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Illinois hunting and fishing

Dr. Tim Koschmann of Springfield negotiates a difficult section of an ice waterfall in Tonti Canyon at Starved Rock State Park. Chris Young/The State Journal-Register

Climbing on ice is cool

February 08, 2009 at 06:53 AM


Starved Rock info

Starved Rock State Park is near Utica.

Go north on Interstate 39 to Exit 48 (Tonica exit). Go east (right) for about 5 miles to the T intersection, which is Route 178. Go north (left) for about 5 miles and follow the signs.


The ice-climbing conditions were the best he had ever seen.

But Dr. Tim Koschmann’s excitement turned momentarily to disappointment when he saw the number of climbers lined up for a chance to scale the 70-foot-high frozen waterfall in Wildcat Canyon at Starved Rock State Park near Utica.

“It’s like the queue at Starbucks,” he said, without a trace of the humor one might associate with such a remark.

A church group arrived just before Koschmann’s group of three. And more were already on the ice in the canyon by 9:30 a.m., most from Chicago or other points north.

The topography at Starved Rock State Park, about 130 miles north of Springfield, includes a number of sandstone canyons. When conditions are just right in winter, water trickles over the edges of the canyons and can freeze.

A mushroom-shaped mound of ice forms at the bottom of the canyon, while stalactite-like icicles form at the top. When all goes well, the two may meet and the structure can be solid and secure enough for climbers to attempt. Park staff determines if there is enough ice to climb.

Ice climbing is allowed in French, Wildcat, Tonti and Ottawa canyons. Fourteen of the park’s 18 canyons have waterfalls when conditions are favorable.

This winter, the waterfalls froze in spectacular fashion, and nearly two-dozen ice climbers had signed up at the ranger station Jan. 31 — and more probably were out there in the park.

Not a problem, says Koschmann, a professor at the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine in Springfield.

With a smile, Koschmann relates a lesson learned by serious hikers, backpackers and solitude-seekers: The farther you get from the lodge or parking lot, the fewer people you will encounter.

The next stop would be Tonti Canyon, a 40-minute hike — at a brisk pace — from the park lodge.

Koschmann was right. At Tonti, only six climbers were working together to get ropes hung and figure out a climbing order.

Within a few minutes, Koschmann was on his way to the top to set another rope and establish a second route up the waterfall.

The conditions at Tonti were unusual, because at some point during the winter, a thaw caused part of the waterfall to pull away from the canyon wall. It didn’t topple over, but instead, new ice simply incorporated the old waterfall into the new one.

The result was an angular rectangle of ice jutting out of the waterfall. It made for a difficult obstacle or a suitable rest stop, depending on how well the climber paid attention to his or her route.
After securing a second rope, Koschmann descended and with a smile turned to a pair of climbing novices along for the trip and said, “Your turn.”

To get up the waterfall requires special equipment beyond the usual climbing ropes — not cheap — including boots with crampons (hundreds of dollars), a helmet and special ice axes to get a grip and steady the climber.

“There are thousands of dollars of equipment lying around here,” says Koschmann of the gear associated with the six or eight climbers at Tonti. Starved Rock State Park does not rent equipment.

Climbers have to jam their boots into the ice and chop a secure hold with the ice axe. Don’t chop too hard, or the axe will be difficult to dislodge. Breaking a tip would be like cutting off a hand, so taking care is essential.

The truth is that the axes mostly create stability for the climber. Most of the upward movement comes from the legs, not from pulling oneself up by the ice axes.

The best part is that climbing requires concentration in the upward direction. Looking down isn’t that helpful and the upward focus keeps novices from getting spooked.

This was Koschmann’s second trip to Starved Rock this winter. He says that ice climbing in Illinois is a sport that demands flexibility on the climber’s part due to the ephemeral nature of the waterfalls.
Conditions that would seem to be perfect do not guarantee proper climbing conditions.

For current conditions, call the park office (815) 667-4726
A second waterfall in Tonti Canyon looked great, but experienced climbers scrutinized it and passed on its possibilities.

Koschmann says it looks like the second waterfall was competed relatively recently. There still was a lot of running water trickling down.

It may be hollow, he says. Whole slabs could peel off, something climbers would like to avoid.

Ice, like the weather, turns out to be unpredictable.
“It’s like the ice has a mind of its own,” he says.

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