I’ve only ever ice climbed at the St. Boniface tower, so when I saw that the ACC-MB was organizing an ice climbing trip to Robinson Quarry Ice Park in Sandstone, Minnesota, I had to jump at the opportunity. I was pretty excited about this unique opportunity and I wasn’t disappointed. Sandstone is located just north of Hinckley (150 km north of Minneapolis) and the ice climbing is in an old sandstone (hence the name…) quarry. People had been climbing natural lines of ice there for many years but it wasn’t until more recently that the local climbing community got together with the city of Sandstone and use farmed ice technology to develop the ice park, providing many more routes of more consistent, reliable ice.
We headed out from Winnipeg on a Friday afternoon, arriving late at night and setting up at the Days Inn in Hinckley. The next morning, we loaded up on continental breakfast and headed some 20 kms north to Sandstone.
“Where are the Canadians?”, we overheard a couple of times as we arrived and were getting ready to climb. This confused us. How did they know??? A woman named Cecilia approached us and started chatting to us. After some brief introductions she exclaimed, “So YOU’RE the Canadians!”. Apparently we were famous. Unbeknownst to us, the local ice climbing community had been eagerly following our facebook event page and spreading the word of our arrival. Within half an hour, we had met Cecilia, Peter (of the unofficially named “Peter fest” fame, a local ice climbing fundraiser for the area), Tony, and the rest of the crew. I couldn’t get over how friendly the local community was. We were immediately led by Cecilia to the access route, and shown around.
Most of the climbers at Sandstone were from the Minneapolis area. A quick 1.5 hour drive away, many ice climbers come up either for the day or the weekend, often winter camping just minutes away from the cliff. The cliff itself is a long, easily accessible face running north/south, with easily over 2 dozen lines of ice this year. We were told that in some years, there are even lights set up for night climbing. This year the lights were not working but we managed to catch a glimpse of them (scattered and partial) as it started to get dark Saturday night.
The ice at Robinson Quarry is farmed, which means they use the same artificial snow technology that is used by ski resorts. There is an intricate system of pipes set up at the top of the cliff, and it is artificially iced much like our St. Boniface ice tower run by the ACC-St.B section. We were also told they flood the area periodically, whenever ice becomes thin or fragile due to warm weather.
From the access route on the far north side, you walk along the edge of the cliff, sometimes nail-bitingly close to the edge (crampons are recommended) for some 30 m. (full disclosure- I am NOT a mountaineer, and hiking up to the access route with crampons was like learning to walk all over again, awkwardly and without grace). Shortly after the path starts to wander away from the cliff, you veer left to a set of wooden stairs that lead you back towards the cliff for another 15 m. Above the path, you there is now a second little cliff with intermittent bolts- frequently you will use the bolt above you and a tree below you to set up your anchor. Even though you can’t see the lines of ice from the top, you can usually assume there is some kind of good line below based on the presence of a bolt anchor. As you head further along the cliff, clumsily scrambling over and under anchor webbing all the while trying not to trip over your own moonboots (see full disclosure above), the cliff eventually veers left and then right again, and you come to a step ladder with access to the lines on the graffiti wall directly in front of the parking area and communal fire pit. Getting to these routes is not for the faint of heart! Just before the ladder leading up to this area is a rappel anchor beautifully and thoughtfully placed so you don’t have to hike all the way back down (very few if any of the routes are anchored for top-out).
On Saturday, after a late start, dawdling around meeting everyone, and getting our bearings, we didn’t manage to set up many lines. By the graciousness of the locals however, we did manage to get on a few extra routes via other climber’s ropes already set up. The beauty with the routes was that there was always a variation you could climb, allowing for multiple accents on any given rope. After a brief lunch break at the quaint Amy’s Country Café just a few minutes away in Sandstone, and now with a bit more fuel in the system, we came back to the cliff and climbed until dark. By the end of the day, the weather was so spectacularly pleasant that climbing the morning routes again provided a completely different climbing experience the second time around. The evening was spent back at the Days Inn soothing aching muscles in the hot tub and checking out the local scene at Tobies Tavern in Hinckley (what trip to the states is complete without a few sessions of arcade buck hunting?). On Sunday we were much more awake and efficient, setting up a few lines first thing in the morning, and bartering our way for a couple more. Knowing we had a noon-ish departure time-line in order to get back in the city at a decent hour, the most epic line was saved for the end of our climbing day. The graffiti wall (I believe this is technically called the Historic Stage Area) had the tallest and steepest ice by far, estimated at 80-90 ft and providing way more depth than any of the other routes. Often times I found foot placements minimal and the ice varied tremendously from thin and flat to thick and hollowed. What a challenge! After the long ascent, that route definitely proved to be a great note to end the trip on!
Overall, we were impressed by the incredible approachable and friendliness of the local climbing community at Sandstone. After such an amazing first experience, there is definitely talk of turning this trip into an annual event! Thanks for the great trip Sandstone!
For more information on the Robinson Quarry Ice Park, go to: http://sandstoneicefest.com/index.php/ice-park-access