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Elegant Violence: Ice Climbing Walton Glen Gorge

When people drive through New Brunswick on route to somewhere else, ice climber Greg Hughes says, “You are certainly going to miss a lot of great things.” One of those things is world class ice climbing, which catches many people by surprise, and rightfully so. Don’t you need to go to the Rockies or a mountainous region to do that? The answer is a definite no! 

Greg Hughes climbing some fantastic New Brunswick ice. Photo credit: Craig Norris

Greg Hughes has been climbing ice for 12 years, and he spends the majority of his ice climbing time in New Brunswick. Of course, he has climbed elsewhere, like Nova Scotia, Quebec, New Hampshire and as far away as the Wind River Range in Wyoming, but why travel when one of the frontiers of the sport is right here?

Despite the lack of high elevation often associated with ice climbing, New Brunswick has ample cliffs and sufficient conditions to produce vertical ice, although that doesn’t necessarily result in world class climbing; only special places can do that.

Walton Glen Gorge is a place that special. It contains the Eye of the Needle and is a gorge so spectacular most people cannot believe they are still in New Brunswick when they first step foot within its protected boundaries. Greg discovered it like many others; he first heard of it by word of mouth, then hiked into it while backpacking the Fundy Footpath. To Greg, Walton Glen is so special he can’t stop coming back. In fact, he recently admitted, "In regular life, Walton Glen is often on my mind.” It is rare that a place can consume thoughts like that, but I can also admit to having spent an inordinate amount of time contemplating the mysteries of that Amazing Place.

The Eye of the Needle in Walton Glen Gorge. Photo credit: Craig Norris

Ice climbing only began in the gorge some 25 years ago. Greg explains, “This place was first discovered as an ice climbing destination around 1992 with the first ascent of a well frozen Walton Glen Falls, another route below Eye of the Needle, and maybe a few others.” According to Greg as time went on the number of frozen routes discovered rose to over a dozen. "When I first came here, I followed the guide book, and while searching for climbs I found some new ones that weren't recorded," he reports. Sometimes he would go in on his own, which wasn’t safe for climbing anything difficult, so he’d just explore. Greg reveals, “Over time I found more and more climbs and completed the first ascents with a loose group of local climbers. Now we're up to about 30 climbs, and we're still finding new ones, some four pitches high." He continues, "We found some this morning, and we found some last time, but there are likely only a few left to discover and climb in Walton Glen. In Little Salmon River Gorge, just over the ridge, there are probably another 12 or more just waiting to be discovered, that is the real frontier at this point.”

“Alaska Flashback” in Little Salmon River Gorge with Luc Gallant climbing and Greg belaying from the base. Photo credit: Craig Norris

A valid question on first hearing this story would be, why has it taken 25 years to find these climbs and how can more remain undiscovered? The answer is relatively simple. Walton Glen Gorge is a remote wilderness environment, it is tough to move around, and it has a lot of vertical or very steep surfaces covered in ice. “Getting to climbs, you have to move from the plateau into the valley and maybe cross the brook. This is dangerous, if you fell-in there would be a risk of hypothermia, and an evacuation if you get hurt or in trouble...it would be really tough to get out,” Greg asserts. Surrounded by towering cliff ramparts, no cell reception to call for help, a commonly unploughed road, and plenty of falling ice and unstable rock; this place is categorically hazardous.

Travelling the river on the approach. Photo credit: Craig Norris

The second reason for such a prolonged period of discovery is the relatively small numbers of ice climbers and the nature of the ice. Greg ponders, “The ice is so ephemeral, it comes in for a period of time, but it could melt and reform several times in one season, the season is short, and you have to be there at the right time." Scientifically the formation and quality of ice are dependent on many variables. Temperatures swing diurnally from day to night, warm fronts and cold fronts push through, clouds can obscure the sun, and the sun increases in angle and intensity over the winter. Physical characteristics also affect temperature, like darker rocks attracting more solar radiation or the southern aspect of cliffs versus north-facing, the latter of which stay cooler in the shadows. The wind can contribute to freezing or rapid thawing, while the type and intensity of precipitation can also play a role, acting as an insulator or a defrost process. The dynamic nature of ice is part of the attraction, Greg adds, “The medium of ice has so many variations, types, consistencies and formations; it never stays the same.”

The climbing route known as “French Immersion” was particularly well developed on this day.
Greg climbs and Ben Phillips belays. Photo credit: Craig Norris

I was lucky enough to be invited to tag along with Greg on several occasions. The first time we descended a steep, slippery gully into Walton Glen, crossed the rapidly flowing brook, and scaled a steep approach to reach the Sea Monster. This short but stout climb was only discovered the previous season, and Greg let a few of us give it a try. The experience was intense but exhilarating, especially knowing so few had the chance to climb the Sea Monster due to the fact its first ascent was so recent.

On our second field excursion, Greg was winter camping on a March Break, multi-day trip and I met him and his friend Sam there. Luckily the snow was firm from recent rain, and I was able to fat bike in, over the road, then through the forest directly on the hard snow to the edge of the gorge; these were exceptional travel conditions. I scrambled down a steep and slippery gully to catch Greg and Sam finishing the first ascent of Elegant Violence. This three pitch, 70+ m (230 ft) tall by about one meter wide, staggering icicle had been on Greg’s hit list for years, and I was lucky enough to see its first climb. Their first day back they were only able to get the climb started, Greg recalls, “Monday we headed back to EV hoping for the send. Sam led the first pitch. I started up the second pitch, and things were going well until I got to the 4th bolt. The dry-tooling was very steep, and the tool placements were crap. I ended up pumping out and pulling on draws to get to the anchor. It is probably M9 through the crux. The third pitch was fantastic. That narrow runnel of ice turned out to be superb climbing."

“Elegant Violence” is the thin line of white ice in the center of this 70 m sheer cliff. Photo credit: Ben Phillips

Ice climbing Elegant Violence, or any climbing in Walton Glen, is extreme. It is doubtful this place will ever become over-run with a new wave of aspiring climbers, winter camping in the backcountry and braving the elements to attain a climbers-rush and sense of accomplishment. However, it is incredible to know that New Brunswick does have relatively untapped ice climbing locations that can rival alpine conditions.

Samuel Jones reaches the top of “Elegant Violence,” 65 meters of ice now below him. Photo credit: Ben Phillips

There are few ice climbers among us, but it is not as difficult as it sounds. If you are interested, Greg recommends, “Try to get involved. Take an ice climbing course. Or you could start by going with an experienced climber for a day. Find an ice climbing mentor or a group to go with. Ascent NB does ice climbing schools for rock and ice climbing that are open to the public.” If you like beautiful landscapes, challenging conditions and big rewards, ice climbing might be for you. Greg clarifies, “I love the movement of climbing, the problem solving, the challenges, setting goals and generally being outside in winter is where I want to be."

Greg confidently enjoying a lead climb up the route known as “Fiddler on the Roof.”. Photo credit: Craig Norris

Accessibility to Amazing Places varies, but there is something for everyone, even the most capable among us. The Amazing Places Challenge is encouraging people to get out and visit all 50 Amazing Places in the Fundy Biosphere Reserve to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday. What better way to celebrate than to spend time on the land visiting the very “Canadian” Amazing Places.

This article is a feature and the final of seven in the Amazing Places Challenge series. 

Financed by The Government of Canada