Your Time to Climb Niagara Falls

UPDATED: January 29, 2015.

Niagara Falls almost froze once in your lifetime. It may never freeze again for you. If it does, will you be ready?

Of course, Niagara Falls isn’t a typical ice climbing destination.

By comparison, water ice in Hyalite Canyon, Montana and the Adirondack Mountains, New York are usually pretty reliable each winter. Albeit some routes form better than others year to year. However, even consistency has off years: This season in Chamonix, France is unseasonably warm, which has precluded any of the water flows from slowing down and stopping firmly in place. With the normal consistency of these locations, you can take for granted the reliability of the quality of the climbing.

Generally, those routes, like Dave’s Snotsicle (love that name) in Smuggler’s Notch, Vermont, are attractions for their length, challenge and setting reasonably far from any town. Sometimes the word ephemeral is used to describe them. Except there is no route more ephemeral than Niagara Falls; the last time it actually froze was in 1938.

Niagara Falls is amazing. It pours 5.5 billion gallons of water down its wall every hour. My dad told me about the people that rode a barrel over the falls; then I day dreamed about being one of those nuts climbing into a capsule and waiting for the river to carry me away. Yet it never crossed my mind to go in the other direction.

I grew up in the Buffalo, New York area just a 25-minute drive from the falls. I took girls on dates there when I was in high school, gambled there, been grossed out at Ripley’s Believe it or Not, drank a respectable quantity of Labatt’s Blue and Molson and other northern beers just above the gorge, and I have seen the falls from both borders in all seasons.

The typical ice buildup on the gorge walls is substantial most winters. It grows somewhat thick alongside on the gorge walls adjacent to the flow, mostly from spray and mist, but I have never seen the falls itself freeze solid like it nearly did during the 2013 North American Polar Vortex. Will Gadd and Sarah Hueniken ice climbed the adjacent wall by the Horseshoe Falls on January 29, 2015, but that’s not the falls proper.

The attraction for ice climbing this fleeting icicle is not about its height or serene outdoor qualities, like the ice crags I mentioned. You have to ignore the tourist traps, factories, casinos and tackiness and just focus on the ice. This likely won’t be worthy of an entry in the American Alpine Journal. I originally thought that this event will be more likely to be covered by Geraldo Rivera, but after seeing the coverage of Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson on the Dawn Wall in January 2015, perhaps the New York Times would want a piece of it. But public attention isn’t why you should pursue this climb.

Niagara Falls is the unicorn of ice climbing. If you’re an ice climber and it freezes again, you better have a plan. A drop-everything, call-in-sick, postpone-your-wedding and drive, fly or hitch to the Canadian border -plan.

Someone, one day, so long as ice climbing maintains a grip on restless souls seeking something they often can’t put into words, will be the opportunist. They may be the only person to ever attempt to climb Niagara Falls.

Maybe it’s you. Make a plan now. You have to take these photos and print large versions to study and become familiar with what may be in your future. You need to have gear and a way to get to Upstate New York/southern Ontario. You’ll need help getting to the base of the ice. Or maybe you rapel down.

When you’re done, if it happens in my lifetime, I’ll meet you on the Canadian side at Falls and Firkin (cheeky tagline: “Want a little Firkin more?”) and I’ll toast to you. There may not be another to follow your path. Ever.

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