Published March 23, 2008, 12:00 AM

Ice climbing

Frozen waterfalls are prime pick for Minnesota climbers
Nearly 300,000 people visit this North Shore park every summer to watch a liquid Gooseberry River plunge toward Lake Superior.

Gooseberry Falls State Park, Minn.

Nearly 300,000 people visit this North Shore park every summer to watch a liquid Gooseberry River plunge toward Lake Superior.

But on a recent February morning, 12 intrepid visitors have come to clamber up the river’s now-frozen falls. This is ice-climbing, a wintry spin-off of rock climbing. Climbers, harnessed and roped for safety, use ice axes in their hands and spikes called crampons on their boots to ascend this 20-foot wall of ice.

The climbers are part of an “Introduction to Ice Climbing” outing sponsored by the Recreational Sports Outdoor Program at the University of Minnesota-Duluth.

Listen. All you hear is the chook, chook of ice axes being driven into the bulbous gray mass of ice. Then the syncopated chick, chick of crampons as they bite the wall.

One by one, the climbers spider up a frozen face that muffles the thunder of the river.

Look. You can see flowing water, near the middle of the icefall, as it makes its vertical drop behind a clear pane of ice. If you move in close enough, you can hear it, too, hissing over the rocks. It seems to be saying, “OK, have your fun in the cold, but remember, I’m still a river.”

That is part of ice-climbing’s appeal, says Kaija Webster, who directs UMD’s climbing program.

“For me, it’s just that stunning setting,” said Webster, who has been climbing ice for 10 years. “There’s something fun in thinking about climbing on something that’s a waterfall in the summer and now is ice.”

Each of the climbers seems to find something different in the ice.

“I really like to work with the ice, and I think it’s a good stress reliever to get up there and drive that pick into the ice,” says Nicole Skaar, a UMD junior who is one of the instructors on the Gooseberry climb.

“It’s exhilarating,” says 48-year-old Dick Edwards from Golden Valley, who is at Gooseberry with his 14-year-old son. “You’re cranking up this wall, and you don’t realize how high you’re getting and how fast you get up there until you look down.”

“It’s awesome,” says UMD freshman Jodi Craven, who has just descended from the ice. “I used to be afraid of heights. I’m overcoming my personal fears in a fun way.”

Webster is right. The setting is stunning. The ice, formed one molecule at a time through a Minnesota winter, is ribbed and fluted. The falls, wide as well as tall, form an amphitheater across the Gooseberry’s valley. On this February day, sunlight pours into the amphitheater.

In these temperatures, the ice is “soft” and “easy,” Skaar said. That means the point of an ax penetrates easily, and the points of crampons sink solidly. Climbers say this ice is “plastic.” On colder days, it can be brittle. Swing an ice ax at it, and it “dinner-plates,” shattering an outer layer. A second swing is often necessary to get a good bite.

For a lot of people, Skaar said, the appeal of ice climbing is no different than the lure of rock climbing.

“One thing that’s cool about people who climb ? they see something high and they think, ‘I want to get up that,”‘ she said.

Some days, Skaar said, it’s Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. Today, it’s a chunk of Minnesota river.

Skaar and fellow instructors John Hample and Bria Fleming have set anchors in the ice atop the falls and have run ropes up through them, then back down to the base of the falls. A climber weaves one end of the rope through his or her harness. As the climber ascends, an instructor belays from below, taking up rope through a friction device to prevent a climber from falling.

Four ropes are available, and nearly all are in use constantly. Nobody falls.

Chook. Chook.

Chick. Chick.

Occasionally a climber cries, “Ice!” ? a warning to those below that shattered or loose ice is falling. All of the climbers wear helmets.

“That’s a must,” Webster said. “With ice-climbing, that’s not a decision. Ice will fall.”

The sport is growing, she says.

“We’re filling our courses in it,” she said. “Even people who aren’t rock climbers are trying it. We have 20 people who are ice-climbing instructors. Those are unprecedented numbers.”

UMD freshman Bryan Teaters came up to climb the Gooseberry with the group.

“I’ve been rock-climbing for two years,” Teaters said. “This is a very different experience. You gotta make your own route. It seems a little easier (than rock climbing). This is beginner’s stuff, I’m sure.”

That’s true. Advanced climbers eventually find their way to Orient Bay near the Nipigon River in Ontario.

“That’s world-class in the number and quality of icefalls,” Webster said. “The ice is thick and stable and tall. There are dozens upon dozens of ice climbs.”

But for now, on this pleasant day, the Gooseberry will do.

Sam Cook is the outdoors writer for the Duluth (Minn.) News Tribune, a Forum Communications newspaper

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