Grant tells a tale of days cold, long ago and far away.
What follows here is a story from a long time ago, in a land far away. No seriously, it was like 11 years ago and away on the other side of Canada almost, off in the frozen land of Ontario.
Although the ice season in Ontario is much shorter than here in the Rockies, and perhaps some of the Rockies climbs are a tad longer than at least three Ontario climbs, there is a certain charm and character to Ontario ice climbing. This trip report was for an ACC Toronto Section trip and tells the tale of a perverse treasure hunt that as ice climbers, even if the places and names are unfamiliar, the shady goings on are all too familiar.
So read on for a retelling of a yarn woven around an old gem.
Grant P on Kermit's Finger. WI4, 30M Diamond Lake
Deep in the icy depths of January 2004, a number of intrepid ice warriors converged on the small town of Bancroft. They came from far and wide hastening to the call of the ACC's call to arms from the Eagles Nest trip leader Brian I. Early January had been one of the wettest and warmest in the minds of some but now the mercury had plummeted setting the stage for some of the very best bone china style dinner plates.
This tale is of a small band of ice climbers, not only there for the day but for the weekend.
Long, long, before the sun was due to rise the first hardy soul was loading up his car in the far reaches of Buffalo. Eric VD had offered to drive that weekend so in the fourth hour of the day he rose and left Buffalo, NY. Arriving at my place we left for the next rendezvous in Oakville. Roy M had originally planned to drive up with another day-tripper but when we got there he was alone and ready to follow us in his own car. We were now a convoy heading to pick up the next of our merry but blurry-eyed band from downtown Toronto. Weaving through the still pre-dawn streets, following the hand written notes jotted down on a scrap of paper, and wishing desperately for a map to know we were still heading in the right direction, we finally found Kevin D's place (GPS in 2004! haha).
Introductions done we hit the road again with Kevin in the back seat acting as temporary navigator directing us to highway 401. While the 401 is often mistaken for a parking lot, our early departure meant relatively light traffic out of Toronto. I then took over as navigator informing our attentive driver Eric "It's about half an hour out of Toronto to the exit. You're looking for highway 35 and 115 to Peterborough". At this I started to feel my eyelids getting progressively heavier. The sun was not yet making an appearance but the skies were heralding its approach as I struggled to stop the eyelids from winning their surrender to gravity. As I managed to thrash up from a minor loss of consciousness I blurted out "35, this is our exit, TAKE IT". As Eric's Volvo surged past the car he was passing and then over to the exit, poor Roy bringing up the rear was left to brake and duck behind another car just in time to miss the exit. He hit the shoulder and stopped just before we stopped on the shoulder of the off ramp, then backed up to where he could safely cross to the off ramp.
Obviously my plan of telling Eric which exit to take had conflicted with his plan of having me be the navigator. I blame my eyelids. The rest of the navigation went a little smoother.
Earlier that week I had spoken to Brian and he expected to arrive in Bancroft about 10:00am so I had arranged to meet another of our band about 9:30am to 10:00am. Rob L would be eventually continuing to Ottawa on business so he had traveled alone, his car loaded with paraphernalia for work and ice climbing. Now while some may head right for the crag known as the Eagles Nest, more discerning (or more coddled depending on your view) head for the Tim Horton’s across the road. Sure enough Rob was waiting for us. A warm bagel with melted cheese, a hot chocolate, and a grand view of the icy cliffs, make for an excellent environment to don boots and extra clothes compared to the frigid trunk of a car.
Eventually we headed over the road and learned that Brian along with the more intrepid had braved the cold to get dressed. Knowing the usual warm up on Roller Coaster W2 would be busy we chose to head over to Ice Castle W2+ unaware that our chosen line of approach would be three times the cardio workout of the two minute walk to the base of Roller Coaster. Oh how I would long for such long Ontario approaches once in the Rockies.
As we were a group of five, Rob teamed up with Kevin to lead the right side of the climb while I took Eric and Roy up the left side. Sure enough the ice lived up to our expectations of the cold temperatures and offered plenty of fracture lines and dinner plates. The call of "Ice" became so common it almost became a moot call. What a great little clusterf**k we had as all five of us gathered at the same belay at the end of the climb. It must have looked like madness to the coffee addicts in Tim Horton’s.
In due course we were all back at the base and packing up to head left to Rollercoaster. On our way we could hear voices but no climbers were to be seen up on the ice. As we got there I looked back to see two of our fellow ACC members high on the cliff on what looked to be a scramble devoid of ice. Dave "the Goo" B was leading Don C up another of his famous Goo new routes. The term Goo-route would subsequently become known as a "Goo-te" and this goo-te would later be described by Don as a link up of smears of ice that was "at times quite gripping". Our attention continued onward though to the fat piece of ice known as Roller Coaster that would lead us up to the curtain.
The curtain has a number of shorter routes ranging from W3 to W4+ but we would have a short wait first while another party headed up.
The curtain above Rollercoaster W2 has lines from W3 to W4 and obstructs the view of the entrance to the Tim Hortons across the road.
While waiting and having a spot of tea, Eric decided it was time for his first lead on ice. Rather than wait for a turn in the line up, he decided to return to Ice Castle with Roy and cover ground he was now familiar with. Meanwhile Rob lead Kevin and me up to a screw belay at the base of the curtain, from where I chose a W3+ line to the top. After setting a TR anchor I lowered back to the belay and all three of us had the chance to climb a couple of lines before deciding to call it a day. Along the way we were passed by Brian, streaking up Rollercoaster and continuing onto the second pitch without stopping for a belay, to the full extent of the bright pink rope. Next came Bob K, the owner of the rope, a 100m 9mm duodess beast that worked as half ropes when tied into both ends or later as an excellent top rope for The Waterfall, a 150ft W5 in the Adirondacks.
While we prepared to descend we could see Eric back at his car waiting. He was happy to have his first lead on ice under his belt but Roy had now departed. As Rob cleaned the anchor atop the curtain I told Kevin to take the other rope and set a rappel up to the ground. I belayed Kevin over to the rap trees and then Rob up the curtain for the final climb. During this time, Kevin had set the rope and descended. As Rob rapped down to the ledge and walked over to the next rap, I stared incredulously at the rap line, or more precisely the lack of one. By the time we had set the second rope and rapped down flustered at the missing rope (I forgot my tools at the rap station in the hustle of setting a second rap line so Rob had to bring them down), Kevin had rejoined Eric at the car. An impromptu Kangaroo court at the base of Rollercoaster found Kevin -guilty- and an original penalty of three rounds (beer; rum & coke; and widow makers) was reduced to 2 out of 3 as we decided not to hold him accountable for the war in Bosnia, only pulling the rope, and making me forget my tools.
Rob had a room booked at a motel nearby for him, me, Kevin and Eric, while another four, Aisha C, Craig M, John C, and Elia A, had a second room booked at another motel. Now although Kevin is a relative newcomer to ice (read = ice newbie) Rob "Bugaloo" decided he had shown enough deviant nature to find a nickname for him. Despite Kevin's subsequent expectation of it being something to do with his "keys locked in car" incident, during a private discussion shortly after reaching the motel, I suggested another title. Double entendres notwithstanding, his decision to pull the rap line will now be remembered when people ask "Puller" for 'tension'; because of "Bugaloo" and "Barber's" conspiring.
We still had to make arrangements for dinner so we sought out the rest of the "overnighters" by furtively peeping through open curtains at the other motel. Fortunately the first set of open curtains was theirs and a mini invasion and beer pillaging ensued. Along with the beer, some addictive form of crunchy white chocolate was offered up and greedily consumed. This was taken as a sign to get washed and changed for dinner so a couple of options were chosen before parting. Later we found the others at the second restaurant where they explained having got somefunny looks upon walking into the first almost deserted restaurant.
Generous portions of pizza and wings lead to arguments of who was to take the last slice and somewhere along the way the laughter and good conversation also lead to another table’s diners recognizing a voice at our table. Anyone would think I 'ad an accent or sumthin'.
Rob breaks trail across the frozen Diamond Lake to the lakeside climbs.
Eric waits patiently until Grant finds solid ice to protect Distinct Society W4- 20m
Guardian Angel W4- 20m
Rob at the start of Guardian Angel
The next day, our second day in the Bancroft area we had opted to visit Diamond Lake. As we left Bancroft we could see the others had already left their motel so we thought we were playing catch-up. There had been a dump of snow overnight though and as we headed down the last road it was obvious we were the first cars of the day.
Now this area for anyone who hasn't been is quite beautiful with some climbs being right from the frozen lake or a short way above the lake. We opted for the ones at lake level but a walk along the lakeshore afforded a look at some good looking routes. Probably the most eye-catching of these was "Where Ego's Dare" but although it looked doable and not it's given grade of W5, both Rob and I know looks can be deceptive and we balked at leading it. Instead we opted for a couple of W4's where Rob had his problems with the ice and I had an abundance of candled ice and consequent lack of good ice pro.
The climbs were good though and from the way the guidebook is worded, this seems to have been a good year for ice conditions at Diamond Lake. The day certainly co-operated with a period of beautiful blue sky and sun that while it was out was almost too warm. After a while Rob had to depart for Ottawa and after a couple more runs on TR, Eric, Kevin, and myself also retraced our tracks to the car.
I would later learn that it was the heavy snowfall that had prompted the others to have another romp at the Eagles nest with Ice Castles and Dirty Harry being their routes of choice. A less eventful return drive finished off a weekend that had proven to be quite a successful quest for the ice warriors seeking the Bancroft Diamond.
Dirty Harry W4+ in rather wet and mixed conditions.
Ontario Ice Lowdown
Ice climbers in southern Ontario get to experience more than just ice. The climbs can be spread out, often you can have a climb or area to yourself unless you count the passing snowmobiles.
Some approaches can be short and sweet, whereas some can be a trudge across a frozen lake or two – at least you hope they’re frozen. To that end the use of snowshoes or cross country skis can help, or follow the sometimes packed snowmobile tracks.
I’ve gotten some of the worst screaming barfies, and baked in secluded sun traps. I’ve climbed hero ice with more pro than you can carry and I’ve climbed scary sketch fests with little more than a prayer. Then when it’s all packed away, the drive home can be a white-knuckle drive through a wind and snowbound hell, or a fun evening at some watering hole for well deserved food.
The climbing is varied and intriguing but it is the overall experience that makes climbing ice in Southern Ontario so special.
Although some climbs can get pretty fat, some remain thin throughout the season, while others can form in and out of condition depending on the weather and temps. Generally conditions can be a little more temperamental than Rockies climbers are used to.
In addition to a selection of stubbies, you’ll find many locals carry a small selection of rock gear, throwing a little extra into the pack when expecting to need more. I would often carry a few pins and 3-4 Tricams.
You’ll also need extra cord or webbing for making anchors at the top of climbs, as very few have fixed anchors.
Although ice has been known to form in November, unless you like scratching and mixed climbing, it’s generally later in December before things really get going. January and
February are usually good months to climb ice, but the transition into March will see conditions become less reliable. A good season often occurs after a wet fall that fills the ground water levels because many climbs are fed by seepage rather than creeks or streams. There is often a “January thaw” that is a double edged sword. Such warm spells will sometimes wreak havoc on the condition of the ice but as temperatures fall again, the new water flow can make for fatter or more solid conditions.
The long standing guide was printed many years ago and although copies are still available there is a new select guide. There are many routes that have seen their FA since the original book but it still covers most of the common areas. The newer guide is a select and has some of the more recent routes along with coloured pictures.
- “Southern Ontario Ice – A climbers guide” Kartner & Bracken 1991
- “Southern Ontario Ice – A select guide to ice & mixed climbing” Kolos 2015
Some climbs are on crown land and have no issues. Many are on private land and some are not a problem while some definitely has access issues. Consult the guidebooks, local climbers, and the Ontario Access Coalition to familiarize yourself with the latest status. Access to some climbs is very easy to screw up so please be respectful, try to not cause problems, and generally stay under the radar.