Even for winter lovers, this season in Wisconsin has been especially brutal. Cold, snow, ice, repeat.
But there is a group of winter adventurers who are more than happy with the sustained cold spell: ice climbers.
"I love it," Jason Cook, owner of Chicago Rock & Ice Guides, said of the cold.
While love may be a stretch for me, I'm also admittedly happy the weather has been cold enough to allow for a variety of snowy pursuits, including an ice climbing outing at Governor Dodge State Park in Dodgeville.
I arranged to meet Cook at the park in the state's Driftless Region on a late January day. By the time I arrived around 11 a.m., Cook was already overseeing a group of four guys taking turns on two ropes anchored to the top of Stephens Falls, a 20-foot trickle in the summer that turns into a solid wall of white in the winter.
We had managed to sneak our outing between two snaps of below-zero weather, and as Governor Dodge is one of the best spots in Wisconsin for beginners, the park was busy with climbers. One other group occupied the other half of the waterfall, while another tackled a frozen cascade farther down the small gorge.
I introduced myself to Cook, who started Chicago Rock and Ice Guides in 2011 when he was living in Chicago. Although he moved to Eau Claire that year, the name stuck.
Like many ice climbers, Cook, who has a full-time day job as an engineer, was a rock climber first. Looking for something to do in the winter, he gave ice climbing a try.
"It's great exercise, it's a great mental challenge, and it's learning to manage fear," he said. "Fear management is a big part of climbing, and I really enjoy that, and the whole problem-solving aspect of that, especially in ice and the immense variability there is in ice."
Since Cook had already given the other climbers an introduction and instructions for climbing, he advised me to watch for a bit as they scaled the wall.
Fine by me. I was in no rush to climb up something that is obviously only meant to be slid down or admired from the safety of a trail.
I watched as they climbed up and down the short wall, the crunch, crunch of crampons and picks hacking into the frozen cascade interspersed with shouts of "Ice!" as chunks from the wall dropped to the ground below.
After a few rounds, they took a break, and Cook led me back to his car at the trailhead to get geared up. I tightened a harness around my waist and shimmied into a special pair of boots fitted with a set of crampons, which contain metal points for digging into the ice. The final piece of gear was a helmet, essential in climbing where falling ice is common.
We made our way along the short trail back down to the waterfall, where Cook handed me a pair of ice tools and went over the basics of ice climbing.
"I always teach three main elements, and that's the swing of your ice tools; the kicking of your feet, legs and crampons; and the overall progression, or movement upwards," he said.
Setting the ice tools, which are made of a slightly bent, lightweight shaft with a handle on one end and a serrated pick on the other, involves a karate-chop-like motion with a wrist flick at the end of the swing.
Setting your crampons in the ice involves a swift perpendicular kick to the ice.
"It's important that the kick originates from your big muscles in your legs, not just a weak little kick from your knees," he said. "That's the ultimate goal, to get up on your feet and stand, because obviously your legs and lower body are much stronger than your upper body."
To climb, Cook explained, you place your tools first at staggered elevations, less than shoulder-width apart, followed by your feet at the same elevation about shoulder-width apart. "That gives you a nice, stable A-frame, always keeping three points of contact to progress upwards," he said. "So the progression is a high tool placement, two feet, and then next higher tool placement and move two feet up."
The tools, he said, are mostly for balance when climbing something not very steep like Stephens Falls. When set correctly, your feet and legs should do most of the work. He demonstrated this by setting his tools, then his feet in the ice, and balancing all of his weight on his heels.
It was finally my turn. I tied into the rope and checked my belayer's gear, then faced the wall.
I carefully moved my first tool along the ice, searching for a natural indentation to place it in. I found a small divot and took a big swing. The pick glanced off the wall as if I were hacking at steel with a piece of straw. This was going to be harder than I thought.
I steadied my arm and tried again, concentrating on the spot I wanted to place the pick and using just enough force to set it, but not too much as to throw off my accuracy. Success!
I set my other pick a little lower than the first, then searched for a spot to set my first foot. I kicked into the wall of ice and smiled when my foot secured a hold on the first try. I pushed myself up onto that foot and looked for a spot to set my other, at about the same height as the first. This one didn't go as well. After a few increasingly anger-fueled kicks into the ice, Cook came over and pointed out a natural hold in the ice where I could set the crampon.
My ascent more closely resembled a cat frantically scratching its way up an unforgivingly slick piece of furniture than the efficient climbing of Cook and the others in my group, but I thankfully didn't have far to go and eventually made it to the top. I took a deep breath of mild satisfaction and rappelled down the falls for another go.
I learned quickly that, as with most anything in life, it's important to remain calm while climbing. When you get tired, the natural inclination is to panic, which leads to sloppy form and inefficient moves, causing you to become more tired, and the cycle continues.
My second try was slightly better — less cat-scratching, more ladder-like-climbing — and once back on the ground I untied from the rope to take a turn at belaying one of the other climbers.
Both easier and harder
Ice climbing was both easier and harder than I thought it would be. For someone like me without much upper body strength, it was nice to rely on my legs to do the heavy lifting. And unlike rock climbing, where you're always looking for some sort of hold on the rock face, you can pretty much place your tools and feet anywhere on the ice, as long as you set them properly. The challenge, for me, came in the setting. Despite your legs doing most of the work, you still need a decent amount of force and dexterity to properly set the picks, which takes a little while to get the hang of — literally.
Who can climb: Cook said one of the great things about ice climbing is that really anyone — any size — can do it. While rock climbing lends itself to smaller body types, ice climbing is more friendly to bigger climbers.
He has taught younger kids, but "anything below 7 or 8 is kind of too young," he said. "They don't make a lot of children's ice climbing equipment."
While some knowledge of climbing and belaying is helpful, it's not necessary.
When to go: Cook said his season usually runs from January through March, but this season he ran his first trip before Christmas. He's on pace to run about 10 trips this year, and will continue to climb as long as temperatures remain below freezing.
Where else to climb: In Wisconsin, Cook also leads ice climbing trips to a spot along the Wisconsin River near Lone Rock and the Mississippi River near Wyalusing.
Wisconsin used to have a nice climbing spot near Green Bay at the Ice Pit, a limestone quarry that on the weekends channeled water over the rock face to create 100-foot frozen cascades. The quarry changed ownership in 2011, however, and the new owners chose not to continue the lease with the Midwest Ice Climbers, the nonprofit club that climbed there.
Cook also leads trips at Robinson Park in Sandstone, Minn., about 90 miles north of Minneapolis. Also a former quarry (sandstone), the park is busiest during Ice Fest, held annually in December.
There are also a few climbing spots on Lake Superior's North Shore, at Starved Rock State Park in Illinois and in Munising, in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Cook said Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in the U.P. is one of the best spots for ice climbing in the Midwest.
"The climbs are spectacular, and they're in a very unique setting," he said. "A lot of them are on the cliffs overlooking Lake Superior. It's a very surreal experience, and it's a very adventurous experience out there, too."
In February every year, Munising hosts the granddaddy of ice festivals at the national lakeshore, which features a number of curtains and cascades of frozen water thanks to the porous sandstone.
How much it will set you back: A guided trip with Chicago Rock and Ice Guides costs $125 per person and includes all necessary gear.
If you're climbing at Governor Dodge, you'll need a state parks admission pass: $25/year or $7/day.
Getting there: Governor Dodge State Park is at 4175 State Highway 23 N, about two hours west of Milwaukee via I-94 and Highway 18/151.
More information: Cook also leads rock climbing trips in warm-weather months. For more on climbing with Chicago Rock and Ice Guides, visit chicagorockandiceguides.com.
Day Out features day trips within a two-hour drive of the Milwaukee area.
- Day Out: Celebrate Wilderness Act’s 50th anniversary in remote places
- Day Out: Ferry Bluff offers magic on Wisconsin River
- International Tree Climbing Championship comes to Milwaukee
- Day Out: Craft beer, great outdoors pair well in Madison area
- Day Out: Dramatic gorge, waterfalls draw visitors to Pewits Nest
- Day Out: Menominee River provides white-water thrills close to home
- Day Out: Devil’s Lake bluff trails provide stunning views
- Day Out: Kettle Moraine trails great for mountain biking
- Where the waterfalls are in Wisconsin
- Day Out: Horicon Marsh treasures best explored by boat (5)