January–February 2023

Cold Play

Ice climbing is on the ascent at Minnesota's three ice parks, where artificial icefalls create real thrills. 

Ryan Rodgers

On a frigidly clear January morning, Sydney Benson finishes her last class of the week at Winona State University and drives to the town’s ice climbing park. The park occupies a shadowy strip of cliffs next to Sugar Loaf, a landmark limestone outcrop towering over Highway 61. Benson and her friend Sheldon Brand park on a frontage road and hike up a switch-backing trail through bare deciduous woods until they reach the ice-encrusted palisades of the Winona Ice Park. 

Ice climbing is “something I can do that I’m terrified of,” she says, gazing up at the pale blue wall of ice that stretches laterally for 1,500 feet and at many points reaches 100 feet tall.

The two hike a steep trail to the top of their climb, where Benson shrugs off her backpack and unfurls a long strand of climbing rope. This will be their top rope, a protection from falls. She anchors it with a sling around the base of a sturdy oak tree padded with a rubber strip, they descend to the bottom of the ice wall, and she is soon climbing. 

If she’s terrified, she doesn’t show it. Buoyant in manner and movement, Benson picks her way up the wall, slamming her axes and kicking the front points of her crampons into the ice to gain purchase. Five hundred feet below, the Mississippi River threads its way along the bottoms of the dramatic Driftless country bluffs, and Winona’s homes sit huddled and tiny on an orderly matrix of streets. The view is, to use Benson’s preferred adjective denoting things of quality, sick.

Winona Ice Park is now in its sixth season of operation, having grown every year to meet the desire for ice from climbers flocking out of the Twin Cities, Madison, and Chicago—as well as dedicated locals like Benson and Brand. Minnesota has two other ice parks, in Duluth and Sandstone, where, as in Winona, water is sprinkled on otherwise dry cliffs in a process called ice farming to create new climbing opportunities. Spanning the state from south to north, these three ice parks, all founded in the past 13 years, represent new interest and momentum for this niche but growing sport. No other state offers so many ice parks to climb at.

Winter weekends are typically bustling at Minnesota’s ice parks, says Kendra Stritch, chair of the Minnesota Climbers Association, with Winona and Sandstone each regularly attracting 40 to 80 climbers on weekend days. And last year’s edition of the Sandstone Ice Festival, an annual association-run event offering clinics for newbies, was a huge success.
“We had 130 people take clinics, which is amazing,” says Stritch. “That was the big excitement from last year’s festival. We gave more beginners the opportunity to go ice climbing than ever before.”

Life in the Present. Ice climbing’s growing popularity is evident any winter weekend at Minnesota’s first and most popular ice park, in Sandstone, halfway between the Twin Cities and Duluth, which officially opened in 2010 but attracted ice climbers even before then. I used to climb here a decade ago, before I had kids, back when ice climbing was relegated to a handful of naturally occurring flows, and when a busy Saturday at the park might consist of 20 climbers. When I arrived at Sandstone Ice Park last year, I was wowed to see more than 100 climbers and dozens of farmed ice flows maintained by a dedicated cadre of volunteers. I found myself standing at the base of an ice-slathered cliff, white-knuckling a wicked-looking ice ax in each hand and wracking my brain to recall the motions I’d need to claw my way up. The sandstone cliff in some places had ledges and in others was sheer, up to 70 feet. 

Ice climbing has a daunting image that is based on frigid conditions, perception of ice’s stability, and the dangerous-looking tools used to climb. However, with a bit of technical knowhow—instructional guiding services exist in Winona, Sandstone, Duluth, and the Twin Cities—climbing at an ice park with a top rope is surprisingly safe. A well-anchored top rope provides an overhead safety line that will, if managed by a competent belayer, catch a fall.

I hadn’t climbed ice for several years, and my first go at the wall was ugly. I was clad, like everyone else in the park, in stiff-soled boots with spiky crampons, an ice ax for each hand, and a helmet to protect against rogue shards. Despite knowing that the rope—a nylon tube less than an inch in diameter—was fantastically strong, I struggled to trust it and climbed in panicked lurches up the ice, which was two feet thick, its surface varying between vertically running washboard and bulbous swells called cauliflower ice. 

By the second climb I’d relaxed. My good swings impacted the ice with a resonant thwack as the steel earned purchase. With every thwack my confidence grew. I’d swing as high as I reasonably could for two solid ax placements, then work my feet up by kicking the crampons into the ice. This left me hanging straight armed and squatting, with my backside dangling into the void, which seemed awkward until I stood while pulling. The motion had a novel kinesiology, and by repeating the sequence I quickly reached the top of the climb. My friend Matt used the belay device attached to his harness to lower me to the ground.

I remembered why I liked climbing. The challenges of the route—both the mental trepidation and the physical strain of climbing—stemmed from separate sources but led toward each other like flooding river channels subsuming an island. The result was keen attunement to life in the present, which fled inexorably, like the Kettle River rapids next to the park. I clutched the present the best I could, by talking freely with Matt, savoring traces of stingy winter sunlight on my face, and craning my neck to eyeball the tessellated twigs of the tree canopy.

Climbers often express similar sentiments when pressed why they climb. On a different day at Sandstone, I strike up a conversation with Alejandro Gomez as he ties into the rope to begin an ascent. Gomez is new to ice climbing, though he has been climbing rock for 20 years in the mountainous jungles of Chiapas, Mexico, where he established new routes in a 3,000-foot-deep canyon. A construction worker, he moved north when he married a Minnesotan. Gomez says the essence of climbing is the same whether in the tropics or at his current latitude more than halfway to the North Pole. He misses the sense of discovery he had in Chiapas but enjoys the convenience of being able to park his car at the base of the climbs. 

“That development allows me to focus more on the feeling that I get from being out of my life’s routine,” he tells me.
Kendra Stritch sees easily accessible ice parks as a way of roping in new climbers to the enchantments of the sport, to further expand its base. Stritch is a phenom on the ice. Several years ago, she won a World Cup speed contest in Bozeman, Montana, and she remains the only American to have triumphed at this level. After climbing all over the planet, Stritch rates Minnesota as the best place to learn how to ice climb. She cites the easy accessibility of the climbs, of which there are many, a lack of avalanche danger, and a long season that runs from Christmas into April.

“It’s exciting to see how people can learn to relax and enjoy it pretty quickly with a little bit of instruction. Ice climbing is ever changing. I really love it. The ice is not even the same week to week,” she says before wishing for a cold and lasting winter. 

Duluth’s New Ice. The state’s newest ice park, Quarry Park in Duluth, was slated to open last season. Like Sandstone, Duluth Ice Park occupies a former quarry. This quarry sits 400 feet up the lakeside hills above the St. Louis River, overlooking West Duluth and the Bong Bridge. Many years ago, investors in the quarry were disappointed to discover that under a cap of hard basalt lurked crumbly anorthosite gabbro. For decades the pit sat forgotten, hidden in the overgrowth behind a neighborhood. In the 1970s, ice climbers discovered the sloppy rock froze into place during winter, and 100-foot-tall icefalls formed. Ice climbing was in its wild infancy, and climbers began discreetly plying their trade, affectionately dubbing the venue Casket Quarry after the concrete burial vaults made by a nearby company.

Dave Pagel, a pioneering Duluth climber, and other local climbers spent the 2010s working with the City of Duluth to turn the quarry into an official park, one with a focus on ice climbing and a water supply infrastructure to enhance the location’s fickle natural ice. One of these climbers is Duluth city firefighter Nick Fleming. In the fall of 2021, Fleming took a month off work to install 1,200 feet of pipe and connect it to a forgotten water main he had discovered. Just before Christmas, Fleming wrapped up the project by having electricity and a water pump installed in a subterranean pumphouse he’d built from the quarry ruins. An unforeseen cold draft in the pumphouse froze the pump and wrecked it, delaying the ice park’s official opening. Though ax-wielding climbers continued to use the quarry’s natural ice, the farmed ice was on hold for another year.

The early years at Sandstone and Winona were defined by similar stories of setback and adaptation. Fleming has since installed a new pump, and Duluth Ice Park should be open for the coming season.

The Early Crowd. Brad Kremers is often the first climber of the day to arrive at Winona Ice Park. This subzero January morning is no different. He stands on the blufftop waiting for his climbing partner and taking in the view. As Winona climbers have developed the ice park, they’ve cleared the hill of invasive buckthorn bushes. Now dried clumps of native Indian grass and little bluestem stick out from a thin layer of crusty snow beneath the gnarled oaks that provide anchors for the routes beneath. 

Eric Barnard shows up a half-hour late. Lanky and long-haired, Barnard is the founder and former director of the Winona State Outdoor Education and Recreation Center and has recently joined the university’s teaching faculty. He’s never been busier, though he still ice climbs 60 days a season. He points out his house below. “My wife can keep an eye on me,” he jokes. Barnard is the impetus behind the park and has housekeeping to do before weekenders arrive. He anchors a rope and rappels down while hefting a giant pickax. Dangling from the rope, he hacks at huge, errant icicles that could prove hazardous to tomorrow’s Saturday climbers. He whoops when he knocks one loose. The chunks crash into the ground and explode.

Sydney Benson and Sheldon Brand arrive, well out of the way below, and start climbing. After Benson finishes her climb, Kremers ties into the rope. Benson will belay Kremers as he leads the route. In lead climbing, which adds difficulty and risk, there is no rope anchored to the top. Instead, Kremers will pull the rope up with him and periodically place a metal ice screw to catch him if he falls. 

“The meditative act of climbing is easier on lead,” he’d told me earlier. “It’s harder to get distracted. It’s when I get to be me most clearly.”

He carefully reaches overhead with one ax and then the other, planting the tools and following with efficient crampon kicks. Kremers twists in an ice screw after a dozen feet and, amid Benson’s banter interspersed with solid-sounding thwacks, plus an occasional howl from Barnard as he frees a big chunk, Kremers works his way higher, toward the top as well as his clearest self.

The day has worn into afternoon. As I take a last look from the highway below, the icy cliffs that were bare in the morning are speckled by a smattering of tiny figures, silhouettes in the shadow of the bluff, locals getting a leg up on the weekend crowds.