Ice Climbing in Minnesota: More Chess Than Chest-Bumps

By Brian Fanelli

Ice Climbing at Robinson Park in Sandstone

There isn’t really a direct comparison to ice climbing, says Sarah Wiesner, a Duluth climber who’s been chasing ice since being introduced to the sport in 2009.

“You can compare it to rock climbing, but that’s a little like comparing running to figure skating,” she says. “It’s more peaceful, and I feel like it’s a greater puzzle…Ice climbing is very meditative in my opinion.”

Meditative was not a word that crossed my mind when I first heard about ice climbing. Extreme, adrenaline, muscular—those words all seemed to make sense, but I was having trouble bridging the gap between pulling yourself up a frozen rock-wall and finding inner peace. Fortunately, Minnesota’s ever-expanding ice climbing community was more than happy to correct my off-base assumptions.

As I learned from some of Minnesota's elite climbers, ice climbing is more chess than chest-bumps: a methodical, deliberate ascent in which each movement inches you closer to the summit.

Observing someone scale a wall of ice may look impossible at first, but Phil Huston, expert climber and tour guide with North Shore Adventure Park, insists that ice climbing is easier than it looks. “After learning some simple pointers, you start swinging your tools into the ice and climbing. It’s easy on the body, a great workout, very challenging and keeps you warm on a cold day.”

But Huston says you’ll still probably need some training before heading out by yourself. If you’re just getting into the sport, there’s no better introduction than a climbing festival, and Minnesota is proud to host two annual ice climbing fests: the Sandstone Ice Festival, and Duluth Ice & Mixed Fest.

These festivals aren’t just your introduction to ice climbing, they represent so much of what I love about winter in Minnesota: trekking into the frozen unknown, learning new skills, sharing warm food and hearty beers around the campfire, and embracing all of the unique challenges and rewards of the wintery Minnesota landscape.

Sandstone Ice Festival (Jan. 4–6)

Ice climbers at Sandstone, by Lisa Meyers McClintock
Ice climbers at Sandstone, photo by Lisa Meyers McClintick

For more than a decade, the Sandstone Ice Festival has been Minnesota’s premier ice climbing party. Held in Robinson Park, the first park in Minnesota designed specifically for ice climbing, the festival is a celebration of all things winter—from ice climbing to skinny skiing, winter camping and snow shoeing.

The numerous ice routes at Sandstone have a broad range of difficulties, from moderate routes you can tackle on your first climb, to epic climbs that will challenge and taunt you for years to come. Beginners can attend an introductory clinic (co-ed or women’s-only) to learn about safety on the ice, climbing equipment and basic movements you’ll need for a safe and successful first climb. For more experienced climbers, intermediate and advanced clinics are offered, too.

Over the course of this three-day winter festival, attendees can partake in gear swaps, climbing clinics, winter camping classes and even an annual chili cook-off, the Frozen Kettle. Wiesner, who has attended Sandstone for the past five years, says her favorite part about the festival is how excited everyone is to be there. “You are all crammed in there with climbers you have never met before. It’s a great way to get to know other climbers and swap advice.”

Duluth Ice & Mixed Fest (Feb. 1–3)

Mixed climbing in Duluth
Mixed climbing in Duluth, photo by Sarah Wiesner

A little further north, the Duluth Ice & Mixed Fest is bringing the party to Casket Quarry Park for its third year. Although it’s only a few years old, the fest is an unmistakably good fit for Duluth, a city known as both an outdoor recreation hot spot, and as a hilly, snow-covered burg. Hearing that Duluth has an ice climbing festival makes sense in an unconscious, of-course-they-do kind of way, sort of like hearing that Minnesota has lakes.

Since the 1970s, Casket Park has been a mainstay of the Duluth ice climbing scene—despite its ominous (and tongue-in-cheek) name—and these days the quarry has close to 20 ice and mixed (a combination of rock and ice climbing) routes where you can “hone your skills and dull your tips.”

The Duluth festival, like Sandstone, offers co-ed and women’s-only clinics that range from introductory- to intermediate -level. Non-climbing winter adventurers can grab a fat bike courtesy of the College of St. Scholastica Outdoor Pursuits Team and ride trails around the quarry, or simply enjoy a hot beverage and cheer on the climbers from a front-row seat in the observation area.

Evening activities from previous years have included dinner at Clyde Iron Works, a “climbers’ social” at Bent Paddle Brewery, live music, and featured presentations by world-renowned climbers like Margo Talbot, Rebecca Lewis and Nathan Kutcher.

Other Places to Climb

Without question, northeast Minnesota is the state’s most prolific region for ice climbing. Dozens of waterfalls dot the Lake Superior shoreline, and as the mercury dips, their once-thunderous cascades of water freeze into massive ice walls—absolutely perfect conditions for ice climbing. The Lower Falls at Gooseberry State Park is a popular and moderately simple climb, with another, more difficult climb located near the second falls. Further up the shore, Grand Marais houses two of Minnesota’s best (and longest) ice climbs: Nightfall and Cascade Falls.

Winona recently opened its own ice climbing park, but unlike the relatively short ice quarry routes at Sandstone, the farmed ice flows in Winona cascade hundreds of feet down the city’s towering bluffs, overlooking downtown. Despite its youth, the Winona Ice Climbing Park is already making a name for itself as one of the country’s premier ice climbing opportunities, and it’s only going to keep growing.

Discover more Minnesota ice climbing adventures on Mountain Project, an online, crowd-sourced climbing guidebook.

Guided Tours and Gear Rentals

Can’t make it to one of Minnesota’s ice climbing festivals for an intro clinic? Hit up one of these businesses for guided tours and ice climbing classes that run all winter long:

Once you’re feeling comfortable enough to guide your own expeditions, you can rent climbing equipment from any of the aforementioned stores, or from the University of Minnesota, which rents ice climbing gear to the public at both its Twin Cities and Duluth outdoor recreation centers.

Disclaimer: Although ice climbing is a relatively safe activity, it is by no means risk-free. Climb at your own risk, and only in designated ice climbing areas.