Shaun Parent estimates he has ten years left before his 60-year-old body can no longer climb frozen waterfalls 200 metres above the ground. Known as northern Ontario’s Grandfather of Ice Climbing, Parent pioneered the high-adrenaline winter sport in the Lake Superior region and for the past four decades he’s helped establish the area's reputation as a world class ice climbing site.
Although Parent has scaled ice and climbed mountains all over the globe he always returns home, where he’s charted hundreds of climbing routes, penned dozens of guidebooks, trained generations of climbers and founded multiple ice climbing festivals. His first one, the Nipigon Ice Festival in Nipigon, Ont., wrapped up its 30th anniversary this past week, making it one of the longest-running festivals of its kind in North America.
When Parent first began hacking into the falls in Orient Bay (a 30 kilometre-long canyon that guides water from Lake Nipigon into Lake Superior) in the early 1980’s, no one in the area had even heard of ice climbing, and it took awhile for the community to embrace it.
“We were starting a completely new sport,” says Parent. “We had some issues with people just thinking that we were crazy.”
He remembers hiding when people called the police thinking they were trespassing or climbing the cliffs to commit suicide. But ice climbing was already becoming popular in Colorado and Canmore, B.C., and Parent was determined to bring that tourism potential to Nipigon.
“I realised, hell, we've got ice climbs just as nice as that! I mean it's not the mountains, but there's so many [routes].”
In 1993, Canadian Geographic covered the emerging climbing movement in Nipigon, a town previously known mainly as a stop on the way to Thunder Bay. By then Parent had been developing and publicizing climbs in the area for a decade, and had finally found a publisher for his Orient Bay guidebook.
Today, hundreds of climbers from around the world make the trip to Nipigon every year, and Orient Bay is often cited as the third best spot for ice climbing in Canada and included in the top six of North America. For Parent, it’s a dream realized. Still, he aims to develop 100 more routes and finish his final guide book before he turns 70.
If he isn't guiding tourists he's often found along the railway tracks near Sault Ste. Marie looking for access points to new climbs. He remembers one day when a couple on a snowmobile passed by. They slowed, and one of them asked if he was Shaun.
She told him, “I wasn't even born when you taught my dad how to ice climb. He said, 'look for Shaun walking on the tracks.'” Says Parent, “I actually taught her dad how to climb in 1985, and this girl was in her 20s.”
His voice warms, “That sort of experience makes all the hard work worthwhile.”