Climb an icy wall like a wildling in Game of Thrones? You betcha! Ice climb Gooseberry Falls near the northern shore of Lake Superior in Minnesota.
Along the north shore road of Minnesota’s Arrowhead Region, the stark surroundings of Lake Superior are strangely soothing. The lake appears to have frozen over, as far as the eye can see, and is dusted with a smooth white frosting all the way to the horizon. The moment you step outside, the icy air courses through your lungs.
We amble down a snowy trail and some stairs to the flat top immediately above the frozen Lower Gooseberry Falls. Our guide, Blake, establishes two anchors for the rope by cranking ice screws securely into the ground, all while extolling the correct angle. These ice screws, no bigger than a hand, are designed to hold a climber in the event of a fall.
We walk down another staircase to the frozen pond at the base of the falls on the Gooseberry River. When the rope is clipped to the harness, the belayers are ready, and confirmations are exchanged, you can begin climbing. I swing the axe overhead, place the pick in the ice, and transfer weight to the axe. I repeat with the other arm, but the axe ricochets with a disagreeable twang until I finally connect. Then I bend my knee a bit, level my heel, and kick the crampon points into the ice.
It’s All in the Technique
Like a total amateur, my arms quickly become fatigued and each strike pounds my cold numb hand like a slab of stone. Blake shouts some quick instructions. “Keep your weight on your legs!” “Make sure your legs are apart so you form a triangle!” “Place your hips closer to the ice!” Proper climbing form and technique are the keys for conserving energy.
I focus on striking firmly enough with the axe and crampon points so that the ice is not merely grazed yet without so much force that I have shattered the ice sheet. I hear some words of encouragement from the Minnesotans below and I try to think carefully about where to place each of the four sharp points.
Never Give Up
The ice sheet is not perfectly smooth. The ice is pocked by previous strikes. Some spots are solid as granite while others are as soft as an overripe banana or as brittle as sand dollars. The scariest thing aside from looking down is placing an axe or foot on a position that will not support your weight. There is an assortment of knobs, indentations, holes, bulges, and ledges that make it tricky to assess route and placement. While ignoring my frozen face and hands and burning limbs, I sluggishly scale the final brink below the top of the falls.
Standing 30 feet above the frozen river and soaking in the view feels great. From this vantage point, delusions of grandeur quickly flood my thoughts as I sift through plans to conquer the world.
Treat Yo Self
After such intense exertion, you deserve a delicious reward. By Two Harbors, stop at the Rustic Inn Café and gorge on a slice of Summer Berry pie (with gooseberries). Cravings for sweet confections and warm gooeyness make perfect sense in this climate.
From Minneapolis, follow the I-35W N for 156 miles until you reach Duluth on the edge of Lake Superior. Take exit 259 to merge onto MN-61 N. Drive 37.2 miles. Turn right at Co Hwy 1. Park at the Gooseberry Falls State Park parking lot.
Schedule a climbing session with Positive Energy Outdoors: https://www.outdooredventures.org/ice-climbing/
You can rent winter gear: helmet, harness, bib overalls, parka, ice axes, mountaineering boots, crampons, and group equipment (ropes, anchors, carabiners). Remember to bring warm base layers and good gloves since you will be outside in -11° F weather for a few hours.