Shoshone Forest issues first commercial ice climbing permits

Kenny Gasch, Cody director for Jackson Hole Mountain Guides, is one of two new commercial permitees authorized to guide ice climbers this winter on the Shoshone National Forest. (Yellowstone Gate/Ruffin Prevost)

By Ruffin Prevost

CODY — On a mid-October morning that saw dark clouds slowly yielding to a warm, sunny afternoon, ice climber Kenny Gasch was already thinking about winter.

On Nov. 1, the Cody director for Jackson Hole Mountain Guides was allowed for the first time by Shoshone National Forest managers to guide paying customers on ice-climbing trips in the forest.

It’s a day Gasch had been waiting for since 2002, when he first asked forest managers about issuing a commercial guiding permit for ice climbing in the mountains along the Upper South Fork of the Shoshone River, southwest of Cody. The valley is home to what many enthusiasts say is the most expansive and challenging collection of frozen waterfalls south of Canada.

“There are well over 300 documented pitches just on the South Fork alone,” Gasch said. “The area is so vast, and we’re finding new stuff every year.”

With names like Mean Green, Broken Hearts and Bozo’s Revenge, dozens of popular South Fork ascents attract climbers from across the country and around the world. Experienced visitors may seek a guide to save time in finding and climbing as many waterfalls as possible during a brief stay, while beginners look to guides for help in learning the basics of the difficult and highly technical activity.

For more than two decades, as ice climbing on the South Fork has continued to grow in popularity, commercial guides were not permitted by the Forest Service. With virtually all of the great climbs lying within forest boundaries, and many of those in wilderness areas, commercial guiding on private land is not a viable option.

Some local climbers have privately admitted to “pirating” — offering informal guiding services for cash under the table — although the practice is technically illegal under federal law.

Change in attitude

Gasch said he was skeptical after years of no progress when Shoshone Forest staff called him this spring to talk about moving forward with a new permit application.

He said the initial meetings were positive, including a one-on-one conversation with incoming Shoshone Forest Supervisor Joe Alexander. Gasch also had high praise for Shoshone Forest staff who worked with him on the process over the summer.

Recently, Jackson Hole Mountain Guides and Southwest Adventure Guides of Durango, Colo., were each granted a temporary, special-use permit to guide ice climbers from Nov. 1 to April 1 across the entire Wapiti District of the Shoshone Forest.

The vendors will file reports on their activities at the end of the season, and forest managers will again consider the temporary special-use permits for a one-year renewal. After the Shoshone Forest completes its pending Resource Management Plan in late 2013, the permits could be reconsidered for permanent renewal.

Alexander said District Ranger Terry Root told him about Gasch’s longstanding request “and it seemed like the right thing to do” to reconsider it.

“We didn’t have any reason to hold it up, and I know that request had been around for about 10 years and not acted on,” Alexander said.

“It does not amount to a big environmental impact, so I don’t really know what the hold-up was,” he said. “I apologize that it’s taken us so long.”

Economic boost

Climber Don Foote, who previously operated a Cody-based mountaineering business, said the newly issued commercial guiding permits already are sparking renewed interest in the South Fork as a premier ice-climbing destination.

Foote has been climbing local ice since 1989, and for the past 13 years he has organized the annual South Fork Ice Festival, drawing dozens of international top climbers.

“This is a great opportunity for Cody. It will help put a lot of heads on beds in the winter, and people will spend money on gas, food, lodging and shopping,” he said.

Foote is considering starting a new climbing-related business in Cody, and he plans to apply next year for a guiding permit. But he cautioned that it will take a few years for any new guiding business to establish itself with ice climbers.

He credited “new energy and new blood” at the Forest Service for getting the permits issued.

Gasch said he expected a cooperative culture to prevail among climbers and guides, and that the wide range of climbs made it unlikely the ice would become crowded in years to come as a result of commercially guided trips.

He also hoped to build interest among Park County high school students in ice climbing, and he plans to support young local climbers as part of an effort to grow the area’s reputation as a climbing hub.

Summer fun

Rick Roach, owner of Absaroka Bicycles, waited even longer than Gasch — 10 years — to receive a permit to guide mountain bikers in the Shoshone Forest.

He was equally surprised this spring when officials told him his application had been approved. But with summer fast approaching and with no marketing plan, insurance or guiding staff in place after 10 years of being turned down, Roach decided to wait until summer 2012 to begin guiding bikers.

Roach, whose permit includes a limited provision for overnight backpacking trips, hopes to eventually offer multi-day backcountry adventures to hikers and bikers.

“I’m really optimistic about next year, and I’m looking forward to working with the Forest Service again. They’ve done a great job of addressing these new adventure activities on the forest,” he said.

“I really see a great future for Cody as a destination in its own right for these kinds of activities,” he said.

Alexander said he also was optimistic that the new guided activities will take off, and that guides are an important part of making technical activities like ice climbing safe for visitors and locals.

“The local guides are the ones that know the area. The conditions on the ice can change really fast, and it can become unsafe in a hurry,” Alexander said.

“So that local guide part of it is key to it being a successful and safe activity,” he said. “I think it can be a win-win for the community and I hope it works for everyone.

Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9818 or [email protected]

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