Nipigon Bridges

Nipigon on the horizon

I can’t contain my excitement. My first real trip in many months is days away. The forecast looked marginal at first, but it’s improving every time I look at for Nipigon Ontario. Nipigon holds the promise of alpine adventure for a prairie dweller. It is also a reasonable drive, assuming you define reasonable by the normal 8 hour workday.

Why Nipigon you ask? Nipigon isn’t a real alpine destination, but it has enough waterfall ice to keep an ice climbing junkie  satisfied  for a quite awhile. Dripping, brittle, hard, cold, yellow, pseudo alpine ice is the secret find of this Northwestern Ontario region. There is plenty of topography to get a hill fix in. Amazing cliffs can be found in this region, like those of the Kama Hills , Quimet Canyon, or those lining the eastern edge of Orient Bay along highway #11

What is amazing about the climbing is the approaches. Unlike the waterfall ice found in the Canadian Rockies, much climbing can be found ridiculously close to the road. One of my earliest ice experiences occurred during a clinic hosted by Will Gadd at Cascade Falls, during the 2013 Nipigon Ice Festival. From car to the waterfall was no more than a 350 meter walk!

As I’m writing this, the forecast is looking like daytime highs of -4C and -7C for Saturday and Sunday, in downtown Nipigon. Though one can expect colder temperatures inland as some locals call it, these are incredibly appealing ice climbing temps for February in Nipigon. In contrast to the pleasant approaches, Northwestern Ontario ice often comes with miserably cold temperatures. On a 2016 ascent of Aqua Blue, the North wind and sub -20C temperatures were a harsh contrast to the sunny and calm -6C temperatures found in downtown Thunder Bay that same day. Overnight lows in January and February are often on the low side of -30C.

The itinerary is loosely planned around the long weekend, my friend Peters sudden business trip, and my own work schedule. Driving up, my friend Christine and I will visit my friend Brian and his partner Ria on the Friday. We will pick up Peter in the morning, and climb Saturday Sunday and hopefully Monday. We are all booked in a double room at the Nipigon Beaver Motel, a climber friendly establishment. A birding friend of ours may join us for a day as well.

Having done no lead climbing this winter, and very little last winter, I’m feeling some trepidation. Fortunately, recent practice at the CESB ice tower in St. Boniface have been positive experiences which have bolstered my confidence. There is such a difference however between the top rope and the sharp end. The unknown and uncertain nature of ice adds another dimension to the complex equation.

Planning routes is a challenge when looking from far away. The frigid temperatures which have shrouded the region will play a factor in how brittle the ice is and how susceptible it is to delamination from the sudden warming. Climber traffic will determine what is open to climb at any given time which could always thwart any prior planning. It’s also difficult to determine what approaches will be like for the climbs not adjacent to the road. A post on the Facebook group Thunderbay Climbers yielded discouraging responses regarding current snow conditions for making new trails. If the wind comes up, it can be important to have a sheltered climb in mind. Perusing the new Superior Select guidebook of classic climbs in the region, my attention was caught by a collection of easier grade climbs in the McKirdy lake region. The most northerly being Bananarama. What is attractive about these is their proximity to one another, 30 to 40 meter pitches, and the moderate WI 3 maximum grade. What we climb remains to be determined.

A few more sleeps and I’ll be driving eastward. With no trips last winter, I’m especially stoked to return. The slow pace of physical therapy over the fall has fuelled an appetite for adventure, but it now comes with a fear of injury. Looking forward to posting a glorious image or two from atop an icefall here soon. Unlike the wisdom of old, I say now “Head East!!”

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