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Published January 07 2007

Ice Fest

SANDSTONE, Minn. – Imagine that you’re a city father of a small Minnesota town and you’ve discovered people are getting their kicks scaling the ice-coated, 80-foot cliffs in the public park.

Do you:

A. Ignore it and pray no one gets hurt.

B. Pass an ordinance banning the activity and start writing tickets.

C. Welcome a climbing festival, including seminars, a big dinner and a fireworks show.

Because Sandstone chose option C, the town has one of the few recognized ice-climbing parks in the nation and recently hosted the second annual Sandstone Ice Fest, a weekend of climbing, clinics and winter camping.

It’s the sandstone quarries on the Kettle River that have been bringing climbers to this town of about 2,000 people about 90 miles north of St. Paul.

Starting in the late 1800s, quarries financed by railroad magnate James J. Hill produced sandstone blocks to be used in the construction of sturdy churches, schools, courthouses, train stations and banks around the nation.

But by World War II, the quarries closed as steel replaced stone as a construction material. The quarries were turned into a historical site and the city’s Robinson Park.

Rock climbers say they discovered the cliffs left from the quarrying at least 25 years ago. And they didn’t stop climbing at the quarries when winter came. Water in ponds above the quarry drip down the cliff faces, freezing into ice formations climbers like to scale using crampons and ice axes.

City officials “knew it was going on, but they kind of just looked the other way,” said climber Pat Mackin, an instructor at Vertical Endeavors, a St. Paul indoor climbing facility.

“I really didn’t want to know that people were climbing in the park,” said city administrator Sam Griffith. He said he was concerned with liability issues or that the climbing would disturb the historical nature of the park.

But a few years ago, some climbers, including St. Paul resident Tony Vavricka, approached the city to see what they could do to make climbing an officially sanctioned activity.

The climbers organized volunteer cleanup projects at the park and established trails and campsites.

They helped arrange insurance and vertical rescue training for city emergency workers. They took part in an advisory group that came up with climbing rules. They also worked to create “farmed” ice on the cliffs by spraying water from hoses over the cliff walls.

“These are some users of a city park, outdoors people, who very much care that they be regarded as good citizens,” Griffith said.

“We had people who were ice climbing anyway, and if they were going to be climbing, let’s make it so it’s legal,” said Lenny Bonander, a city council member and president of the Sandstone Area Chamber of Commerce.

Climbers say that’s a pretty rare response by public officials.

“As far as an actual town embracing ice climbing as a legitimate sport, it’s very, very rare,” Mackin said. “Kudos to Sandstone. They’ve been unbelievable to work with.”

The cooperation between the town and the climbers culminated last year in the first Sandstone Ice Fest, which attracted about 150 climbers.

“It’s a unique event,” said Vavricka. “It’s the first ice climbing festival that’s happened in Minnesota.”

The Gas Light bar, which is co-owned by Bonander, became the evening gathering spot for climbers.

“We’re cooking a couple of hogs to feed these guys,” said Bonander of the most recent ice festival, which was held in December.

And Bonander, who also has a fireworks company, puts on a small fireworks show to help celebrate the event.

The festival filled local hotel rooms, despite the lack of snow for snowmobiling. It attracted climbers from Chicago, Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan.

“Since it’s close down by the river, it stays uniquely cold there,” Bonander said. “It’s good for the community as far as the tourism. It’s utilizing an asset in the community.”

Experienced climbers as well as people new to the sport showed up for the free event, which featured about 20 roped routes, equipment demos, seminars on introductory, intermediate and advanced techniques and a women’s clinic.

“I’ve always wanted to try ice climbing and this was the perfect opportunity,” said Steve Mercer, of Brooklyn Park. “It was a lot like rock climbing, but harder.”

Sandstone resident Jim Larson is a schoolteacher who is descended from a family of quarry workers. He remembers scrambling around the cliffs as a kid. But he came to the festival not to climb but to welcome the climbers.

“These guys are welcome any time,” he said.