The ice tower is the venue for a winter sport with a growing following, as well as the scene of one of the Festival du Voyageur's newest highlights.
Built by the St. Boniface section (Club D'Escalade De Saint-Boniface) of the Alpine Club of Canada in 1996, the tower offers ever-changing ice surfaces on all four sides to provide a place to practise ice climbing.
Since then, it has attracted a hardy and growing band of participants, whose idea of fun is to use ice axes and crampons (spikes that attach to boots) to claw their way up a vertical pillar of ice.
"What's amazing to me is how many people in Winnipeg have their own equipment," says Andr Mah, president of the St. Boniface group, one of two sections of the Alpine Club in Canada based in Winnipeg. The Manitoba section operates in English; members of both groups use the ice climbing tower.
The tower will be a hot spot during both weekends of Festival du Voyageur. On Feb. 9 and 10, Mountain Equipment Co-op will give climbers a chance to try out different kinds of climbing gear. On Feb. 15 to 17, the tower will be the setting for the second annual Festival d'Escalade sur Glace de Saint-Boniface. Climbers will compete in speed and degree-of-difficulty competitions, with qualifying rounds on the Saturday and the finals on Sunday starting at 1 pm.
"Climbing is an odd sport," says Bryce Brown, who won the degree-of-difficulty competition last year. "It's 90 per cent suffering and 10 per cent fun."
When the climbers are back on the ground and discussing their adventure over a drink, he says, the ratio shifts in favour of fun.
"This is the best ice climbing within eight hours of Winnipeg," says Brown. With climbing partner Darren Tomczak, winner of the speed competition at last year's Festival, Brown often climbs in the Thunder Bay, Ont. area.
Many hardcore ice climbers from Winnipeg make the eight-hour trek east to the rugged north shore of Lake Superior, where climbing routes up to 750 feet long and consistent, and cold winters create an ice-climber's paradise.
"They go to Thunder Bay or Banff to put into practice what they've learned on our tower," says Mah.
Ice climbing isn't just a sport for young ironmen. Among the first-timers trying out the tower on a recent bitterly cold day was Anita Geisel, 46, a mother of three who was introduced to climbing last year when she took a rock-climbing course at Vertical Adventures with her son. On her first attempt, Geisel only climbed about 15 feet. In the afternoon, she reached the top of the 60-foot tower.
"The first time, or the first couple of times, you're learning how to use the crampons and ice axes," she says.
Despite nearly frostbitten toes, Geisel was an elated convert to the sport. "I'll definitely be out here again."
Not all the activity in the ice-climbing festival involves numb toes. The festival will also include a reception on Feb. 16, starting at 5:30 p.m., with Jeff Warden, a Winnipeg-based climber who is setting off to scale the highest peaks on each of the world's seven continents. The reception takes place at Theatre de la Chapelle.
In addition to organizing the ice festival and maintaining the tower, the group organizes summer rock climbing trips to Whiteshell Provincial Park and near Kenora, Ont., and has an indoor climbing wall at Ecole Precieux Sang. The club has programs to introduce children and teens to climbing at the school climbing wall, and is looking to complete the tower for summer rock-climbing practice.
For members who are itching for full-size, real-life mountains, the club organizes a summer trip to the Rockies in Alberta. This year, Mah says, members will spend a week at Elizabeth Parker Hut in the Lake O'Hara area of Yoho National Park, renowned as one of the most spectacular places in the world for hiking and climbing.
For more information, contact Mah at 253-2162, or turn to www.cesb.net.
PHOTO LINDA VERMETTE/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS