I’ve got some really good news. You know how sometime around the beginning of February, Canadians – with scarves pulled up, and heads bowed down – can be heard collectively muttering about the slush, the snow, and the shovelling? If you’re not a skater or a skier or a snow-person maker, the cold days can get you down.
But here’s the good news:
There’s another winter activity that’s been gaining traction, and it’s accessible, affordable, fun, and full of adventure.
For five years now, the uber-hip community of Maynooth in Ontario’s Highlands has hosted the Southern Ontario Ice Festival (aka SOIceFest), an event organized by experienced ice climbers who want to show others how exciting winter in Ontario can be.
“Ice Climbing is the best winter Ontario sport ever!” exclaimed beginner climber, Fathima Razik, who attended the 2019 festival. “It’s so amazing. It’s just the coolest feeling being up there,” she said, out of breath and smiling hard. “I don’t really like skiing much, but this is different; you can just go at your own pace. It’s awesome!”
Fathima rented all the equipment she needed for around $30 and made the three-hour drive from Toronto with experienced climber, Ashan Corea, who showed her the ropes. She also got a lesson with one of the certified trainers on site.
“It seems intimidating, but it’s really not,” said Fathima. “The instructor gave me some really helpful tips. It’s all about foot placement.”
Festival organizer, Josh Smith, explained that SOIceFest is the perfect venue for beginner ice climbers. The two-day event hosts several clinics at various locations where anyone from a first-timer to an intermediate ice climber can get hands-on instruction. In addition, top ropes for safety are already in place, and equipment – including boots, crampons (the teeth-like boot attachments), ice axes, harness and ropes – are all provided for beginner climbers.
“We bring out fully certified instructors from Yamnuska, and the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides,” explained Josh, who started the festival in 2015 with Andriy Kolos and Peter Hoang, out of sheer passion for the sport. “These instructors are the best folks you could ever learn ice climbing from in the world. And they love coming here.”
Located equidistant from Toronto and Ottawa, Maynooth is a small but vibrant community, surrounded by some of Canada’s most breathtaking wilderness. The region is laced with rivers and lakes, has rolling hills, dense forests, and stunning rock cuts.
The area has long drawn rock climbers from all over the province, but it’s ice climbing and dry tooling (climbing rock with ice tools), that really have people flocking to the area in recent years. Even competitive climbers like Rebecca Lewis, who competes all over the world with Team Canada, love coming to Maynooth.
“Every guide that comes up here for the first time just gets this grin on their face,” said Josh, chuckling. “Firstly, because they get to sled into the climb [ing area], and secondly, the reward is amazing. You just walk across a beautiful lake and you’re there, ready to climb. The pitches aren’t super high – you’re not going to climb three of four hundred feet like in the Rockies – but the quality of climbing is just fantastic. The locations are abundant, easily accessible, and very steep – like straight up and down. And everything’s so close that you can climb a lot of pitches in one day.”
If you ask enthusiasts what they love about ice climbing, you’ll get a multitude of different answers. Some love the thrill of being up high, others enjoy the physical challenge; many say they love the level of focus, and how it takes them far, far away from their day job and regular life; still others talk about the meticulous planning and problem solving that scaling an ice wall requires.
Everyone at SOIceFest agrees, though, that community is at the heart of climbing culture.
Like traditional rock climbing, ice climbing is done in groups of at least two, with one person belaying, or holding the safety rope, while the other climbs. That required trust, along with hikes through the frozen landscape, and the shared sense of adventure, brings climbers close fast.
“Ice climbing is very communal. You can go all over Ontario and a lot of the climbers know each other. Everyone’s really welcoming, and really pumped for each other,” said Krysten Patrick, who originally grew up near Maynooth and is pleased that it’s become a climbing hot spot.
“Ice climbing is such a small tight community, and for SOIceFest to be here, in small Maynooth, and to have such big sponsors like Mountain Equipment Co-op and Arcteryx is pretty awesome. It’s awesome to see people supporting such a grassroots festival.”
After a long and physically demanding day of climbing, the adventurers invariably end up at the Arlington Hotel and Pub, where there’s always a Saturday night social during SOIceFest, with games, prizes, vendors, presentations, and plenty of merriment. The hostel and pub, set in the historic Queen’s Hotel building on the main drag of Maynooth has become an ice climbing hub. Many climbers book rooms on the upper levels, and downstairs the pub is packed with passionate ice climbers, eagerly discussing they day’s adventure over a few pints or hot toddies.
2020 marks the fifth anniversary of the Ice Festival, and it’s gearing up to be an amazing event, with even more pitches, more opportunities to learn, and more chances to fall in love with winter all over again.
“There’s nothing quite like it,” Josh summed up. “You’re climbing something that’s not there half the year or more, that’s different every time, and every time you go out ice climbing, you’re surrounded by good friends, in the comradery of a cold winter day, but also getting great exercise. There’s really no greater way to spend a couple days out in Ontario in the winter.”
For more information about the Southern Ontario Ice Festival, visit them online and be sure to follow them on Facebook for updates about events, registration and programs.