Cameron M. Burns

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A few  months ago, if you’d asked me where Hong Kong was and what it was like, I would’ve guessed: “Big City in Asia.” The most I knew about the place was Jackie Chan, Jackie Chan and Jackie Chan. Pretty lame for a well-traveled adventurer.

The opportunity to alter my understanding of the place recently arose, when a part-business-part-fun trip came together in December. While I was inquiring about visas (none needed), Diana Budiman of the Hong Kong Tourist Board, and I chatted.

“You like outdoor stuff? She asked.
“Yeah. A lot.”
What do you like?” she asked.
“All of it.”
“You’ll do fine in Hong Kong then.”
Adventure activities? Outdoors? Seriously? She had to be kidding.

Ever since Hong Kong was created and inhabited, there has likely been no more than a few dozen articles and maybe a few books written about its outdoors. The city is better known as a glittering, fast-paced, commercial hub-Las Vegas meets Rodeo Drive or Times Square on steroids. But honestly, this city-state has two completely different faces: the dense, urban, adrenaline-filled speed of pure urbanity; and the quiet, lush, and totally compelling outdoors. Hong Kong, if you will, is really two places. The human, and the non-human.

bf8c88d0Politics, Schmolotics

In recent years Hong Kong has been in the news because of the colony’s plight under China. Before the 1997 handover occurred, political analysts, journalists and much of the general public expected the proposed Sino-British Joint Declaration (which called for the Chinese government to employ a “hands-off” approach to ruling Hong Kong) to be nothing more than lip service. It was feared the people of Hong Kong were about to be muzzled, both socially and politically. Some businesses relocated to Singapore and other Pacific Rim cities, many Westerners moved out, and East Asia prepared for a jolt.

Of course, after a round of fireworks over Victoria Harbour on June 30, 1997, and some tearful speeches by Chris Patten, Hong Kong’s last British governor, the expectations fueled by Tiannemen Square and the Chinese-Tibetan situation fizzled.

The dire predictions about the Chinese rule did not come true and, from an historical perspective, were probably questionable to begin with. “Some of the worst fears about heavy-handed Chinese rule over Hong Kong have so far not come to pass,” reported the New York Times on Jan. 17 (2001). “Just last weekend some 1,200 members of the Falun Gong sect (a group that practices a form of exercise, similar to Tai Chi), which has been heavily persecuted on the mainland, were allowed to hold a mass gathering in a concert hall owned by the Hong Kong government.

The British handover coincided loosely with the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s. The day after Hong Kong went back under Chinese rule, Thailand devalued its currency, the bhat, causing the entire Eastern Hemisphere to quickly slide into a tough economic slump. Hong Kong made headlines again, but mostly because it is the Western financial center for the Eastern world and its economy-like Tokyo’s-was an icon of Asian prosperity.

f92bb800Hong Kong has never made headlines because of its outdoor activities. For the past 30 years, the city of 7 million has been famous either as Asia’s top industrial trade hub, or because of its dynamic, fast-paced retail life. People think of electronics, clothes, shoes and jewelry when the topic of Hong Kong comes up; not trail running, rock climbing and sea kayaking.

Luckily, for me, I hadn’t seen Hong Kong “back-in-the-good-old-days” before the Chinese takeover, and I wasn’t a connoisseur of the art of shopping. I’d seen a photo of someone rock climbing on Kowloon Peak, and that’s I wanted to do-go rock climbing.

Rock climbing at Shek-O

11b8ba810Ironically, when I started at the University of Colorado as an undergraduate in 1983, the first book I ever encountered in Norlin Library’s “Rare Books” collection, was a rock-climbing guide to Hong Kong. It was a book dated to the mid-1950s. My closest companion of the period, Benny Bach, and I used to break up our studying with trips into Rare Books to examine and ponder this gem. “Rock Climbs of Hong Kong”? Was the author serious? Who knew?

Nearly 20 years later, on my first day in Hong Kong, Benny and I have reunited in Kowloon and he’s brought along his girlfriend Angie Moquin. We descend into the Tsim Sha Tsui MTR (Mass Transit Railway) station, and work our way onto a train for Central, the sort of “downtown” part of Hong Kong. Angie studies the latest rock climbing guide to Hong Kong, which has been published and is thick with routes. As thick, in fact, as the 1983 guide to climbing in Boulder, Colo., America’s climbing town.
11b9a2700We climb onto the subway train, and the doors mechanically “swoosh” closed. Never once, in 20 years of climbing, have I taken a bus or subway for a “mountain experience.” But as I’m about to learn, Hong Kong is unique in every aspect-including its outdoors. At Central (downtown), we switch trains and take the subway out to Chai Wan, and wander below clusters of skyscrapers to the bus station. Our backpacks and ropes are oddly out of place among the fish vendors and silk merchants. We climb onto a European-style double-decker, and head for the beach.

The subsequent sea cliff climbing at Shek-O, a beach town just a stone’s through from Central, is superb. The orange-brown granite crags of Shek-O are some of best I’ve ever touched. The rock is coarse-but-compact, just like California’s Joshua Tree or Wyoming’s Vedavoo.

11baab770Sea cliff climbing is rare in the Americas; decent ocean-side cliffs simply don’t exist. It is a much more European tradition, especially for the British, who’s small but varied island is rimmed by a three-dimensional coast. Since Hong Kong has been British for so long, and it’s geographically similar to the Mother Isle in terms of its rocky coast, it’s no surprise that the coastline cliffs have been well developed for climbing. Several of the best crags are over the water, making for atmospheric and inspiring climbing. Just be sure to watch the tide!

11bbb1790Over the course of my visit, I get to climb at several crags, including the 500-foot tall Kowloon Peak; sea kayak for many miles through the clear blue waters around the Sai Kung Peninsula, and trail run on Lantau Island’s 3,000 foot Phoenix Peak (popular with peak-baggers). These are parts of Hong Kong most people-except a few diehard Westerners-don’t ever see, or even have the desire to see. From my perspective, they are missing the best part of thing strange little Chinese sub-nation. I’ve never been so impressed with a “major city’s” great outdoors.

Hong Kong’s Physical Urbanity

11bca5710To understand Hong Kong’s vast outdoors, the city and its physical surroundings first need a little explanation. Hong Kong is not just one big city, perched on the edge of Asia against the South China Sea. Hong Kong is, for all intents and purposes, a small geographically diverse nation (the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region or “SAR”). This nation occupies a peninsula attached to Mainland China, as well as an archipelago of some 235 islands of various sizes scattered around the peninsula. The total land area is 1070 square kilometers. The city part of Hong Kong – the part we all know about – lies mostly on two sides of a small harbor, Victoria Harbour, on the southern edge of the archipelago.

More important than the physical layout of Hong Kong is the manner in which the built environment has evolved, or rather, not evolved. In Hong Kong, there are absolutely no suburbs. The built up parts of Hong Kong are as built up as any place on earth, 50, 60, 70 stories and more. Yet meanwhile, you can step across a street and literally be in temperate jungle wilderness. There are no Colorado-style 35-acre ranchettes or sprawling subdivisions cluttering up the surface of the earth. It’s all huge buildings or wilderness. Even Hong Kong Island, a 78 square-kilometer island where downtown is located, is mostly natural land.

According to government figures, about 40 percent of Hong Kong’s entire land area has been formally set aside for conservation in 23 “Country” and Marine Parks. Most of the rest of the land area of the Hong Kong SAR remains undeveloped too, and having seen a lot of it from many angles, I would venture to guess perhaps as much as 75 percent, of the land remains in a natural state.

Hong Kong’s outdoors are so impressive that by the fourth chapter of Damian Harper and Robert Storey’s Lonely Planet Guide to Hong Kong, they’re talking about the region’s wilds: “Hong Kong has surprising natural retreats for lovers of the big outdoors. A short ferry ride away is Lamma Island, an overgrown idyll that nature enthusiasts will find hard to resist,” they write. “The New Territories cuts a huge swath to the North, offering bracing walks among dramatic and spectacular countryside.”

Biologically, Hong Kong is more diverse than all of the Western U.S. states combined. Until almost a decade ago, Hong Kong’s native flora and fauna was little documented. Then, in the early 1990s, the World Wide Fund for Nature helped fund a study that among other things: revealed 210 types of seaweed, 175 types of fern, 1900 flowering plants (including 120 orchid species), 2000 moth species, 225 butterflies, 107 dragonflies, 96 freshwater fish species, 23 amphibians, 78 reptiles, 445 birds, and 57 mammals (including civets and macaques). Not bad for a place regarded thought of as Asia’s biggest a shopping center.

What I-a Western U.S. resident and enthusiastic outdoor adventure type find bizarre-is that the local Chinese residents seem to have little interest in any outdoor activities. Hiking undulating ridges on the peaks above Choi Hung (a neighborhood) we have the place to ourselves; rock climbing-on any of Hong Kong’s main cliffs-there’s no one else around; sea kayaking for two full days around Sai Kung we see a few fishermen, certainly no other kayakers; trail running on Lantau it’s just me and birds. The Japanese and Koreans are nutty about skiing and running and climbing. Japan boasts the biggest indoor ski slopes on earth, and last time I was big-walling on El Capitan in Yosemite Valley, there were several Korean teams slaving away.

But the Chinese seem uninterested. Taiwan, I was told is similar. A large island covered with some of Asia’s most beautiful outdoors, it boasts great hiking, climbing, camping, kayaking…whatever you like. There, I know of a man-a friend of a friend-who owns an outdoors shop. He has no competition, yet sales are so small he has trouble staying in the black.

That’s not to say southeastern Asia’s people are backward or uninspired-to the contrary. I found Hong Kong’s Chinese population some of the most polite, considerate, hard-working and orderly folks on earth. In fact, they are-in most ways-far in advance of us Westerners.

Transportation as A Symbol
The city’s transportation infrastructure (a strange thing to write about, perhaps) is a good example and for me, a great symbol of Asia’s progress. Because of Hong Kong’s development (urbanity stacked tightly together, with open spaces surrounding it) the city has a dimensionality that even America’s biggest urban areas lack. There are the skyscrapers, there are the subways, and there are the streets. But in Hong Kong, there are sidewalks built above the streets (so human traffic doesn’t snarl in vehicular) and below the streets but above the subways are underground walkways. At every level, there’s a viable, active part of the city’s transportation system. As with some European cities, when you want to check your luggage to fly home, you can do so in a downtown subway station. (When you actually get on the train, you can read the latest news, stock quotes, airline departure info, and check you email on a small screen on the back of the seat in front of you.)

Taxis in Hong Kong don’t rip you off. They’re heavily regulated by the government, and all must use functioning (and accurate) meters. The subways are cheap, but more importantly, user friendly. You can be the biggest Meathead in All the Family and get around with most amazing ease. I went across town one day. The ferries are the same: Hop on, toss any kind of card, coins or bills into a machine, and leave your brain in the hotel. Even the buses are dead easy to use.

Hong Kong’s streets are kept spotless by teams of government cleaners, who pick up absolutely every scrap of rubbish. Road cuts are sealed with sculptured concrete and drainage systems to offset excessive water. Every sign appears in at least English and Cantonese, and sometimes Mandarin, Spanish and German as well. And everywhere, everything has a phone number on it (even the road cuts and garbage cans), so you can call and complain if you don’t like what you see.

Even the way Asians approach cell phones is different to good old backward America. In America, phone companies manufacturer cell phones then ask themselves: “What else can we make this cell phone do?” And, you get a few features like voicemail and email and stock quotes. In Asia, engineers don’t even call it a phone to start with (a phone is a cumbersome, 20th century ideal); the attitude is “we’re going to make a handheld device and see what it can do.” And the functions come fast and furious-global position readouts, online games, digital photo albums, and digital imaging technology (stilt and video cameras) are all packed into a tiny device that in America, we’d call a cell phone. “Scarcely a week goes by with another innovation,” wrote technology journalist David Wade, in a recent issue of Hemispheres Magazine. More importantly still, in Asia, you can have those hand held gadgets customized to match your nail polish, your faux fur, or your leather shoes. Pretty handy when you want to be seen, as well as heard.

bf0c88a0So, maybe that’s what makes Hong Kong so unique. The built, human, urban side of Hong Kong, is amazing-outdistancing most western urban areas in terms of civility and functionality by leaps and bounds. Yet, on the other hand, Hong Kong’s pristine, rugged, untrammeled outdoors are among some of the finest I’ve ever experienced anywhere. It’s a combination that’s hard to fathom, yet easy to experience. Step off a subway, and within a few steps you can be hiking; hop out a taxi door and you can be next to a seriously good cragging cliff; get off the bus and across the street you squeeze into a sea kayak. It’s a great mix, easily worth shaking up your senses and every preconceived notion you’ve ever had about Hong Kong. After all, Hong Kong is really two places. The human, and the non-human.

bf4c88b0If you go
The best season for visiting Hong Kong is October through December, when the weather is generally sunny and warm. Several airlines fly direct from Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago to Hong Kong, including United. Once in Hong Kong, there is no need to rent a car. Mass transit can easily get you to almost any place or island within the SAR. The best advice is to find a hotel you like, then find the nearest MTR (subway) station, as this is by far the easiest way to get around. Visas are not required for Hong Kong for Americans if staying a month or less.

Recommended Guidebooks
“Rock Climbs in Hong Kong” by Brian J. Heard (Cicerone Press,) is an excellent reference. “Exploring Hong Kong’s Outdoors” by Edward Stokes (available through the Hong Kong Tourist Board-www.hkta.org).

Climbing:
It’s possible to get public transportation to every major crag in Hong Kong, and backpacks are fine on the subways and buses. The best thing to do it find the nearest MTR (Mass Transit Railway) station, go in, and take a short ride to the next station. You’ll quickly learn that mass transit in Hong Kong is about the easiest, most sensibly designed and most-efficient mass transit system anywhere in the world. Once you’ve taken the MTR close to the crag you’re headed to, there be both taxis and local buses that will get you the rest of the way. (See “Rock Climbs in Hong Kong” for specific instructions.) Taxis are cheap; they’re heavily regulated by the government. Gear: There are plenty of bolts (especially fixed rap-belay stations) on the major crags, but a set or two of cams, TCUs, and stoppers are a good idea on many routes.

Sea kayaking
Sea kayaking is a pretty new activity in Hong Kong and there are no rental shops as far as I know. Longtime local Paul Etherington runs Natural Excursion Ideals in Hong Kong, and offers a range of kayaks and programs.

Climbing
“Rock Climbs in Hong Kong,” published by Cicerone Press is available at several Front Range climbing shops, including Neptune Mountaineering in Table Mesa shopping center in Boulder. There are no climbing shops in Hong Kong, however, knowledgeable local climbers can be found at the Salisbury YMCA in Kowloon, where there are two indoor climbing walls.

Hiking/Trail Running
Hiking and Trail Running are the easiest activity to do in Hong Kong as there are hundreds of trails. The best hikes are well described in Lonely Planet’s Hong Kong guide. Another helpful book, “Exploring Hong Kong’s Countryside: A Visitor’s Companion” is available from the Hong Kong Tourist Board, which has offices around the city. Paul Etherington’s Natural Excursion Ideals also guides hiking in Hong Kong’s Country Parks.

Necessary Diversions:
Temple Street Night Market: This place is wild. The hottest products here are the Mao Tse Tung trinkets. Everyone in Hong Kong is nutty for Chairman Mao souvenirs. I bought up two tea mugs with Mao’s portrait on the side and several cigarette lighters with Mao’s face on them-they play traditional Chinese music when you flip the tops. If Mao were around today, he’d be bigger than Brad Pitt as a porn star!

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When most people think about ice climbing, they draw a blank. Ice climbing? What the heck is that? Most people know all too well about rock climbing, that sport that is now practiced in every gymnasium in the country via artificial rock walls. But ice climbing? It was the late Scottish mountaineer Tom Patey who, perhaps, summed up the most common response the average person has when they learn about the unique sport of ice climbing: “Ice is for pouring whiskey on.”
Patey was right: Ice climbing is weird.
It’s about kicking, hacking, and pressing minuscule points of metal attached to one’s hands and feet into frozen water, water that clings vertically to boulders, cracks, shrubs, and whatever else can be found on the average mountain precipice. But ice climbing’s also an activity full of style and grace, a vertical dance of movement like its cousin, rock climbing. And, surprisingly, it’s become one of winter’s trendiest activities.

A little history

Ice climbing’s roots lie in European mountaineering of the 19th century, as one aspect of an entire raft of mountaineering activities. European mountaineers saw it-in a rather crude form-as just another component of the greater game of mountain climbing. But they also recognized it as something unique.
Ice climbing’s (as a singular sport) most significant development came in about 1908, when British climber Oscar Eckenstein designed a type of toothed claw that attached to mountaineering boots. Eckenstein’s crampons did away with the need for step-cutting in ice, a practice that made winter climbing and mountaineering very slow. In 1932, Laurent Grivel (whose name can be found on countless pieces of ice climbing equipment today as part of the Grivel equipment line) added “front points” to crampons, two fang-like protrusions sticking out the front of the devices, and shortly thereafter, various European climbers began to weld the entire crampon assembly rigid. This allowed very steep ice to be climbed.
Modern ice axes or “tools,” as they’re known, developed much later, in the 1960s, and unlike most mountaineering equipment, were invented by an American. In 1966, Yvon Chouinard, best known now as the founder of the Patagonia clothing line, went to Europe to experiment with axes. With the help of a friend, Chouinard convinced the French equipment company Charlet to shorten the then lengthy mountaineering ice axes to 55 centimeters (about 22 inches) and “reverse” the curve of the pick.
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Chouinard’s ice axe designs revolutionized ice climbing as much as Eckenstein’s crampons, and vertical ice could be climbed relatively easily. The new axes and crampons even allowed ice steeper than vertical to be tackled proficiently. But while Chouinard was an expert ice climber within his own right, he is mostly remembered for his innovative equipment. It took a handful of hardcore climbers-based in the United States, Canada, and Europe-to affect Chouinard’s revolution.

Todays’ ice climbing
Today, ice climbing is a sport in its own right. There are ice climbing festivals in Europe, Canada, the United States, and many other nations. But today’s ice climbing isn’t what it used to be. Today the sport has evolved to the point where climbing miniscule patches of ice separated by long stretches of very difficult rock form the basis of a climb. It’s called “mixed” climbing, and it’s as gymnastic as anything Nadia Comaneci ever tried.
Of course, there are those of us who like both activities. I’m one, and recently, I had a chance to visit one of the premier places in the world for both “normal” (if ice climbing can be called normal) ice climbing, as well as mixed climbing: Québec, Canada.
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On a Saturday night in mid-February, my friend Luke Laeser and I stepped out of Montréal’s Dorval Airport into -40ºC temperatures, and had our breath taken away. La Belle Province, as Québec is known, was at the tail end of a cold snap, and the winds blowing down from the Arctic sliced through our clothes, skin, gums, and teeth. We found a rental car and, after some incredibly poor navigation efforts on my part, headed north toward Mont Tremblant on Highway 15. (North is, apparently, still north in Canada. Yes, Lucas, that’s right: I do have the navigational abilities of a concrete block….)
The Mont Tremblant region is not particularly famous for its ice climbing, but there is a large national park (Mont Tremblant Provincial Parc), and the climbs that do exist are superb. After a warm night in the quaint little village of Mont Tremblant (which is like a spanking new version of a European village), we met up with a local guide, Mike Oullet, who gave us a tour of the area’s ice climbs. We settled on a particular area called La Vache Noire (the Black Cow), and took turns picking our way up and down several beautiful ice routes. Like some of the more popular ice climbing destinations in the United States (Vail, Colorado, for instance) the more popular ice climbing areas in Québec have rescue backboards strapped to trees, in case of bad accidents. Mike was happy to point out that the backboard strapped to a tree at the base of La Vache Noire had probably never been used. We sure didn’t use it!
One of the weird things about ice-and, of course, climbing it-is that ice is not just the solid form of water. It takes on various consistencies at various temperatures-kinda like the banana that shatters at absolute zero we all learned about in high school science class. (Okay, I went to high school in Australia….) Anyway, Luke and I learned this pretty quickly at the Black Cow: The ice was very hard, and it shattered easily. It was not like Colorado’s watery blue (and often sun-beaten) ice. We hiked out as the sun set over the Laurentian Mountains, savoring the soft orange light that this part of Canada boasts in the evening.
The following day we headed east, to the old city of Québec. Québec city is the oldest European-founded city in North America (founded by Jacques Cartier in 1608), and it is the continent’s only walled city. If you like Europe for its history and its rich mixture of culture and language, you’ll love Québec city. Over 90 percent of the residents here speak French and, while most have a working knowledge of English, these people are thrilled to practice our tongue-quite the opposite experience for many of us who’ve visited other Francophone parts of the world. I even had one woman ask me very politely if we could “speak a short time longer because I really enjoy this and I need to practice my English.” She is, I believe, the first woman to ever want to lengthen a conversation with me. Possibly the first human.
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On our second day in Québec city, we were given a tour of the Chute de Montmorency, perhaps the best ice climbing venue in North America, by local ice climbing legend Francois-Guy Thivierge (a.k.a. Frank). Here, the Riviere Montmorency squirts out of a gap 300 feet above the St. Lawrence River and tumbles down a cliff. The falls themselves are dramatic-but for ice climbers, it’s the cliffs on the left side of the falls that are the attraction. Somehow, a lucky quirk of geology and topography has created a situation where water seeps out of the rocks along the entire top edge of this precipice. Gravity pulls it down the cliff face, and it forms beautiful 300-foot-tall walls of perfect ice. Although the ice faces south-which would be cause for major concern in most of the warm United States-in Québec, the colder temperatures keep the ice structurally sound. Not only is the ice always in perfect condition, the amount of climbable ice is staggering (I later estimated close to 35,000 square meters). It humbles world famous Ouray’s Ice Park the way a Hummer humbles my Chevette.
As Québec shrugged off the cold snap (the daytime temperatures rose to a very comfortable -5º C), we spent a day at the chute, climbing ice walls varying from 75 degrees to 90. A couple from Poland climbed next to us; they had read of Québec’s wonderful ice and had flown over for a winter ice-climbing holiday. Next to them, one of the local “technical” policemen (trained in special rescue techniques) climbed the chute with his son. Tourists wandered up every few minutes, fascinated by the falls and the popularity of climbing them. When lunch rolled around, everyone pulled out warm baguettes and thermoses of coffee-it was very civilized ice climbing. You know that when you smell fresh baked bread and steaming hot coffee that a mountain sport has evolved.
In the morning we returned to the chute and “ran a lap” on it again before hitting the road for Charlevoix, a northeastern region of the province that is similar to parts of the French countryside. Charlevoix is a world Biosphere Reserve, which are “areas of terrestrial and coastal ecosystems promoting solutions to reconcile the conservation of biodiversity with [their] sustainable use,” according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which governs the biosphere program.
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Highway 138 into Charlevoix-which hugs the north bank of the St. Lawrence River-makes for a fascinating journey in winter. Here, the most important river in all Canada is as much as 35 kilometers wide; the vastness makes it looks like an ocean. Meanwhile, the force of the tides pushes and pulls the surface ice, stretching and compressing it, until huge chunks of it are shoved up onto the river’s frozen surface. To drive along the St. Lawrence in winter, through Charlevoix, is to be awed by the power of the sea. There is-we were told by Elyse Busquet, a Québec city historian-a rather large, energy-intensive industry devoted to keeping the St. Lawrence River navigable year-round.
In Charlevoix, we attempted a climb in Parc des Grands Jardins (the Park of the Big Gardens), but were turned away by the late hour. We stopped at the quaint village of Baie St. Paul for the night, and were treated to a beer sampling by the owners of the town’s small microbrewery, Frederick and Caroline Tremblay. Not only can les Québeçois ice climb and ski with the best of them, they brew damn fine beer as well. We returned to Québec city the next day, stopping at a fairly obscure waterfall, Chute Larose for an evening climb. Surprisingly, we ran into Frank, who was teaching ice climbing to some New Yorkers.
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Our final day in Québec was spent in a narrow shale canyon, on the outskirts of a small farming village called Pont Rouge (Red Bridge). Here, in 1990, while paddling down the Jacques-Cartier River, a kayaker noticed the walls of the canyon seeped quite a bit of water. He wondered if the seeps froze in the winter because his friend, Frank (who else?), was always interested in new ice climbs. The following winter, Frank and Gilles Brousseau ventured into the canyon and found the equivalent of Ouray’s Box Canyon (the most famous ice climbing venue in the United States), only better. Huge, naturally forming ice climbs scattered along a canyon for over a half-mile, and rock walls perfect for the new, ultra-trendy sport of “mixed” climbing (from the term, “mixed rock and ice climbing”). Frank and Gilles set to work climbing the natural ice routes, then started telling their friends, many of whom were more interested in the rock between the seeps.
Today, Pont Rouge is an international ice climbing Mecca. It has hundreds of both ice and mixed climbs, and is easily accessed from both Montréal and Québec. It hosts the biggest ice climbing festival in North America, Festiglace (glace is French for ice), every February. Climbers from around the globe come and take part in difficulty and speed competitions, judged by a who’s who of ice climbing.
“Our event as been running for six years and we have more than 4,000 people showing up on-site for the two-day event,” noted Yan Bariteau, one of the founders of Festiglace. “Our original goal with the event was to create a climbers and outdoor enthusiast yearly rendezvous; promote the sport; the site and even Quebec as a whole destination for ice climbing adventure.”
Yan was, obviously, working with a good product.
Luke Laeser and I wandered through the canyon, awestruck by the thick, blue, healthy looking waterfalls, frozen like cut crystal candlesticks to the tawny shale. Luke climbed a steep column of ice, then we proceeded to toprope (a type of climbing in which a safety rope is rigged above the climber) about fifteen different variations to the pillar and the rock wall next to it. We had found heaven. And, looking around, we guessed it would have taken us a month of climbing every day just to get acquainted with Pont Rouge.
I’m not sure what I like best about Québec in winter-the ice climbing, the skiing (which is fabulous), the stillness of the Laurentian Mountains, the quaintness of the villages, the hand-made beer, the omni-present French, which I was allowed to take part in, or the warmth of the locals. Certainly, the ever-present smell of warm baguettes and coffee doesn’t hurt.
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