A former slalom ski racer and high-caliber rugby player from Wayzata, Kendra Stritch was perhaps an unlikely candidate for international ice climbing competition.
However, her competitive spirit and hunger for a challenge — both abundant — were all she needed.
Ice climbing started for her when her brother, Carter, a champion climber himself, introduced her to rock climbing and then the ice version in 2009. To be sure, it wasn’t instant love when it came to Stritch’s first encounter with an imposing wall of jagged ice at Sandstone (Minn.) Ice Park.
“The first couple of times I ice-climbed, I was just trying to climb straight up and I thought it was pretty boring,” Stritch said, laughing. “But the third time I got on more featured ice, which had two giant smears of ice next to each other on the rock, requiring me to use different techniques and body positioning. That was a lot more interesting to me, and I just got pulled into the sport.”
Gaining experience on the frozen waterfalls and icy bluffs of Minnesota, Stritch, 33, struck out on the international scene. Traveling everywhere from Romania to Switzerland, to South Korea, she has seized the North American speed champion title in ice climbing three years running.
In a recent interview before the Stillwater woman jet-setted across the pond for international competition this month, she spoke about the appeal of this niche sport and what always keeps her coming back.
On her passion for ice climbing
I enjoy the freedom on ice to go wherever I want to go because you can really swing your tool and put your crampons in almost anywhere on the ice; whereas with rock climbing, you’re more limited to what’s there. I love both, but I really love that freedom you get on the ice. Also, with natural ice climbing, the ice is always changing — it melts, it gets fatter, the wind blows water in a different way — so you can see drastic changes from weekend to weekend. It keeps things exciting.
On the skills required for speed climbing
In normal ice climbing, your moves are pretty precise and calculated. You still want to be able to move quickly sometimes but, in general, you take your time to have good swings of your tools and you look at where you’re placing your feet. Competition speed climbing is totally the opposite. It’s a vertical 15-meter sprint. You don’t look at your feet; you just keep running them up the wall. You also aren’t swinging your tools; instead we use these special smaller tools that are like little ice picks that you dig into the ice.
What she loves about competitive ice climbing
I like the competitions because you have just one chance to do your best, and I enjoy that format. But the thing that has really kept me coming back to World Cup events are the amazing athletes. We call it the “World Cup family.” I have best friends from around the world who I’ve climbed with in the Canadian Rockies, all around Europe and South Korea.
On the payoff of being outdoors in the winter
I love the unique places ice climbing takes me, especially in Minnesota. There are a lot of hidden spots — drainages, along creeks, places where water drains over cliffs, and of course, waterfalls. I get to see beautiful things from unique perspectives.
On her favorite places to climb in the state
Our longest ice climb and a really amazing place is up on the Devil Track River, north of Grand Marais, that we call “Nightfall.” In the summer it’s just a wet spot on a cliff, but in the winter it’s a full, 70-meter, icy cliff. All along the North Shore there are a lot of frozen waterfalls that are good to climb. Sandstone Ice Park is also a great place because of how much ice we have there. And my favorite spot in the Twin Cities is called Homer’s Odyssey. It’s on Homer Street and Shepard Road in St. Paul. That’s a really neat spot because it’s a tiny slot canyon that water drains into. You’re right off the road, but you’re below it so you’re in your own little world. It’s a neat spot. That’s a go-to after work.
Mackenzie Lobby Havey is a freelance writer from Minneapolis.