March 28, 2009
We were nine persons in a van and we had traveled just a few miles north from our hotel, The Lutsen Resort on Lake Superior in Lutsen, Minnesota. We traversed rolling back roads, through forests and clearings, until we arrived at a small non-descript gravel parking lot next to a concrete bridge and our destination, a tributary of the Cascade River.
The river was picturesque but small by my river standard, and was mostly frozen and covered with snow, with rock ledges on each side.
A pickup truck followed us transporting Scott Sorenson our chief instructor, as well as all the necessary climbing paraphernalia: helmets, hi-tech ice axes, climbing boots and crampons, harnesses, water, some snacks and other gear. We were told the helmets were a necessity to protect against falling ice.
Boots with crampons
It was cloudy and calm, but not cold. We were asked to bring a change of clothes, in case we got wet. The ice wall can drip, ice chips can fly in your face, and it was not unexpected that we could fall thru the snow and icepack covering the river during our walks in and out. Scott assured us, that the river was only knee deep.
I had signed up for this afternoon of ice-climbing several weeks in advance, thinking it was a unique opportunity to try something really different. I figured it had to be safe, after all weren’t we going to be in the hands of expert climbing instructors? And there was always, our insurance: the rope belay.
It was a ten-minute walk from the van to the ice wall. We walked over the ice-covered river. Open areas exposed small areas of quick flowing water with its accompanying sound rush. The snow and ice silenced the rushing water in sections where it was entirely covered. We walked across the meandering river on a small snow bridge to the base of the enormous wall of ice. At first sight we were impressed and instantly nervous. Two sets of ropes were already belayed from the top of the falls, 85 feet above the valley floor, waiting for nine novices to give ice climbing a brief try.
Cascade River Ice
We gathered around the base of the ice, a frozen waterfall that had built up slowly over the course of the winter. It was now mid-March. Our instructor Scott and his assistants, all thin and trim outdoors enthusiasts showed us how to don all our gear. We were a group of winter sports writers and photographers, ranging in age from 40-65 years.
The ice was in perfect condition, we were told. We were very lucky to be in this beautiful setting under the very best of climbing conditions.
A harness was placed around our waists, which also had wide straps around the tops of our thighs. Loops in front allowed for secure attachment of the rope (belay) with a secure double eight knot. The harness had to fit snugly.
Walking with crampons took some practice. There were sharp metal points on the bottom of the crampons with sharp prongs sticking straight out in front. We were reminded to be very careful not to kick ourselves, or others.
The axes used in each hand are hi-tech tools made specifically for climbing ice. A quick flick of the wrist, we were told, was all that was needed to grip the ice and provide a secure point for lifting the body upwards. A sharp kick into the ice with a boot toe would provide a secure step as well as a rest when needed. Never, we were instructed, were we to strike the belaying rope with our feet or the axes. The rope was certainly strong, but there was the remote possibility of cutting the rope that held your life with its knot.
Were we expected to climb that high? And trust our instructor who would be holding our life in his hands? Of course. At least we would give it an honest try.
This is a labor-intensive sport, taking strong arms, legs and torso. We soon experienced how truly strong or weak we were. Scott was the first to climb for instruction purposes.
It was now our time. Susan and Frida, the two females in our group, who have been talking and laughing non-stop throughout our preparation, were now, suddenly quiet, very quiet.
We were told not to look up when ice was about to fall when a climber yelled, “ice”.
One by one we tried our strength and skill against the wall. Some climbed higher than others. It did not matter. We were here, experiencing the trek, the preparation, the anticipation, the activity, the exertion and the endless stories that would surely result. Actual ice time was no more than 20 minutes each, but the enjoyment lasted throughout the afternoon.
Snow started falling, adding to the splendor of our newly discovered winter sport.
This is an active sport based upon trust: a sport of much preparation, safety training, skill and strength. We learned the basics, which would leave us with the desire to pursue the sport another day.
No adventure is as scary as it first seems, once you learn the basic skills required from experts. Stories will be told about our adventure for months and perhaps years to come.
For more climbing information in Northern Minnesota go to http://www.climbingcentral.com