CODY, WYO. — Climbing frozen waterfalls requires not just physical prowess, but also endurance, versatility and creativity. It was exactly those traits that climbers exhibited during this weekend’s Cody Ice Climbing Festival, which persevered despite extreme avalanche dangers and every imaginable kind of weather.
Recent heavy snows across northwestern Wyoming have made ice climbing more difficult and risky, prompting festival organizers to move planned climbing clinics to alternate locations, and causing even some experienced climbers to abandon planned backcountry trips.
But an undeterred and enthusiastic group of more than 40 beginner climbers out of an estimated 250 total attendees gathered Saturday morning in Shoshone Canyon after the last-minute cancellation of a planned trip to climb frozen ice near Aldrich Creek, in the South Fork Valley.
Festival organizer Don Foote Jr. said U.S. Forest Service officials cited extreme avalanche danger in deciding to suspend his special-use permit to conduct beginner ice climbing clinics over the weekend in the Shoshone National Forest.
“I understand their decision, and while it’s a shame, we certainly don’t want to see anyone get hurt,” said Foote, who described the snow in the South Fork Valley as the heaviest he has seen in the festival’s 16-year history. Foote said the festival’s liability insurance did not cover conditions of extreme avalanche risk, an issue of concern for the Forest Service.
Improvising a new plan, Foote took the group to a favorite local climbing spot near the Buffalo Bill Dam, just five minutes west of Cody. While there were no ice pillars to climb, participants got a chance to scale sheer rock faces, steep canyons full of snow and rock and other challenging terrain.
“I’m not at all disappointed,” said Matt Burklow, a pharmacy technician from Fort Collins, Colo. who came to Cody for the festival. “This gives me a chance to try out some of the more technical ice gear in a more familiar setting.”
Burklow, a rock climber who was looking to get started in ice climbing, was using ice axes and spiked footwear called crampons as he worked up a sweat while climbing in a T-shirt.
The wildly varied mix of weekend weather ranged from sunny skies with temperatures in the high 40s to heavy snow in the low 20s, along with a grab-bag of rain, gusting winds and sleet.
For much of Saturday’s clinic, climbers enjoyed sunshine, a campfire and grilled hamburgers in a picturesque canyon where up to a dozen different climbing stations gave participants a chance to try new gear, practice techniques and get pointers from seasoned veterans.
Doug Colwell was one of those veterans climbing in Shoshone Canyon after he ran into deep snow earlier in the week in the Triptych Creek drainage. The South Fork Valley location is home to several imposing frozen waterfalls and ice walls. The technically difficult and physically challenging climbs—with names like Hangover, Broken Hearts and The Gambler—are favorites among seasoned climbers.
But despite 35 years of climbing experience, Colwell took a pass on the advanced routes Saturday, saying he had struggled earlier while slogging through snow up to his chest, and figured conditions were just too risky.
“This is still a lot of fun, and a great place to see people enjoying the climbing,” said Colwell, a Boise, Idaho resident who regularly travels to Cody to climb ice.
“I think Cody, Wyoming is the best ice-climbing venue in the continental United States,” Colwell said.
That’s an opinion other climbers shared, citing the quantity and variety of frozen waterfalls within 50 miles of Cody, as well as a long climbing season that typically starts by late fall and lasts into early spring.
Greg Garrigues, a climber from Bozeman, Mont., credited Foote for helping popularize Cody as a world-class ice climbing destination.
“He definitely deserves a pat on the back for making this festival happen every year,” Garrigues said. “He even comes to Bozeman to help us with our festival.”
The annual Bozeman Ice Festival, centered around climbing in Hyalite Canyon, has become an important seasonal tourism mainstay for that area, Garrigues said, and Cody could see similar growth with its strong ice climbing attractions.
Garrigues looked on during Saturday’s clinic as his son showed impressive form, making short work of a 50-foot scamper up a snow-covered couloir.
Josh, 9, has been climbing since he was 6, and Garrigues said one of the biggest challenges for the young climber has been finding gear that fits.
After reaching the end of the climb, Josh rappelled back down in less than a minute, describing the ascent as fun, but “a little easier” than he expected.
Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9818 or [email protected].