Winter Play: Ice climbing on the North Shore

A person climbs an icy cliff face
Minnesota Public Radio News reporter Dan Kraker ascends a cliff face at Silver Creek Cliffs Thursday, January 19, 2023 north of Two Harbors, Minn.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

As winter cold bites deep, MPR News is celebrating the best of the season through a new series called Winter Play. Our staff across the state set out to try a new-to-them winter pastime.

I think a lot of people, if they think at all about ice climbing, have two ideas in their minds — that it looks really difficult (if not a little crazy), and it looks dangerous.

Now, depending on the climb, it can definitely be extraordinarily challenging.

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A man wearing a climbing helmet
MPR News reporter Dan Kraker stands for a portrait below a cliff face at Silver Creek Cliffs on Jan. 19.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

But for a beginner like me, out with experienced climbers well-versed in safety, “the most dangerous part of climbing is the drive up to the crag, especially on a day like today,” contends Dave Pagel. He’s a longtime Duluth climber who volunteered to take me ice climbing on a snowy and windy day at a place called Silver Creek Cliff, on the shore of Lake Superior a few miles north of Two Harbors.

My first step was getting outfitted. For about $30 I rented the gear I needed for the day from the Outdoor Recreation Center at the University of Minnesota Duluth: boots, crampons, a harness and a helmet.

Two snow-covered ice axes laying in the snow
An ice axe and climbing rope are covered in snow below a cliff face at Silver Creek Cliffs, Jan. 19.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Dave and his longtime climbing buddy Rick Kollath provided the rest — two lightweight, curved ice axes, the ropes, and most importantly, the expertise.

Dave gives me a quick lesson on ice axe technique.

“You're swinging with a little bit of flick and getting that tool, so it sticks,” he explains. Then, you “sag” back a little bit away from the cliff, so you can see your feet. Then you walk your feet up, “Clunk. Clunk.”

Two people prepare to climb
MPR News reporter Dan Kraker, right, listens to Dave Pagel as Pagel gives him some tips before Kraker climbed a cliff face at Silver Creek Cliffs.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

He makes it sound so simple.

Pagel wrote a book a few years ago called “Cold Feet: Stories of a Middling Climber.” But Pagel is anything but middling. He, and Kollath (who met 45 years ago while students at UMD and have climbed together ever since) have scaled some of the world's most famous peaks, from Yosemite’s El Capitan to the Matterhorn in the Alps.

In fact, they began ice climbing so long ago they concede they may not be the best teachers — they’re self-taught, and the equipment has changed significantly since they first learned.

“But I think we can get you pointed in the right direction,” Pagel assures me. “Which is up.”

Climbing rhythm

Meanwhile, Rick sets up what’s called a “top rope.” He climbs the icy face, and loops the rope through an anchor at the top of the cliff. That way, if I slip off the cliff as I'm climbing up, I won't fall — I'll just hang there, suspended in air, while Rick belays me from below.

Then I tie into the rope through my harness, and I'm all set. “Let's do it!” I say, feigning confidence.

Two people hold ropes as one person prepares to ascend
MPR News Dan Kraker, right, prepares to climb a cliff face.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

I walk up to the cliff, where water seepage dripping down has frozen into a sheet of vertical ice about 70 feet tall. I look for a spot to stick my first axe.

Then I kick in one of my crampons, which has a spike at the front of my boot that sticks straight into the ice. I kick one in, then the other. Then I stand up, and try to get in my next axe.

Eventually, I figure out the rhythm. Get a good solid placement with one of my axes. Then I lift one foot up, stick it in the ice. Then the other foot. Then I stand up on those new foot holds, take out one of the ice axes and find a new hold. And repeat.

Two people look up and watch a person climbing on ice
Climbers Dave Pagel, left, and Rick Kollath watch and encourage MPR News reporter Dan Kraker as he ascends a cliff face.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

And before I know it, after about ten minutes, I make it. “I'm there I'm at the top!” I yell, to no one in particular.

I pause and take in the view. Snow is still falling in thick flakes as waves roll in to shore on Lake Superior far below, crashing against the rocks.

I lean back against the rope, and Rick lowers me down. I push my feet against the cliff as I descend — “Batman style,” as Dave puts it — until once again, I’m back on solid ground.

A man wearing a climbing helmet looks up
MPR News reporter Dan Kraker looks up at a cliff face he just finished climbing at Silver Creek Cliffs.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

‘Type Two Fun’

“That was fun!” I say. “You looked great,” Dave tells me. I don’t really believe him.

“It takes a climb like that to start to realize, okay, this is what's going on with the axe. That's how it sticks,” he says.

Pagel refers to ice climbing, especially for beginners like me, as “Type Two” fun.

“Which is fun that is not necessarily fun before or when you're doing it. But afterwards, you just get a huge rush and a feeling of accomplishment out of it.”

“That's how I just felt!” I say.

“And I think there's value in that,” Dave says. “I think there's value in challenging yourself to do something when you feel like, ‘I don't really want to do this! What am I doing?’”

For me, a lot of it was just trusting my crampons and my axes would hold me. It is remarkable, Dave says, how the tiny pick points of the axes, and the front points of the crampons, may only be biting in just a fraction of an inch, but how rock solid they feel.

A person wearing a red jacket
Rick Kollath talks about the ice climbing scene in Minnesota as the snow falls.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Rick Kollath says there's a term you hear climbers use called “flow.”

“That you're in this spot [where] you're not aware of the passage of time. You're so involved in this activity that you're doing. It's completely absorbing. And climbing, I'd say as much as anything I've ever done, embraces that.”

While I don't know if I experienced true “flow,” I was so focused on the climb that I did sort of block everything else out.

Rick says that feeling can be so intense. It's what brings him back again and again to ice climbing. And, I've got to say, I could see it bringing me back as well. If I can convince someone to take me out again.

If you want to go

Where: Ice climbing festivals are a great place for an introduction to the sport. The Duluth Ice Fest is scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 4 at Quarry Park.

Ice parks in Duluth, Sandstone and Winona feature farmed ice for predictable climbing, with local companies offering gear rentals and guiding services.

Gear: A great place to rent inexpensive gear is from university outdoor recreation programs around the state. The University of Minnesota, Winona State University, the University of Minnesota Duluth and others all rent ice climbing equipment. And you don’t have to be a student to access it.

How much: The cost for me to rent boots, crampons, a harness and a helmet for a day from UMD was about $30.

What to wear: Warm but flexible clothing to move around in. Gloves to grip the axes. A thin hat to wear under a helmet. Dress in layers!