Dave Pagel vividly recalled the day back in high school, more than 40 years ago, when a teacher introduced his class to climbing.
“Climbing is really about puzzle solving, not as much strength or coordination,’’ Pagel said. “I come from a family of great athletes. But I was just terrible in team sports. They just weren’t for me... But on the day we climbed that wall in school, the football players were falling off. The gymnasts were falling off. I was the only kid who made it to the top. People were applauding. That was hugely empowering for me. A life (of climbing) established, I guess, right there.”
It was a very personal account of how climbing, even ice climbing is not as dangerous or difficult as it looks, and how fun it can be.
Pagel was explaining his passion for vertical adrenaline as he looked up from the base of Casket Quarry in Quarry Park in West Duluth, where he’s been climbing for decades. He was watching as two of his fellow climbers scaled an outcropping of craggy ice that formed as water seeping from the rocks freezes as it falls.
It’s that seeping groundwater, coupled with nearly 100-foot high rock walls and the Northland’s often-frigid winters, that makes 30-acre Quarry Park among the premier ice climbing locations in the Midwest. And this winter has been among the better ones for ice formation, with 80 feet of vertical, solid ice to climb in some areas.
“We had an exceptionally wet fall and early winter and that’s giving us a lot of water still coming out on the rock,’’ Pagel said.
Later in February, as the sun reaches higher in the sky, that ice will get too soft and fall off. But in December and January, much of the ice has been holding firm, making for perfect climbing conditions.
Best climbing around
Some people who come here strictly climb the ice formations. Others scuttle between ice and rock, a sport called mixed climbing.
Sean Davidson and Jared Andresi, both of Eau Claire, Wis., were taking a break at the base of the 100-foot wall of Casket Quarry in West Duluth on a brisk, clear January morning. They had finished their first ice climb of the day, up a run that local climbers call Big Blue, and were ready for a second. They were “leading,’’ using pins fastened into the ice by the top climber to guard against a fall and climbing without a hanging support rope.
“This is our second trip up here this winter,’’ Davidson said. “For ice climbing anywhere around here, this is as good as it gets.”
Andresi said adding ice to the sport of climbing “feels much more wild” than rock alone. “I don't know how else to describe it. It’s just much more raw and wild.”
A few hundred yards down the quarry, Duluthians Mikayla Haynes and Julie Bernhardt were climbing “The Ramp,” a less-steep but still-challenging ice face on a less-than-vertical wall of rock underneath. They were “belaying,’’ climbing up with a tight rope anchored above the top of the quarry as their safety catch.
“I fell in love with it the first time I tried it…. It’s different from anything else when you're up there. The ice changes every time you climb. It's ephemeral,’’ Haynes said. This is her fifth year climbing and third year ice climbing, and Haynes said she feels like she’s truly outdoors when she visits special places to climb ice, including along Lake Superior’s North Shore.
Bernhardt started ice climbing on a deal she struck with her boyfriend: She’d try climbing if he would try cross country skiing.
“I ended up loving climbing and he really didn't like skiing that much,” she said with a laugh. “This is my second season now and I just love it.’
Both Bernhardt and Haynes are members of the Vertigals club of female climbers in Duluth (go to facebook.com/NorthShoreVertiGals/)
From keggers to crampons
Pagel, who lives in Duluth, is a writer by trade but a geologist by degree, and he loves the way climbing gets him up close and personal with the granite-like gabbro rock that forms the quarry. It’s off these rock walls where the giant boulders were blasted and used to make Lake Superior breakwaters for the Superior and Ashland harbor entries.
But sometime in the early 1930s, the rock company closed operations. The quarry fell silent, except for the occasional teenage beer party. Quietly, some time decades ago, at least as far back as the 1970s, someone realized that the weeping out of the rocks created perfect conditions, in some winters, for ice climbing. Word slowly leaked around town.
Pagel, 59, now is one of the old timers of the Duluth ice climbing scene. He’s been coming to Casket Quarry for 40 years. He helped organize the Duluth Climbers Coalition, the nonprofit group that advocates for climbing opportunities and which served as the catalyst for the turning Casket Quarry into Quarry Park, an official city park where climbing is not just allowed but encouraged.
Pagel praised city officials for making Quarry Park an example of revitalization along the western neighborhoods. The property had been about half tax-forfeited county land, about half-owned (unknowing) by Oneota Cemetery. The city acquired full ownership and, five years ago, the park took shape. In summer the park boats a world-class disc golf course along with hiking trails and handicapped-accessible trails. In winter, dog walkers and others come to gawk at the ice climbers.
“This park has become a great addition for the people of this neighborhood,’’ Pagel said. “It’s not just climbers, it’s everyone using it now, all year… Now our goal is to get more (West Duluth residents), especially more kids, climbing out here.”
Ice 'farming' by next season?
Last May the Duluth Climbers Coalition received a $10,000 REI Co-op Outdoor Place Grant to help pay for construction of an “ice farm” at Quarry Park. Along with other grants and fundraising, the project will total about $20,000. Work is expected to begin this summer, including hooking up to an existing city water line, installing a new pump and erecting pipeline and sprinklers to the top of Casket Quarry’s rock walls. That's where a system of pipes will drip or spray water over the edge, creating eve more ice-covered rock faces for climbing.
“We hope to have the first piece ready for ice farming next winter, by next December,” Pagel said.
When that happens, Casket Quarry will join the Sandstone Ice Park as the only climbing walls with farmed ice in the region. Sandstone has had farmed ice for a decade, also in an old stone quarry.
The extra “farmed’’ ice at Casket Quarry will not only give climbers more ice to climb, but much of it will be in a shaded area of the park which will hold ice longer into February, Pagel noted. “It will open up a lot more options for beginners to try it, too,’’ he noted.
If you are totally new to climbing and want to give it a try, Pagel suggests going through either UMD or St. Scholastica’s outdoor recreation programs, or give it a try indoors first at Duluth’s Vertical Endeavors. If you have the right equipment, come out on Saturday and coalition members will show you the ropes.
Did you know?
Casket Quarry (now officially Quarry Park) didn’t get its name because so many climbers have perished there. Actually it should be called Burial Vault Quarry. The old party pit got its name from the Polaris Wilbert Vault Company, a manufacturer of concrete burial vaults (essentially concrete liners for graves; the casket goes inside the vault inside the grave) located at the uphill end of 59th Avenue West in Duluth. The company used to stack burial vaults outside the building. So people used to say “let’s meet at the quarry behind the casket company.” Thus the name Casket Quarry. (The former vault building now is owned by Loll Designs.)
If you go
Duluth Climber’s Coalition 5th Annual Duluth Ice and Mixed (Climbing) Festival
Saturday, Feb. 1
9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Free, open to everyone (even non-climbers!)
Quarry Park, 1325 N 59th Ave W. in Duluth (Located off the end of 59th Avenue West. Park in the Loll Designs Hawksboots building lot and you’ll walk about 300 yards into the quarry.)
The festival is billed as a celebration of winter outdoor recreation in Quarry Park, which encompasses Casket Quarry, a premier ice and mixed (ice and rock) climbing venue. There will be climbing, hiking, a bonfire and refreshments.
Learn to climb: A small climbing clinic with limited space will be offered to newbies. Pre-registration is required. Go to duluthclimbers.org to see if space is available.
Post party, raffle, gear swap and panel discussion: 5 p.m. until 9 p.m., West Duluth American Legion Post 71, 5814 Grand Ave. For more information: duluthclimbers.org.