Culture

THE ALLURE OF ICE: An exploration into ice climbing — and how to take up this adrenalin-fuelled sport

By Jamieson Findlay

Towering ambition: Ice climbing — not a sport for the faint of heart — near Fort Coulonge, Quebec, west of Ottawa. Photography by Harry Nowell.

Ice climbing resolves itself into a very basic and exhilarating contest — muscle against mineral — but it’s definitely not for the faint of heart. “Every ice climber has had close calls,” says Mike Burke, 32, a product team leader at Mountain Equipment Co-op who has been ice climbing for 12 years. “With ice, there’s always a lot going on.”

“A lot going on” is the sort of under-statement you’d expect from a veteran ice man. Climbing ice — whether a frozen waterfall, a glacier, or a thickly iced rock face — has a different set of challenges from climbing rock. Unlike rock, ice can change from day to day, even from hour to hour. Then there’s the method of climbing. Ice climbers haul themselves up by using sharp points (narrow-headed hand axes called ice tools) and crampons (metal frames with spikes) on their boots. And of course, there’s always the weather.

“You’re often cold, wet, and miserable,” says Burke. But, he adds cheerfully, “It’s a fun thing to do.”

It’s certainly a thrill to flow (very slowly) up a frozen waterfall and see the winter landscape from a breathtakingly novel viewpoint. Like many ice climbers, Burke got into the sport through rock climbing. “Rock climbing is much safer and more comfortable,” he says.

Ice climbers, like rock climbers, use a rope system for safety — but still, think of all those sharp points they are carrying. Fortunately, mentoring is available for beginners. The Ottawa chapter of the Alpine Club of Canada offers introductory ice-climbing courses at nearby locations such as Calabogie Peaks and “the Home Cliff” near Luskville. (No previous experience is required, but participants should be comfortable with outdoor physical activities. For more information, contact learn@alpineclubottawa.ca.) So if you’re looking for an elemental challenge this winter, try climbing straight up a surface we usually skate on.

As Burke says, “It can take you to some pretty interesting places.”

This story appears in the Winter edition of Ottawa Magazine. Buy the magazine on newsstands or order your online edition.

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