavy, especially when they are constantly raised above your head. By moving at a moderate pace and lowering your arms to shake out the lactic acid buildup, you can avoid the dreaded “screaming barfies”. This sensation occurs when cold and pumped hands and forearms experience a sudden rush of blood, causing a pins-and-needles feeling that might make you scream and occasionally feel nauseous. Don’t worry, it’s not as bad as it sounds!

Derek Lanthier leading up Onyx (WI3) at Hidden Gems near Bancroft

Physically, ice climbing movements are repetitive: kick, kick, and swing, swing. With each kick and swing higher than the last, you ascend the ice.

Monika Widjaja-Tam top-roping one of the main ice flows at Elora Gorge

The safest and most enjoyable way to get into ice climbing is through “top rope” climbing. In top rope climbing, the climber is safely tied to one end of the rope, which passes through an anchor at the top of the climb and descends to their belayer, eliminating the risk of significant falls. A belayer is someone who is attached to a belay device on the other end of the rope and is responsible for removing excess rope from the system as the climber ascends. Once the climber reaches the top of the climb, the belayer safely lowers the climber back to the ground. Climbing guides will typically set up a top rope for new ice climbers. However, top roping is not just meant for beginners—when conditions are rapidly changing, and the ice becomes brittle or thin, top roping might be the safest choice instead of lead climbing. Lead climbing involves the climber being tied to one end of the rope and placing protection to secure the rope as they ascend. The belayer’s role is to prevent the climber from falling to the ground. The type of protection that the climber puts in depends on where the protection is available. For instance, ice screws are specially designed screws that bite into hard ice. The effectiveness of this protection depends on the angle and placement of the ice screw and the soundness of the ice. After securing the ice screw, a quickdraw can be attached to it, and the rope can be clipped to the other end of the quickdraw. Quickdraws consist of two carabiners connected by a sling and are commonly used in rock climbing. In some cases, the protection on an established route may be a bolt (previously drilled into rock), or the climber must place removable metal pieces (referred to as gear) into cracks and pockets in the rock. When an ice climbing route involves both ice and rock, it is known as mixed ice climbing. Typically, mixed routes are found on stepper rock faces with large icicles overhanging from above.

Finally, the dark arts of ice climbing is known as “drytooling” where the climber only climbs a rock face with crampons and ice tools. Drytooling and mixed climbing routes typically have bolts in the rock for protection. All forms of ice climbing can be done on top rope, ensuring a safe experience for everyone.

The other equipment required for ice climbing is similar to rock climbing: a harness, belay device, and helmet. Dry-treated climbing ropes are more suitable for ice climbing than rock climbing because they are chemically treated to be water-resistant. Dry-treated ropes absorb less water, protecting the core of the rope and preventing the buildup of ice on the outer sheath. Ice climbing boots are specifically designed with a heel
bail and toe welt to attach crampons; however, ski boots and mountaineering boots also work, although they are bulkier and heavier. A climbing guide can provide you with all the necessary equipment for ice climbing. Warm clothes and a thermos filled with hot beverages are also helpful! By adding or removing layers of clothing, you can better regulate your temperature while outside in the cold. You can certainly work up a sweat while ice climbing, so a base layer and a thin mid-layer might be all you need; sometimes, a waterproof shell jacket is useful on snowy or wet days. Snow or rain pants and gaiters will keep your lower half warm and dry. A puffy jacket and a warm beverage will keep you toasty while you are belaying or hanging out between climbs.

So, where can you go ice climbing in Southern Ontario? Elora Gorge is a popular location on the Niagara Escarpment and not far from major hubs like Toronto. What makes Elora Gorge unique is its easy access to the top of the cliff, and the climbing area offers routes in all disciplines of ice climbing. In cottage country regions such as Algonquin, Muskoka, and Bancroft, you can find ice climbs along the cliffs of frozen lakes; some may require crossing frozen lakes to reach the climbing areas. Local guiding companies in each region provide half and full-day outings, offering beginner and advanced lessons.

Additionally, the Alpine Club of Canada, a climbing and mountaineering club, organizes ice climbing days at Tiffany Falls in Hamilton for its members. Lastly, the Southern Ontario Ice Climbing Festival, held annually in Maynooth, brings together both new and experienced climbers for a weekend of workshops, fun, and community building.

This winter, discover the vertical world of ice climbing! Southern Ontario offers numerous picturesque venues for ice climbing, accompanied by a welcoming community. Consider hiring a local guide to safely introduce you to the sport and, most importantly, to have fun. Who knows, you might get hooked! Just be sure to avoid the dreaded screaming barfies!

Disclaimer: Please note that this article does not serve as an official guide or provide instructions on ice climbing. Ice climbing is inherently risky because ice conditions can change with temperature fluctuations, leading to melting or breaking off. Climbing is undertaken at your own risk. To ensure a safe and enjoyable experience, it’s crucial to learn how to assess ice conditions, take necessary safety precautions, and consider hiring a knowledgeable guide. E

The annual Southern Ontario Ice Climbing Festival in Maynooth, is an excellent opportunity for first-timers to learn ice climbing from professional climbing guides