Thursday, May 08, 2014

Ice climbing with the Agawa Canyon train

Soon after taking up the sport for people of questionable sanity that is ice climbing, I heard about Agawa Canyon. All I knew was that it is located in the untamed wilderness of northern Ontario, only accessible by train, and is home to a veritable treasure trove of stellar ice routes. It has been on my wish list ever since. This year, while looking for reports on ice conditions for my local crags, I learned of the discontinuation of the Agawa Canyon Train due to budget cutbacks - this winter may be its last!

Nothing like a rapidly closing window of opportunity to motivate. The afternoon of Friday, March 14, Jooeun and I drove the eight hours north to Sault Sainte Marie (known locally as the Soo), and the next morning, we lugged our massive duffels to the rail yard and onto a rail car. Winter camping gear, climbing equipment, enough food to feed this metaphorical army of two. Fortunately they allow 100 pounds of luggage per person - and we learned later even that sizable limit is not enforced.

The train runs the 300 miles between the Soo and Hearst, but we wouldn't be getting off at a station. Rather, we disembark at mile marker 112, and ask the train to pick us up at the same place at a later date, then just trust that it does!

We had chosen this weekend because the annual Agawa Canyon Ice Fest was being held at this time. The majority of the group took the Thursday train in, so we were breaking our own trail. The ride in was very comfortable in that luxurious train kind of way, and with only four other passengers, we got to stretch out. We leaned out the side for some photos, but with the bracing wind whipping at us we kept the photo shoot brief.

Upon arrival, we jumped into the snow after our baggage, and joked about having made a terrible mistake as the sight and sounds of the train faded into the distance.

With minimal fuss, we found the group's tents and set up our own. Soon after, Sean arrived back from his morning's mission, and led us down the canyon to a moderate climb to whet our appetites.

Even though the climb was relatively easy from a technical perspective, there were many challenges. A month earlier, Jooeun had never swung an ice axe, or climbed outdoors. This would also be her first multi-pitch climb and first time rappelling. Not to mention we were climbing in an unfamiliar, remote location, where a dozen other climbers were the only thing between us and walk of many hours to the nearest, likely deserted, road. In the face of all those obstacles, Jooeun showed some real toughness. She even placed two ice screws after leading up the second pitch snow slope! What a trooper. We topped out and rappelled back down before dusk, and walked back along the train line to the campsite.

That evening, we looked more thoroughly at our fellow campers' setups. Sean had wooden fortifications from years of trips in and stretching the aforementioned luggage weight limit. The trio from Michigan erected a light-weight tent one might see at an ultimate field; they had a gas heater running full-blast that evening, and combined with a half-dozen bodies and numerous layers of clothing, provided a fairly hospitable environment compared with the frigid temperature outside. There is often great camaraderie to be found in when facing hardship together, and this night was no exception. We cooked on someone's full-sized barbeque, shared dinners, swapped stories, joked, and drank together until late, before retiring to our respective voluminous sleeping bags. It got down to around -35 degrees that night, and boy did it feel every bit that cold when I needed to pee!

The next day we had a late start. Okay, I rose late while Jooeun killed time hanging out with the others. We hastily packed and hurried to a climb with intentions of making it back by 1pm - the time the train was scheduled to return. It was obviously important we didn't miss it, since the next southbound passenger train would pass by two days later, but we had also heard that it was often late - it seems the schedule is entirely optimistic (delusional?) in that it is based on having to make no stops. Sunday is a common day for people to leave their lodges and cabins, so we heard we may have an hour, or more, grace.

Since this was our last climb for the trip, I dared to try a climb almost as hard as I'd ever done, a two-pitch WI-IV (water ice grade four). The route was a real gem. It is set in a small canyon off the main one, and the midday sun caught trickling water coming off the rocks beside the ice column. However, there was no time for admiring the scenery. The ice was brittle from the cold snap, but I made it up reasonably smoothly. Upon arriving at the top of the first pitch, Jooeun said it was past 1pm. Time to go! I started preparing an anchor. In my haste I broke my v-thread hook nearly in half! but managed to make the anchor with it anyway, and rappelled down to the ground. Then Jooeun and I ran like our lives depending on it, back to the tracks.

At the end of the trail, both of us managed to slip onto our butts and slide down the embankment to the tracks in full view of the others, but once we found  the errant axe, it was good for a laugh.

Of course, the train arrived much later, giving us time to cook marshmallows and hot dogs in the fire pit, before the bass note of the train horn announced its arrival. Back on board, we again took lots of photos as we passed over the trestle bridge, ate, slept, and chatted with our new buddies.
That was the easy part of our journey home. We were questioning whether to even try driving eight hours to get home, after a big day of climbing in the back country, starting at 8:30pm. Even that turned into 9pm by the time we realized the GPS was trying to direct us via the US without asking if we had our passports! So we holed up in Sudbury for the night and drove the rest of the way the next morning.

1 comment:

David said...

Nice work!