Growing ice

Local climber prepping to demo the often-overlooked sport of ice climbing at Sochi Olympics

Aaron Montgomery will demonstrate ice climbing at Sochi.
Courtesy of Aaron Montgomery

In late August, Aaron Montgomery received some big news via email. The International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation, or UIAA, had officially selected him as an athlete to demonstrate ice climbing to the world during the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games. 

Although he was only one of three U.S. athletes selected for the event, 32-year-old Montgomery took it all in stride.

“I’m a pretty even-keeled person, I don’t get too excited,” he says. “I definitely feel honored to be a part of it, and to be selected as an athlete.”

Montgomery’s cool confidence has served him well in the months leading up to the event. He’s managed to juggle rigorous training with caring for newborn twin boys, managing his Broomfield-based environmental remediation company and some extensive traveling to participate in some of the nation’s and the world’s most prestigious ice competitions. And he’s helping to push ice climbing in its movement from fringe extreme to established sport.

“I’d like to see it grow in the U.S.,” he says. “The Sochi Olympics is great exposure. There are a lot of people in the climbing community as a whole that think it’s a good thing.”

Montgomery stands out in a crowd.

He seems to tower about half a foot above most at a crag. With that long reach and his lean build, he looks like he was born to climb. But he didn’t get a traditional start. Montgomery’s southern accent gives away his Oklahoma roots. He grew up on a cattle ranch, and didn’t start climbing until a college professor introduced him to the granite formations of the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. He didn’t start tooling around on ice until he moved to Westminster about four years ago. Turns out, he was a natural.

“I guess I had a knack for it, so I decided to take it more seriously and [started] pushing hard,” he says.

According to UIAA representatives, 80 athletes will participate in Sochi’s ice climbing “cultural” event. Details are scant, but the athletes won’t be competing for medals. Instead, it’ll be an opportunity for those passionate about the sport, like Montgomery, to showcase ice climbing and dry tooling (climbing with ice axes on rock and plastic walls instead of ice) to the world. With any luck, spectators and Olympic committee members will be wowed enough to consider it as an official sport in coming years. And ice climbing has plenty of aspects that impress. Like traditional rock climbing, ice tooling is incredibly gymnastic. It’s physical. It’s also committing.

“It requires more intuition,” Montgomery says. “You can’t feel the holds. You have to feel them with your tools.”

Of the 80 climbers going to Sochi, half are Russian — a telling sign of the sport’s popularity there. Only three are from the United States. Because they’re separated by geography — one lives in New Mexico, one is from Minnesota but lives in Canada and Montgomery lives in Colorado — the athletes are on their own to develop training regimes. Montgomery is working with the Boulder-based Alpine Training Center, which helped him develop some highintensity endurance drills, as well as tool-specific training.

Montgomery was selected, in part, for his efforts to be an ambassador for ice climbing and to expand the sport locally. He regularly takes newbies to the park in Ouray or the ice flows near Vail, showing them the ropes.

Montgomery admits the growth of popularity in both rock and ice climbing in the U.S. can be controversial. Some worry about the dangers the uninitiated could face in an unfamiliar backcountry environment — hazards like falling rock and inexperience with safety procedures. Others dread the idea of growing crowds at their favorite crags. Still others see it as a quiet, bodily meditation in an outdoor environment, rejecting it as a “sport” ripe for commercialism and product pushes. Some fear increased exposure through high-profile competitions will only fuel those problems.

According to Montgomery, that aversion to climbing competitions and recognition of climbing as a “sport” represents a different mindset in North America versus Europe and Russia. He says that outlook is starting to shift, particularly as kids join gym and school club teams.

“It’s changing a little with a new, younger generation of competitive sport climbers and boulderers,” he says. “As they get older, maybe there will be opportunity for more widespread competitions.”

Better gear and improved technology have also opened rock climbing to a larger crowd, and ice climbing is starting to catch up. Like rock climbing, ice climbing grew naturally out of mountaineering. But while rock climbers bolted crags and sent splitter cracks in the southwest desert, the long, grueling backcountry approaches to frozen waterfalls and insufferable climates still kept ice climbing inaccessible to most.

“In climbing ice, you have to have a gladiator-type mindset,” Montgomery says. “You’re cracking ice, cleaning ice, breaking pieces off, and you have to want to be doing that. Besides that, it’s really cold.”

In Europe, the pool of climbers hardy enough to take on ice also found a decent swath of spectators through competition events. According to the UIAA, ice competitions started in Russia as early as the 1970s, with others in France and Slovenia. In 2000, the first World Cup competitions started, which the European-based UIAA began managing a few years later.

In the U.S., ice climbing competitions were slower to catch on. The sport first debuted on a large, national scale during the first televised X Games in 1998, but it was dropped from the lineup the following year. Around the same time, however, buzz began generating about a little ice park in Ouray.

Southwest Colorado had been on ice climber radars for decades, as they flocked to classic falls like Bridal Veil near Telluride and ice flows near Silverton. In the late 1990s, some of those climbers noticed leaks in a hydropower pipe running through the sleepy town of Ouray. Those leaks drained in a canyon below, forming ice flows.

“Climbers are generally pretty lazy and like accessibility,” jokes Kevin Koprek, the Ouray Ice Park manager. “Soon, they started promoting the leaks and, fortunately, local businesses as well.”

Ouray locals recognized ice climbing as a valuable economic asset during the slow winter season. The town worked with climbers and experimented with “ice farming,” growing flows with irrigated water. By the mid-1990s, the Ouray Ice Park, just a short walk from downtown, was formed. It quickly made its mark on the ice-climbing map. In 1996, it introduced its own ice climbing competition — The Ouray Ice Festival — one of only a handful in the United States.

Meanwhile, innovations in climbing gear were making the sport more comfortable. Curving tools’ handles prevented bashed hands. Gore-Tex and other fabric innovations made clothing dryer and warmer. Equipment in general became lighter. These gear trends, combined with the ease and accessibility of new ice crag hotspots, like Ouray, Frankenstein Cliffs in New Hampshire and Sandstone Ice Park in Minnesota, have made the sport accessible to a larger base of North American climbers than ever before. And a handful of small ice competitions and festivals have sprung up in places like Colorado Springs; Bozeman, Mont.; Cody, Wyo.; and Munising, Mich. While the sport once seemed intimidating, more and more outdoor enthusiasts are now jumping on board. “It’s been a slow, steady growth for us,” says Justin Roth of Petzl America, a major manufacturer of ice climbing gear. “It’s definitely come more into the public eye with the Sochi Olympics, and the World Cup. Ouray seems to get bigger every year.”

Koprek, the Ouray Ice Park manager, has noticed that growth as well. They use a census method to measure the number of climbers visiting the park each day.

“Historically, three or four years ago, we had two or three busy weekends,” he says. “Now, pretty much every weekend, the park is packed.”

All that growth has brought around $3 million to the Ouray economy during the winter months, Koprek says. The Ouray Ice Festival, held for four days every January, has maxed out at 3,000 attendees for several years as well. Koprek says they’re seeing the largest growth among women climbers and families.

“Here in Ouray, it’s appealing because of the accessibility and variability in the terrain,” Koprek says. “People of all abilities can climb right alongside each other.”

For Montgomery, ice climbing’s development as a more accessible activity is one of the most exciting things about participating in the Olympic event this winter. He just wrapped up the Bozeman Ice Festival in Montana, taking sixth place. He’ll spend a few weeks with his wife and 4-month-old boys, mixing in some drills at the Alpine Training Center in Boulder before taking off for the World Cup in South Korea. The following month, it’s Sochi.

“I just feel like, for me, it’s a move forward, it’s a recognition of climbing,” he says. “For people who don’t want that to happen, that’s fine. I think everyone gets out of climbing what they want to get out of climbing, and it’s great in that way. … I like to share the sport.”