Ice climbing: Skills, dangers, how to start

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SHERIDAN — Sheridan’s proximity to the Bighorn Mountains lends itself to winter sports like snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and snowmobiling, but lesser-known sports also have a home in the area.

While the Bighorns admittedly aren’t the best location for ice climbing, there are a few spots climbers can go for a day trip. And with Sheridan only four hours from Bozeman and three hours from Cody — the mecca of ice climbing in Wyoming — a weekend adventure is always a possibility.

Jackson native Trevor Bowman said he started ice climbing with his dad when he was young. An avid rock climber, he wanted something to complement the sport through the winter months, and became more serious about it when he went to college at Montana State University.

“Since Bozeman has much more readily accessible ice and you get the long winters,” Bowman said, “ice climbing was a good option to get outdoors and continue climbing.”

Though the same general objective exists in both ice climbing and rock climbing — to get to the top using a belay system — the skills involved are very different. Bowman said ice climbing gives the climber more freedom and flexibility in choosing a path to ascend the ice and the ability to place anchors, ice screws and other means of protection where the climber chooses. Rock climbing depends more on the formation of the rock and the climber must decipher a path to the top, following features like a crack in the rock.

Another difference goes back to basics.

“The whole fundamental of ice climbing is different, too,” Bowman said. “Ice climbing is inherently reliant on gear… if you don’t have boots and crampons and ice axes, you’re not climbing ice.”

Bowman said ice climbing relies on the climber familiarizing himself or herself with how the gear operates, as opposed to rock climbing which can be done, essentially, without gear.

“I always have preferred rock climbing and I feel like rock climbing you’re much more hands-on the medium, literally,” Bowman said, “whereas ice climbing you’re kind of a step removed.”

Though Bowman said he’s only found himself in dangerous situations he’s put himself in, such as climbing something a bit out of his skill level, he said there are a couple of dangers that climbers don’t immediately consider when heading out. The biggest hazards, he said, are avalanches.

Since ice climbs usually need an area with steep snow faces, an abundance of snow and mountain above and can be set in drainages or natural depressions, some areas are prime spots for avalanches. Bowman said Shell Canyon, which is one of the few spots in the Bighorns available for ice climbing, isn’t an issue, but there are places in Bozeman and Cody where avalanche hazards weren’t considered for a long time.

This isn’t a hazard only beginners should be aware of. In 2009, Guy Lacelle, a Canadian world-class climber, died when a small avalanche was triggered during a climbing competition in Bozeman’s Hyalite Canyon.

“The main hazard of ice climbing is falling, injuring from falls,” Bowman said, “but the potential of avalanches I think would be probably very high up there on the risks associated with it.”

Another hazard comes with the ice itself. Bowman said it’s crucial to properly assess ice, making sure it’s thick enough and secure to the rock formation behind it. It’s possible climbers won’t know how unstable the ice is until they’re already in a climb.

“Ice is just a fickle medium that changes day to day and hour to hour,” Bowman said. He later added, “and so by nature the ice itself can be dangerous and definitely varies greatly even on the same climb throughout the season.”

The best way for beginners to stay as safe as possible, Bowman said, is to start with a guide. He said ice festivals are ideal ways to learn skills, talk to pros and get into the sport.

On Thursday, Bozeman kicks off its 20th anniversary ice festival that runs through Dec. 11. Montana Alpine Guides owner and chief guide, Sam Magro, said the festival, along with introductory courses, is a great way to try the sport before investing in it.

“You get to try it out safely and get to use all of the gear needed as part of the cost,” Magro said. “Then if you like it you can look into purchasing your own gear and have a good idea how to do it safely.”

He said Montana Alpine Guides offers a two-day course from December through April in both Hyalite Canyon and in Cody. Sheridan Community College also offers a one-credit course for the sport. Magro, who’s been climbing for 17 years, said ice climbing is a relatively safe sport and is statistically safer than rafting. It also suits a variety of abilities.

“If you can swing a hammer and kick a ball,” Magro said, “you can have fun ice climbing.”

By |December 8th, 2016|

About the Author:

Chelsea Coli joined The Sheridan Press in October 2016 as the county government, business and outdoors reporter. Coli has a master’s in journalism from Georgetown University and a bachelor’s from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Before moving to Wyoming, Coli taught English through the LADO International Institute and worked as an intern and copywriter for Ruby Studio in Colombo, Sri Lanka.