UTICA, Ill. (AP) — Year-round tourist attraction Starved Rock State Park does not attract mountaineers every year.
But an extremely cold December, January and February, with plenty of snow and just the right amount of thawing created ideal conditions for experienced ice climbers in recent weeks.
“It doesn’t form every year. This year is phenomenal in terms of the weather. It’s been cold for so long,” said Jacek Witkos, an Elmwood Park English Language Learner teacher who was climbing the more than 100-foot-tall Wildcat Canyon icefall with three fellow Chicago Mountaineering Club members this past weekend. Eight other climbers were taking advantage of Wildcat’s ice Sunday.
Witkos, who started “scrambling” up mountains when he grew up in Poland, has been ice climbing for the past seven years.
Feb. 9 was his first climb at Starved Rock, although he visits frequently with his family in summer for hiking and to enjoy the “beautiful, warm and cozy” lodge. Along with friends and club members, he goes on an annual winter trip to the Michigan Ice Festival in Munising, Mich., where the wide “ice curtains” that cling to a Lake Superior bluff provide climbers with multiple lines to climb.
He also climbed the frozen Cascade River falls on Minnesota’s North Shore of Lake Superior this winter, and climbed Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, The Needles in South Dakota and Mount Wheeler in New Mexico last summer.
All canyons have ice falls this year.
Icefalls formed in all 18 canyons at Starved Rock State Park this winter, according to park staff.
The park allows climbing in Tonti, La Salle and Ottawa canyons, too. “Ice climbing is prime right now, and this is the best year we’ve had in several, because the previous years, the conditions just weren’t right,” said Jolyn Wise, natural resources coordinator for Starved Rock State Park. She said climbers from all over Illinois often show up more than one time per winter.
“When conditions are right, they usually just last a short period. So they’re out here as often as they can,” Wise said.
The park never allows climbing on the soft, sandstone cliffs, because of instability and therefore life-threatening danger.