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Go North, Old Man!

A Trip Report

Parc National des Grand Jardins in Quebec

by Alden Pellett 

Ice the size of suitcases crashed down the face in the hot sun. I hunkered below a rock buttress, standing off to the side of 20 Below Zero gully. I had just gotten down off a neighboring route and the sun was increasing in intensity.  It was only the middle of November, but I was already climbing classic lines at Lake Willoughby!

At the same time around the Northeast, fellow climbers were also ecstatically sinking tools into early season classic ice like the Black Dike at Cannon cliff in New Hampshire, Grand Illusion in Vermont’s Smuggler’s Notch, and Chouinard’s Gully at Chapel Pond in the Adirondacks. The ice had formed excitingly fast over the past few days.

I stood chewing on a crushed peanut butter sandwich. My crampons scratched on the bare ground. Boom! An acrid smell filled the air as a toaster-sized rock crashed down the slope fifty feet away. It felt more like March than November. Now, right before my eyes, the season seemed to be deteriorating almost as rapidly as it started.  I quickly packed my lunch away, grabbed my gear, and hustled through the fallen leaves down to my car.

Back at home, a day had gone by. The forecast did not look good. It was clear that the temperatures at lower altitudes meant some of my favorite climbs hadn’t stuck around. I was given an amazing early taste of winter and was depressed at the thought of having to go back to merely dreaming of steep ice. I fired up the wood stove and sunk into my couch, aimlessly browsing social media. Trump, ‘snowflakes,’ North Korea, gun control, blah, blah, blah.  None of it seemed to matter. I wanted my ice climbing back, and my out-of-shape, old-man calf muscles from the past couple of days climbing weren’t helping me forget it.

The Mur des Crapaud Wall in Parc National des Grand Jardins in Quebec. Photo by Alden Pellett

The Mur des Crapaud Wall in Parc National des Grand Jardins in Quebec. Photo by Alden Pellett

Suddenly a glimmer of hope flashed across my computer screen. A Canadian friend to the north posted photos from his own weekend outing. The big crags in the background of some of his pictures had long runnels of shaded ice snaking over five hundred feet down the faces. In another image, steep yellow ice flowed several hundred feet down to talus and trees.  I had seen these classics in the ice guidebook for Quebec, but would the ice still be there?  Smiling faces in his warm, sunlit photos told me, ‘No,’ but hope flickered there. I checked the forecast. I sent a message. I read the guidebook. I sent another message. I got up and put another log on the fire and sat forward on the couch. His answer came. It was “Yes!” The climbs should still be there! My fingers working quickly, I sent one more message and my buddy Ryan replied. He had time off too and was game for heading north. We would escape this warm up by driving north of the border.

Ryan Stefiuk steps lightly on the brook crossing to reach Mont Gros Bras (Big Arm) in Quebec.

Ryan Stefiuk steps lightly on the brook crossing to reach Mont Gros Bras (Big Arm) in Quebec.

The Parc National des Grand Jardins (Great Gardens) lies about an hour north of Quebec City, traveling through farm country to the quaint tidy town of Ste.-Urbain. This 120-square mile park is loaded with boreal forest, wildlife, tundra, and scenic granite faces.

Wednesday morning, the alarm goes off at our Motel in Baie St. Paul. Ryan fires up the Jet Boil to make hot tea for the day ahead. We had arrived at 9 p.m. the night before, spending an hour sharpening tools and prepping gear before hitting the hay.  After wolfing down a speedy breakfast at the ubiquitous Tim Horton’s, we were chomping at the bit to hit the park and see if our chosen routes were still in. I point my old green Toyota van out Highway 138 and start out of the valley. Farms like patchwork dot the way. Dairy cows line up for morning milking, standing in a green hillside pasture grooved from decades of this daily ritual. Passing through the tidy town of St. Urbain, we take a left on 381, winding uphill toward the park. Encouragingly, the early light of day reflects off small ice flows in the hillsides. Straight ahead, our goal, the beautiful granite dome of Mont Gros Bras, ‘The Big Arm,’ comes into sight. Easily viewable from the highway, I slow down, and Ryan cranes his neck to look at the big face. It was Game On!  Now all we had to do was see if we dared climb the thinly iced corners.

  • You reach the start of the classic mixed routes on Mont Gros Bras by taking a trail across the road and slightly downhill from the Visitor’s Center. Microspikes are helpful right now for crossing the brook and walking uphill on the frozen, leaf-strewn path. The approach seems like it will take longer from the parking lot, but just ten to fifteen minutes of hiking should take you below the big corners and mixed lines there.
Ryan Stefiuk leading up pitch 1 of P'tite Tête, WI4+R,M6R, on Mont Gros Bras in Parc National des Grand Jardins in Quebec.

Ryan Stefiuk leading up pitch 1 of P’tite Tête, WI4+R,M6R, on Mont Gros Bras in Parc National des Grand Jardins in Quebec.. Thanks to thin ice, we found the guidebook rating was harder than the actual conditions we encountered. Easy mixed and thin ice at 4+R. Photo by Alden Pellett.

According to Guides des cascades de glace et voies mixtes du Quebec by Stephane Lapierre and Bernard Gagnon:

 

Mont Gros Bras

Notable winter routes:

“P’tite Tête,” WI4+R,M6R. 175M.

“Gaston et mademoiselle Jeanne,” WI4,M5R. 180M. Just to the right of the previous route.

“All Fine,” WI4+,M5R. 180M. This is the left-hand side of these obvious corner systems in the central part of the cliff.

“Hals und Beinbruch,” M6+. 230M.

 

Mur des Crapauds

Approach: Cross the road next to a yellow ‘500M’ truck sign, and look for orange contractor tape marking a route through the woods, crossing the brook, and then trending up the right of the talus field below the main cliff face. The woods above get fairly dense and steeper the closer to the cliff you get. This appears to be the easiest path to and from the cliff face. Trust me, we didn’t come down that way and it was a nasty bushwhack.

Notable winter routes:

“Convention Collective,” WI4+R. 90M

“La Retour des Crapauds (Return of the Toads),” WI5+R. 130M

There are a number of appealing corners of thin ice, turf, and mixed corners that have been climbed to the right of this route.

 

Alden Pellett leads up pitch 2 of the mixed route, "P'tite Tête,"

Alden Pellett leads up pitch 2 of the mixed route, “P’tite Tête,” on Mont Gros Bras in Parc National des Grand Jardins in Quebec.

Ryan Stefiuk heads up the crux headwall on "Retour des Crapauds"(Return of the Toads) WI5 on the Mur des Crapauds Wall.

Ryan Stefiuk heads up the crux headwall on “Retour des Crapauds”(Return of the Toads) on the Mur des Crapauds Wall.

 

Pitch one of the ice climb "Retour des Crapauds." WI5 (WI4R) in Parc National des Grand Jardins.

Pitch one of the ice climb “Retour des Crapauds.”  in Parc National des Grand Jardins. It gets a WI5+R in the guidebook. We found conditions much easier, more like WI4+(WI4R).

Where to eat and sleep:

There are places for lodging in St. Urbain but we chose to stay near the bigger town of Baie St. Paul for a better selection of restaurants and services.

Baie St. Paul

You can spend between $75 to over $156CDN per night.

Hotel des Cascades – Offers what is probably the most inexpensive night’s lodging. No frills but clean and right near downtown. Recently redone rooms.

Hotel Baie St. Paul – Much along the same vein as des Cascades. Inexpensive but fairly clean and near enough to downtown.

Hotel and Spa Le Germain Charlevoix – Pricey, but pretty inclusive. Restaurants onsite and more.

 

Tim Hortons for a quick breakfast, of course. it is just down the main drag in town.  There is a McDonalds, too. Check out a few of the local restaurants if you have time for a sit-down breakfast.

Joe Smoked Meat – Pleasant interior. Good inexpensive sandwiches on the menu plus a spaghetti plate with sauce. Get it with the smoked meat plate if you want a good but different-looking meal. 😉

There are a number of very nice eateries along the Rue Ste. Jean Baptiste in town like Le Cafe des Artistes. Check them out!

 


Area Map

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You might also like this post by Ryan Stefiuk:  A Road Trip – Newfoundland 2015

 

Lard Tunderin’ Jaysus, Der’s A Lotta Ice Up Der B’ys!

by Ryan Stefiuk

I buried my face inside my puffy coat as Andre’s snowmobile lurched into motion. The rubber tread beneath us occasionally slipped on the thick black tiles of ice as we sped along the pond. To my right, Alden and Walt were cruising along, closer to the shoreline. The Cholesterol Wall, looming just above them, is bathed in the most wonderful, soft orange evening light. The sky is deep blue overhead, and the air is warm and windless. A few minutes later we’re crossing the community woodlot and nearing the trailhead. The sun, the lone figure in a brilliant cloudless sky, is setting over the ocean to the west. No amount of illicit mind-altering substances could induce the trip I’m having right now.

Alden Pellett on the crux of "Hide the Baloney", WI5+, 550'

Alden Pellett on the crux of “Hide the Baloney”, WI5+, 550′

To put things in perspective for the average New England climber – take Lake Willoughby and triple it’s height, and then cross it with Cannon Cliff, and you have Ten Mile Pond Cliff
Alden Pellett and I have just climbed Stratochief, a 700′ WI 5+ on the Cholesterol Wall in Gros Morne National Park along the west coast of Newfoundland. We’d stared at this line during our first day of this trip. On our last day, with good weather, we abandoned our planned objective which we knew we’d climb without much trouble, and charged off into the unknown. This decision was the best one we made during our entire 10-day trip.  450′ of spectacular “spray ice” dripping from the imposing roofs overhead had painted an entire steep face with thin, yet climbable yellow ice. An exposed, rightward traverse across this face led upward, to the crux. From there, secure mixed climbing and WI5+ ice in a corner led to a ledge and the top. We both agreed, as we topped out, that this was one of the most mindbending routes either of us had ever climbed. Combine this with perfect weather, a partner you love to climb with and you have perhaps the best day of climbing you’ll ever have – a day to remember for the rest of your life.

On the Road

Newfoundland is a land of extremes. The drive from New England is long, boring, and almost always includes awful weather while traveling through Nova Scotia. Our 7-hour ferry crossing from Nova Scotia to Newfoundland has been delayed more times than it’s been on schedule. The ferry routinely gets stuck at sea. The “puke fests” that ensue are legendary. One women told us it was so rough during one of her crossings that water was spilling out of every toilet on the boat as it rocked for 18 hours off the coast of Channel-Port aux Basques. They spent days bleaching that boat afterward. The warm ocean currents from the Gulf Stream and the Gulf of St. Lawrence make the weather fickle and windy.  It can snow a foot or two in a day, but if it’s windy there won’t be any snow on the ground, anywhere. It can be -20 degrees for days straight, or it can be 45 degrees for your entire trip. If you’re lucky, you’ll climb 5 days on a 10-day trip. It’s probably better to expect 2-4 days of climbing during that time and if the weather sucks you might not climb at all. Black Horse Lager will be a good friend.

The people are friendly, hospitable and inquisitive. Each oceanside town is small, with only a few hundred year-round residents. None of them are climbers, but many of them are familiar with the fjords and they’re ringers when it comes to driving their Ski-Doos. Finding your way into the fjords can be as easy as saying “hello” at the general store or restaurant and asking if there’s anyone who’s willing to show you the way into the “ponds” (sounds more like “pand” – Newfoundlanders slaughter vowels like nobody’s business).

Ryan Stefiuk preparing for a trip up Stratochief, which climbs the weak groove up the face, before traversing right to a corner system that breaks the giant overhangs above. Photo - Alden Pellett

Ryan Stefiuk preparing for a trip up Stratochief, which climbs the weak groove up the face, before traversing right to a corner system that breaks the giant overhangs above. Photo – Alden Pellett

There are several fjords or “inner ponds” – they’re easy to spot on any topographic map and on Google Earth. I’ve spent hours, maybe days, pouring over maps of the west coast and there’s a lot to look at. Unfortunately, access to nearly all of the fjords is extremely challenging during most winters. The inner ponds don’t freeze regularly in all but one fjord. Fortunately, this pond has the most impressive array of climbs most ice climbers have ever seen. Ten Mile Pond is home to mega-classics like Fat of the Land (WI5+, 950′), Weather Vein (WI5, 1600′), Stratochief (WI5+, 700′), and He Speaks for Rain (WI6, 1000′). Each of these routes is insanely classic and ranks among North America’s finest. To have nearly two dozen of these routes in one place speaks worlds of this venue’s quality. To put things in perspective for the average New England climber – take Lake Willoughby and triple it’s height, and then cross it with Cannon Cliff, and you have Ten Mile Pond Cliff. It is that good.

The C-Wall in morning sunlight. There are about a dozen routes on this face alone.

The C-Wall in morning sunlight. There are about a dozen routes on this face alone.

The crown jewel of Ten Mile Pond is the Cholesterol Wall. The C-Wall, as it’s known by Joe Terravecchia and Casey Shaw, who’ve established most of the routes, is a 300 meters wide, yet houses a dozen classic lines ranging from 500-950′. This wall is backcountry ice cragging at it’s finest. At 8-miles from the nearest road, it’s no place to screw up, and there are no routes easier than WI5+ on this wall, but each route is pure bliss on a nice day. On a heavy weather day it feels like Alaska during a bad storm. During this trip, by the end of one day there was 4 feet of new snow on the ledges. Two cold and windy days later that snow was entirely gone; I don’t know where it went but it wasn’t there.

Alden Pellett traversing across the face of Stratochief

Alden Pellett traversing across the face of Stratochief

Seeing is believing, and I’ve seen enough to be convinced that Newfoundland may be North America’s finest ice venue. So, if you don’t mind a long, heinous drive in bad weather, an even more heinous ferry crossing, really cold windy weather or torrential rain and you can lead WI5  in 5 degree weather miles from roads, people and with no real potential of being rescued you will be rewarded with some of the world’s finest ice climbing. Oh hell, even if you don’t climb super hard there’s a lifetime’s worth of climbing there. The beauty of the place is that there’s no guidebook – you’ll just need to explore like every other climber who’s visited the west coast has done.

Even though some areas in Gros Morne National Park have reasonable access there is no management plan regarding ice climbing there. It’s a privilege to climb there and it should be considered an “alpine” climbing area, like any other mountain region. If you can’t climb your route without bolts, leave it for future generations to climb. Leave the drill at home.

 

Ryan Stefiuk / NEice Ambassador

Valley Vertical Adventures


 

Mt. Katahdin Maine

Petzl_logoThe Power of Light

A Trip Report

katahdin-5

December 16-21 2009

It wasn’t long after Doug caught wind of the rule changes in Baxter State Park that I got a phone call from him. His question was a no brainier……. Read the Full Report