As if Alaska’s long winters don’t offer enough opportunities to play in the ice and snow, its frozen waterfalls beckon diehard rock climbers to test their mettle on a surface that not only changes each season but can morph overnight.
“I’ve been a serious rock climber for a while,” says Talis Colberg, of Anchorage. Colberg, 19, began rock climbing in middle school, and though he had never set an ice screw or donned a set of crampons before last winter, he managed to get in 60 days of climbing before the waterfalls became unsafe in spring. “That was 60 days,” he says, “and on many of those days, I did multiple climbs.”
While Bridal Veil Falls ranks high on the list of must-see summer sights for visitors to Valdez, in winter, it challenges climbers with an icy 800-foot test of stamina and wits. Colberg notes that Bridal Veil was his most memorable climb of last year.
And yet, that’s only one of about 350 routes mapped out by the Alaska Ice Climbing website. Many other routes haven’t even been cataloged, according to Chris Lindsey, a seasoned climber who, along with his partners, manages the website and an accompanying Facebook group. And some remain secrets because alpinists want to return year after year to pristine and uncrowded ice. Last summer, Lindsey was revamping the website to make it more interactive and spiking its links with more “beta” for this winter. In ice-climber speak, beta means real-time information.
Early ice climbing in Alaska and gear
From Kid’s Corner to King’s Beard, Pigs in a Blanket, Night Moves, Street Primate and Polar Shrimp, the names of the road-accessible routes are as imaginative as the tools hanging from climbers’ harnesses. Alaska’s notoriety for its unconquered ice falls emanated from the 1970s, and through the ‘80s and ‘90s, climbers from around the globe joined the race to claim the first ascents of what would become popular places today.
A good part of those successful ascents rode on the evolution of ice climbing gear. “When the gear improved and the technique improved, we saw a huge explosion in ice climbing,” says Lindsey.
Ice axes that had been traditionally tethered to climbers’ wrists have been redesigned ergonomically with a curvature that provides more security and comfort without the wrist straps. “The majority of your energy gets spent putting your protection into the ice,” says Lindsey, adding that the new “leashless” ice tools sink in deeper with far less force. The advent of tubular ice screws has also revolutionized the ease in which climbers can secure themselves safely to the ice walls. “There’s a lot of testing that goes into the development of these tools and how they work.”
A multitude of challenges
Despite the advances in protective gear, ice climbing remains the ultimate challenge for many. Like Colberg, Lindsey is an accomplished rock climber, but come winter, the ice adds a new dimension. “I really like the technical aspects of climbing ice,” he says. “There’s so much that goes into a successful outing, and doing something harder is always an attraction to me.”
Part of the harder he refers to lies in the variability of winter temperatures and its effect on the structure of the ice. Too cold and the ice becomes brittle and shatters when putting in screws; too warm and the screws won’t hold. Lindsey prefers temperatures of 15 to 20 degrees for his outings. Besides temperature, climbers must also consider wind and snow conditions far above the waterfalls.
“A lot of these climbs are threatened by avalanches,” says Colberg.
Lindsey and his group of 1,700 Facebook members keep up with Alaska’s ever-changing weather and ice conditions via frequent posts and comments throughout the winter. The page also serves as a conduit for climbers needing to pair up. Like other forms of climbing, scaling frozen waterfalls often requires a partner who guides (belays) the rope through a device that prevents the climber from falling during the ascent. The choice in climbing partners becomes paramount, especially for enthusiasts like Colberg, who are new to the sport. “Mentorship is a big thing in climbing,” says Colberg. “When you’re young and a beginner you often climb with partners who are decades older than you.”
Though it might seem that the complexities of weather, ice conditions, technical gear, and the interpersonal demands of a climbing partner detract from the aesthetics, ice climbing evokes a meditational quality that Lindsey says he can’t find anywhere else. When he ropes up, the grind of commuting, the day job, and other daily minutiae all disappear. “It’s exhilarating,” he says. “It’s just nice to focus on something for 20 minutes at a time.”