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Climbing up the icy walls of Downtown Montreal

by Matthew Lapierre February 16, 2016
Climbing up the icy walls of Downtown Montreal

Two Concordia students take a risky trip up the McTavish ice walls

It isn’t every day that you get to look up at your friend with blades attached to his feet, wielding two axes, kicking and stabbing his way up a sheer wall of ice surrounded by a panorama of skyscrapers. Because if you’re most people, it isn’t every day that you get to go ice climbing in the middle of Downtown Montreal.

Matthew Packer makes his way up the icy wall. Photo by Mel Allard.

Matthew Packer makes his way up the icy wall. Photo by Mel Allard.

Nick McCullagh and Matthew Packer are not like most. They’re both Concordia students and avid rock climbers and adventurers. They do not like to waste time. They’ve climbed mountains as far away as the Peruvian Andes and the French Alps. For them, a day spent on an ice wall or a rock wall is a day well spent. A desolate mountain peak? Even better. They’ve recently discovered a new spot to hone their adventure skills right in Downtown Montreal.

The two readily admit that they aren’t ice climbing experts. They idolize ice-gods like Will Gadd and Conrad Anker but they insist you don’t need to be an ice god to enjoy some of the easy vertical ice which is smack in the middle of Downtown Montreal. Even better if you’re a McGill student; there’s good ice climbing on your campus. Where? The McTavish ice walls.

Located just behind McGill, on the side of Mount Royal, is a beautiful ice wall about 300 metres long and five to 10 metres high. The McTavish walls are not world class ice, but they are lots of fun. They form when water flowing down Mount-Royal accumulates above the McTavish reservoir and freezes into a blue-hued facade. Perfect for Packer and McCullagh to use two downturned ice axes and sharp 12 point crampons to hit and kick their way up it.

Climbing there is technically illegal but after rappelling down into the basin the two climbers aren’t worried about being caught. The ice is perfect today and the view of Downtown Montreal adds to the adventure. They set up a rope and climb the same route several times, pausing only to reposition it over some fresh ice. The duo is dynamic but not fast: grace is preferable to speed. Ice is delicate; climbing it requires finesse.

A poorly placed axe-head or miss kick with a crampon could upset the frozen surface and send the climber tumbling; a result which would likely leave bruises at best and require a visit to the hospital or morgue at worst, but Packer and McCullagh do not fall. The most dangerous occurrence of the day happens when, as McCullagh climbs, he dislodges an arm-sized chunk of ice. He shouts a warning and Packer nimbly steps out of the way as the chunk shatters at his feet.

In the afternoon they become a tourist attraction. As curious Montrealers look on, they pose to make what they’re doing seem especially lethal as photos are snapped. Sweaty and hungry after what seems like an hour, they dismantle their gear, strap the intimidating axes to their packs and trudge down the hill into McGill campus. When asked about their next trip idea Packer responds: “Out west somewhere, to head into the alpine. The climbing in Quebec is good but it’s nothing compared to the real mountains. It’s great practice though.”

A look at their phones reveals that without realizing it, almost the entire day has passed. The time was spent violently stabbing a wall of frozen water with miniature pick-axes, surrounded by skyscrapers and tourists. But they wouldn’t have it any other way.

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