'Like being in a bomb zone,' ice climbers brave frozen Tiffany Falls in Hamilton

It's cold in Hamilton but that's good news for ice climbers at Tiffany Falls this Sunday. About 20 people hacked away at the frozen water for a wintery version of rock climbing.

About 20 climbers picked and hammered on the frozen water for this icy winter sport

The falls has frozen over and about 20 climbers were dressed to conquer it on Sunday. (Flora Pan/CBC)

The cold alert for the city of Hamilton may be over, but Tiffany Falls is still frozen enough for about 20 ice climbers who braved the cold and falling ice on Sunday. As you approach the frozen falls, the hammering ice picks sound like clanging metal cans.

Alpine Club of Canada's Toronto chapter drove out to the Tiffany Falls Conservation Area for a day of chipping and hammering on the falling water that has frozen solid. Climbers were dressed in hard hats, harnesses, crampons, and armed with ice picks.

"The ice we have right now is actually pretty brittle, it takes a lot more effort and power to hammer into the ice, unfortunately," said Liam Burke.

Liam Burke stands with his dad, Pat Burke, who gifted him crampons and ice picks two years ago for Christmas. (Flora Pan/CBC)

Normally a rock climber, Burke's affair with ice started as a Christmas present from his dad, who got him some crampons and a pair of ice picks.

"We were looking for a nice winter sport to do aside from skiing," said Burke. "We just went away with it and it's been two years now."

While Burke still prefers rock climbing because "it's a lot warmer," his face lights up when he talks about the joys of climbing ice and "making that perfect swing."

Climbers moved up using crampons, metal spikes that give them better grip on the ice, ice picks and a rope attached to a harness. (Flora Pan/CBC)

'Like being in a bomb zone'

The climbers were behind a rope that warned away onlookers without crampons and hard hats, but it didn't stop people from climbing over to take photos.

Being too close to the falls without a hard hat can be dangerous. As the climbers made their way upwards with their ice picks, pieces of ice would fall.

Robert Le Blanc said he has been climbing ice for more than 45 years. (Flora Pan/CBC)

"Ice climbing is easily the most dangerous form of climbing," said Robert Le Blanc, who has been with the club for more than 20 years. He said even a falling piece that weighs about 2 kg (about 4.4 lbs) can do a lot of damage.

"The further the ice is falling, the worse, so the belayer [person on the ground who secures the climber] has a lot of danger," he said, "It's like being in a bomb zone."

Le Blanc said it's the climbers' responsibility to make sure people below know ice is coming by yelling "ice" very loudly, because belayers can't take their eyes off the climber even for a second.

The belayer has a lot of responsibility to ensure the safety of the climber, as well as watch for falling ice. (Flora Pan/CBC)

What's more, at Tiffany Falls, the climbers weren't just making their way up ice.

"The rock could also come off, and that's of course much worse danger because of more momentum and the sharp edges, and it's a very dangerous projectile," said Le Blanc.

Training for climbing

While falling ice is no doubt a challenge for climbers, so is endurance — and the frozen Tiffany Falls is a towering challenge at 21 metres.

Burke said lasting long enough on the ice is the most difficult part for him and that he recommends exercising in order to do this icy sport.

Liam Burke has been ice climbing for two years. In the other seasons he is a rock climber. (Flora Pan/CBC)

Jogging, biking and even doing rock climbing are his suggestions.

"If you don't, it's just really hard up here," he said.

Over the next two to three weeks, he'll be conquering Tiffany Falls. There are a number of other areas that are good for ice climbing, he said, like in Algoma and a couple of lakes near Algonquin Provincial Park, but the lack of ice is leading him to choose the falls in Hamilton.

But that doesn't mean Burke is giving up on the other locations.

"The winter's still young, we'll see what happens."