For a region plagued by negative temperatures for nearly half the year, rock climbers in the Minnesota area needed to find some way to scratch the adrenaline-filled itch.
After multiple years on the west side of Winona, the ice park relocated next to Sugarloaf on the east side of town.
About 1.5 miles up the Sugarloaf Trailhead is a man-made wall of solid ice, spanning nearly 70 feet high and three times as wide.
Caleb Hammel, a recent Winona State University Mass Communication graduate, first climbed his way into the world of ice climbing two years ago.
Having been a rock climber for the past four years, when the city created their ice park during its first year, Hammel decided it might be fun to try.
Hammel heard of the ice wall through his work with Winona State’s Outdoor Education and Recreation Center (OERC) while he was still a student. With help from Eric Barnard, director of OERC, Hammel was introduced to the ice wall.
Though Barnard is not employed by the city, Hammel said Barnard has tried to promote things through the city.
“With him being an expert in the past, he wanted to bring students up (to the ice park),” Hammel said. “Winona State was starting to run trips up there to use a sweet resource of the city, so, as an employee, I was able to go up a lot with students and with (Barnard).”
The wall is free and open to the public for use, but visitors are on their own as far as gear needed. People scaling the wall can be seen wearing everything from the bare minimum of a belay device, helmet, ice picks and crampons (shoe spikes to dig into the ice), all the way to assorted pick cleaning gear, ice stakes and extra rope.
Though the ice park may be newer to the Winona area, it is getting recognition throughout the region.
Hammel, who moved to Aspen, Colorado, after graduation, said he has heard people talking about the Winona Ice Park in his new hometown.
“All the way out here people are talking about it,” Hammel said. “People from Chicago who have heard about it travel to climb it, I can only imagine it will bring more people to town. There’s not a lot of places you can go and safely climb; it will put Winona on the map.”
Michael Sullivan, who has spent his free time for the last four years traveling across the region to different ice parks, is one of many who has made the near 3-hour drive from Madison, Wisconsin, to climb at the Winona Ice Park.
Sullivan first heard of the Winona Ice Park through a rock climbing podcast titled, “The Enormocast,” where Barnard was a guest on the show speaking about the park. As word of the park got around, a group of fellow climbers decided to make the trek to Winona.
“This park has a lot of potential,” Sullivan said. “It’s definitely taller and wider as a single ice wall than anything in Wisconsin that I’ve seen.”
Sullivan said the design of the wall was one of the main drawing points of the Winona Ice Park.
“Usually you’ll see an overhanging sandstone cliff and then a frozen waterfall will come off, so it’s mostly just big columns,” Sullivan said. “They’re really cool and fun to climb on, but it’s just the one so people have to compete for it, where this is just a big sheet where people can go wherever.”
For those that have enjoyed rock climbing in the past, Hammel said it’s a great activity to try, but is not exactly like the warm-weather alternative.
“The similarities between rock and ice climbing end at belay devices, harnesses and helmets,” Hammel said. “The ice is always changing. Rock climbing routes are similar, the rock won’t fall or melt, but with ice climbing it’s different every day. Conditions change, weather makes muscles more stiff and not able to do things.”
Though it is different than the more well-known sport of rock climbing, Hammel said he would recommend ice climbing to anyone that might be interested.
“It’s a great way to both mentally and physically push yourself,” Hammel said. “If you calm down and focus its unlike any other activity out there.”