THE NIPIGON EXPERIENCE
(VJ #6)

by Stephen Regenold

Grating wind draws tears from my eyes. Arctic air freezes them to my temples. I rub the icy saline off my face and look down, following the blue line of rope out from my hands and up the ice to my partner. Chris is balanced on the face, clinging to the wall with two sharp axes and a pair of new crampons. He leans off one ax and pulls away from the face to peer upward. Grains of snow tumble down the 80 degree ice-flow and into my lap as he twists a foot, mutilating the fragile crust with his front-points.  

"Don't fall now!" I yell high, "You'd come at me like a sharp missile!" I picture his body skating off the ice and plummeting toward me, boots, hands and harness all equipped with the razorized tools of frozen waterfall climbing.

Chris moves higher and I am still nervous. My feet are screaming in cold pain, my hands are numb, my face is chapped and wet with sweat and tears. I want to be off this route. The wind grows stronger.

Ice climbing is as much a mental endeavor as it is a physical sport. Beyond the harsh environment and strenuous nature of climbing, there is still the mind-battle of justification. I wonder, were humans ever meant to tread on such foreboding terrain? And are frozen walls of ice truly an appropriate place to practice a hobby? These questions often take shape in the most inconvenient places.

An epiphany chimes in me as I clamp two moist lips over a carabiner. In the summertime, on warm July granite, this is a common practice. But here on January ice, it is definitely a faux paux. I scream with raw lips and spit blood, now fiercely philosophizing the meaning behind this retched sport.

***

We came north to Canada to climb Nipigon's famous ice falls. This corner of the province is almost abandoned, with only one main road and a small number of scattered logging communities. We chose to avoid the chore of winter camping and instead reserved a room in town at the Nipigon Inn.

The Inn is ridiculously strange, but is just another step of cultural adjustment that I am going through. The plaster walls are cold, dirty and painted in sick pastel tones. The light purple and rose hues of the lobby walls remind me of Easter candy and twisted "Alice in Wonderland" imagery. I breathe the hot air and remove my Polar-Fleece cap. My hands and feet are warming as I begin to relax.

By crossing the boarder just north of Grand Portage, Minnesota, we not only entered a new country but also a new time zone and, seemingly, a different decade. The smokestacks and industrial bias of Thunder Bay, as well as the barrage of brown and orange paint-jobs promote a 1970s feel to the southern Canadian town.

Culturally, the '90s have not permeated Ontario. There are no Home Depots or Olive Gardens here, but instead a plethora of "Mr." Stores line the city streets, with Mr. Lube and Mr. Meat on the highway and Mr. Oriental Food near downtown. A local drugstore is also gracefully named as it is dubbed The Cow Palace.

Road signs also strangely mutated as we left the US behind. The "Moose Crossing" sign in Minnesota, for example, featured a moose strolling carelessly across the highway. In Canada, however, the moose was no longer so nice, but instead charged head-on into an on-coming auto. Many other features were similarly cryptic or humorous.

Besides the skewed cultural experience, we had come for the famous Orient Bay ice. In this region, the ice climbing is cold, desolate and world-class. In the frigid winter nights, every bit of seepage freezes glassy and solid to vertical surfaces. Valleys fill with white flows and waterfalls change to stable curtains of ice. Now in my room, I sit and relax and wait for morning.

***

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