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Ice climbing festival draws enthusiasts from Midwest and beyond

Hundreds of climbing enthusiasts gathered Jan. 4-6, for the Sandstone Ice Fest. Steve Hoffman / Forum News Service1 / 3
Air temperatures approaching 40 degrees F on Jan. 5, had some enthusiasts climbing in a T-shirt. Steve Hoffman / Forum News Service2 / 3
MCA board member Peter Lenz ascending the ice at the 2019 Sandstone Ice Fest. Submitted photo / Adam Reinhardt3 / 3

SANDSTONE, Minn. -- Hundreds of climbers from across the country attended the 14th annual Sandstone Ice Fest, Jan. 4-6 at Robinson Park. Some were there to learn the basics, others to advance their skills and some just to connect or reconnect with like-minded enthusiasts. But everyone was there to have fun.

Lynn Larson is the treasurer of the Minnesota Climbers Association, the nonprofit group that hosts the Sandstone Ice Fest each year during the first weekend of January. “Ice Fest is a partnership between the city of Sandstone and the MCA,” Larson said. “The city provides water to make the ice, allows the MCA to hold the festival and allows climbers to camp in the park.”

The MCA, meanwhile, maintains the ice farm. “We’ve installed two separate water lines along the top of a quarter-mile of sandstone wall,” Larson said. “Small sprayers, which look like miniature shower heads, spray water onto the wall where it freezes into sheets of ice.”

Farming ice, though, is not an exact science. “We’ve learned that we need to run the water when the air temperatures cool below about 25 degrees F for a high and don’t drop below 5 degrees F for a low. It’s a bit challenging since most of our volunteers live in the Twin Cities, 90 minutes away. This year we were irrigating one section of wall until the day before the festival began.”

Sandstone is north of Minneapolis and south of Duluth.,

Climbing clinics are one of the main attractions at Ice Fest, with classes tailored for beginning, intermediate and advanced climbers. “The basic clinics assume no prior ice-climbing experience,” Larson said, “but participants still need familiarity with basic knots and belay technique. We recommend that new climbers work first with an outfitter or, better still, find a mentor to show them the ropes.”

Veteran climber Ross Purnell, Hershey, Pennsylvania, has taught many friends the basics of ice climbing. “Most of them already have some rock-climbing experience,” Purnell said. “But after an initial climb or two on the ice, I always recommend they attend an ice-climbing festival to further develop their skills.”

Like many outdoors activities, it’s possible to spend as much money as you want to on ice-climbing gear. Larson said that a good entry-level kit might cost $600, while Purnell added that higher end gear can top $1,500. “That’s another advantage to climbing festivals,” Purnell said. “participants can often use a variety of equipment for a small rental fee or even for free.”

With high temperatures on Saturday, Jan. 5 approaching 40 degrees F, the weather was almost ideal. “Climbing in mild weather is not only more comfortable, it is also more efficient,” Larson said. “In extremely cold temperatures your tool will bounce off the ice like you’re hitting rock. The ice is much more inviting to tools during mild weather.”

But the weather doesn’t stop climbers from tackling the ice throughout the entire season. “There will still be ice here in May, but you probably wouldn’t want to climb it,” Larson said. “The ice starts to turn slushy in warm weather. But the quarry stays shaded most of the day during spring, and some climbers will certainly still be on the ice in April.”

The quarry walls on the other side of the Kettle River were free of ice, but remained open to sport climbing and bouldering. Traditional climbers use removable anchors to ascend rock walls, while sport climbers use anchor points that have been permanently installed in the rock every 10 feet or so. Bouldering enthusiasts, meanwhile, climb to the top of massive rocks without the aid of tools.

Most of the climbers I talked to were excited to climb as much of the ice as possible, often attempting different routes up the same sheet of ice. Opinions were shared about which routes were the most challenging, which was usually synonymous with the most fun.

“When the festival starts, most of the ice is clean,” Larson said. “But by Sunday afternoon -- after hundreds of climbs -- it starts to get picked out. The tools create small pockets that make it easier to find an anchor, but also reduce the challenge.”

And ice climbing is all about the challenge.

Natural ice-climbing opportunities might be scarce in the upper Midwest, but climbing enthusiasts are creative. A new ice park in Winona features bluffs hundreds of feet tall covered with farmed ice. The wall resulted from the collaboration between climbers, Winona State University and the city of Winona.

In Winnipeg, Manitoba, The Club d’escalade de Saint-Boniface constructed a permanent 3-sided tower that is covered with ice each winter. Multiple routes with varying degrees of difficulty can challenge even seasoned climbers. Check the weather before you go, though, as the club website indicates that evening climbs will be canceled when the windchill exceeds -31 degrees F.

Near Cedar Falls, Iowa, volunteers from the University of Northern Iowa converted an 85-foot grain silo into an ice-climbing wall. The steel and concrete structure outlived its original purpose, but now provides Midwest climbing enthusiasts a venue that many climbers say ranks among the most challenging they’ve ever climbed.

Frozen waterfalls are common on rivers that feed the north shore of Lake Superior, especially north of Thunder Bay, Ontario. “Natural ice is higher quality than farmed ice,” Larson said. “The constant flow of water seeping from a spring or stream creates a more solid flow. Farmed ice tends to create a chandelier effect because there is a lot of air mixed with the water.”

But for thousands of Midwest climbing enthusiasts, man-made ice parks give them access to a consuming winter pursuit. “I enjoy climbing both rock and ice,” Purnell said, “but there’s something about the quiet of winter and the sound of ice splinters tingling down a frozen wall that keeps me coming back.”

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