Winter Play: Ice climbing on the North Shore
Getting ready and going up is a challenge, but finishing is a rush
As winter cold bites deep, MPR News is celebrating the best of the season through a new series called “Winter Play.” Our staff across the state set out to try a new-to-them winter pastime. Reporter Dan Kraker tried ice climbing for the first time on a cliff north of Two Harbors.
TWO HARBORS, Minn. — I think a lot of people, if they think at all about ice climbing, have two ideas in their minds — that it looks really difficult (if not a little crazy), and it looks dangerous.
Now, depending on the climb, it can definitely be extraordinarily challenging.
But for a beginner like me, out with experienced climbers well-versed in safety, “the most dangerous part of climbing is the drive up to the crag, especially on a day like today,” contends Dave Pagel. He’s a longtime Duluth climber who volunteered to take me ice climbing on a snowy and windy day at a place called Silver Creek Cliff, on the shore of Lake Superior a few miles north of Two Harbors.
My first step was getting outfitted. For about $30, I rented the gear I needed for the day from the Outdoor Recreation Center at the University of Minnesota Duluth: boots, crampons, a harness and a helmet.
Dave and his longtime climbing buddy Rick Kollath provided the rest — two lightweight, curved ice axes, the ropes, and most importantly, the expertise.
Dave gives me a quick lesson on ice ax technique.
“You're swinging with a little bit of flick and getting that tool, so it sticks,” he explains. Then, you “sag” back a little bit away from the cliff, so you can see your feet. Then you walk your feet up, 'Clunk. Clunk.' ”
He makes it sound so simple.
Pagel wrote a book a few years ago called “Cold Feet: Stories of a Middling Climber.” But Pagel is anything but middling. He and Kollath (who met 45 years ago while students at UMD and have climbed together ever since) have scaled some of the world's most famous peaks, from Yosemite’s El Capitan to the Matterhorn in the Alps.
In fact, they began ice climbing so long ago they concede they may not be the best teachers — they’re self-taught, and the equipment has changed significantly since they first learned.
“But I think we can get you pointed in the right direction,” Pagel assures me. “Which is up.”
Meanwhile, Rick sets up what’s called a “top rope.” He climbs the icy face, and loops the rope through an anchor at the top of the cliff. That way, if I slip off the cliff as I'm climbing up, I won't fall — I'll just hang there, suspended in air, while Rick belays me from below.
Then I tie into the rope through my harness, and I'm all set. “Let's do it!” I say, feigning confidence.
I walk up to the cliff, where water seepage dripping down has frozen into a sheet of vertical ice about 70 feet tall. I look for a spot to stick my first ax.
Then I kick in one of my crampons, which has a spike at the front of my boot that sticks straight into the ice. I kick one in, then the other. Then I stand up, and try to get in my next ax.
Eventually, I figure out the rhythm. Get a good solid placement with one of my axes. Then I lift one foot up, stick it in the ice. Then the other foot. Then I stand up on those new foot holds, take out one of the ice axes and find a new hold. And repeat.
And before I know it, after about 10 minutes, I make it. “I'm there, I'm at the top!” I yell, to no one in particular.
I pause and take in the view. Snow is still falling in thick flakes as waves roll in to shore on Lake Superior far below, crashing against the rocks.
I lean back against the rope, and Rick lowers me down. I push my feet against the cliff as I descend — “Batman style,” as Dave puts it — until once again, I’m back on solid ground.
‘Type Two fun’
“That was fun!” I say. “You looked great,” Dave tells me. I don’t really believe him.
“It takes a climb like that to start to realize, okay, this is what's going on with the ax. That's how it sticks,” he says.
Pagel refers to ice climbing, especially for beginners like me, as “Type Two” fun.
“Which is fun that is not necessarily fun before or when you're doing it. But afterwards, you just get a huge rush and a feeling of accomplishment out of it.”
“That's how I just felt!” I say.
“And I think there's value in that,” Dave says. “I think there's value in challenging yourself to do something when you feel like, ‘I don't really want to do this! What am I doing?’ ”
For me, a lot of it was just trusting that my crampons and my axes would hold me. It is remarkable, Dave says, how the tiny pick points of the axes, and the front points of the crampons, may only be biting in just a fraction of an inch, but how rock solid they feel.
Rick Kollath says there's a term you hear climbers use called “flow.”
“That you're in this spot [where] you're not aware of the passage of time. You're so involved in this activity that you're doing. It's completely absorbing. And climbing, I'd say as much as anything I've ever done, embraces that.”
While I don't know if I experienced true “flow,” I was so focused on the climb that I did sort of block everything else out.
Rick says that feeling can be so intense. It's what brings him back again and again to ice climbing. And, I've got to say, I could see it bringing me back as well. If I can convince someone to take me out again.
If you go
Where: Ice-climbing festivals are a great place for an introduction to the sport. The Duluth Ice Fest is scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 4, at Quarry Park. Ice parks in Duluth, Sandstone and Winona feature farmed ice for predictable climbing, with local companies offering gear rentals and guiding services.
Gear: A great place to rent inexpensive gear is from university outdoor recreation programs around the state. The University of Minnesota, Winona State University, the University of Minnesota Duluth and others all rent ice-climbing equipment. And you don’t have to be a student to access it.
How much: The cost for me to rent boots, crampons, a harness and a helmet for a day from UMD was about $30.
What to wear: Warm but flexible clothing to move around in. Gloves to grip the axes. A thin hat to wear under a helmet. Dress in layers!