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Gym Spotlight

Windy City On Ice

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The original ice silo. Photo Mark Petnuch

What do you do when you’re desperate for vertical ice, live near Chicago, and can’t make the 14-hour round-trip drive north for a weekend of good Michigan ice?

You make ice.

Not every climbing gym is indoors. The Cliff Hangers Mountaineering Association and Vertical Adventure Guides have used home-built outdoor climbing walls for rock and ice practice for decades. Cliff Hangers began with foam blocks on a wooden outdoor wall in 1994, but after a decade of lousy ice conditions at the natural ice-climbing areas, we began farming ice. Thus began our “Nice Ice” outdoor ice gym.

During our first five years we made ice on a friend’s concrete farm silo. With nothing more than water soakers, sprayers and dripping pipes, we experimented with water pressure and volume until we found a combination that, when temperatures were in the teens, could add a foot of ice per night to our 36-foot-tall structure. Our ice wall got ink in Chicago-area newspapers, and several morning-show personalities have visited and done live segments. One season the professional ice climber Will Gadd stopped by and taught an ice-climbing clinic for us locals. Gadd said we were lucky to have an ice facility right in our backyard.

Glow of night lights looks like the climber is on a lava flowing volcano! Photo Mark Petnuch

Other climbers have come, too, some from as far away as North Carolina. Our local group is about a dozen regulars, average age 50 but up to 70, and last year an 8-year-old gave the wall a try. A typical season sees around 100 visitors from all walks of life (and about 40 percent female) sinking cold steel into ice. Some first-timers have had so much fun that after just one day of climbing they bought all the gear—tools, boots, crampons, boom! But you don’t need to have gear or buy it, you can rent whatever you need on site.

In 2018 we replaced the silo with a 32-foot tower with routes WI 3 to WI 4 built under a few big trees that shade the ice from the sun. The new wall, dubbed the Chicago Ice Tower, is owned by Joel Taylor of Vertical Adventure Guides, and is set with some plastic holds. “It’s a great ‘woody’ climbing wall for us to work out on during the off season,” says Taylor, “and in the winter it makes a really solid kick-ass ice climbing tower! We are driven by the desire to ice climb as much as we can and to share our love for it with as many climbers as we can.”

So, what have we got?

Up to five preset topropes anchored and ready to go. You can lead provided you bring screws and the ice is thick enough.

Lighting for night climbing. Over 300 feet of rope lights glow through over four feet of ice. Often the wall is bright enough at night that you don’t need a headlamp.

Events: Funny Hat Day. Taco Tuesdays. Full Moon ice nights. Pizza nights and cookouts on the grill. Campfires and an area for throwing axes and hatchets.

Our end-of-season celebration is a tradition. With sunny skies and cold melt water running on us, we climb in shorts, sunglasses and Hawaiian shirts.

Best plus is we have a warming hut within 30 feet of the ice, stocked with snacks and beverages, and a hot tub.

Where: 30 miles south of Chicago, in Monee, Illinois
When: Depends on the season, but usually December through March.
Cost: $25 a day; $10 an hour if you are alone and need a belayer. Full gear rental is $30.

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