Story highlights:

  • Ice climbing within driving distance of St. Louis.
  • Routes for ice climbing beginners and the more advanced.
  • Tips for getting started in ice climbing.

Looking for a winter sport to test your skills and strength? Look no further than ice climbing. The uninitiated might be surprised to learn that the Midwest is full of ice scaling opportunities in the winter months, many within driving distance of St. Louis. Some of the best-known spots include the Chicago Ice Tower in Monee, Illinois, the area’s premier ice climbing training facility, and Starved Rock State Park, a regional favorite.

Starved Rock State Park (SRSP) in Oglesby, Illinois, is about 3.5 hours from St. Louis and 1.5 hours from Chicago. “I climb all around the Midwest, but SRSP is a local favorite. I’ve been climbing in the park for about 25 years,” said David Everson, a Chicagoland resident. “You drive for miles across flatland cornfields, then get into the park and see some spectacular canyons. You feel like you just went from Illinois to somewhere else far away.”

Everson has been working closely with the park’s natural resource coordinator to plan this year’s ice climbing season.

“Typically, the season kicks off in late December or right after the New Year. It all depends on snowfall and consistent below-freezing temperatures,” he said. “Once things look like they’re formed, I work with the park to hike the canyons, inspect the falls, look for fractures, or how solid the ice is, and once it’s good and stable, the park opens to ice climbing.”

The climbing season typically lasts until early or mid-March, once the first rain threatens to thaw the park’s frozen waterfalls.

Climbers are required to sign in and out at the park maintenance building, where they’re also asked to post current conditions of the ice. “This is a must, as it helps the park management know that climbers are out safely at the end of the day,” said Everson. “Safety is a priority, so we cooperate 100 percent.”

New climbers are strongly advised to go with an experienced guide to help them navigate hazards, gear setup, and park rules.

Ottawa Canyon Starved Rock State Park

Ottawa Falls at Starved Rock State Park.

The park is a popular choice for beginning ice climbers for several reasons. First, many canyons open to ice climbing have quick and easy approaches. Second, the Starved Rock Lodge is located within the park. Climbers can check out a few canyons during the day and be back at the lodge for dinner.

“We also have a lot of fun with all the hikers that visit the canyons in winter,” said Everson. “People are amazed to see some form of mountaineering happening in Illinois, and they’re always full of questions. We answer questions, show them the tools we use, and have fun with the kids.”

Routes for Beginners
Many guides take new climbers to LaSalle Canyon first. The icefall is about 20 feet tall and offers a small variety of routes to help climbers learn the ropes. On one side, climbers can find a less steep area to practice using their tools and crampon techniques. Once they’re comfortable, they can move on to some of the more vertical climbs with a top rope.

Ottawa Falls is another great choice for those looking to learn. “We generally take our groups to Ottawa,” said Joel Taylor, chief ice farmer and lead guide at the Chicago Ice Tower. He says the approximately 40-foot fall has a simple approach and, like LaSalle, presents a range of climbs at varied difficulty levels.

Climbing Challenges
More experienced climbers will enjoy the taller verticals at Wildcat and Tonti canyons, which range from 70 to 90 feet.

“Each of these two canyons, on a good year, has a second waterfall that forms only when we get a ton of snow and cold,” said Everson. “Often, those taller climbs are free-standing pillars of ice, totally vertical for a good 80 to 90 feet. Everything in the park is single pitch and can be climbed with a top rope or lead, but no multi-pitch climbs.”

Tonti Canyon (pictured, top) also poses a special feature called The Snake, which doesn’t form often. “It tends to be narrower and more overhanging,” said Taylor, “so that one is a big challenge for advanced climbers.”

Before You Go
Between the heavy-duty gear and towering ice falls, ice climbing can look intimidating. However, good guides make it beginner friendly.

“Ice climbing has some manageable hazards. Going with somebody who knows what those hazards are is a good thing,” said world-renowned ice climber Will Gadd. “Take a short course so you can manage things like falling ice and other hazards inherent in that environment, as well as the proper use of ropes and equipment.”

Guides usually provide the tools and gear you’ll need, like specialized boots, picks, rope, a helmet, a harness, and the like. As for clothing, outdoor lovers will probably have what they need in their closets. Go for layers of comfortable and waterproof clothing. There can be a good amount of stop-and-go, so you’ll want to be prepared to keep warm when you’re still without overheating when you’re moving.

Chicago Ice Tower

Chicago Ice Tower.

When it comes to climbing, it’s best to start in a controlled environment. Taylor usually recommends climbers come to the Chicago Ice Tower training center first. “It’s not required, but it’s helpful to come here because, when you get to the canyons, you’re kind of stuck out there,” he said.

“We have varying routes set up on a tower, so you can start on some easy stuff and then go right to advanced, if you want. You can make your mistakes here before you get out to the canyons. It’s a little trickier if you make mistakes there.”

Once climbers have learned how the gear works and started on their technique, Taylor’s next step is to take them somewhere like SRSP.

Taylor says the most important thing for new ice climbers to bring is a good attitude. “Come with a focus. Make sure you’re going to listen and learn…because if you come in thinking ‘Oh, this is going to be hard. I don’t know if I can do this,’ that could be detrimental.”

For the most part, newcomers enjoy the experience, and many hang around for the long haul. “Being outside in the winter is a great thing to do, and this is just one more activity to get you [there],” said Taylor. “I call things like rock climbing and cycling life sports…meaning you can do it for your whole life. I plan to keep doing it till I’m 70 or 80.”

Author: Thea Voutiritsas is a contributor to Terrain Magazine.