Ice Climbing
Climbing is enjoying a new peak in popularity in Nova Scotia. There's lots of free places to set up your ropes.

Shunpiking Magazine
December, 1998-January, 1999, Volume 3, Number 23

WHAT DO YOU DO after you rappel down a hundred-foot frozen waterfall with a rope tied around your waist, land at the foot of the cliffs at Blue Beach, look around and see the highest tides in the world slowly creeping up on you, and think that the only way out is to climb. Well, you guessed it, you have to climb and, with a pair of ice axes in your hands and crampons on your feet, you can actually make it. Simple as that. Then, when you make it to the top, why do you do it again?

LukeMarshallRappelling.gifYou do it because you enjoy climbing, have a sense of adventure, are in reasonable good physical shape, and love the cold, the snow and the ice. At least that's why I let Luke Marshall take me to Avonport on the Bay of Fundy and belay me up and down the icy cliffs of Blue Beach. Luke is a 22-year-old business student at Acadia University who has decided to combine his love of the outdoors with a keen sense of entrepreneurship. I met Luke after I saw his sign in a local convenience store advertising ice-climbing lessons.

I've been into rock climbing for a number of years, but always thought you would have to go to Alberta or British Columbia to do any form of ice climbing. For ice climbing you need a combination of cold weather, the right terrain, accessibility, gear, and people to do it with. It's not really a solitary pursuit like mountain biking or kayaking. You need responsible, enthusiastic people who want to climb to the top just as badly as you do. Clarence Barrett, a seasoned rock climber and friend of mine, once told me if the opportunity to ice climb came up I should try it out, but he didn't think anyone was seriously into it in Nova Scotia at the time. This was a few years ago, when Luke was probably in junior high school.

The Saturday when Luke and I went out was quite exceptional. The sun was beating down on the rocks and ice at the foot of the cliff, and was warming us up nicely. The combination of lugging the gear and the sun's rays made it feel like a day in the summer, not early March. The tides had cooperated and were heading out just as we arrived. This would give us a few hours to play around, before the tides came slogging back to force us to higher ground. Luke belayed me as I rappelled down the icy slope, then he followed. With our rope being securely anchored at the top of the cliff to some trees, we then belayed each other up and down the cliff for the entire day.

Belaying is a method in which you are tied into a rope and harness system and your mate works the rope while the climber makes the ascent. If you should slip and fall, which you will do, then the rope will save you. You scramble back to gain your footing, then start to climb again. In essence the rope is a safety net that turns climbing into something fun and safe, as opposed to a dangerous and foolhardy activity. Anyone doing any type of climbing without a rope should simply be avoided.

Luke told me he spent the winter of 1996-97 in Canmore, Alberta at the Yamnuska School of Mountaineering, where he learned rock and ice climbing techniques, basic mountaineering and survival skills, and white water canoeing. He obtained certification from the school, then enrolled in the business program at Acadia University in the fall of 1997. He began teaching others how to ice climb last year on weekends and afternoons when he didn't have any classes. The majority of his ice climbing students were from Acadia.

Considering I had some amount of experience in rock climbing I didn't find the switch to climbing ice that difficult. The major difference was the amount of gear you had to have, and the extra weight it adds to you as you climb. With rock climbing you can get away with a pair of shorts, rock boots or a good pair of sneakers, and a helmet. In ice climbing, you need a safety helmet, layers of warm clothing, heavy ice boots with crampons (ice spikes) and a pair of ice axes. Luke supplies the boots, crampons, axes, climbing gear, and knowledge. All a beginner needs is the clothes and the right amount of determination, enthusiasm and desire. Luke says, "A little bit of upper body strength doesn't hurt either," and warns that not everybody gets to the top. Don't worry though, climbing down is much easier then climbing up an ice wall.

According to Luke there are a number of spots to ice climb along the Fundy shore, including places at Margaretsville and Halls Harbour. There's a 120-foot climb at Halls Harbour he has recently discovered and is hoping to do this winter. There are also some good spots at Cape Split, but the two-hour-hike out and back restricts the use of this site. Cape Split is also a restricted area. He doesn't take more than two people at a time because he's restricted by the short number of daylight hours and the schedule of the tides. Sean Drohan at the Halifax Trading Post says there are over twenty accessible climbs in the province of over 200-foot elevation. One of the problems in Western Canada is so many people are involved in ice climbing it's difficult to get a free place to set up your ropes. This isn't a problem in Nova Scotia yet, although the cost of outfitting yourself and a least one other person can be fairly high.

So, if are over eighteen-years-old, will sign a waiver of liability (which is standard for sports like climbing or parachuting), and feel like swinging an ice axe, you know who to contact. I must warm readers that this is a slightly nerve racking sport: you have to be quick to avoid dodging ice chunks that fly off your axe strikes, and you shouldn't have a fear of heights. (Anyone who tells you that you can get over a fear of heights by climbing doesn't understand the fear.)

If you're keen on trying this sport, remember Nova Scotia winters have been fairly mild the past few years; it's best to plan a trip early in the season. By mid-March, most of the ice is starting to melt. Take a camera (proof for your couch potato friends), plenty of water and food, warm clothes, and start climbing. Remember, if you don't think you can climb the ice cliff, there's always an ice free slope nearby you can trudge up. Climb on.

*Paul MacDougall is a writer and member of the Environment Dept, University College of Cape Breton, Sydney, NS

Climb Nova Scotia, the provincial sport governing body, carries an active programme. It may be reached through Sport Nova Scotia at 425-5454 (ext 316), e-mail News and info are on the Internet at

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