Think ice climbing is still a niche sport dominated by bearded alpinists from Chamonix with faraway eyes and a dearth of front teeth? Think again. Since southwestern Colorado's Ouray Ice Park was built in 1994, more than 70 sport routes have been set in the Uncompahgre Gorge, including some of North America's most difficult, and, for beginners, the gently sloping School Room. As the premier ice climbing venue in the United States, Ouray boasts not one, but three festivals each winter. In addition to the just-completed main festival, there's also Jeff Lowe's Masters Ice Seminar (January 1620; www.ourayicefestival.com) and a women's-only event called Chicks with Picks (February 2 9; www.chickswithpicks.net), which is already booked solid. Can't make it to the Colorado events this winter? Don't despair, frozen waterfalls dot North America, and where there's ice there are ice festivals. Here's a sampling of what's to come. Misty Blakesley
One chick, two picks: Amanda Tarr on ice in Ouray
Michigan Ice Climbing Festival Munising, Michigan 906-226-7112 February 14 Companies like Patagonia and Black Diamond will swaddle you in Gore-Tex and hand you the latest carbon-fiber axes for no-cost beginner clinics. Advanced climbers can attend slide shows and seminars presented by Mark Wilford, who made the first ascent of the Eiger's North Face. The fat, reliable ice formed by water seepages on the 200-foot-high sandstone cliffs of Lake Superior's Pictured Rock National Lakeshore.
Canmore Ice Fest Canmore, Alberta 403-678-1099 February 24 A $2-per-climb "Try Ice Climbing" exhibition on a 60-foot artificial ice wall in downtown Canmore, or an $80 beginner ice-climbing clinic at a local seepage called the Junkyards. Intermediates attend leading and anchor-setting clinics in Grotto Canyon and Halfner Creek ($40$80).Hacking your way up the same routes just cleaned by ice-climbing World Cup champs Will Gadd and Kim Czsmazia.
Festiglace de North Face Pont-Rouge, Quebec 514-252-3004 February 1618 Free gear demos and three-hour classes in beginning top-rope climbing, leading, and tackling mixed rock and ice on the 120-foot-high frozen waterfalls that flow from Pont-Rouge Canyon's overhanging walls 20 miles outside Quebec City. Pire sur neige, maple syrup drizzled in snow to harden like candy, and locally made mulled wine.
Mount Washington Valley Ice Festival North Conway, New Hampshire 603-356-7064 February 2224 Day classes, running $95$150, in self-rescue, anchor setting, glacier travel, crevasse rescue, and backcountry medicine on the waterfalls and mixed routes of Cathedral Ledgesheer White Mountain granite cliffs just five minutes from town. A pint of Tuckerman's Pale Ale at Delaney's Hole in the Wall on North Main Street after mastering the 30-foot artificial ice-climbing wall in downtown North Conway.
Valdez Ice Fest Valdez, Alaska 907-835-5182 March 24 Short beginner seminars and Black Diamond crampon and axe demos. Speed-climbing races, a dry-tool competition (climbing rock with ice tools), and bouldering by bonfire near Valdez's small harbor cater to advanced climbers. Hanging out with famed extreme skiers/heli-guides/ice climbers Doug Coombs and Dean Cummings.
North of Superior Ice Fest XV Nipigon, Orient Bay, Ontario 705-882-1032 March 511 Progressively more difficult classes throughout the week, from belaying on a top ropeto climbing steep, brittle ice. The cost is progressive too, at $85 for the first day to $120 for the last. North America's highest concentration of natural ice routes, with over five dozen climbs along a 15-mile stretch of Highway 11 near Nipigon, just north of the Minnesota border.
3 ICE ESSENTIALS
1 SCREWS Recent developments in ice-screw design have made placement faster, so you'll spend less time hanging from one ax while fiddling with a screw, and more time hanging from two axes while breathing. Grivel's 360 Degree (12, 17, and 22 centimeters; $60) features a retractable swivel handle that doesn't run up against the surface of the ice when cranked, significantly reducing the chopping needed to clear an adequate turning radius. The design opens up previously inaccessible placements: behind bulges, between pillars, and inside pockets. The downside? The handle adds bulk.
2 SCREAMERS Hey, ice is just brittle water. Who's to say that screw won't explode out of there when I fall? I need some protection for my protection. The Yates Screamer ($10) is exactly thata shock-absorbing stitched sling that activates on loads over 550 pounds (any small fall), absorbing weight with each ripped stitch and reducing the load placed on a climbing anchor by as much as three to four kilonewtons (675 to 900 pounds of force). In other words, using a screamer on a questionable ice-screw placement could make the difference between whether it rips out or holds your weight. Carry a few and reserve them for particularly dicey placements.
3 LEASH SYSTEMS There are two kinds of leashes: clip-ons, which can be removed from the tool, and permanently attached cinch-downs (slip your hand out for placements, or let the tool dangle, but the leash remains attached to the tool). Clip-ons are easier to use, but I've shied away from them for fear of accidentally unclipping. Thus, I recommend Charlet Moser's Saf'Lock ($23), (see photo page 82) a cinch-down with a double-locking buckle that's easily adjusted with your teethbite the strap and pull. Whatever you buy, make sure the leash locks down like a vise on your wrist. My one and only ice-climbing fall occurred when my hand slipped out of a loose leash. M.S