Who says there are no great ice waterfalls or vast glaciers to explore in Manitoba? The province's Saint-Boniface section of the Alpine Club of Canada delivers thrills, chills and as close to a mountainous adventure as possible, all with a view 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 de 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.
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 and 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 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 Courchevel, a ski resort in the French Alps. "We decided maybe we could have something like that here," Mahé says.
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 three 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 du Voyager, an annual celebration of Franco-Manitoban music, culture and winter fun.
The tower is open for drop-in guests Saturdays and Sundays from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. For $40, non-members can borrow equipment, get climbing tips and climb forth with a top rope belay from an experienced club member.