THE CULT OF THE ICE CLIMBER
When the Jesuit Missionaries first visited Ontario, they attempted to convert the native population to Christianity. They described the qualities of Heaven and Hell to the native people, to help persuade them into conversion. Unfortunately, for the Jesuits, the Fires of Hell sounded pretty good to the natives who were freezing their butts off in the cold Canadian winter. I often think of this story when I freeze my butt belaying below some frozen waterfall. Is this Heaven or Hell?

There is a group of climbers who are either unable to get away to somewhere warm in the winter or prefer to remain at home climbing in the cold. After a few early traumatic experiences with ice climbing, I refused to answer my phone in the winter in case it might be one of them. I successfully avoided them for many years. However, they can be very persistent and seductive. A few years ago, I let down my guard and they got to me.

This is a rugged bunch, solid types with hair on their chests. No skinny, yellow haired, gym rats with their stick clips and toothbrushes are to be found below the frozen waterfall. I swear that I saw one ice climber chewing on an ice screw for breakfast.

Below the icefall is one of the last vestiges of the male dominated society, with few women daring to intrude. The sexual connotations of the activity, such as screws forced into the cold ice and penetrating picks cannot be overlooked. Freud would have made room on his couch for these guys.

The ice climbers speak in their own vernacular. Words like "Snargs", and "Stubbies", defy meaning to most people but have clear meaning in this group. They also have expressions that are code for a different meaning. For instance the expression, "Have fun boys", seems innocent but actually means "You are probably going to die". Once when innocently gearing up below an Adirondacks ice climb, seven parties passed by us, looked up at the route seriously and all seven said "Have fun boys". Not yet being conversant with the code, and naïve about assessing ice qualities, we thought they were envious of the route that we had beaten them to and were genuinely wishing us a nice day. Later, we discovered that it was a thin and poor ice horror with a dearth of protection. Be very careful of innocent sounding remarks, it could be code.

Ice climbers tend to be gear mongers. They have gadgets for all purposes and are suckers to try out the latest gizmo. In their spare time they enjoy sharpening their ice tools.

These guys are early risers, often arriving at the crag before light. I realized that I either had to get up earlier or become expert in thin ice conditions because it is only the thin ice routes that were left with no-one on them when I arrive about noon.

Like rock climbers, during down time they engage in inane but heated debates on topics that seem idiotic to an average person, such as the ethics of using wrist leashes or whether or not two tied off "Stubbies" will hold a fall factor 1.1. Endless debates on route grades fill the remaining chat time.

Surprisingly, few of them actually fall. This is probably because they donít actually believe that their protection will hold. Most probably use protection to fool themselves into going on against all logic and reason.

Relatively minor injuries are common. Many cuts and bruises are experienced, especially on the facial area from falling ice. These cuts result in a great deal of blood due to the cold weather and give the victim a rather heroic look. The ice climber wears the blood like the "Red Badge of Courage".

The latest rage involves climbing mixed ice and rock, linking stretches of ice by moving over rock sections through the use of ice picks and crampon points on miniscule rock holds. These climbs tend to be very hard and scary. Cultleader Alex Lowe calls this "The Unified Theory of Climbing".

Take a sniff in the air around these guys and you will smell the fear. It is adrenaline that drives this bunch. However, when the crampon hits the ice they suck in the fear, put the adrenal glands in overdrive and do amazing things. It is startling to see what top ice climbers are able to climb these days. These guys can probably even pirouette in their crampons.

Ice is a temporary state of matter, a bunch of crystals joining together as if to celebrate some environmental combination of conditions, including temperature, moisture, wind and other less obvious influences. Seemingly solid, but actually a liquid, it ebbs and flows, builds and diminishes in size, changes shape, until a quantum crash and meltdown. Water is both the friend and the enemy, useful in building ice but responsible for breaking it down. White, blue and green ice form shapes in a chaotic manner, never quite the same from year to year or even day to day. What does all of this mean? In simple terms, the ice will fall down one day but you wonít know when. Not an ideal climbing surface.

Unlike areas such as the Adirondacks, Ontario ice gets fewer ascents and doesnít often get that pock marked ladder like condition that is the result of overuse and common in popular destinations. Ontario Ice does require some driving and often a warm up slog approach. Climbing is good and often has a remote feel about it. Ice formation is more reliable to the north as periodic thaws are less common.

At the end of the day, with wounds clotting, exhaustion setting in and the adrenalin frozen, the ice climber staggers back through waist deep snow, feeling strangly satisfied and complete. Later, stories are exchanged, analyzed and regurgitated until the next time.

An excellent guidebook to Ontario Ice Climbing is available, written by Toronto locals Norbert Kartner and Mark Bracken.

Have fun Boys!

Bob Bennell
January 2001

Top of Page

 
Ice Climbing Gallery

 
Table of Contents