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Ice Climbing, Prairie Style

Published: 10/11/2012

Who says there are no great ice waterfalls or vast glaciers to explore in Manitoba? The province's chapter of the Alpine Club of Canada delivers thrills, chills and as close to a mountainous adventure as possible, all within sight of downtown Winnipeg.

 Exhilarating and thrilling with flashes of terror.

Those are some feelings you get the first time you climb up a 20-metre-high wall of ice.

Sure your crampons are strapped on tight, your harness feels snug and your climbing partner is safety conscious, but you're still 60-feet up, clinging to a tower of ice with only your wits and a few centimetres of steel poked into the ice to prevent a pretty nasty fall.

Welcome to Winnipeg's free-standing ice-climbing tower-a monolithic beast that springs skyward from a river bank in the city's French Quarter every winter. The local tower was North America's original free-standing ice-climbing tower when in first opened in 1996. Since then, other towers have sprung up every winter around the continent.

In Winnipeg, as soon as the temperature drops, the free standing ice-climbing tower is flooded like a vertical hockey rink by the Club d'escalade Saint-Boniface (the Saint Boniface Section of the Alpine Club of Canada).

Winnipeg's climbing season typically starts in December once the weather is cold enough for ice to form. And then takes seven to ten days of flooding the tower to create enough ice for climbing.

After that climbers near and far, experienced or first timers suit up and scramble up the ice tower for fun, camaraderie and some pretty slick climbing cred.

This is no ordinary icefall perched on the side of a snow-covered peak. This icy behemoth has views of downtown Winnipeg, the Red River without a hill, knoll, cliff or mountain in sight.

That still doesn't make it any less heart pumping.

Winnipeg's faux ice waterfall also opens up the world of mountaineering to prairie flatlanders and has been a popular winter escape for experienced and neophyte climbers since the 90s.

The tower, which is located on the banks of the Red River just outside Fort Gibraltar in Winnipeg's French Quarter-sprung up not long after the club formed in 1992.

Club president André Mahé spotted a photo of an ice-climbing tower in Courcheva-a ski resort in the French Alps).

"We decided maybe we could have something like that here,"Mahé says.

The tower is open for drop-in guests Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.For a $30 fee, non-members can borrow equipment, get climbing tips and climb forth with a rope belay from an experienced club member.

Bulges in the ice create natural food holds and resting places where climbers plan their next step. These are also good spots to prevent vertigo and any panic. Each of the tower's four sides offers a different experience. Beginners will find extra ice ledges on their side to help. The experts, meanwhile, will tackle purely vertical routes with some overhangs.

Manitoba's ice-climbing season peaks during the club's Festiglace ice climbing festival, held the first weekend of Festival dy Voyager, an annual celebration of music, culture and winter fun. (Festival du Voyageur's 2013 edition runs Feb. 15 to 24.)

Manitoba's ice-climbing season peaks during the club's Festiglace, an ice climbing festival and competition to be held on February 15 to 17, 2013. (Festiglace coincides with the first weekend of Festival du Voyager, an annual celebration of music, culture and winter fun. Festival du Voyageur's 2013 edition runs Feb. 15 to 24.)

Festiglace includes competitions for speed and difficulty on Saturday and an alpine tournament on Sunday. For more info go to www.cesb.net.

Boots, crampons, a harness and warm, water-wicking outwear-and a unwavering trust in your belay partner-is all you need to kick step this ice climbing adventure. 

For more information about the CESB click here.

Check out the 2013 edition of the Festival du Voyageur here.

Suggested Tweet: Strap on crampons and ice climb in downtown Winnipeg. @TravelMBMedia http://media.travelmanitoba.com/2012/10/ice-climbing-prairie-style/

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