SANDSTONE, Minn. (AP) — From a distance, the scene looked like a Lilliputian tooth-cleaning. Suspended by harnesses and ropes held taut by belayers on the ground, a line of climbers tapped away at the pearly ice-covered wall jutting a vertical 60 to 90 feet, eventually finding a good spot to anchor their curved axes and continue the ascent.
During the past nine years, the beginners’ clinic and related demonstrations at Sandstone Ice Festival have introduced about 1,000 people to ice climbing at Robinson Park, a former sandstone quarry that Minnesota Climbers Association President James Loveridge counts among the best ice-climbing sites from here to Thunder Bay.
Loveridge, 44, of Minneapolis, a former Black Diamond rep who now runs his own agency, estimated 300 Minnesotans are serious enough about the sport to own equipment. The cost can run $1,000 for a pair of ice tools, boots and crampons. Most are rock climbers and already own ropes and harnesses. (The outlay is less than the cost of a snowmobile, Loveridge points out.) At Ice Festival, beginners try equipment for free.
For spectators, the difference between rock and ice might be the sound.
Behind instructors’ words of encouragement ran a constant loop of creaking, scraping, clattering and shattering as climbers tapped, jabbed and pulled themselves up. Ice chips sprayed. Larger chunks crashed to the ground.
Getting in close required a helmet.
For climbers, the difference might be the feel.
“The feeling is different, because you’re feeling through your tools,” said Bryan Karban, 25, of St. Paul, the climbing and trips coordinator for the University of Minnesota’s outdoor program. He and Loveridge spoke by phone as they drove to Sandstone to set up for the Dec. 13-15 festival.
Ice climbing had been going on secretly at Robinson Park for years before the MCA approached the city about developing the site.
“There’s always been climbing in the park,” City Administrator Sam Griffith told the St. Cloud Times. The city, which previously had chosen to ignore the activity, formed an advisory committee about 11 years ago. Representatives came from MCA, Vertical Endeavors, St. Cloud State University and the University of Minnesota-Duluth.
Griffith said when the group approached the city’s insurer about coverage, it was summer and everyone assumed rock climbing was the topic. Emphasizing safety at every turn, Griffith said the group worked up to the idea of ice climbing.
The additional premiums cost $1,500 a year. A couple of years ago, the city extended a water line at a cost of $4,600. The line makes it easier to “farm” ice — to build layer upon layer until the ice forms a solid wall. Relying upon nature is far more unpredictable.
The ice climbing routes they build and maintain give climbers a reliable, challenging course 90 minutes from the Twin Cities. For its investment, Griffith said the city has benefited from climbers’ organized cleanups.
“We’ve been able to do things in the park that we couldn’t do locally because people just show up,” Griffith said. “We don’t charge for climbing or anything like that, but (the arrangement is) teaching people that they need to give back.”
Ice Festival originator and event director Tony Vavricka of St. Paul, himself an avid climber who most recently took up whitewater canoeing, remembers when ice climbers used to sneak into the park.
“One of the main goals of the festival is connecting the climbing community to the community of Sandstone,” he said.
Vavricka estimated 200 people attended Saturday’s events at this year’s festival.
By late Friday afternoon, some campers already had pitched tents near the Kettle River and along the snow-packed road leading from a small parking lot to the ice wall. Near the base of the wall, picnic tables were piled high with crampons, ice tools, extra jackets, energy bars and thermos bottles. Foam mats folded on the benches insulated from the cold. Climbers surveyed the 20 to 30 routes, an expansion from last year.
A film crew set about gathering interviews and reshooting close-up explanations of techniques. Vendors and equipment providers started setting up outside their trucks and tents. A climber with a camera marveled at the ice’s many hues — tan, blue, yellow.
Around the corner, a small group of veteran climbers worked their way into icy crevasses. Instead of encouraging climbers to continue, belayers here had to urge the over-eager from climbing to the very top.
Meanwhile, first-time ice climbers dangled from their harnesses, shaking out their hands as they rested and surveyed the scene.
“It looks like another planet. This landscape is wonderful,” a breathless Decio Durlacher said after finishing one of several climbs. A native of Brazil currently living in Woodbury, Durlacher said he was embracing the sports of Minnesota. Something to get through the winter.
Getting through the winter seemed to be the primary motivator for many Minnesota ice climbers, whether novice or seasoned guide.
“For me, it’s the medium,” said Jennifer Stewart, 43, of St. Paul, a Chicks With Picks guide who earned a bronze medal for ice climbing in the 1998 X Games in Colorado and teaches climbing at the University of Minnesota. “If you go to a rock climb, it will pretty much always be the same. It will be consistent, where ice is a very dynamic medium that can change from hour to hour, depending on the temperature.”
On the opening day of Ice Festival, Stewart focused on beginning climbers trying to get a grip on the ice.
“Walk your feet up before you move your second ax,” she said. “How those hands doing?”
Beyond keeping hands warm, Loveridge said the most difficult element to master is a melding of technique and judgment.
“Knowing when you’ve got good placement, that’s the thing people struggle with the most,” Loveridge said. Bury the pick too deeply and it’s difficult to extract. Too shallow and it’ll come loose. “It’s that balance of security and efficiency.”
The talk Friday at Ice Festival was technique and safety. But Stewart said most students face an even bigger obstacle.
“Their own mind. Especially with climbing, people come in with assumptions about what they can’t do. The thing I like about teaching is inevitably they’re surprised by what they can accomplish,” Stewart said. “You’re going to encounter fear. Learning to deal with it and move on is part of the fun. Climbing is not just a physical sport, it’s mental and emotional as well.”
Loveridge agreed that rock climbing tends to be more physical than ice climbing, requiring hand and finger strength.
Explaining the safety of the sport can be a tough sell.
As novice ice climber Sarah Brown, a physician’s assistant at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, pointed out, stab an artery with a crampon and you could bleed to death in short order. (That’s why climbing pants are reinforced near the hem.)
Rely on a faulty anchor, and you risk a fall. (That’s why Stewart prefers to set her own.)
Plus, it’s cold. You have to know how to read the ice. You might be in a remote area.
“There’s definitely something to be said for the need for concentration and safety and awareness,” Stewart said. “I think that gets billed as extreme. I don’t climb because it’s dangerous or because it’s extreme. In fact, I have the opposite personality. What I like is the complexity of the situation and controlling that.
“I don’t downhill ski because I can’t stop,” Stewart said. “When I’m climbing, I can go as slow as I want, and I can back off. The only thing I can’t control is freak ice falls.”
What Stewart finds midway up an ice wall is solitude and beauty. What Loveridge finds is focus.
“It’s a form of meditation,” Loveridge said. “People can be screaming and playing with their dog and laughing with their girlfriend. You don’t hear any of if because you’re focused on what you’re doing because you have to be.”
Ice climbers like to say it’s riskier to ride a snowmobile or drive a car.
“I don’t have a death wish,” Loveridge said. “My point is there’s nothing more engaging than doing something that risks injury.”
Climbers are safe because they have to be, he and Stewart said.
“There’s a consequence to climbing, all kinds of climbing — bouldering, ice, whatever,” Loveridge said. “That consequence is you could get hurt.”