James Loveridge believes the phrase "If you build it, they will come" also applies to ice climbing. Ice climbers continue to come, at all skill levels from across the state and beyond, taking advantage of the treasure found on the ice-covered cliffs of Robinson Park. For this reason, the Minnesota Climbers Association (MCA) and Loveridge, who has been president of the MCA for the past six years, have recently made an ice renovation that will be focused for novice ice climbers.
The existing infrastructure to farm ice has been used for the last eight years and is meant for advanced climbers with not much suitable ice for beginners. Beginners need a lower angled ice which is easier to learn on than the steep vertical ice currently provided. The MCA created an expansion this fall that extends the current ice climbs to go over ledgy and lower angled cliffs situated high up on a mezzanine bench, explained Loveridge.
“This area will be great for beginners, institutional groups and guiding services and will hopefully spread the climbers out a bit more, increasing the safety margin. Plus, it's just a beautiful section of cliff that is somewhat separate from the rest, higher up and in a nice spot where one can see the river, other areas of the cliff and the old mining gear,” said Loveridge. “We are very excited about it and are confident it will become a very popular area of the park.”
Besides the ice climbing addition, the MCA has been busy getting ready for the ice climbing season and upcoming festivals.
Ice farming not for the faint of heart
Each year, farming ice is a daunting task but one that only a passionate group like the MCA could take on. The group sends out a team of what they call "Cryo Agrarians" who are keen ice climbers that volunteer their time to farm (the Latin Agrarian) the icy (the Greek prefix “cryo”) bluffs.
Typically, it takes about six to ten days to get ice thick enough to safely climb. To farm the ice, the group has installed a yelomine pipe (traditionally used for agricultural irrigation) along the cliff top. The water comes from the supply in the MCA shed on top of the bluff to the yelomine pipe via approximately 600 feet of hose. At 20 foot intervals, a tap-tee is installed. From each of the tap-tees, a plastic supply hose is installed with a low-flow shower head which is turned down to a trickle.
“It sounds counter intuitive, but a small trickle works better than a big flow as we want the ice to form slowly, so it's uniform and consolidated,” said Loveridge. “If it forms too fast, it gets all ‘chandeliered’ and ‘candlesticky’ which is no good for climbing.”
Naming the routes
The ice climbs are called “routes”, the same as rock climbs are called. “With natural forming routes (from natural seeps or snow-melt), traditionally the climbs are named by the first ascensionist (the first person to climb the route),” said Loveridge. “But at the ice park, since there are so many routes concentrated in a small area, we just name the areas.”
For instance, going from south to north, Loveridge said there is the beginner terrain called School Room. Then there is the Derrick Wall, as it is closest to the Derrick Pole, the approximate 100 foot wooden pole to the west leaving the parking lot entering into the climbing area. The Derrick Pole, or Gin Derrick, was used during the mining process to lift heavy loads. The “Derrick” derives its name from a type of gallows named after Thomas Derrick, and Elizabethan era English executioner.
There is also the Stage Wall (the main open area above the old stage), the Ice Light Wall (the ice wall that is traditionally lit up), the Main Flow area (near the bench set in concrete and the only climbable natural ice form), and the Northern Ramparts (the wall that extends to the pond).
Loveridge said that the ice stops at the Northern Ramparts, but there is the Pond Wall where strong climbers like to test their dry tooling skills. He explained that dry tooling is using tools and crampons (a traction device that is attached to footwear to improve mobility on snow and ice during ice climbing) on bare rock with no ice. “It is excellent training for bigger mountains and harder mixed routes (routes that have a little ice and a lot of dry rock),” said Loveridge. He added that there will not be a lighted wall this year due to time and financial constraints.
MCA and partnership with the City of Sandstone
The MCA is an all volunteer 501c3 non profit advocacy group dedicated to supporting climbing initiatives and access in Minnesota. The group’s main projects include replacing old/dangerous hardware on sport climbing routes across the state, working with the Minnesota DNR and other land managers on climbing related access issues, and building and maintaining the Sandstone Ice Park at Robinson.
The climbing group pays for all the infrastructure, equipment and tools, and the labor is volunteer; Loveridge’s full-time gig is working for Black Diamond Equipment, the largest purveyor of rock and ice climbing gear in North America, as a sales representative. The MCA raises all funding through the donations from the climbing community.
“The city of Sandstone is really the big star of the show,” said Loveridge. “Without their approval and support to let us build the infrastructure and farm the ice, we would not be able to do any of this.”
Loveridge said that people come from all over the midwest and beyond to climb at Robinson, and the park is quickly becoming the most popular and easily accessible ice climbing destination in the Midwest.
“There are only about four or five ice parks in the entire world, and I'd argue that Sandstone is second only to Ouray, Colorado, which is a worldwide destination area,” said Loveridge. “While we don't have the big mountains or long, hard test pieces that Ouray has, we have very friendly, accessible ice just 90 minutes from a major U.S. metro area.”
From late December to mid March, there are 30 to 40 climbers at the park each weekend. “That is pretty amazing considering only around ten percent of rock climbers also ice climb,” said Loveridge. “Sandstone Ice Park is an amazing and unique resource.”
There are no plans for expanding the ice climbs, Loveridge added, only the installation of the ice lights next fall and maintaining the existing system, along with some minor trail and safety improvements.
The Sandstone Ice Festival was held on January 5-7, 2018. There will also be Peter Fest, which is much more low key, held on February 24th and 25th.