Slippery slopes draw ice climbers to Ontario town

It’s the most fun you can have attempting to climb a sheer ice cliff in sub-zero temperatures.

The fifth annual Southern Ontario Ice Festival, or SOIcefest, gets underway Friday in Maynooth, Ont., about 200 kilometres southwest of Ottawa.

The numerous cliff faces bordering nearby lakes have made the town of about 4,000 the hub of ice climbing in Ontario, according to Ottawa’s Josh Smith, 37, a co-founder and co-organizer of the festival, which attracts around 500 climbers and spectators.

SOIcefest co-founder Josh Smith says climbers only require ‘an inch or two’ of ice to get stuck in. (@lifeoutsidestudio)

“We’re really fortunate to have an abundance of medium-sized height cliffs in that area. [They’re] big for Ontario, so 20 to 30 metres tall. Just a crazy amount of really good ice climbing in the backyard,” Smith said.

The perfect ice walls are formed when groundwater seeps out and “slowly trickles down … and ice forms on the vertical rock face. You only need an inch or two [of ice] to hold the full body weight of a person.”

It might not always look like it, but Smith, pictured here, says ice climbing is safer than scaling a ladder because climbers are always tied in to a top rope. (@lifeoutsidestudio)

It takes a special kind of athlete to want to take on that challenge.

“Climbers are a hybrid of Energizer Bunnies and ski bums,” Smith said.

But theirs is a quiet intensity. No “boom boxes, no dance music,” just like-minded people experiencing the winter wilderness.

“It’s something to do in the wintertime, besides snowmobiling and ice fishing, to get you outside and active in the winter.”

The area around Maynooth and Bancroft, Ont., has become a hub for ice climbing because of its abundance of cliff formations. (@lifeoutsidestudio)

As an added bonus, the sport isn’t nearly as dangerous as it may look, Smith said.

“With top ropes, the safety is about the same as climbing a ladder. Actually, it’s safer than climbing a ladder, because you’ve got a rope tied to you the whole time.”

The gear consists of a helmet and harness, ice tools, mountaineering boots, crampons and lots of rope.  (Ariel Estulin)

Ice climbing has been around Ontario for 50 years, according to Smith. It uses similar skills needed in mountaineering or alpine climbing, a sport that’s typically associated with the Alps, the Himalayas or the Rockies.

“It provides a good training ground for bigger alpine objectives … but it’s also in itself a satisfying and challenging activity. You get to climb something that’s there only half the year. It’s esoteric, and every day it changes just a little bit, and every season it’s different. It’s just an ethereal experience.”

SOIcefest attracts hundreds of climbers from across Ontario and Quebec. (@lifeoutsidestudio)

On Friday, a dozen local teenagers will be given a chance to learn how to ice climb, with lessons provided by members of the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides, who are flying in from Western Canada. Any profits from the festival will be donated to North Hastings Children’s Services to support its programs, organizers said.


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