Ice Climbing in Minnesota Off to a Rocky Start

Warm weather means that the ice-climbing season is getting off to a late start.
Warm weather means that the ice-climbing season is getting off to a late start. Sandstone Ice Festival
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One of the biggest casualties of El Niño in the winter of 2015-2016 has been outdoor activities. While some bask in the warmth, many hardy northerners would prefer ice, snow, and subzero temperatures that make traditional winter pursuits possible. The Sandstone Ice Festival, which was scheduled for late December, was one of those events that fell victim to the balmier than average weather. Celebrating ice climbing in Minnesota and other related activities for over a decade, this is the first year the ice fest has been canceled.

“While we were not able to reschedule the Sandstone Ice Festival this season, we are planning a bigger and better event for next year's festival December 16-18, 2016,” says event organizer Tony Vavricka.

Although the Sandstone Ice Festival normally kicks off the season, Vavricka says there are other ice festivals local climbers should get up for in 2016, assuming the weather cooperates. In honor of the beginning of ice climbing season, we chatted with him about what it takes to put on one of these events, ice climbing's growing popularity, and which later season ice festivals he recommends checking out in the region this year.

The Sandstone Ice Festival has traditionally kicked off the winter climbing season, but warm temperatures caused the cancellation of the festival this year.
The Sandstone Ice Festival has traditionally kicked off the winter climbing season, but warm temperatures caused the cancellation of the festival this year. Sandstone Ice Festival

What is the mission behind the Sandstone Ice Festival?

Our mission is simply to “get people off their couches.” Minnesota winters are too long not to get out and enjoy them. The Sandstone Ice Festival has also made the sport of ice climbing much more accessible to Minnesota athletes. Between the climbing clinics and having demo gear for participants to test, we have made it much easier for rock climbers to try out the sport of ice climbing.

During a typical winter, how would you describe the Robinson Quarry Ice Park to someone who has never been there?

Magical. Who would have dreamed that we would have such an awesome venue for the sport of ice climbing? Not only is it a beautiful place to climb, or to see the ice wall at night with the lights turned on, but the real magic is that climbers and city officials have worked together to make it all possible. Between the rock climbing routes and the ice climbing, Robinson Park in Sandstone, Minnesota, has year-round access for climbers.

How do you prep it for the festival and ice climbing each winter?

The first couple years of the festival I rented a pump, and a small group of us ran shifts through the night to keep gas in the pump and to move the hose. Since then the Minnesota Climbers Association and the City of Sandstone have worked to add plumbing to a section of the quarry walls. A big shout out goes to the Minnesota Climber’s Association for its work with the fundraising and organizing the work crews.

What do participants learn at the ice-climbing clinics?

The ice climbing clinics at the Sandstone Ice Festival are designed for athletes with some climbing experience. Participants should know the basic safety and belaying. Students learn about moving over the ice efficiently, this includes the basics of how to swing the axes and using crampons.

Do you see the sport of ice climbing growing in the state and region?

I see more communities making changes to draw adventure tourists to their areas and this includes more ice parks being built in the state.

Weather permitting, what are some other ice festivals you recommend in the area?

The Ouray Ice Festival (Jan. 14-17), the Michigan Ice Fest (Feb. 10-14), the Duluth Ice & Mixed Fest (Feb. 26-28) and the Nipigon Ice Fest (March 13-15).

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