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Ontario’s Awesome Ice Climbing North of Lake Huron

This area has some of the best ice climbs in the province

Photo by: Shaun Parent

With access to the American northeast still unavailable at time of writing, Ontario climbers who used to make their big ice climbing trips of the winter to New Hampshire, Vermont and New York’s Adirondacks may be wondering where to go this year. Thunder Bay’s amazing ice is about a 20-hour drive from Southern Ontario. Of course, the best ice climbing in the world is in the Canadian Rockies, but that involves plane flight and a car rental. So both of these spots are out of the question for weekend trips for most climbers.

With average temperatures rising to the point where much of the most southern ice in Ontario has become ephemeral, and some hasn’t been seen for several seasons, Ontario ice climbers are looking a little further away for some of the best ice climbing Ontario has to offer. Enter ice climbing in southern Algoma.

Traditional Ontario ice spots like Eagle’s Nest in Bancroft, Diamond Lake near Maynooth and the rest of the Haliburton Highlands are about three hours away from major population centres in Southern Ontario.  Admittedly, southern Algoma is about twice as far, but it’s worth the trip, for a bunch of reasons, perhaps first discovered by Ontario ice pioneer Shaun Parent, and then explored to the fullest by guidebook author and relentless Northern Ontario new-router Danylo Darewych.

“In mid-March, 2011 I was driving back home to Toronto, alone, after a disappointing ice climbing trip to the Canadian Rockies. I had driven out west in February with high hopes of testing my abilities on Rockies classics, but things hadn’t gone as planned. First, my ice climbing partner got deported to Mexico, then temperatures hit the deep freeze for weeks on end. I climbed almost nothing I had set my sights on and departed Canmore with my tail firmly between my legs. Then, to add insult to injury, my crampons broke while making a brief stop in Orient Bay.”

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He stopped to visit Shaun Parent, who made some suggestions of where there would be some ice in southern Algoma.  “I was flabbergasted by what I saw,” says Darewych. “Ice lines all over the place…big cliffs. Lots of rock and ice climbing potential everywhere. Yet I’d never heard of the area before from any Ontario climbers. I couldn’t believe it. It was no further than the trips that Toronto area ice-climbers regularly make to the Adirondacks or Quebec. Clearly we were missing out on opportunities in our own back yard. I vowed to return.”

Randy Kielbasiewicz, who started ice climbing in 2009 started ice climbing in 2012 in Haliburton, Ontario after decades of rock climbing. After his second day, he maxed out his credit cards and bought his own equipment. Although he knew about the great ice in the Adirondacks, he was drawn to Algoma ice after just his first trip there. “There’s hardly any people around and I can climb routes that aren’t kicked out, or by drafting pick holes. On super popular routes, it can be just like walking up a staircase. I love the lack of a scene, and its really every time you climb feels like no one has done it yet, gives the sense of adventure, and it’s quiet. It’s a beautiful area that’s stunning in the winter.”

Rainmaker, a 55m WI 3 on Riverside Crag on Kynoch Road is one of Kielbasiewicz’s favourite climbs. It’s close to the road, aesthetic and fun, but a few years back, he went all-in and bought a snow machine to search for routes further afield. Since then, he says, “it’s just been five-star route after five-star route.”

Southern Algoma is just the beginning. Shaun Parent, who started climbing in the area in the early 1980s, now focusses on developing climbs a little further north, in the Montreal River area. He says it’s the “highest ice in the midcontinent, with routes to 240 metres. No crowds and plenty of new routes to develop.”

Most routes in Southern Algoma, however, are a single pitch long, albeit, often a rop-stretcher. The climbs are mostly on ice. Little mixed climbing in the modern, drytooling sense of the word has been done. But the quiet, snow laden pine trees, the awesome silence of frozen lakes, and the lack of other people in the landscape lends the climbs an eerie remoteness all their own.

Where to Climb: There are almost unlimited spots to climb ice in Algoma, and dozens of areas have been visited. Here are a few of Danylo Darewych’s suggestions for your first visit. Some material reprinted, with permission, from Danylo Darewych, Granary Lake Ice Climbs, North of Huron.

Granary Lake: From Blind River head north on Hwy 557, and keep going straight onto Granary Lake Rd when Highway 557 makes a sharp turn to the left (west) about 3 km north of town. Follow Granary Lake Rd. to its end and park at the side of the road (another 15 km). Follow the snowmobile tracks (which usually go down the last driveway) to the lake and head across the lake to the big cliffs on the north shore. It’s about a 15 min walk to the cliffs. Climbs are up to 45 metres-long with a good range of difficult. The steep curtains of the Go Go Beavers and Gong Show areas are spectacular.

Lake Lauzon: From Blind River head north on Hwy 557, and keep going straight onto Granary Lake Rd when Highway 557 makes a sharp turn to the left (west), 3 km north of town. Almost immediately turn right (east) onto High Rd at the cemetery. Drive east along High Rd. After about 5 km the road will make a leftward (northward) turn near a hydro line. Follow the main road to its end, by-passing a left-hand turnto Bass Lake. The road ends at a public boat launch. It’s approximately 7 km from the Granary Lake Rd, 10 km total from Blind River. From the boat launch head out into a small bay, then turn right and head west for 1 km to the north shore of a big peninsula jutting into Lake Lauzon (passing to the right of a large island). A long discontinuous cliff line runs for over 2 km along this peninsula. The cliff varies in height from 15 m to 60 m. There are about 20 routes here, mostly in the moderate grades.

Constance Lake: From Iron Bridge head north on Highway 546, but at the 10.9 km mark – instead of heading straight ahead on the 554 – continue on Highway 546 as it turns right (north). Constance Lake is another 8 km north of this intersection or 19 km total from Iron Bridge. Park at the road leading to the garbage dump at the north-west corner of Constance Lake. From here you should be able to look across the lake to see whether the ice is in (binoculars would be useful). Cross the road from the dump and walk along the nearby creek for 50 m to the lake (watch for thin ice at the mouth of the creek), then head southeast across the lake to the big cliff on the eastern shore. It’s about a 20 minute walk to the cliffs. There are about 17 climbs here, including some steeper and harder ice.

Where to stay: There are numerous hotels in the area, but a favourite for climbers is Birch Lodge in Blind River. (705-356-5550)

Lead photo: Shaun Parent