Kendra Stritch scales the ice at Minnesota’s Sandstone Ice Park
Photo By Adrian Danciu
Kendra Stritch was high in the air, clinging to a wall of ice, when she realized that was exactly where she’d always wanted to be. It was 2007, and she had just moved back to Minnesota from graduate school in New York state, where she’d started rock climbing. But it was winter, and all the rocks in the Midwest were covered in ice. So she decided to try ice climbing, a fast-growing sport that uses ropes, spiky metal “crampons” strapped to your boots, and ice axes (swung into the ice to gain a hold) to scale frozen waterfalls and man-made ice parks.
A few years later, Stritch went on to help found the USA Ice Climbing Team, and in 2015 she won a gold medal at the World Cup, the sport’s top competition. Almost as thrilling for Stritch has been watching the rapid growth of the sport. “In the beginning, the Sandstone Ice Fest was, like, 30 of us,” she says, referring to Minnesota’s premier ice climbing event. “Last year I think they had 200 people.”
Today there are artificial ice parks in Duluth, Sandstone, and Winona. And if you go to one of the ice festivals, Stritch and others offer affordable (or free) clinics where you can try out the equipment without having to invest. If you do, though, you might just fall for the sport as she did. “The thing I love to think about when I’m up on the frozen water is that I’m in a place nobody can be any other time,” Stritch says. “You can’t be there in the summer because it’s a waterfall. And the ice is always changing. It’s growing and shrinking every day. I love doing new things, so that ever-changing aspect of the ice is fascinating to me.”
Ice-climb grades are rated by Waterfall Ice, 2-7 ranging from 60-degree slopes to sheer overhangs:
Individual: Ice climbing or mountaineering boots with a stiff sole, harness, helmet, cold-weather clothes. Shared gear: crampons, ice axes, rope, locking carabiners, webbing to create an anchor between trees atop cliff.
West Duluth Climbing Park; Sandstone Ice Park; Winona Ice Climbing Park; North Shore (Cascade Falls on Cascade River, Nightfall on Devil Track River); Twin Cities (Crosby Park, Franklin Bridge over Mississippi); Nipigon, Ontario
Learn the “A-Frame” stance early on, keeping your feet at the same height, positioned just wider than your hips. Swing your axe high overhead into the ice to gain hold, then step up with each foot. Relax and don’t over-grip your tools.
“Reading the ice” as you climb it. “Ice forms under different conditions and acts differently because of that,” says Stritch. “Learning to read the ice is learning to understand how that ice is going to behave when you swing into it.”
Falling ice, poorly placed “ice screws,” which are used to hold rope in places where there are no trees to anchor to.