Why is it that winter gets a bad rep? The general perception of the season is unbearable weather. The people who think that, we think they're crazy. At the very least, they're the ones missing out on the fun.

Photo by Aric Fishman - Terry Milne & Joey Miller climbing Northwestern Ontario ice
Credit: Photo by Aric Fishman - Terry Milne & Joey Miller climbing Northwestern Ontario ice

Ice climbers will agree; for them, the fun starts in winter. Since the 1980s Northwestern Ontario has built a reputation for being one of Canada's best ice climbing destinations. With recent exposure and new route development in the area, it is also becoming well known to many as being a top rock climbing destination as well. Those looking for some place new to put their climbing skills to the test will definitely want to check out these two epic climbing areas near Thunder Bay.


Pass Lake

The crag known as Pass Lake is a very popular spot for climbers of all skill levels looking to lead climb or top rope outdoors. This very same cliff that is visited frequently throughout the year by rock climbers is also a fun spot for ice climbers during the winter. In good seasons this cliff has a waterfall that freezes in to a 25 metre sheet of rolling ice graded as a WI2+ ice climb. Due to its south facing exposure, this quartz sandstone cliff gets hammered by the full force of the sun all day long making it possible to climb throughout the year. Conveniently located directly off the 587 highway only 40 minutes east of Thunder Bay, even the busiest climber can head out to soak in some rays and squeeze in a quick climb or two.

Photo by Aric Fishman - Pass Lake Waterfall
Credit: Aric Fishman- Pass Lake Waterfall

It is also worth noting that the top of the cliffs can often be accessed via a short scramble nearby, making it possible for climbers to set up top-ropes on hard or easy lines. Top-ropers should be considerate of other climbers who are lead climbing and not throw down ropes without warning people below. First time climbers will want to be especially cautious if they decide to head out there as some portions of the crag involve negotiating your way through talus/boulder fields to reach the sweeping walls. Slipping or twisting an ankle can easily end a climbing day before it even begins. Helmets should always be worn by anyone climbing at Pass Lake; although most of the established climbs are clean and relatively solid, it is important to still be aware of rock fall danger due to the soft and porous rock type. Climbers should avoid climbing at Pass Lake for 24 hours after a heavy rainfall, and be extremely cautious due to an increased frequency of freeze-thaw cycles this season.

Photo by Martin Dubé - Aric Fishman climbing 'The Swing of Things' at Pass Lake
Credit: Photo by Martin Dubé - Aric Fishman climbing 'The Swing of Things' at Pass Lake

On almost any sunny day, rock climbing routes at Pass Lake are accessible to beginner and veteran climbers alike. Some of the great areas like ‘No Man’s Land’ and ‘Chip Off the Old Block’ have popular beginner routes like ‘Thunder Bay Transit’ graded 5.5 and ‘Cave Crawler’ at 5.7. More experienced climbers will want to head to the upside down ‘Staircase Wall’ or the loaded ‘Long Wall’ to test their skills on some of the more challenging routes. After getting warmed up on some easier climbs veterans should try their luck on epic routes like ‘The Swing of Things’ rated 5.11+, or ‘Unknown Pleasures’ also rated 5.11+.


Orient Bay

Photo by Aric Fishman - Kyle Brooks climbing
Credit: Photo by Aric Fishman - Kyle Brooks climbing

In recent years, Orient Bay has been slowly been transformed into one of Ontario's premium crags for sport, multi-pitch trad, mixed, and ice climbers. Located just an hour and a half outside of Thunder Bay on Highway 11, this crag's abundance of hard climbing routes has become a must for Canadian and international climbers.

While multi-pitch rock climbing routes like the 95 metre splitter crack of ‘Temple of Zeus’ graded at 5.10+, or ‘The Colossus’ with its classic sweeping roof and challenging 5.11 grade are attracting the eye of many rock climbers, Orient Bay has always been famous for its ice climbing. That is, even before its hard rock routes were developed. With well over 110 waterfalls spread throughout the surrounding area and ice that freezes 10 meters thick, the area is home to the largest concentration of climbable ice east of the Rockies.

Photo by Martin Dubé - Amir and Aric Fishman climbing at Orient BayPhoto by Martin Dubé - Amir and Aric Fishman climbing at Orient Bay

Boasting short approaches, high quality lines and no avalanche danger, it's considered one of the top three ice climbing destinations in North America seeing visits by top athletes each year. Some of the over 100 meter tall cliffs found in the Orient Bay Corridor are notorious among climbers as being somewhat of a ‘testing grounds’. The walls are transformed into a breathtaking series of thick pillars of ice that freeze along the cliff. This area has become quite legendary for those who want to put their metal to the test. Seasoned climbers consider it an absolute playground and even named one of the areas ‘The Ice Palace’ due to the heavy concentration of ice climbs found at the Pijitawabik Palisades.

Photo by Martin Dubé - Amir and Aric Fishman climbing at Orient Bay
Credit: Photo by Paul Desaulnier - Aric Fishman and Patrick Martel climbing at Orient Bay

While many different routes at Orient Bay can be accessible to beginners, ice climbs found in ‘The Ice Palace’ are nothing but grade WI3+ and above. People adventuring in to this area should be with an experienced leader or have a number of climbs already under their belt (or harness rather). Seasoned climbers will want to test their skills on epic climbs like ‘10% Real’, a 60 meter shute of ice graded WI5 that’s been featured in climbing magazines. Or swing your ice axes at some ‘Monsters in the Closet’ graded WI4+ stretching 70 meters tall.

Some of the great ‘must do’ ice climbs in the area for beginners include routes like ‘Tempest’, a 70 meter long ramp of ice that is graded WI2+, and ‘Cascade Falls’ graded WI3-WI4. These routes were the first ones climbed back in 1981 and have since become known as some of the most popular well travelled ice routes in the area. While impressive walls of ice have long attracted climbers from all around looking for a fun day out, this venue is also a great place for groups and for those trying to improve their skills for larger objectives.

Beginners should be well aware of the dangers and risks associated with ice climbing and only travel with someone who is well experienced and knows the terrain. Helmets should always be worn due to the increased risk of falling ice from shifts in temperature and from climbers above.


Looking for more climbing information in the Thunder Bay area? Wanting to take a course or custom adventure? Get in touch with the experts at 
Outdoor Skills And Thrills - Guided Rock And Ice Climbing Adventures


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