A cold hard climb

As sport grows, climbers scale walls of ice to keep active all year

Photo taken at Starved Rock
Photo taken at Starved Rock (Provided photo)

But if you’re looking for a climbing challenge unique to the winter months, ice climbing is the way to go. You’ll have to bundle up and brave the cold, most likely the wind, and a slick terrain, but most ice climbing fans can’t get enough.

Joel Taylor is one of those devotees. An ice climbing and rock climbing instructor who lives in Monee, Taylor says he’s been ice climbing for around 10 years. He notes that ice climbing really started gaining in popularity in the 1980s and 1990s, and garnered national headlines when climbers Will Gadd and Sarah Hueniken became the first to scale Niagara Falls, climbing a portion of ice that formed just to the left of the famous Horseshoe Falls in January, 2015. The pair climbed it three times.

“I’ve been a rock climber for about 30 years and came late to the show for ice climbing,” says Taylor, who also still does juggling, stilt-walking and unicycling professionally, and is a magician. “Ice is really cool to climb. I like it myself because you can be out with a bunch of people that you know and like and hang out with. You can challenge yourself with something that is not what everybody’s doing.”

The highest Taylor says he ever has climbed is around 120 feet at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, along Lake Superior. It offers numerous waterfalls as well as sandstone cliffs and rock layers where water freezes, providing distinctive ice-climbing experiences.

“They’ve got some good-sized falls up there,” Taylor says.

However, you don’t have to travel to Michigan to get your frozen fix. There are locations within a few hours’ drive of suburban Chicago where you can feel the cold, hard thrill of scaling a wall of ice.

The most notable ice climbing location in Illinois is Starved Rock State Park in the north-central part of the state, around a two-hour drive southwest of Chicago. The Wildcat Canyon waterfall is the park’s longest, highest and deepest venue, from 80 to 100 feet high, says Kathy Casstevens, the park’s marketing director. Ice climbing also has been permitted at French Canyon and St. Louis Canyon.

Of course, conditions must be right to climb any of these canyons.

“Last year it didn’t get cold enough, but the year before (2016) it was awesome,” Casstevens says.

Safety is of the utmost importance, as well. Lisa Sons, the natural resource coordinator with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources at Starved Rock and nearby Matthiessen State Park (where, of note ice climbing is not allowed), emphasized that climbers must be in pairs of two or more people to ensure safety, and should be intermediate to advanced climbers with appropriate ice-climbing knowledge. Climbers climb at their own risk and liability.

“It is up to the ice climber to have the appropriate equipment to climb, to test the ice themselves for thickness and suitability for climbing,” she says. “The DNR/site staff do not check the ice falls for thickness or if they are ready to be climbed; that is up to the climbing groups.”

Ice climbing training

Where can someone get the necessary training to ice climb? Well, Taylor sets up a man-made ice tower called the “Nice Ice” tower in front of his home in Monee, where he does training. Training sessions are $75 per person, which includes lessons, gear and climb time (up to two hours of climbing).

Taylor recommends taking two or three lessons so one can get familiar and comfortable with ice-climbing techniques—especially if you want to climb a waterfall at Starved Rock or climb another venue.

The tower itself is around 25 feet high. In order to build up ice on the tower, Taylor says temperatures need to stay preferably 25 degrees or below — “in the low teens it’s really good; we can get a lot of ice,” he says — and the ice needs to be anywhere from four to six inches thick.

It all depends on the whim’s of Mother Nature.

”We want the cold,” Taylor laughs. “When it gets into the mid- to upper 20s or 30s it’s not good. Last year we only had 14 days of ice climbing.”

In order to make the chilly ascent, a climber will use ice tools, which look like picks, in each hand. The climber also wears a helmet and a pair of crampons on their feet, or sharp spikes, which allows them to dig into the ice as they climb.

“With ice climbing, it’s imperative that you wear a helmet because there’s falling ice,” Taylor says. “And your tools; these sharp objects are flying around and swinging around your head and all of a sudden you miss (the ice) and it (the ice tool) pulls off, which I’ve seen.”

The process of ice climbing is harrowing. The pick-like ice tools are swung above the head, one in front of the other in a vertical line, landing into the ice. Once each grip into the ice is secure, the climber, with feet shoulder-length apart, ascends a step at a time, kicking hard into the ice with a sharp spiked toe, then raising the other foot to level. This continues step after step, rising steadily along the side of the frozen wall.

“There’s a certain rhythm to it,” Taylor says. “If you start grabbing and your feet are flailing, it’s not going to work. If they listen to us (during the instruction time), it usually works out... Some people are a little less apt at it at first, but after a while they get it.”

Whether climbing at the “Nice Ice” ice tower or at a place like Starved Rock, steps are taken to ensure the climber’s safety. A rope is anchored at the top of the climb and then lowered to the bottom. Also at the bottom is a belayer (a French term which means “to keep safe”), who helps fastened the rope to a climber’s harness and remains at the bottom of the climb to assist the climber as he or she makes their ascent, tightening and loosening the rope at the climber’s request.

“The belayer is keeping you safe from falling,” Taylor says.

Although it was a short climbing season last winter, perhaps a longer season is in store this year. It was cold enough for a spell in mid-December, giving Taylor and his fellow climbing aficionados a window of opportunity to climb at the tower.

“We’ve had 20 people out here on a Saturday afternoon which is fine,” he says. “We have 12 ropes we can run. We’ve got a group from Western Kentucky University that’s scheduled to come up the first week of February to do ice climbing with us and stay with us.”

In addition to offering climbing and instruction, Taylor hosts fun social events for climbers with a specific theme. For example, in the evenings they have Taco Tuesdays (twice a month), a pizza night, a chili cook off, Full Moon climb nights … and even a Crazy Hat Day.

The “Nice Ice” ice tower is open daily — weather and conditions permitting, of course — and lights are imbedded into the ice, allowing for night climbing as well. Climbing is by appointment only except for posted events. Go online to www.playwildil.com or visit Facebook at www.facebook.com/NiceIceIceClimbing

"Restrictions to climbing areas change often. Please be sure to check both conditions and accessibility with the park area you are visiting before heading out for a climb. "

Ice climbing trips

Ready to put your ice-climbing skills to the test at higher elevations and a different locale? Taylor can get you set up for that experience, too.

Joel and his wife, Diane, own Vertical Adventure Guides, a company that books trips (typically single day adventures) for groups that want to go ice climbing, rock climbing, kayaking, caving or zip ling.

“They book the trip with us and we’re the guides,” Taylor explains. “We meet them at the venue and then we’ll hike out to where we’re going to be climbing and set up the climbs and ropes, and then we guide them through the climbing.

“We belay for them and provide the gear for them, and the instruction. Basically it’s an all-inclusive experience. All they have to do is bring their winter clothes and we tell them what to bring.”

► For more information, on Vertical Adventure Guides, go online to: www.verticaladventure.com or call 708-341-3255.

Great places to scale the ice
When you’re ready to head out for an icy ascent, check out these spots around northern Illinois.

Lone Rock
Highway 130 S., Lone Rock, WI
www.villageoflonerock.com
608-583-0088

The town of Lone Rock bills itself as “the coldest in the nation with the warmest heart.” There are two ice columns suitable for climbing that form along the Wisconsin River near Lone Rock.

Starved Rock State Park
Route 178 and Route 71, Utica
www.starvedrockstatepark.org
815-667-4906

Open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.

Wildcat Canyon waterfall is the park’s main location for ice climbing, but climbing also is permitted at French Canyon and St. Louis Canyon. The park will give updates on its website and also by phone when ice forms. There are no fees, and climbers climb at their own risk and liability. Ice climbers must check in at the Maintenance Building at Starved Rock across the road from the Visitor Center. There is a login book outside the front doors. Climbers must stay on marked trails to get to the ice falls.

Governor Dodge State Park
T4175 Highway 23 N.
Dodgeville, WI
http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/name/govdodge/
(608) 935-2315

Another park about 3.5 hours north of Chicago is Governor Dodge State Park. The climbing walls are not exceptionally tall, between 40 and 50 feet, but there are two climbing areas in the park, Stephens Falls and Cox Hollow Lake. Maps are available at the park’s visitor center which indicate Stephens Falls on the road to Twin Valley Lake, and there is even a small parking lot approximately a mile past the ranger station.