Wall of Ice

Ice Climbing in Sandstone

WRITTEN AND PHOTOGRAPHED BY FELICIA SCHNEIDERHAN

ON A QUIET SATURDAY IN LATE WINTER, snow falls gently in Robinson Park as the Kettle River rushes in the background. I could be enjoying the serene forest. Instead, I’m jacked up on adrenaline and fear, standing before a thirty-foot wall of ice. It beckons me to conquer it and reach the top with only ice axes and crampons.

I am terrified of ice climbing. I prefer running through the woods, or lifting weights at my YMCA strength training class, or biking, swimming, hiking, just about anything else. But there is something so formidable and impossible about ascending a frozen waterfall, that I just can’t help myself from going at least once every winter. I’m not very good at it. I am clumsy and scared. But I love getting to the top.

“On belay?” I call back to Tony Vavricka, owner of Hard Water Sports, my guide for this little jaunt.

Tony holds the end of my rope, secured through his harness. The rope is anchored at the top of the wall and snakes down through the front loops of my harness. Tony holding my line is the one thing that will keep me dangling mid-air, should I lose my tenuous footing. “Belay on,” he replies.

“Climbing,” I tell him.

“Climb on.”

My first experience ice climbing was thirteen years ago at the Michigan Ice Fest in Munising, with its stunning frozen Pictured Rocks waterfalls. Since then, I’ve climbed Casket Quarry in Duluth, and Gooseberry Falls State Park with a women-only trip from the University of Minnesota, Duluth. It was with this group that I first heard people talking about “Sandstone, Sandstone,” as the mecca of Minnesota ice climbing. So I signed up with Tony at Hard Water Sports to learn what’s so incredible about the ice at Robinson Park in Sandstone.

Turns out, quite a lot.

For starters, it’s farmed ice—an unusual effort in the already-unusual sport of ice climbing. Farmed ice is created via pumps and PVC tubing. Water cascades over the quarry wall, creating climbing ice structures. The effort to create ice at Robinson Park started seventeen years ago, inspired by the small amount of ice that comes in naturally every year in this city park. That small trickle showed what was possible for ice climbing at Sandstone.

A rented pump and an all-nighter promised the first Sandstone Ice Festival attendees would have some decent ice to climb. 

These days, ice farming is managed by the Minnesota Climbers Association. A small group of devoted volunteers make Sandstone a premier Minnesota ice climbing destination for climbers of all levels, from beginners to expert. There are a wide variety of routes, from beginner to mixed, which means climbing both ice and rock. Some routes ascend as high as ninety feet.

“Nobody outgrows Sandstone,” says Tony. “It can just keep getting harder and harder. It’s a great place to experience the sport and train, if you want to go on and climb bigger adventures and mountains.”

With the popularity of climbing gyms in Minneapolis, Tony says more people are getting into the sport of climbing, and a good number of them want to try ice climbing. His busy season as a guide is late December through early January. As a guide, Tony sets his clients with the necessary gear—and there’s a lot of it. Besides a rope and harness, you’ll need a helmet, ice axes, special boots, and crampons.

On the Saturday of my climb, I met Tony and was outfitted at the Hard Water Sports office in Sandstone, a few minutes from Robinson Park. I was joined by two more climbers, Luke Gaalswyk and Travis Deters, friends from Elk Grove. We quickly figured out the three of us all have young kids the same age, and ice climbing at Sandstone for the day was a good way to get our adrenaline fix without taking too many risks. 

“We like adventure, but we’re not going too extreme,” Travis told me. “Though some would say ice climbing is pretty extreme.” For Luke, a veteran and a mechanical engineer from the Brainerd lakes area, this was his first time ice climbing.

In Robinson, about twenty people gathered at the ice, some climbing, some belaying, others hanging out, watching, and talking. There was an easy sense of camaraderie to the site, and support for all ages and levels of experience. Climbing moves at a slow pace—it takes time for climbers to work their way to the top, methodically picking their way up holds and ledges, and on the ground, the belayers and other climbers chat, snack, and hang out. It’s a mellow scene. 

Which is good, because climbing ice is hard—on the body, and the ego. I’m always afraid I won’t be able to do it, won’t have the strength or the endurance. As I hacked my way to the top, I thought of Tony’s brief lesson on the ground: keep your body in a triangle, axes high, work your feet up in little steps. Don’t overgrip the axes (you’ll burn your arms out in no time). Kick your toes into the ice, but keep your heels low; don’t stand on your toes (which really goes against everything you think should be happening on the ice). And use as many of the natural features in the ice as you can.

Oh, and did I mention you should stay relaxed? Tension wastes energy, and you’ll need that energy—in the form of endurance, strength, persistence, and a sense of humor—to work your way up a frozen wall of ice with twenty people on the ground below, cheering you on.

I didn’t succeed in the relax category, but I did make it up two routes. I hammered my way up without a lot of grace, but they were harder routes than I had climbed before, and I was satisfied. I was done in the early afternoon, before Luke and Travis, whom I suspect climbed long into the afternoon. 

The cool thing about climbing at Sandstone is that you go at your own pace. Some people spend all day climbing, while some go up once or twice for the experience. Some people just hang out, winter-picnicking, watching, and chatting up the climbers. It’s all good. 

ICE CLIMBING OPPORTUNITIES IN MINNESOTA

Sandstone Ice Festival will be held Jan. 3-5, the first weekend of January.
You’ll find climbing clinics and gear demos, informal social time, winter camping clinics, gear swaps, and expert climbers presenting. The festival heralds all winter adventure sports, including skinny skiing and winter camping. For more information, visit sandstoneicefest.com. 

The Duluth Ice and Mixed Fest is a three-day festival of climbing clinics for experienced and never-been-on-ice climbers. Organized by the Duluth Climbers Coalition, it’s held at Quarry Park and the Duluth Folk School. Previous festivals have offered youth climbing clinics at Gooseberry State Park for students in middle and high school.
For more information, visit duluthclimbers.org/duluth-ice-mixed-fest.

The University of Minnesota Duluth Recreational Sports Outdoor Program offers climbing clinics open to students and community members. It’s a great way to try climbing for a day when someone else is handling the ropes.
Visit: d.umn.edu/recreational-sports-outdoor-program/.