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Writer and outdoors enthusiast Dawn Huddlestone gets a lesson from Liv Outside on just how very cool ice climbing is in Explorers’ Edge.
On a clear and sunny February morning, I headed out to “embrace winter” in the Explorers’ Edge region of Ontario in the most literal way possible: by getting up close and personal with a towering wall of spectacular ice.
My guides for this Introduction to Ice Climbing course were Alex Atkin and John Thomson from Liv Outside, both enthusiastic, passionate climbers who remember their first climbs well. Stating outright why he enjoys this winter activity so much, Alex enthused about what we were about to attempt.
“It’s a rush getting to the top of a frozen waterfall,” he said. “You’ll see.”
First, though, we needed the gear that would help us accomplish this feat. A pair of insulated, rigid-soled ice climbing boots were a must (and also awkward to walk in). Strapped to these boots were deadly-looking crampons, the spikes that would allow us to gain purchase on the ice. Then we added an ice axe for each hand, and a harness to attach to the rope that keeps us safe.
I felt pretty invincible, until I looked up. A 20-metre wall of ice, no matter how easy they said it would be, is somewhat daunting, and my new-found confidence wavered a bit. Alex and John assured me that I’d make it to the top before the day was out.
The Liv Outside guides were patient, encouraging teachers who hadn’t forgotten what it’s like to be a beginner. There are tricks to making the climb as easy as possible, and they shared them all.
I learned quickly that I’d exhaust myself by trying too hard. You don’t need to swing at the ice like it’s concrete – gentle but determined taps with the ice axe will do – or before long the ice will begin to resemble actual concrete . If you’ve ever worked out too hard, you’ll be familiar with a pumped-up feeling in your muscles. Fatigue set in quickly and I hit a wall – literally. I lost my grip and bounced sideways into the ice.
I soothed my wounded pride with some warm chicken broth from my thermos while I waited for my turn to try again (there were others on the guided climb that day). With two ropes set up, the wait wasn’t long. We each made several attempts and some of us made it to the top repeatedly, but not me. I hoped for better luck on the next, albeit harder, climb.
After a quick lunch, we hiked a short distance to the second icefall where the sun was shining and the air felt about twenty degrees warmer. (If you’re out for a full day of climbing like we were, be sure to bring a lunch that won’t freeze solid – soups and trail mix are good choices).
Ice climbing is both physically and mentally challenging. It’s hard to keep your hands working above your head in cold temperatures, thus the need for frequent rest breaks which are easier than they might sound in mid-climb. And for someone who likes to be in control, only being able to see and plan a few tiny steps ahead was frustrating. But the hardest part for me was trust – not in the guides or in the equipment, but in myself. That my feet would find purchase and hold, that I had driven my axe deep enough in the ice, that I could make it just a bit higher than I already was.
And Alex was right – it was a completely rewarding rush!
So why go ice climbing? The easy, flippant answer is because we can. But as my exhilarating climb showed me, an ice climb gives you greater respect for the winter wonderland around you, and for your own ability to chip away at a challenge. I think you’ll find it’s well worth the effort.
The ice climbing season can start as early as November and extend well into April as long as the temperature is cold enough for water to freeze. And because the ice surface is constantly changing as new groundwater drips down and freezes, you could return to the same spot day after day and never experience the same climb.
There are many places to ice climb across the Explorers’ Edge region (Liv Outside guides more challenging climbs in Rosseau and Utterson, Muskoka), but you’ll want to go with an experienced guide if you’ve never done it before.
Head to Explorers’ Edge for a very cool adventure this winter. To plan your stay, click here.
For more cool winter adventure in Explorers’ Edge click here.
Guest Blogger: Dawn Huddlestone
Dawn Huddlestone is a freelance writer, as-yet-unpublished novelist, and wannabe photographer. She’s living the dream in Muskoka with her family and a growing zoo of pets.