When Ben Mahaffey readies his ice-climbing gear, he’s often standing in front of what’s known as a “seep,” a small area of water, independent of a spring or river, slowly leaking from the ground or a cliff and freezing vertically.
This feature’s birth isn’t unlike Mahaffey’s passion for winter recreation. It started as a little interest stemming from warmer outdoor activities. It grew a little more, and a little more, until Mahaffey was sinking a pick into a seven-story ice sheet.
Mahaffey, 27, lives in Galesville with his fiancé, Meg Schlitter. He attends physical therapy graduate school at St. Scholastica University in Duluth, Minn., and has an upcoming clinical in Winona. He attended the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, and has worked at Three Rivers Outdoors for five years.
In between, he has traveled the nation, camped in zero-degree weather and surfed Lake Superior. But his seep started in a Madison backyard.
The first time he went winter camping was over winter break during his freshman year at
UW-L. He and some friends built an igloo in a backyard on a whim and decided to stay the night.
“I remember being the only one left in the igloo in the morning,” Mahaffey said.
Thus opened another whole season for outdoor recreation. But going from a backyard igloo to the Canadian wilderness is no small step.
Growing up in Madison, his family camped and pursued outdoor activities, but “nothing like this huge, intense stuff,” Mahaffey said. His interests “slowly evolved into more backcountry-type camping and climbing as well.”
After his triumph in the Madison igloo, Mahaffey tackled winter camping.
“It was something I kind of found on my own,” he said.
Mahaffey isn’t crazy, although plenty of people have told him otherwise. He knows how cold it is.
“It may not be the most fun, but it gave me more opportunities to be outside and do different things,” he said. “There’s a ton more work to do, but you have that untouched, pristine area.”
Handling freezing weather depends more on the right gear than toughness. Mahaffey relies on clothing that allows for movement but doesn’t compromise warmth.
His interests grew at UW-L, where “I found myself with like-minded individuals,” he said. That continued at St. Scholastica, where northern Minnesota offered more climbing opportunities.
Ice climbing is an activity he pursued parallel to winter camping. Mahaffey has been mountain climbing for 10 years.
“You just cycle into ice climbing,” he said. Frozen waterfalls and the aforementioned cliff seeps are the biggest attractions.
Pickings are slim for local ice climbing — the nearest reliable ice is in Wyalusing State Park. Mahaffey also climbs frequently in northern Minnesota.
“One year, (the ice) is three meters thick; the other year its bone dry,” he said.
Other climbs involve trips to locales such as Rocky Mountain National Park, which require significant travel expense. Winter camping suddenly becomes very economical.
“Getting a hotel to climb every night is absurd,” Mahaffey said.
Ice climbing is simultaneously more challenging and easier than traditional rock climbing. On one hand, it provides more options.
“The rock only creates certain features for you to hold on to,” Mahaffey said. “If you can swing a hammer, you can usually get your pick to stick into the ice.”
But there are hazards, too. Top-roped climbing, in which a rope is secured at the top of a feature, is safer than inserting ice screws and roping in every five feet. While the screw will stop a fall, it could be up to 10 feet after the fact.
“You’re probably in a world of hurt,” Mahaffey said. He has seen broken ankles after a crampon (think giant metal cleats) stuck into the ice.
Risks like that, along with the isolated nature of winter camping, cause his parents some concern.
His dad, said Mahaffey, “is aware that I can be safe with it.”
His mother worries more.
“I’ll tell her about the trip very briefly beforehand and go into more detail later,” Mahaffey said with a guilty smile.
Mahaffey is constantly looking for new ways to experience the outdoors, not matter how rare they might seem.
Surfing in Lake Superior became a reminder for Mahaffey about the importance of having the correct knowledge to pursue a sport that includes significant risk.
During a storm on the lake, he was attempting to surf large swells in one of his favorite spots, “where I am just getting pounded by these waves,” Mahaffey said.
A local surfer, said Mahaffey, bailed him out with “this sage advice: ‘You’re going to get killed.’”
The local directed him to a spot only a few miles away where the surf was perfect.
Mahaffey learned to surf “the hard way,” as he put it. He had always wanted to learn the sport, but options are few in the Midwest. When he started at St. Scholastica, he saw a perfect, if unorthodox, opportunity.
He bought a wetsuit and used board, consulted internet videos and message boards, and quite literally dove in headfirst.
“It’s one of the hardest things I’ve done,” Mahaffey said. “But it’s really addicting.”
Wetsuits protect remarkably well against the frigid water, but they’re not perfect. “The worst part is the first time you go underwater to duck a wave,” Mahaffey said. “Your face gets frozen.”
Michelle Sheffer, who works with Mahaffey, confirmed his passion for winter camping.
“If you go out and explore, it’s a beautiful time to be outside,” she said, but cautioned that the experience isn’t for everyone, especially not rookies.
“You have to build in,” she said. “I would go with somebody who knows what they’re doing first. Get educated and have fun.”
Would Mahaffey be a good guide?
“I think he knows what he’s doing,” she said.