Ice Climbers take advantage of frozen formations at Starved Rock

Four canyons are allowed for ice climbing in state park, including Wildcat Canyon

During the warmer months, many people enjoy the handful of waterfalls in Starved Rock State Park that boast views and sounds from vantage points all around Wildcat Canyon. From the bottom of the canyon, one can see water rushing over the crest more than 125 feet above and the echoing sound of the water hitting the rock below.

However, when the temperatures start to drop and the air turns cold, the canyon slowly starts to grow more silent as the waterfall turns to ice, forming an eye-popping formation.

The ice formation gives an opportunity for many to not only view it but for some to challenge themselves. They are known as ice climbers.

“I wish I would have started as a teen like climbers do today, but I was about 30-something and I’m 70 now,” said Mokena’s Mark Petnuch, a retired science teacher who has climbed the ice many times in Starved Rock and also rock climbed in Colorado. “I was already into mountaineering and rock climbing when I added ice climbing. I think you are always looking for something different, and ice climbing became that for me in the early 80s.”

Petnuch, who was just an observer Saturday in Wildcat Canyon due to a recent hip replacement, said he last scaled the ice formations in 2019, adding that a warm winter in 2020 didn’t allow an opportunity.

“I just had to get out and see the ice this year and just report in,” he said.

Climbers have to sign in and are allowed in the park only when conditions allow them to climb. Only four canyons, Tonti, La Salle, Ottawa and Wildcat, are allowed for ice climbing.

“Some people that do this or rock climb have goals of reaching the top of the biggest and best formations. I think for many, though, the goal is really just to have fun and do a little better each time you climb,” Petnuch said, adding that it can be an expensive hobby.

“Everything you need equipment-wise to ice climb is totally special,” he said. “A pair of boots can be $300-500. ... It’s around $1,000-$1,500 of investment for gear, besides things like harnesses, rope and a helmet. The money factor alone keeps a lot of people from getting into it, and many climbers just don’t live in climates that give them opportunities in the winter months.

“Many look at ice climbers as being the complete screwiest, out-of-control, you-are-out-of-your-mind people to think we can do this. You know what? They are kind of right. In rock climbing, there is a bolt that is screwed into the rock for stability, this thing [pointing at the ice formation] changes every day and night. But that factor is what draws people to do it.”

Tomek Cyrwus and his girlfriend, Vladimira Yanevska, both of Chicago, were preparing to scale the formation at Wildcat, but just before they were ready to go they decided to postpone their climb another day, as there were nearly 50 hikers and sightseers in the canyon and around the ice that day. They said that because safety is the most important thing, and climbing would more than likely make some ice fall and they worried about the people watching from below.

“I started with rock climbing in places like Devil’s Lake, Wisconsin, Michigan, Colorado, California, Wind River, Utah and Arizona,” said Cyrwus, who added he had climbed the ice last Wednesday, and he and Yanevska planned on coming back Sunday.

“From an early age, I had trouble trusting people. Rock climbing forced me to trust other people within the rope. You have to trust the person or persons you are climbing with 100% because everyone’s life is on that rope. You can climb solo, but most of the time it’s a two-person climb with a leader.”

Lead climbing is a climbing style in which the lead climber wears a harness attached to a climbing rope, which in turn is connected to the other climber or climbers below. While ascending the route, the lead climber periodically connects the rope to protective equipment – permanent bolts, to which the climber clips quickdraws, or removable protection such as nuts and cams – for safety in the event of a fall.

“It takes many times out here to really understand where the ice is good – and not good – as you ascend,” Cyrwus said.

Yanevska said she didn’t know much about climbing before meeting Cyrwus, but quickly found out how physically demanding it was.

“Tomek introduced me to ice climbing,” she said, adding that she loves it. “He was already over the rock climbing, so his new hobby is this. The very first time I climbed, I found out how very physically challenging it is. You need to have strong arms to be able to lift yourself. It’s really not as scary as many people think because it’s high because you really don’t see behind you because of how close you are to the ice as you go up.”

Cyrwus, who Petnuch said is “one of the very best, most daring ‘young’ climbers to be around here in the last 10 years from what he’s seen at a distance” agreed with Petnuch that each person has to set their own goals when starting to climb.

“I think everyone has their own goal in mind when getting ready to climb a structure,” Cyrwus said. “I think it’s like a marathon, some people are going to sign up for the 5K or 10K, while others are going to run the full course. Each person has to set a goal and then try to reach it. Maybe it’s getting halfway up the ice formation, or maybe it’s to get to the top. Either way, it comes down to each person to set their own goal.”

Brian Hoxsey

I worked for 25 years as a CNC operator and in 2005 answered an ad in The Times for a freelance sports writer position. I became a full-time sports writer/columnist for The Times in February of 2016. I enjoy researching high school athletics history, and in my spare time like to do the same, but also play video games and watch Twitch.