They say every scar has a story to tell, and in ice climbing, a sport which requires its athletes to wear 24 sharp points on their feet while wielding an axe in each hand when suspended high above the ground, climbers often have more than a few of both scars and stories.
Take University of Colorado senior Jake Kincaid, who, before dawn and without a night’s sleep, first went ice climbing in January 2011. The night before, he had kept his promise to take his girlfriend to Kafka on Ice at the Buntport Theater in Denver. To keep his promise to his girlfriend and an additional promise to meet other CU Alpine Club members at the Ouray Ice Festival the next morning, he planned to start driving right after the show, hungry for ice.
Kincaid packed up rental ice-climbing boots, crampons and axes in his car. The green digital clock in his car read 10 p.m. as he drove through the night to rendezvous with friends already asleep in their Ouray hotel. After 355 miles, a quick breakfast at the Denny’s before dawn and a 20-minute nap in the car when he arrived at the Ouray Ice Park, Kincaid started swinging axes at ice for the first time.
“At first, it seemed a little like a battle because you’re just swinging your axe into something and tearing apart the climb,” Kincaid recalls. “Then it becomes more like a dance, and you don’t want to disturb the ice and you try to damage it as little as possible.”
He began the day breaking off microwave-sized chunks of ice and falling every few feet. But that evening he was scaling the ice like a fly on the wall — and he was hooked.
The Ouray Ice Festival attracts more than 3,000 like-minded ice climbing enthusiasts annually. It touts itself as the largest ice climbing festival in North America and was first organized by American alpinist Jeff Lowe in 1996. Lowe is also credited with introducing ice climbing to the Winter X Games. The Ouray Festival includes more than 75 interactive climbing clinics taught by local guides and professional climbers. But Kincaid was able to walk right up to the ice wall.
Each night in the Ouray Ice Park, more than 150,000 gallons of water is gravity-fed from the town water supply a quarter-mile away through the 7,500 feet of Yellowmine irrigation pipe, sprawling out of 150 showerheads strategically positioned in the Ouray Ice Park. Each night, this water is sprayed out over the three cumulative vertical miles of climbing terrain. Ice climbers agree that it makes Ouray a great place to learn, but the best ice for climbing cannot be farmed.
This January, Kincaid is bypassing Ouray for the frozen waterfalls in the Wyoming backcountry. Having taken several more ice climbing expeditions since his first exhausted trip to Ouray — including a chilly climb up the First Flatiron at dawn in 2012 — he is now planning to lead two other Boulder climbers into the Shoshone National Forest in Wyoming. It is an ice-climbing destination with which 14-year ice climbing veteran Eric Whewell, another Boulder resident, is well acquainted.
An hour outside of Cody, Wyo., this icy part of the country is considered to be a Mecca for backcountry ice climbing by those who escape the crowds of ice festivals. Ice routes carry such desolate names as Cabin Fever, Moonrise and Broken Hearts, but one of Whewell’s favorite ice formations in South Fork is called “Mean Green.” Like a monstrous loogie running 1,000 feet down a South Fork Valley wall, this greenish ice formation is one of his favorites in North America because of its size and seclusion.
The lure of backcountry ice draws ice climbers such as Whewell and Kincaid through hours of hiking in the snow, often through avalanche-prone areas. Fundamentally, they share the same instinct with skiers who cavort off the groomed runs into backcountry powder and climbers generations ago who climbed to mountain summits with only a pick axe: The satisfaction only derived from climbing, seeing and doing something that has not been done, seen or climbed by anyone else.
From year to year, even from day to day, the ice cracks, splinters, melts and reforms, creating a climb that is unlike the one before — like if a new mountain sprang up every year.
“It’s just a different experience. You can think of an untouched, virgin sheet of ice,” Whewell says. “It might be a stretch, but I’d compare it to a climbing gym versus climbing outdoors.”
The backcountry ice climber’s ice routes are not hacked out from 500 previous climbers like the routes in an ice park. It is just the climber, the sound of his breathing and the clink of his axe digging into glassy ice.
Although the entire surface of an ice wall can potentially be a handhold, that does not make ice climbing any safer than rock climbing.
Rock climbers see their world as stable. Each handhold has been used by previous generations of climbers. But no matter how thick the ice or how low the temperature, the ice climbers’ world is volatile, and with each swing of the axe they are reminded that this surface will soon be gone, be it in a few months, a few days or a few hours. With every pick swing and foot-stomp that progresses the ice climber higher, he is destroying the very thing supporting him hundreds, sometimes thousands, of feet in the air.
Even in the thickest backcountry ice, air pockets entombed beneath the tranquil surface lie in wait for an unsuspecting climber’s axe to pierce the surface and release the gas in an explosion of icy shards. At any moment, the ice beneath can blow out as the sun and temperature rise.
Covered in sharp points, 12 on each shoe and two on each axe, climbers also become a danger to themselves. The first rule in ice climbing is not to fall. Dan Mottinger almost broke that commandment when leading an ice climb up a vertical ice wall in Cody, Wyo., in 2007. High above the ground and far above where he last anchored the rope with an ice screw, one of his crampons slipped off his heel and dangled on its tether below him. The Rocky Mountain Rescue Group volunteer says he knew just how precarious this situation could be for him and the party he was leading.
“It was like climbing with only one leg,” Mottinger says. “And it was amazing how something simple brought me such a scary and dangerous situation.”
A common injury among climbers is a broken ankle or leg, because it is not easy for an ice climber to have a clean fall, like rock climbers, who are immediately caught by the end of their rope feet below, dangling like a spider suspended from its silk. A crampon can snag the ice and easily twist a leg or ankle until it snaps.
Mottinger speculates that if he had been on a more precarious climb, he might not have been able to complete that route, but carefully and slowly, he was able to crawl into an ice cave to reattach his dangling crampon and resume climbing.
Other climbers in 2012 have not been so lucky. Nationally famous ice climber Jack Roberts died after falling 60 feet while climbing Bridal Veil Falls near Telluride in January 2012.
In Boulder, where there are few surfaces with ice suitable for climbing, the community is fairly small and the most talented climbers tend to keep to themselves, Boulder resident and professional backcountry guide Andrew Councell explains. “The scene is quiet, unassuming, humble and incredibly badass.”
See our interactive map of ice climbing around Colorado below.
Prepare for the worst
Rocky Mountain Rescue Group’s tips for ice climbing safely:
The first rule in ice climbing is to never fall.
• Ranging in size from softballs to microwaves, falling ice causes most injuries.
• Always keep a first aid kit with your gear.
• Knowing how to make a tourniquet and splint is recommended.
• Be prepared for avalanches, as climbable ice often forms in avalanche-prone areas.