Gaspésie’s Seaside Seeps

Short Approaches and Bullet Ice in the Wilds of Quebec
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Etienne Rancourt topping out Une Fière Chandelle (WI5+; 150 feet), Gaspésie, Quebec.

Etienne Rancourt topping out Une Fière Chandelle (WI5+; 150 feet), Gaspésie, Quebec.

Watching ice float down the St. Lawrence River while belaying, or seeing the occasional blue whale breach while swinging your tools, it can be hard to believe that North America—in this case, Quebec—has such amazing ice, especially with just a five-minute approach. On the river’s southern banks, though, with the road just 150 feet below, only the sound of the occasional car heading to the town of Sainte-Anne-des-Monts interrupts the crackling ice floating by en route to the Gulf of Saint Lawrence.

More than 150 ice climbs from one to four pitches line the 125-mile stretch of Highway 132 between Sainte-Anne-Des-Monts and Gaspé. Thirty-four miles past Sainte-Anne-des-Monts is the village of Mont-Saint-Pierre, population 200, the epicenter of the region’s ice climbing. The village’s namesake mountain (elevation: 1,348 feet) rises out of the river and provides the backdrop for the east side of the mile-wide bay. Steeper though not as high, sedimentary cliffs rising from the west side of the bay are home to some of the region’s earliest and hardest ice routes.

Most of the ice routes in Gaspésie are north facing, seep from the porous rock, and never see the sun, which results in bullet-hard conditions. Meanwhile, the strong winds and coastal environment whip the ice into gravity-defying tentacle formations. Despite the quality and convenience of climbs like Meduse (WI4; 200 feet) and Corneille (WI5+; 250 feet), both just 5 minutes from the car, and L’Épée de Jade (WI6; 330 feet), a climb with a “whopping” 45-minute approach, the area sees little traffic. “It’s not a big population center—for years I was the only local climber,” says Association of Canadian Mountain Guides apprentice alpine guide Sebastian Taborszky. During the 15 years that Taborszky lived in the region, he might only see another car parked for the ice a few times a year. Desperate for partners, he would leave notes on the visiting climbers’ windshields offering to house and feed them.

The picturesque town of Saint-Maxime-du-Mont-Louis, near much of the ice climbing.

The picturesque town of Saint-Maxime-du-Mont-Louis, near much of the ice climbing.

The remoteness becomes more evident on the drive east from Sainte-Anne-des-Monts to Mont-Saint-Pierre. The St. Lawrence River dominates the north side of the road, while sedimentary folds form sea cliffs along the south side. Throughout, numerous signs warn of a unique concoction of hazards: rogue waves and avalanches. Every season, avalanches sweep across the road, and waves crash over the asphalt when storms bear down from the east or northeast. In 2006, a particularly vicious avalanche cycle cut off access and power to Mont-Saint-Pierre for several days.

Although the area itself is remote, the ice climbs’ proximity to the car means that “après-climb” is a real thing in Gaspésie, especially in Sainte-Anne-des-Monts, the center for amenities in the region and a town with a population of 7,000 government workers, tourism-industry professionals, and fishermen. “Dining, awesome microbreweries, and distilleries have sprouted and prospered,” says the veteran Quebec climber and first ascentionist Bernard Mailhot. “The locals are rightfully proud of their territory, seafood delicacies, and superb spirits.”

The area’s remoteness has never kept climbers away. It all began in 1980 when Louis Dionne and Pierre-Édouard Gagnon climbed the most prominent piece of ice towering above Mont-Saint-Pierre: Corneille, a steep and stiff, wind-sculpted WI5+ that stretches to 265 feet and was one of Quebec’s hardest ice climbs at the time. Then, in 1991, Gian-Carlo Grassi and Philippe Pibarot climbed L’Épée de Jade (WI6; 330 feet), one of the first WI6s in Quebec.

The early 1990s also saw the development of routes like Méduse (WI4; 200 feet). Named after the Gorgon from Greek mythology, the climb sports gravity-defying cauliflowers, umbrellas, and tentacles sculpted by the coastal weather. Though only WI4, the route requires overhanging moves to surmount its sometimes-unstable tentacles. In 2007, the Quebec ice-climbing guidebook author Stephane Lapierre had one of its tentacles collapse after an errant ice-tool swing. His last screw, which wasn’t part of the collapsed feature, caught him five feet from the ground—he’d taken an 80-footer, escaping with only bruises. “After the fall, I went back up to retrieve my axe, which was left hanging on the lip of a ridiculously large overhang,” Lapierre recalls. The previous year, one of the delicate formations broke off Méduse as my climbing partner John Rothwell and I flicked the rope to keep it from snaking through the tentacles for my girlfriend, Andrea Hanley, who was about to start seconding. A large section of ice fell off, landing her in the Sainte-Anne-Des-Monts hospital with compartment syndrome after taking the impact squarely on her leg.

Nathalie Fortin sampling the roadside (and seaside) ice of Les Barrières (WI4; 65 feet).

Nathalie Fortin sampling the roadside (and seaside) ice of Les Barrières (WI4; 65 feet).

During the early-1990s development spree, Mailhot along with Philippe Pibarot, Grassi, and the photographer Jean-Pierre Danvoye presented a slideshow in Montreal with photos of area classics like La Cigarette Bleue, Méduse, L’Épée de Jade, and Le Cannelloni du Curé set to ambient Doors and Pink Floyd songs. Between the slideshow and a new climbing guidebook by Lapierre, word about Gaspésie ice spread quickly. Mailhot and other climbers from Montreal and Quebec rallied to nab more first ascents. Due to the lack of lodging, they’d occasionally do marathon weekend sessions, blazing 2,000 kilometers round-trip from Montreal to Percé for 200 meters of ice—“An inefficient ratio of 1 centimeter climbed per kilometer driven,” Mailhot jokes. However, the long commutes paid off, and during a single weekend in 1996, Guy Lacelle, Lapierre, Joe Josephson, Margo Talbot, David Burger, and Patrice Beaudet climbed six new routes near the village of L’Anse-Pleureuse. Then, on another weekend in 1997, Mailhot, Jules Paquette, Louis Morissette, and Phillippe Pibarot claimed eight first ascents. Not only were they able to establish all these FAs, but because the classics typically have short approaches and are densely clustered, climbers were able to link several in a day. One of Mailhot’s favorite memories is climbing L’Épée de Jade, Méduse, and La Cigarette Bleue in a short day in 1996 with Charles Laliberté.

In today’s world of queues for popular ice climbs, most of which are picked out early season in a few short days, Gaspésie breaks from the norm, offering steep ice and short approaches sans mandatory alpine starts to be the first party on the route. The high-quality, bulletproof ice, lack of crowds, local hospitality, and the beauty of the sea and mountain scenery will not disappoint those who brave the long drive and notoriously adventurous road to reach Quebec’s treasure trove of frozen seeps.