Pont Rouge is Quebec’s Mixed and Ice Climbing Hub
With dozens of quality lines, this is where the famous Festiglace festival takes places every winter. This is a great place to visit for an ice getaway this winter
Listening to the water of the Jacques Cartier River rush underneath my feet as it rushed toward the St. Lawrence made me wonder if crossing the untested ice was worth the risk. We were trying to access the steep ice and mixed climbing in Pont Rouge. If it broke, it would have led to some unwanted and cold swimming. We had just landed in Quebec City and within half-an-hour of renting a car, we were sitting at the parking lot to Pont Rouge. In an attempt to get a quick climbing day, we called local climber Dany Julien. He agreed to show us an assortment of climbing, from mellow to hard. After a short downhill approach from the parking area, we were there and Julian was more than happy to share the history of the must-visit Canadian crag.
Pont Rouge was known as the epicentre of Quebec’s mixed climbing scene. It’s not very tall, but it’s so steep that your arms will be burning before the first screw. The climbs form on sedimentary cliffs that have been undercut by the moving waters of the river. Home to some of Quebec’s hardest and earliest winter climbing, over 60 lines can now be accessed from the banks of the frozen river.
Most of the routes in Pont Rouge are mixed. The shale rock is so soft that it won’t damage your pick if you swing into it, which leads to ever-evolving mixed routes. Notorious for loose rock, at Pont Rouge sometimes routes change from weekend to weekend, as holds are always breaking or chipping away. Despite being aware that holds might break on you, the climbing is gymnastic enough to keep you engaged. Despite the concentration and convenience of climbs in the canyon, the area sees relatively little traffic. During our visit, we saw a handful of pure ice climbers who were there for classic single pitch routes like Valentin WI5+, Super Cristal WI5+ and Souvenirs d’enfance WI5.
The ice at Pont Rouge was not discovered by climbers until 1990. François-Guy Thivierge was shown a photo by kayakers who had floated down the river and noticed frozen waterfalls lining the canyon. Having a penchant for making first ascents, he planned to visit once the river was frozen. The following winter, Thivierge and Gilles Brousseau made their first trip and couldn’t believe how much ice was hanging from the rotten rock. They kept the area a secret for the first few seasons so they could bag the obvious and most classic lines first. Once they invited a few friends, word spread quickly and the area boomed.
In the early days, climbers approached from the opposite side of the river, but it took them 1.5 hours. Once they discovered a shorter approach, the number of climbers who visited increased. In 1995, shortly after climbing the now-classic and then-cutting-edge Octopussy in Colorado, a climb that is associated with the start of mixed climbing in North America, legendary climber Jeff Lowe visited Thivierge in Quebec. During his visit, Lowe pointed out the mixed potential and shared his vision. That season, they established Walking on a Tight Rope, a 25-metre M5+ with Brousseau.
Then in 1997, the inaugural Pont Rouge ice climbing festival, Festiglace, took place. At the time, Festiglace was one of the largest ice climbing festivals in North America, attracting thousands of participants before coming to an end in 2007. IFMGA guide Caroline George had this to say about the festival: “Festiglace was the real deal with harsh conditions, brittle ice, rock and a river that flows right below your feet. I’d say it was the best competition out there because you were climbing on natural rock and ice, which brings you back to the roots. The friendliness of people equalled the craziness of the party.”
The festival was known for its unique climbing competition format and its after parties. At the time, most climbing competitions would focus on one route. Differing from that traditional climbing competition format, Festiglace featured an enduro-style event where the goal was to climb as many routes as you could to get the most points in a team of two.
I remember attending the festival in 2005 with my climbing partner John Rothwell. The one thing that stood out to me was the atmosphere. The festival wasn’t just about the climbing, it was about the people, the community, the history and plan making. They had at least 15 flags flying, each representing the home countries of the competitors. The competition was known for a large contingent of internationally renowned climbers. If Quebec climbing wasn’t already on a map by then, the event put it there.
During the past two seasons, Pont Rouge has undergone a revival. The local climbing community wants to make the canyon an international destination again. Locals and visiting climbers have established new routes and are working hard to retrobolt the originals. Julien, who lives in Pont Rouge, has been heading up the efforts, along with D’Zaô Plamondon, Carl Darveau and Stas Beskin. New routes by Julien include Tree of Life and Snowstorm M8 WI6; Beskin has added Songs of Norway M8 WI6 and PR Reborn M7+ WI5; Darveu has added Opinel M7+ WI6, In the Shadow M7 WI6, Optimus Prime M7+ WI6+ and EggD’Zaô M8 WI6.
Inspired by the amount of free-hanging ice in the canyon, top skinny-ice-pillar-climber Beskin had this to say: “It was the first place I ice climbed in Canada. I came alone for two weeks and every day that I climbed there, the temperature was below -25C. The approach was short and the climbing legendary. When I was living in Norway, I heard ice climbing in Quebec described as this: if you swing and hit the rock, then just swing harder. It will stick. I couldn’t wrap my head around that statement until I came to Pont Rouge. A good thing to know when on such thin lines.”
With the recent route development and trail maintenance, Pont Rouge is quickly becoming the choice of crags for ice climbers in eastern Canada once again. Adding to the area’s popularity, a group of climbers came together in 2019 to bring Festiglace back to life. With 13 years passing since the last festival, climbers will once again be able to enjoy the festival, which will take place from Feb. 17 to 19. Organizers said that they want to keep the traditions alive from the original festival series. The competition will take place and parties will follow, as winter climbers from around the world come together at Pont Rouge once again. There will be new clinics and evening presentations.
Climbing competitions have come a long way over the past decade and the new Festiglace comp will feature amateur speed, pro speed, amateur technical and pro technical divisions.
Excitement for the return of Festiglace is high among the ice climbing community. Will Gadd, one of Canada’s top climbers who used to attend Festiglace, said, “Pont Rouge has the highest natural concentration of ice and mixed routes in the world. Plus, it’s in Quebec, so it has an awesome Francophone vibe that keeps the good times rolling. I climbed there a lot back in the day and am stoked for more this season.”
Conrad Anker, one of the world’s leading ice and alpine climbers, said this about the festival: “Festiglace brings the warmth of the Québécois people to a fun-filled event in the Pont Rouge Gorge. As one descends the canyon and sees the drips of water suspended in winter one is called to climb. The community of climbers, drawn to frozen water, celebrate their unique passion in a great place. It’s wonderful to see Festiglace return and inspire the next generation of climbers.”
It’s good to know that the area will once again be home to one of the best ice climbing festivals in the world. I can’t wait to be back on the frozen Jacques Cartier River, watching history take place as the best of the best climb as much as they can to take home top prize.