Cody Ice Festival celebrates 15 years of climbing frozen waterfalls

Aaron Mulkey climbs a frozen waterfall called Hells Angel on the Upper South Fork of the Shoshone River, about 45 miles southwest of Cody. (File photo by Joel Anderson - click to enlarge)

Aaron Mulkey climbs a frozen waterfall called Hells Angel on the Upper South Fork of the Shoshone River, about 45 miles southwest of Cody. (File photo by Joel Anderson – click to enlarge)

By Ruffin Prevost

CODY, WYO. — Mountaineer Don Foote still remembers the first frozen waterfall he climbed in the South Fork Valley east of Yellowstone National Park.

“The climb is called Mean Green. I went out on my birthday with a couple of the old pioneers back in the day,” said Foote, a search and rescue specialist and climber who organizes the annual Cody Ice Festival.

This weekend, the Cody Ice Festival celebrates its 15th anniversary, and more than 300 people are expected to attend events Feb. 15-18.

Aaron Mulkey of Cody climbs along a frozen waterfall in the South Fork Valley, near Cody. Discovered by Mulkey and named "The Testament," the climb covers a 180-foot pillar of ice supported only at the top where it leaves a cliff and the bottom where it reaches the ground. (File photo by Joel Anderson - click to enlarge)

Aaron Mulkey of Cody climbs along a frozen waterfall in the South Fork Valley, near Cody. Discovered by Mulkey and named “The Testament,” the climb covers a 180-foot pillar of ice supported only at the top where it leaves a cliff and the bottom where it reaches the ground. (File photo by Joel Anderson – click to enlarge)

With help from other local climbers and a growing list of sponsors and partners, Foote has organized the event each February to promote the unique collection of frozen waterfalls in the Shoshone National Forest near Cody.

Fed by springs, streams and melting snow, the waterfalls freeze over the course of the long, cold winters along the South Fork of the Shoshone River, creating an ever-changing playground for climbers who seek adventure and variety.

“That South Fork ice is truly the largest concentration of vertical waterfall ice in North America,” Foote said. There are more than 300 distinct pitches spread across more than 250 different waterfalls for climbers to explore.

This year, climbers from Germany, Switzerland, Scotland, Norway and elsewhere are coming to Cody to climb the ice.

Conditions are good, and have improved in recent days with the arrival of colder weather and more snow, Foote said.

The Cody Ice Festival features instructional clinics for climbers of all experience levels, including first-timers. There is a trade show, Saturday night dinner and mixer with live music and several presentations from expert climbers about their favorite and most challenging ascents.

Partnering with Foote to promote the event is the Wyoming Wilderness Association. The nonprofit group has joined the Festival as part of an effort to focus public attention on the value of wild country in the Shoshone National Forest.

Shoshone Wild, a 25-minute video produced by the Association, highlights many of the unique elements of wilderness lands in northwest Wyoming, as well as their economic importance to local and regional economies.

Many of those who come to Cody to climb South Fork ice end up staying several days, boosting the winter economy by spending on hotels, restaurants, gifts and services, Foote said.

While ice climbing is a technical and potential dangerous sport that requires some expensive gear, newcomers have a perfect chance to try it this weekend during special clinics aimed at first-time climbers. For a $25 festival ticket and a $50 clinic fee, new climbers are provided all the necessary equipment and expert instruction.

With proper gear and guidance, curious climbers should try the sport, Foote said. That includes his daughters Issie, 8, and Anna, 10, who often join Foote on weekend climbs.

Since he launched the festival with 47 attendees 15 years ago, Foote said he has seen ice climbing grow in in popularity, along with Cody’s reputation as a world-class destination.

More Info

For more information on the Cody Ice Festival, visit the South Fork Ice website.

“I see the next 15 years getting bigger and better as we continue our partnership with the Forest Service and maintain our friendship with the South Fork private landowners,” he said.

Despite its growing popularity, ice climbing is still a sport where you aren’t likely to encounter crowds, even in favorite spots like Mean Green, Foot’s first climb.

“Even 24 years later, that’s still probably my favorite climb in the whole valley,” he said.

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

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