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Robb Jeffries, Forum News Service, Published February 02 2013

Enthusiast brings first ice-climbing festival to North Dakota

LARIMORE, N.D. – The clouds hung low over the Red River Valley on Saturday, an area known for flat terrain that lends itself well to largely horizontal sports, such as cross-country skiing. Jim Grijalva, a University of North Dakota law professor and adventure sports enthusiast, had something more daring than skiing in mind.

With ice picks in hand, Grijalva ascended into the sky by way of his man-made ice climbing wall.

The wall, on his in-laws’ family farm just west of Turtle River State Park on U.S. Highway 2, stands in stark contrast to the otherwise monotonous terrain in the area. The wall stands 40 feet tall, towering over nearby trees.

It took four days of freezing water on a support structure to create the wall. Mother Nature still played her role in shaping the wall. Half of the climbing surface has large protrusions, giving climbers two distinct surfaces to tackle.

“The wind was blowing pretty hard from the north, so that’s why one side is smooth and the other has those cauliflower-shaped parts sticking out,” Grijalva said.

In addition to ice picks, climbers wear crampons – metal spikes that fit over boots – and Grijalva makes certain each climber wears a helmet on his wall.

“Safety always comes first,” he said. “When it gets cold, the ice is very brittle and can break off in big chunks. It makes it tough to get a really good grip.”

Indeed, as Grijalva and other climbers made their way toward the top of the wall, shards of ice as large as footballs rained down near a small group of family and friends. With temperatures hovering in the single digits above zero, fellow climber Andy Magness said ideal climbing conditions would be in slightly warmer weather.

“When it’s this cold, the ice can just splinter off,” he said. “When it’s around 20 degrees, you’ll swing the pick and you’ll get a nice solid ‘thunk,’ and it will stick better.”

Ice festival

Grijalva is the vice chairman of Ground UP Adventures, a nonprofit group that promotes youth involvement in adventure sports. Magness, the chairman, and Grijalva’s daughter, Rosa, 14, joined him in a few practice runs on the wall Saturday.

Grijalva is hosting a group of climbers from the region today, in what he informally calls “North Dakota’s first ice-climbing festival.”

“I’m thinking about building a bonfire over here,” he said, motioning toward a clearing near the wall. “It’s more fun to climb in a spectator atmosphere.”

The trio of Magness and Jim and Rosa Grijalva neared the wall’s summit, but none reached the top.

“It’s tough,” Grijalva said. “Your mind says the ice will break off when you pick it, or when you put your weight on your foot. Then your arms get tired and you lose blood flow in them, and you can’t swing the picks straight and get a good grip.”

Third attempt

This year’s wall is Grijalva’s third attempt at making a manmade ice climbing surface. His first attempt involved using a tree and chicken wire for support, and running a hose up the tree to have the water flow down the wire and freeze, making a stable 30-foot climbing surface.

“It looked like a waterfall fell out of the sky and landed on a tree,” Grijalva said.

But it didn’t last long, as that wall met its end after a late March climb.

“When I was climbing it, I could see it melting, with water running down the sides,” he said. “After the climb we went in and had dinner. After dinner, I went out and there were 300-pound ice boulders lying on the ground.”

The current support structure was built in 2006, with help from two unlikely businesses.

Ray Richards Golf Course was renovating its driving range, and Grijalva got his hands on some of the old poles that held up the course net. In exchange for the extra poles, Red River Valley Electric planted three of them in the ground for Grijalva. Cross beams stabilize the poles, and chain link fencing has proven to be a more durable surface than chicken wire.

“Some people look at it and say ‘What’s that, a deer hunting stand?’ ” Grijalva said with a chuckle. “People just don’t see things like this around here.”


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Robb Jeffries writes for the Grand Forks Herald