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Southern Ontario Ice Festival – Icy Cliffs

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It takes a special kind of person to strap knives to their feet, tie themselves onto a thin rope, grab two terrifying, pointy axes and decide to ascend an ice-laden cliff.

Not to mention that this is all done during the depths of our frigid winter months. This is, in a nutshell, the basics of ice climbing in Hastings County. Now that the first sentence could be read in two different ways. The first, that these people are insane and are most definitely a certain kind of special, the way most would read it. The second though is that, yes these people climb frozen cliffs and are truly an amazing, tight-knit group of special people. The latter being much more accurate. 

These amazing athletes take part in this exhilarating sport out of the spotlight and popularity and have created something amazing. Climbing, in general, is an individual sport where one can test their own limits, not dependent on being part of a team. Personal bests and personal achievements are strived for through individual effort. This, however, is met with an incredible community of amazing, like-minded people that in essence create one of the largest team sports this country has ever seen. Each climber going out of their way to offer support, advice, gear, or a helping hand whenever possible. I was amazed to see this comradery and a true passion for succeeding in such a demanding sport. 

Last weekend, the Southern Ontario Ice Festival took over the small community of Maynooth, Ontario in northern Hastings County. This was their 4th year of the continuously growing festival and I took the weekend to immerse myself into their world of stabbing frozen groundwater adorning large cliff faces. To say I learned a lot would be an understatement and I hope from this article you can think about trying it out in the future. 

My day started at a cold, -20 degrees. The tall Red Pines surrounding my quaint Airbnb cottage creaked and cracked in the cool breeze. I rubbed my eyes as I gathered my camera gear to photograph an activity I knew little about. As the truck slipped and skipped along frozen cottage roads, I began to wonder if I would ever find someone crazy enough to climb four stories of frozen water.

I crawled deeper and deeper into the old-growth forest and slowly began to notice large snow-covered glacier erratics strewn between the trees. These large, snow-capped boulders guided my imagination to the idea of large cliffs and caves, tucked away, hiding in this gorgeous forest. The thought of slumbering bruins sleeping the winter away in compact cavities made me forget about the ice climbing festival all-together. This was short-lived, however, as I rounded a corner and discovered a long line of cars parked seemingly in the middle of nowhere. As I slowed and pulled in behind them, I noticed a short cliff, maybe 12 feet tall in the forest.

As I scanned the area, I finally found a pathway, more so a trench, carved through the forest. I trusted my gut, prepped up my gear and adorned myself with warm, winter garb. I trenched into the forest and quickly heard voices … and laughter. A lot of laughter. I followed the path which meandered its way alongside the cliff face. The deeper into the forest, the taller and more formidable the escarpment grew. More impressive than the rock though, was the ice, so much ice! Thick ice, thin ice, clear ice, yellow ice, so much variation in the frozen stuff. Some flowed onto the forest floor and encapsulated the base of large trees, like slow-moving, frozen lava. I continued until I stumbled on those special people I spoke of earlier. 

I was quickly welcomed by Rob, an older gentleman from the Toronto Section of the Alpine Club of Canada. He greeted me with some curiosity as I wasn’t carrying a pack of climbing gear or wearing reliable crampons. We spoke and laughed and his warm smile broke through the frigid morning temperature. He was in the process of setting up some lines to climb for the rest of the day. I watched as some experienced ice climbers scrambled up these frozen walls, periodically setting anchors in the ice while doing so. The climbers ranged in skill and were all there to support and help one another. While one person was climbing, two or three were below, offering words of encouragement and a comforting joke. As it seemed I was there a tad early for the real action, I headed east to the main event of the festival at Diamond Lake, just east of Combermere, ON. 

The drive across highway 62 winded its way up and down hills through beautiful, thick forest and along open bogs. My head was scanning for wildlife while abandoned cabins and barns pockmarked the roadsides. After passing through the small village of Combermere, a country road led me to my destination. My GPS showed a kilometre or so left to drive when I crested a hill and found myself driving towards two friendly individuals and another long line of parked cars. I slowed and quickly realized this was the parking committee, there to help me with knowledge of the festival, the climbing and obviously, the parking situation.

The climbing festival had attracted hundreds of people, and I was evidently late to the party. After a quick chat I was on my way, hiking through fresh snow to the epicentre of the festival; a massive swath of 40 to 50-foot tall ice adorning a sun-soaked, lakeside cliff. The hike across the frozen body of water only added to the excitement as the closer you got, the larger the precipice loomed overhead. Vendor tents set up along the bottom of the impressive natural climbing wall added to the scene, while a canvas warming tent was a nice touch. 

I watched as impressive men and women scaled the ice, wielding their sharp crampons and sturdy ice tools. Scampering up the ice in the gleaming sun, there could not have been better conditions with bluebird skies above. The climbers chatted with one another and chuckled while devouring delicious chilli, a staple of the festival that brings proceeds back to local charities. I sat back in awe as climbers made short work of this 50-foot climb on thick, reliable ice. Each foot placement sent out a somehow beautiful sound of a satisfying thunk. Friends helping each climb the wall, beginners getting their feet wet on this rather safe, simple climb and climbing clinics set up to teach new techniques and styles. It was an exciting spot to watch individuals conquer fears and conquer the ice. 

I soon learned that the rock-face continued to the north, and as I rounded a point, I found myself spotting brightly coloured Gore-Tex behind the trees on the shoreline, high in the distance. I navigated my way through a sparse shoreline and began watching these vibrant specs move up along a massive span of the cliff. These sections varied in height, some right around the 100-foot mark. Voices echoed through the forest, and again that rewarding thunk as each climber placed their feet firmly into the plastic-like ice. I couldn’t believe at the number of routes before my eyes and a large number of people that were actively climbing. My camera got to work, documenting the daredevils as they ascended high above the ice-covered lake. 

I shot for a few hours, talking and laughing with numerous friendly faces. I pulled back from shooting and spoke with one of the organizers of the festival, Andriy Kolos: an intelligent, level-headed individual who spoke fondly of climbing. Andriy and others pour a lot of time and energy into this festival each year and are excited to see it grow. Not for a monetary reason, but to increase the comprehension and appreciation of the sport in Southern Ontario. The Southern Ontario Ice Festival brings many people to small communities, like Maynooth, and brings invaluable business to small-town Ontario. It also creates an amazing community of climbers that drove long distances to be together and do something they love. I spoke with many individuals from Toronto and Ottawa, but also a surprising number of people from Michigan, Quebec and even as far as New Brunswick. Everyone was coming together to climb some amazing ice, something that is not all that common or accessible.  

More importantly, Andriy was excited to help grow the sport, to showcase this activity to more people, especially young people. The festival brought in impressive guides all the way from Canmore, AB. Guides from Yamnuska Mountain Adventures flew to Ontario to help conduct ice climbing and mixed climbing clinics, allowing for beginners to learn the sport. On top of this, the Toronto section of the Alpine Club of Canada conducted classes and even brought Rebecca Lewis, North American Ice Climbing Championships 2018 champion. The event is steadily growing, and under the careful watch of Andriy and his equally qualified pals, it will definitely continue to positively impact small towns and help young people learn the incredible sport. 

 I wrapped up for the weekend, realizing how much I had learned. I learned about the quality of ice, different climbing areas in Ontario, ideal conditions, the ice climbing community and the positive impact that a few great people can make on a sport, a small town and a community. Together with amazing organizations like the Ontario Alliance of Climbers and companies like Patagonia, Arc’Teryx, Verti Call and MEC, the 2019 Southern Ontario Ice Festival was a great success for ice climbing, Maynooth, and Hastings County in general. You can follow them on various social media platforms for more information on ice climbing in general, and for next year’s event. I for one, can’t wait to rub shoulders again with these very special people. 

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