Winona Ice Climbing Park

By Andrea Culletto  

What is it that sets an innovator apart from the average Joe? One word—action. Everyone has good ideas, but only those who take action see them realized. And we all benefit when they do. Take, for example, Eric Barnard. When he and his wife moved to Winona, Minnesota, they found much to love. But Barnard also felt something was missing.

“I got sick of driving three hours to get to the nearest ice climbing,” he recalled.

A natural outdoor adventurer, Barnard had fallen in love with ice climbing. As a busy father of three and fulltime outdoor education and recreation center director at Winona State University, Barnard found himself with a choice. “I could complain, I could move, or I could do something about it.”

He chose the latter.

Organic Innovation

Eric BarnardBarnard was no stranger to innovation. After his wife graduated from Winona State, the couple moved to Idaho where Barnard earned his bachelor’s degree in outdoor education from Idaho State University. When the couple came back to visit friends in Winona, Barnard thought it strange that the university didn’t have an outdoor education program. So, he decided to do something about it.

He applied for and was awarded a graduate assistantship at Winona State where he committed himself to creating an outdoor education program with an accompanying full-time position. By the time he earned his graduate degree, he had accomplished this goal. The program he now leads has 29 staff members and a 6,000-foot climbing wall that he and his team raised the money to build. When asked why he did it, Barnard replied, “For quality of life.”

The opportunity to create an ice park came about organically. A local homeowner whose house overlooked town had a tradition of hanging an illuminated star and a cross from the cliff. Unfortunately, both had fallen down and he couldn’t access them. He reached out to Barnard and asked if he would utilize his climbing skills to help. Barnard came up with a deal that would benefit them both: He would help if the landowner let him build an ice park.

The landowner agreed and Barnard and his friends set to work, running water from the landowner’s house over the cliff. “There were four ice towers, 100 feet over town,” Barnard recalled. “We put rope lights in them and lit them up.”

Only Barnard and his friends were allowed to climb on this preliminary model, but he had a bigger vision in mind—convincing the city to support a public ice park. “Anecdotal evidence is great, but you have to have data,” Barnard said of the first ice park. “Outdoor recreation is an $883 billion a year industry … Our city has fully embraced the idea. They know it’s a big economic driver.”

The following year, the city approved Barnard’s plan and work began on ice park 2.0—the city of Winona’s ice park. Barnard and his friends ran more than 2,000 feet of hose from a fire hydrant to the top of a cliff where they positioned shower heads to distribute the water flow. The resulting climbs are up to 175 feet tall from top to bottom. Word spread and soon climbers were showing up from as far away as Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Louis.

“The ice park is a great addition to our community and is a work in progress that will continue to grow,” said Ross Greedy, outdoor recreation coordinator for the city of Winona. “Our city council is in support of the park and the growth of other outdoor recreation opportunities within our community making Winona a quickly growing outdoor recreation destination.”

Enjoying the Great Outdoors

Winona is truly an outdoor recreation destination. “You can easily do the one-day Winona trifecta,” Barnard explained. “I love showing people this. You wake and climb the Sugar Loaf (a 600-foot rock tower with a 45-foot-wide summit), do some sport routes, go to the summit and have coffee and a snack. Then you can grab your bike and ride some sweet single track. Then you grab your paddleboards and set off through the backwater. After all that, you still have time to do dinner and a show. In the winter you can do fat biking, ice climbing and Nordic skiing in a day. And it’s a fun day—not a big day—it’s just casual.”

Now, Barnard enjoys heading over to the ice park to climb on his lunch break. “It totally changed my whole life to have this—to be able to ice climb casually five days a week. It completely changed the quality of life for me.”

He also operates his own business, Big River Climbing Guides, which gives people a chance to experience ice climbing without investing in expensive gear. “Everybody who does it loves it,” Barnard said. “Everyone thinks it’s totally absurd at first, but then they try it and love it. And it’s way safer than you’d think.”

Barnard describes the experience of ice climbing as more like yoga than skydiving. “When I’m climbing and everything is going right, my heart rate is low and I’m thinking in movement and rhythm, not words. For me, it’s the happiest I am besides being with my kids. I love that you’re climbing on an ever-changing medium. You have to be more intuitive. And at the end of the day, you did something special that a lot of people don’t get to do. It’s like a secret.”

Hard Work Reaps Rewards

Creating the experience comes with a price, however. “There’s a reason that there’s only a handful of ice parks in the world,” Barnard explained. “It is not a sexy endeavor. There’s a lot of suck. I’m lucky to have good friends who enjoy suffering.”

Winona Ice Climbing ParkBarnard recalled once laying out all 2,000 feet of hose and turning on the water, only to discover that one connection was not secure. Just as they were celebrating a successful launch, the 2-inch hose detached and rogue water came cascading down the hillside. They had to shut off the water and all the hose froze almost instantly. The team pulled it off the mountain and took it back to Barnard’s house where they ran hot water through it and squeegeed it dry. Then they drove back to the site to start from scratch. They didn’t finish the day’s work until 2 a.m.

Even on good days, Barnard said the task is daunting. “You’re out there working and you get wet. Working with spraying water in Minnesota in winter—the stupidest idea ever—what could go wrong? One little freeze-up and it’s all shot. We come back to the car looking like ice men—head to toe frozen solid ice. You’re cracking as you’re walking.”

However, Greedy, who has been a part of the ice park since the pilot year, said, “Getting to rope up and climb vertical ice hundreds of feet over the river valley is an amazing reward [for the work]. The quality of climbing, exposure and scenic views make for a great experience that is literally in our backyard.”

Barnard says the effort is worth it. “I’m a better person, husband, parent and worker if I’m happy, and this makes me happy. I also want these vehicles for people to develop a personal connection with the land. You can advocate for restoration till you’re blue in the face, but when people climb, they realize this is special. The land is their own and they feel like a part of something. So there’s the selfish side and the philosophical side. I know what ice climbing did for me and I want more people to be able to experience it. It’s super rare and it makes our town special.”

For more information on the Winona Ice Climbing Park, located at 1063 W. Lake Blvd. in Winona, visit www.cityofwinona.com/ice-climbing-wall.