Winona, Minn. — A cool vibe is beating from a heart of ice in this river city.
The pulse pumps from a 150-foot tall wall that clings to a towering limestone bluff. This man-made formation has become a destination for Midwesterners with adventure in their veins.
“We heard about this place and had to check it out,” said veteran ice climber Jamie Fidler of West Des Moines, Iowa. “Being here is a birthday present to my daughter. She just turned 12.”
Winona’s ice park is largely the vision of Eric Barnard, a 42-year-old mountain climber who landed in Winona eight years ago to earn an advanced degree and settle with wife and children. The adventurer fell in love with Winona but pined for the climbing he left behind while living in Idaho, Alaska, and other mountainous places. So, he did something about it.
“You can travel to places that make you happy or you can create them where you live,” Barnard said. “I set out to do the latter, and I was fortunate so many others wanted to help.”
Among Barnard’s chief enablers was the city of Winona, on whose property the giant icicle hangs. The mayor and others bought into Barnard’s pitch that city bluffs were an untapped resource that could attract a new breed of winter tourism in an environmentally friendly way. In doing so, the city granted Barnard access to a blufftop hydrant so water could be piped a few hundred feet to a hillside spot. Four mist-spraying shower heads did the rest.
“It’s called ‘farmed ice,’ ” said Barnard. “Winona is perfect for it. You’ve got 500-foot tall bluffs and cold temperatures. The ingredients have always been here.”
What Barnard saw and key collaborators Rich Anthony, Eric Wright and Ross Greedy continue to see is the potential to create a micro-sized Ouray, Colo., the nation’s premier farmed ice-climbing destination. Known as America’s Little Switzerland, Ouray is a magnet for national and international climbers who are drawn too to its music, dining and taphouse scene. (In Minnesota, there are popular climbing parks in Sandstone and Duluth.)
“Winona will never be Ouray because we have bluffs, not mountains,” said Barnard. “Yet, Winona has a lot going for it, and if you live in the Midwest and own climbing gear, you want to put it to use.”
The city’s build-it-and-see-if-they-come approach seems to be working. Upward of 30 to 50 climbers have been converging on the bluff during winter weekends. Some are locals. Others come from farther away — Madison, Milwaukee, Chicago and beyond. All park on a city street just a mile from downtown, hoof up a zig-zaggy trail and find their niche on a narrow ledge a couple of hundred feet up.
‘New winter hobby’
On a recent January afternoon one of those visitors was Nick Davis, an Onalaska, Wis., resident and head coach of the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse women’s track and field team. Lean, lanky and fit, Davis had never climbed ice but longed to do it.
“My wife gave me a guided ice climbing trip for my 36th birthday,” he said. “That was incredibly cool, and it got even better when I discovered my best friend from Milwaukee and brother-in-law from Minneapolis had come to join me.”
Like other climbers, Davis inched to the park’s peak by sinking a pick here, kicking a toe hold there, and using legs and arms to claw vertically. Jordan Hurst, Davis’ brother-in-law, was nervous while waiting his turn but found the ascent inspiring. “I’m an engineer. I sit at a desk. I wasn’t sure I had the upper body strength to do this but I did. I learned a lot about trusting myself and others today, and I think I’ve found my new winter hobby.”
As winter hobbies go, climbing is more expensive than snowshoeing but can be a whole lot cheaper than a wheeled ice fishing house, power auger and fish-locating electronics. Good boots are $500. Quality crampons are $250. A harness and 200-foot rope runs another $150. The best ice picks are in the $300 range. A trusty helmet costs perhaps $100. So, climbing isn’t cheap, but it is not bank-loan expensive.
For Barnard, climbing’s appeal has much to do with personal accomplishment, confidence-building and camaraderie. A man who has scaled Yosemite National Park’s El Capitan’s 3,000-foot tall wall multiple times, Barnard is a professionally trained ice guide who enjoys introducing his passion to others. To that end, he has started an ice climbing guide business that supplements his full-time job as the outdoor recreation program director at Winona State University. Long-term, Barnard envisions a day when Minnesota ice climbers are more broadly viewed as important outdoor recreation stakeholders similar to skiers, snowmobilers and cyclists.
“I admit that creating an ice park has selfish implications,” he said. “Honestly, I can’t imagine living where I can’t climb. Yet I also I can’t imagine not helping the city tap into something I truly believe has a lot of economic and recreational potential.
“Winona has art, music, tons of outdoor opportunities, and good beer at a good price. Climbers relate to all of those things, and in Winona they are all within a mile or two each other. I intentionally try not to oversell what could happen here, but a lot of good things could.”
Though some who scale the ice park tap into Barnard’s gear and expertise, others already possess it. A community that seems to defy simple categorization, among climbers on a recent Sunday were a professional photographer, a former yoga instructor in Dubai, an IT specialist, a soon-to-be Puget Sound kayak guide, a gutsy seventh-grader, a musician, and a humble military man from Iowa.
Asked if he had ever climbed before, the Guardsman John Anderson of Des Moines answered affirmatively but offered little else. Later, after prodding by his buddy, he said he was a veteran. “ My cousin and I summited the north face of Mount Everest in 2017,” he said. “We were the first Iowans to do it.”
Everest’s north face is a less popular and more technical route to the top. Anderson did not mention that Sir Edmund Hillary, the first to summit Mount Everest, failed while attempting an ascent from the north. Still, Anderson did volunteer that free climbing is not his style. “I like ropes,” he said, smiling. “I like having a second chance at life.”
As with many sports, ice climbing harbors inherent dangers but is safe when done safely. Typically, climbers are tethered to a rope secured from above. Helmets protect noggins from falling ice. Perhaps the most common hazard for newbies is simply tripping while walking as pointy-toed crampons have a way of snagging pant bottoms.
Work in progress
About four years in the making, the Winona ice park remains a work in progress. The next phase is to secure money to pay for a blufftop pump house that will channel water to many more stations. Though counterintuitive, Barnard said building ice masses high on bluffs does not create erosion issues below. That’s because of sublimation, the transition of a solid substance to gas without passing through the intermediate liquid phase. “Basically the ice evaporates,” said Barnard. “Local university geologists have studied what we are doing and confirmed there’s no harm.”
Barnard said his outdoor recreation and environmental interests stem, in part, from being a childhood friend of noted conservationist Aldo Leopold’s grandson. The two often played on the Wisconsin property Leopold describes in a “Sand County Almanac.”
“I confess to being a hacky-sacking, Frisbee-throwing, Grateful Dead-following climber, but all along I have possessed an environmental awareness that was inspired by spending time with Aldo’s daughter, Nina, and her son.”
While it is difficult to predict the future trajectory of Winona’s ice park, many are optimistic. Among them is Mayor Mark Peterson.
“Eric really opened our eyes when he came to town, and that has been a good thing. The city benefits when we can provide outdoor recreation for our residents and customers for our businesses.”
C.B. Bylander is a freelance writer. He lives near Baxter, Minn.