I survived Winter ODA: Ice Climbing


“Only 1% of the entire population has the opportunity to do this,” says Osmek. Take a look at these snapshots from Sandstone, MN, where some lucky seniors from Blaine ODA (Outdoor Advantures) got to climb waterfalls of ice.

We arrived at Sandstone at 9 am, a small town near Banning State Park, 1 hour south from Duluth. It was only 10 degrees outside. There were no heated buildings (or toilets for that matter). You had make a mental shift, telling yourself you can’t go inside when your face gets rosy and cold. You’re on your own.


Sandstone used to be a mining hub. Rock was carved and shipped down to the twin cities. Downtown, notice the old buildings constructed from the reddish rock. After boom then bust, Sandstone looked for a new way to bring in business: Ice climbing. The city “farmed ice” on sheer cliff faces that now attract hardcore climbers. Last weekend, there was even an ice climbing festival, where people were climbing in the dark at 1 am. The only thing the maniacs left us was some graffitti.


At the base of the falls, we set up camp. Between climbs, students could warm their hands, which would be completely numb and stinging from the cold, next to the bonfire and the great vat of hot chocolate.


Lucas, an ice climbing instructor from the University of Minnesota Duluth, is demonstrating how to correctly use an ice ax. It’s insane how strong ice is. Only a few inches can support your entire weight as you heave yourself up with the ax. Still, ice can shatter and explode into shards. Note the helmets and safety glasses.


Lucas demonstrating proper climbing technique. Notice the crampons on his boots he uses to dig into the ice.


Students watch Lucas climb. Jun Xiao is belaying him.


All climbers have a team of a belayer and a backup. As a belayer, you are attached to the climber, and you are their lifeline. Even though your feet stay on the ground, you are climbing with them. When your climber gets high, you can feel your own pulse rise as you brace in case they fall from exhaustion.


Where’s Jun? Of course, he’s at the top.


The cliffs at Sandstone are twice as high as the rock wall at Blaine. Endurance is a necessity. Some students realized their deathly fear of heights or fear of falling. It’s only natural for beings meant to stay on the ground to fear being dangled up a hundred feet above. It can really get into your head that you’re only supported by a rope one centimeter thick.


Summiting is exhilarating. Climbing the last few feet up, your senses are blurred from exhaustion and adrenaline. “I can’t believe I was strong enough to do that,” said the climber.


At the end of the day, everyone piled back into the school bus. Someone (almost) went inverted, another left their ice ax in the cliff mid-climb, and someone’s crampons fell off (twice), but no one had to take a trip in the ambulance. The best part of the day, besides skipping class, was returning with a new sense of confidence, and finally having the feeling return to your fingers and toes.