Breaking the ice

UAS will offer an intro to ice climbing class beginning next week

Posted: Friday, January 29, 2010

Imagine yourself climbing a waterfall that has completely frozen over. It's cold, wet and slippery, yet you have confidence that neither the toe-hold nor the ice axes holding you up will break away from the ice that stretches upward in front of you and cascades downward below you.

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For The Juneau Empire
For The Juneau Empire

To some, this feeling is invigorating.

"It's a totally different experience (climbing a frozen waterfall), and it's aesthetically pleasing," said Tim Farr, a local ice-climbing and outdoors enthusiast. "You're climbing up this vertical layer of ice that you typically would never climb on."

Farr acknowledged that ice climbing is probably more dangerous than rock climbing, but the new challenges ice climbing presents are one of his favorite things about the sport.

"It appeals to me because it's different from rock climbing. In rock climbing, it's always going to be the same rock. But in ice climbing, the ice changes," he said. "You can climb it one season and come back the following year, and it's formed differently. So, it's easier or it's harder."

He also said while many people make the transition from rock climbing to ice climbing, only the equipment - the ropes, harness and helmet - are the same, the similarities stop there.

"As far as the moves go, it's not until you get really technical that the moves from rock climbing transfer to ice climbing," he said. "I guess the muscle groups they use - as far as climbing vertical and climbing on rocks - is kind of similar to ice climbing, except you're not grabbing holds, you're using ice tools."

Peter Flynn, another local ice climber, agreed with the Farr, saying other than the equipment, there are many differences between the two sports.

"As far as sports go, it's a pretty harsh environment to be performing in," he said. "The environmental factors that you deal with are playing a pretty significant role in how you are moving."

Walking on ice is difficult enough in winter conditions, but climbing it is a completely different story, Flynn said.

"It's cold, you're in contact with a huge chunk of ice that sometimes has water running over it that can soak you in. And usually, you're in areas that are exposed to winds, depending where you are," he added. "But I don't know, it's really fun."

Flynn said one of the best things about the sport is that the individual is in control the whole time.

"Like rock climbing is a place where your decisions and the choices you make have a pretty big impact on whether or not you succeed, ice climbing is that, sometimes taken up a notch on top of just being a really cool way to climb. Maybe misery is part of it sometimes," he said with a laugh.

He also said ice climbing is a sport that is done as far south as Kentucky. While some of the ice in the south is manufactured, it still shows that the sport is not limited to just the far north. In places like Ouray, Colo., people actually farm ice by running hoses over rock faces to create sheets of ice solid enough to climb.

Despite this year's inconsistent winter weather, Flynn said ice climbing in Juneau can be great.

"We have some really phenomenal ice here, it's just not very regular. You have to work with the weather," he said. "Some of it is protected and it takes a little bit of effort to get to some places. It just depends on what's good."

Forest Wagner, Outdoor Studies Program Director at the University of Alaska-Southeast, currently in Mendoza, Argentina, said in an e-mail that "ice in Juneau is fickle, but when it is in, the potential for world-class new climbs is outstanding."

"Fickle is a really good description," Flynn said. "The weather conditions haven't been super regular and when they have been, it's been in a way that isn't particularly favorable."

He said due to periods of both wet and warm weather, ice in Juneau has not been able to form properly. However, the weather shouldn't prevent those interested in the sport from learning how to climb.

Farr said if you want to learn how to ice climb, it should always be done through an institution or a guide service, or at least with someone who has knowledge, experience and is comfortable teaching somebody the sport.

"You learn by going out with someone who's been doing it for a long time," he said. "You'll learn about the different types of equipment, how to read the ice as you would a rock face, proper belay technique and proper climbing technique."

Farr said UAS offers an introduction to ice climbing class that will be begin next week. The class, taught by Wagner and Farr, is worth one credit and will cover all the basics of the sport.

"It introduces you to climbing if you're not familiar with any type of climbing," he said. "You learn the different types of knots associated with climbing, different commands associated with belaying the climber, how to properly wear the gear you're going to use and how to properly clothe yourself for the environment, which is key here. Then you go out and practice all the skills."

He said it is generally a fairly intense, week-long class where students will get a chance to hone their skills in the rock gym at UAS, and then on the glacier for a day or two. Farr said not only will it give the students experience, but it will give them a chance to decide whether or not they actually like the sport.

So if you're looking for a sport that truly pits man against nature, or you just want to belly up against a wall of ice with the goal of climbing it until you reach the top, then ice climbing might be exactly what you are looking for.

•Matthew Tynan can be reached at either 523-2267, or at matthew.tynan@juneauempire.com



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