Fear, Ice, & a Spaghetti Heist

A loud cracking sound pierced the darkness, halting me and my friend Jordi in our tracks.  I silently glanced up to find a look of unease on his face, accentuated by the glow of his headlamp.  I knew that my expression mirrored the sentiment, and I could feel fear beginning to creep into my mind.  Timidly, we took another step.   This time, I glanced down and the beam of my light revealed fissures snaking out from where I stepped.

“How bad do you think this is?”  he asked quietly.

I felt grim when I responded, “I don’t think it’s very good.”

We took a few more tenuous steps, which were met with nauseating cracking sounds before Jordi said, “I’m going to unpack the rope.”

I nodded and sunk down to sit on the ice, removing my pack and distributing my weight.  As I watched Jordi pull a length of rope out of his own backpack, my mind began to fixate on one disturbing fact.  I wasn’t even supposed to be there.  I was supposed to be spending a quiet weekend at home with Vince.  A last minute decision had led me to Bancroft, Ontario.  Now I was out on a fracturing lake in the middle of the night, 500 miles from him, and if the worst happened I wouldn’t get to say goodbye.

I had only decided to travel east to the Southern Ontario Ice Fest a few days prior to our departure.  After missing Michigan Ice Fest the previous weekend, I was eager to go ice climbing again before the season ended.  Vince couldn’t make the trip, so I was traveling with our friends TJ, Jessica, and Jordi.  This was a longer drive than we normally do on our weekend trips so we didn’t make it to our airbnb cabin until four o’ clock Saturday morning.  We crashed into our beds immediately and grabbed a few hours of sleep before it was time to get up and drive to the event.

After groggily gearing up and piling into the car we drove to a local restaurant for breakfast.  We weren’t sure what to expect because the place was called the Laundry Cafe, but we were happy to find that they had a great selection of really delicious breakfast foods, including maple coffee, and yes there was also a laundromat in the building.  As we scarfed our food we looked through a guidebook of climbs in the area and pinpointed a few that we wanted to try.  Then we piled back into the car and drove to Diamond Lake, where the festival was being held.

Our first view of the lake was spectacular.  The approach to the climbs required crossing the frozen lake, and on the other side, tall icy cliffs were visible.  We crossed the lake and found the beginner climbing clinic in full swing on the ice falls.

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Approaching the crag across Diamond Lake
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A climber in the beginner clinic

We didn’t linger at the beginner clinic, opting to hike around the perimeter of the lake to find somewhere to set up a rope.  Jessica and I had been too late to sign up for any clinics by the time we decided to go to the festival so we wanted to get at least one climb in before Jordi and TJ went to their clinics.

It took almost no time at all to find a spot to climb.  One of the great things about Diamond Lake is how easy it is to access the climbs.  I am used to having to work to get to the ice when we climb in Munising; many of the best routes there are several miles from the nearest road.  Here, we could see the ice just by strolling along the perimeter of the frozen lake.  We set up shop at this beauty, and TJ climbed lead and set up a top rope for me and Jessica.

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Our first climb of the trip
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TJ leads our first route of the festival while Jordi belays him

There was just enough time for me, TJ, and Jessica to climb before the guys had to get to their clinics.  I was sharing boots and crampons with Jordi for the weekend, so this meant Jessica and I wouldn’t be climbing anything else until we all regrouped.  Jessica and I walked the guys back to the clinic area where we drank some hot chocolate, watched some of the other climbers, and were very impressed by an adorable dog in a puffy coat.

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Sun illuminates the clinic wall
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The resident crag dog

Jessica and I didn’t stick around for too long once the intermediate and advanced clinics had started.  We set off on our own to explore the lake a bit more, eventually veering off into the woods when we found some cool ice formations.  The ice had frozen over moss and other plants, perfectly preserving them under its crystal clear surface.  Once we had followed the ice formations away from the lake, we continued uphill, admiring the surrounding views.  On our way back we ran into several groups of climbers and stopped to chat with them about where they were from, the normal ice conditions in Maynooth, and mixed climbing.  Then we returned to the clinic wall to watch Jordi practicing some new moves.

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Cedar leaves engulfed by ice

Soon the clinics were over, and we returned to the ice fall we had climbed at the beginning of the day.  I had planned to do a mock lead since I had never led on ice before, but I was feeling extra daring and just decided to lead the climb without the aid of a top rope.  Conditions were amazing for learning to lead climb.  The temperature was fairly warm, so my fingers weren’t too stiff, and the ice was soft, so my axes and screws were sinking easily.  Leading on ice required me to insert long screws into the wall as I ascended.  I would then clip the rope, which was attached to my harness, onto the screw, which served as protection in case I were to fall.  This was far more technical and phycological than climbing on a rope that is affixed to an anchor above me.  I also found that it engaged many more muscles because I had to hold myself very securely to the wall with three limbs, while using one arm to twist the screws into the ice.

Once I had completed the climb and set a top rope for the others, TJ lowered me back to the ground, and I felt elated.  I had a surge of energy from having successfully accomplished something that scared me, and the good feeling lingered as Jessica, TJ, and Jordi climbed the route.

By the time they were done the sun was setting, so we vacated the lake and drove to Maynooth where there was going to be a spaghetti dinner and gear raffle.  We hadn’t realized how late we were, so by the time we arrived at the event, the dinner had already ended.  We were in the bar where the raffle was being held, but we were told the the dinner had been down the street at the community center, and if we hurried they might still have some food left over.  That was all Jordi had to hear.  With food on the line, he raced out of the bar and down the street, me, Jessica, and TJ lagging behind.  As luck would have it, there were plenty of leftovers, and the awesome team in charge of the food hadn’t quite finished packing it up yet.  They gave us plates of spaghetti, which we ate gratefully before returning to the bar.  This was the beginning of the evening taking its turn for the worse.

Jordi and I had been discussing doing a night climb with the intention of taking some long exposure photos.  When we got to the party, TJ and Jessica opted to stick around and enter the raffle.  We agreed that Jordi and I would return to Diamond Lake, do a quick climb, then come back to Maynooth to pick up Jessica and TJ.  We split up, and Jordi and I made the half hour drive back to the lake.

It was pitch black by the time we arrived, and we donned headlamps, and regathered all of the gear we would need from the trunk of my car.  We put on our bigger outer shell coats and our helmets, shrugged on our backpacks and started walking toward the trail.  It was around this time that I made the fateful remark, “Man, it feels like this is the beginning of a disaster movie.”

Jordi laughed and shot back, “I guess we better strap on the nitro!” in reference to the laughable climbing drama, Vertical Limit.

We were over halfway across the lake when the drama began to unfold.  It only took Jordi a few minutes to unpack his rope and toss an end of it in my direction, but to me those minutes dragged on and on.  I wanted to be off of the ice and out of our predicament so badly, it took all of my will power to stay put.  As soon as I had the end of the rope, I tied it around my waist, and Jordi did the same.  We removed our packs and tied them off with webbing so we could drag them.  At this point, we were far enough onto the ice that the shortest way to get out was to keep going forward, so we began  gingerly stepping toward the shore, cringing when we heard cracking sounds.

I don’t think I have ever been as relieved to reach the shore of a lake as I was that night.  As we stood on solid ground discussing our options, Jordi asked me, “So how scared were you just now?”

I held a hand up into the beam of my head lamp and said, “I’m shaking,”  as my fingers trembled uncontrollably.

After the scare, we decided to call it and walked the shore of the lake back to the trailhead we hiked in from.  Neither of us was willing to risk standing on a belay area that sounded likely to shatter at any moment.  On the drive back to Maynooth we had a lengthy discussion about how much danger we had really been in.  People and snowmobiles had been crossing that ice with no problem all day, and the ice fest was still held in the same location the next day as well.  In the end it was hard to say how bad the situation really was, but we were still happy to have made it out safely.  We found Jessica and TJ right where we had left them, but where we were still grappling with a harrowing experience, they were warm and content and they had won a lot of gear in the raffle.

Sleep that night was welcome.  We crashed as early as we could with plans to climb at a spot called Eagle’s Nest the next morning, but we woke up to freezing rain.  Without a solid plan other than “hope the weather clears up,” we returned to the laundry cafe for another delicious breakfast, but it was still raining when we got back in the car.  Fortunately, Eagle’s Nest was on our route home, so we didn’t have to make a decision until we got there.

Our guidebook said to park in a lot across the street from Tim Horton’s once we got to Bancroft.  We didn’t have to worry about finding the crag because sure enough, once we saw Tim Horton’s, we could also see a towering cliff looming above the road only a few yards from the parking lot.  It was still raining, but the ice was too enticing to resist, so we grabbed our gear and made the two minute walk to the crag.

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Jordi lead climbing

Over the course of the next few hours, we took turns climbing a 100 foot route, the longest ice climb I have ever done.  Jordi, TJ, and I all took a crack at leading the route, which was intimidating yet exhilarating.  Jessica also produced some winter cupcakes in keeping with our annual tradition of celebrating TJ’s birthday with “cake and ice climbing.”

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Jessica climbing at Eagle’s Nest
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My second ice lead © Jordi Lucero
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Cake and ice climbing for TJ’s birthday

Despite its somewhat terrifying moments, which seem to be becoming an unwelcome tradition when we travel to Ontario, the weekend was a huge success.  We are all excited to return to Southern Ontario Ice fest next year!

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