The Strange Underworld of Competition Ice Climbing
What does it take to grow a sport from scratch? A tight-knit community of passionate masochists. And some rusty farm equipment.
The man in charge has a horseshoe mustache and an enormous Russian fur hat. It’s March 2019, cold, and he’s been stomping around this defunct apple orchard near Fenton, Michigan, with a power drill for days now.
There’s ice on the ground and sleet brewing in the gray sky. In the barren field behind him is a rusted construction crane. It feels like a scene from Mad Max: Ice Age Edition.
I’d just come from Denver and a fourth-to-last placing at the Ice Climbing World Cup, where gleaming Grecian columns flanked the competition structure and athletes waited their turns in an art gallery. I made the U.S. team in 2018, and Denver was my first international competition. Needless to say, it did not go well.
Which is how I found myself 60 miles northwest of Detroit—and 1,300 miles from my home in Boulder, Colorado—following Nathan Kutcher and his giant fur hat around a run-down orchard that has been repurposed as the Peabody Ice Climbing facility. In about an hour, Peabody will host the third annual Great Lakes Mixed Competition.
Kutcher jerks his thumb over his shoulder at the crane. I squint to see plywood and climbing holds fastened to its neck. This is where the finals will be held.
Competition ice climbing is an extension of mixed climbing, the practice of climbing outdoor routes that are part rock and part ice with ice axes and crampons. Take away all the ice, and you get “dry-tooling,” a sport boiled down to just the hardest movements, the steepest walls, and the holds most likely to send a steel ice pick skittering off.
It’s “totally different” from ice climbing in the mountains, says Joe Josephson, a renowned ice climber and Bozeman, Montana–based guidebook author. (He organized the first American UIAA World Cups in 2014 and 2015.)
“Outdoor areas can’t really replicate it,” he explains. For one thing, competition movements are engineered to be way harder than almost anything that exists outside. For another? “The tension that builds between the athletes during the competition—it’s total drama. It’s so off-the-hook exciting and fun,” Josephson says
The sport has a competition format similar to that of rock climbing. Countries field national teams to the World Cup circuit, which is usually made up of four to six stages held across the world. The athlete with the best combined results from all those events wins. (It is most often a Russian.)
Also similar to rock climbing, competition ice climbing features different disciplines. In the lead-climbing discipline, athletes use ice axes to ascend a man-made route while attached to a rope and are ranked based on how high they can climb before they fall or run out of time. For spectators, these lead falls are some of the best parts—they’re usually unexpected, explosive, ten-to-20-foot whippers. In speed climbing, competitors use specialized crampons and needle-sharp metal “fifi” tools, which look kind of like weaponized coat hangers, to climb a 40- to 50-foot vertical sheet of ice as fast as possible. They’re ranked on their times, which can be as fast as six or seven seconds. (Similar to speed rock climbing, they’re attached to a rope from above, so the falls are less exciting.)
Internationally, competitive ice climbing has existed for more than a century. But in the United States, deep in the shadow of the explosive growth of competitive rock climbing, competition ice climbing is just catching on.
Despite the rich history of outdoor ice climbing in the United States, there were not enough competitive climbers to establish a sizeable and organized U.S. team until 2018 (though individual Americans have attended World Cups since 2001, the year after their inception). Meanwhile, Russia has been fielding a full team for decades, which is one of the reasons they consistently dominate the podium.
Only one American has ever finished a World Cup in the top three: Kendra Stritch, who took gold in speed climbing in the 2015 season. In lead, only two Americans—Vince Anderson, in 2002, and Kevin Lindlau, in 2019—have ever made it to the finals, let alone won a medal.
It’s common for climbers to leap across gaps with ice axes held aloft, à la ‘Vertical Limit.’
Part of the reason the United States is behind in training and skill level is a difference in support systems. In some other countries, local mountaineering federations, big brands, and even federal governments provide financial assistance to their athletes to train, travel, and compete. Meanwhile, all 12 U.S. team members (myself included) are almost entirely self-supported. The other reason behind subpar American performances is sheer lack of experience. If you want to compete in the United States, there aren’t many options. When I was there in March 2019, Peabody Ice Climbing was the only permanent training facility in the country that was open to the public. (Peabody has been farming ice since 2005 and holding drytooling competitions since 2017.) Contrast that to South Korea, for example, where ice-climbing gyms and entry-level competitions abound, and you can climb for free on the ice ax–friendly climbing walls scattered throughout Seoul. The Koreans also have a purpose-built Ice Climbing World Cup stadium in Cheongsong, several hours south of the capital. The structure is massive, featuring eight distinct climbing walls, and decorated with red and blue banners and disco-style lights for the World Cup.
In other words, on the international stage, we’re barely treading water. And on American soil, we’re fighting to maintain fitness without many real facilities. I’ve trained in caves where the rock is so bad that holds the size of microwaves just fall out of the wall and in abandoned train tunnels where trespassing is illegal. My teammates have built walls in back yards and basements, garages, and unused corners of the gyms where they work, doing anything they can to scrape out training sessions for a sport almost no one has ever heard of.
That’s what Kutcher wants to change—a big part of his passion for local competitions is exposing new people to competition ice climbing. In a lot of ways, he’s standing on the shoulders of people like renowned climbers and event organizers Joe Josephson and Marc Beverly, among the first to really push competition ice climbing in the United States a decade ago. (They were the ones who brought the Ice Climbing World Cup to North America for the first time in 2014.) But Kutcher has a slightly different idea of what the people want.
Across the field from the crane, I find an old barn heated by an earnest but ineffective woodstove. It’s filled with athletes—45 people waiting for the competition to begin. “This is the real deal,” whispers one of the competitors reverently, nodding around to the barn, the rusted crane, the frozen mud. “This is where the sport really is, down here, at the grassroots level.”
Even without the Mad Max setting, competition ice climbing is pretty bizarre. In World Cups, athletes climb vast, overhanging structures, kicking their sharpened crampon points into plywood, which simulates kicking into ice. For the first 20 or 30 feet, the lead routes are often similar to something you’d find in a rock gym. But as you look up, the plane of competition starts to rotate. Sometimes, the second half of the route is horizontal, threading an obstacle course of anything from swinging logs to wooden cubes to ice barrels affixed to the ceiling with chains. It’s common for climbers to leap across gaps with ice axes held aloft, à la Vertical Limit.
“In the U.S., people look at it, and they go, ‘There’s no ice! What a silly sport!’ But it really is a totally different skill set than rock climbing, and it’s so ridiculously fun,” Kutcher explains. He’s been competing since 2012, when he signed up for the legendary annual Ouray Elite Mixed Climbing Competition on a whim.
On some of these holds, if your elbow is angled 20 degrees the wrong way, you’re not going to stay on. And the surest way to know that is if you’ve been on that hold before.
Ouray, a tiny town in the heart of the San Juan Mountains, has been holding its own contest for 25 years, mainly as a way to pit world-class alpinists against each other for fun. The competition is full of big names, hard to get into, and notorious for its Wild West approach to the rules: last year, there was a tense argument about whether to make the first part of the route—a 20-foot wall of ice rising directly over a half-frozen creek—safer. (The route setters and judges were initially against it; the athletes were mostly for it.) The competition route starts at the bottom of the Uncompahgre Gorge and climbs out of a canyon rimmed with hooting spectators. At the top is a shot of tequila; the climb isn’t considered complete until the glass is empty.
Against all expectations, Kutcher not only got accepted as a competitor but also won outright, becoming the first North American climber based east of the Mississippi to do so. “I was really nobody from nowhere,” he says. After that, he went on to compete regularly for Team Canada (Kutcher lives in Ontario) in World Cups.
Today, his focus is less on competing and more on giving back. After learning much of the craft from his friend and coach Pavel Dobrinskiy in Russia (that’s where he got the hat), this past season Kutcher finished his certification requirements to become an Ice Climbing World Cup route setter.
“Part of the motivation behind Great Lakes was to grow the base of people interested in competition ice climbing by creating something where they can come try it out and see how fun it is,” Kutcher says. “We just wanted to create an event where people can come and climb as much as possible.”
Meanwhile, at Peabody, two logs hang from the bottom of the crane. They’re peeled, threaded with rope, and covered with splatters of blue spray paint. The first competitor emerges from the athletes’ dugout, a small homemade sauna on the other side of the field. He walks over, straps on boots and golf gloves, ties into the rope, and buries an ice ax in the first log. It sways under his weight.
Cheers erupt from the small crowd of competitors as the climber swings, apelike, from one log to the next. Then it’s onto the belly of the crane. He hesitates, slowing to inspect the holds.
On each is a metal plate, pocked with shallow dimples no bigger than the crown of a blueberry, a delicacy that Kutcher got from Russia.
While you’re allowed to grab competition holds with your hands, most are so small that the only way to use them is by placing the steel tip of an ice ax in a tiny slot or dimple. Athletes then have to kick into the surrounding plywood as they move upward to maintain a precise angle on the hold. Move too suddenly, and the tool tip slips out of place, sending its owner flying.
“On some of these holds, if your elbow is angled 20 degrees the wrong way, you’re not going to stay on. And the surest way to know that is if you’ve been on that hold before,” explains Dirk Tyler, who helped organize and judge the Denver World Cup event.
Because big-name competitions all use many of the same highly specialized, hard-to-find holds, a small black market has sprouted up in the United States. International competitions are frequently followed by a furtive trading session of Russian, Swiss, and Korean holds. After the awards ceremony, route setters strip the walls and athletes and coaches trade cash for cardboard boxes filled with chunks of resin, rock, and metal.
Right now, Stritch, America’s lone gold medalist and one of the driving engines behind growing the sport in the United States, estimates there are only around 600 total competition ice climbers in the country. I can see a good handful of those 600 standing around me now, bundled in duct-taped puffy jackets, wearing borrowed boots and rattling, old-school crampons. I’m not much better; I’ve been using the same ice axes I got on discount a few years ago, painted with blue nail polish so I know they’re mine.
The competitors take turns on the four qualifier routes, hoping for a good combined score. During qualifiers, we’re each tied securely to the top with a rope. This isn’t the big leagues; no airborne leaps or 20-foot falls here. Still, it’s a competition. And I’m nervous.
Growing a new sport is much like parenting. There’s no money in it. It’s thankless. It’s exhausting. And if you abandon your baby, it doesn’t usually last long on its own.
But as soon as I start, I become someone else. Something else. With the axes, each of my arms is a foot longer. Powerful reaches and massive movements are suddenly possible. I set a tool tip into a pencil-wide groove and still my shoulders to keep it there as I pull my body upward. The beginning of each move is delicate, the end, pure power. I maintain body tension, twisting my hips and shoulders to keep my elbow in place as I lunge for the next hold. I stop. It’s a perfectly round, steel sphere. What the hell? (I later find out it’s a pretty common World Cup hold.) My pick keeps slipping off. My arms are shot from hanging on, and my hands are going numb with the cold. I yell with exertion. Below, my fellow competitors cheer me on, and somehow I manage to get the metal pick to balance on the sphere and lower my weight onto it. It’s terrifying. But now I’m yelling and laughing at the same time.
In the beginning, fledgling sports rely almost entirely on a network of superhuman volunteers to stay afloat. At the Great Lakes Mixed Competition, Kutcher built much of the structure himself, and co-organizer Rebecca Lewis spent the time between the competition and the awards ceremony cooking cornbread for the athletes and tallying scores at the same time. Stritch spends much of her vacation time traveling across the country to teach clinics and run competitions. Marcus Garcia, who runs an ice climbing youth team in Durango, Colorado, once single-handedly organized a World Cup event in his hometown, in the Ska Brewing parking lot, heavily subsidized by his own savings.
Growing a new sport is much like parenting. There’s no money in it. It’s thankless. It’s exhausting. And if you abandon your baby, it doesn’t usually last long on its own. “It’s something I would feel guilty about, if I backed away,” admits Tyler.
No one would blame him if he retired from the whole World Cup hustle. But at the same time, he knows we all depend on his volunteer work for our futures as athletes. And he knows how crushing it can be when those volunteer efforts fall through.
About six months after the Great Lakes competition, I hear the news. I’m sitting on a bench in the Ice Coop, a small, brand-new ice climbing training center built in the warehouse district of East Boulder. Beside me sit a few other members of the U.S. team. The American Alpine Club, the host of the 2019 World Cup in Denver, is out. The event isn’t happening in 2020.
The reasons are plentiful, and every one of them makes sense. There’s too much turnover, too much volunteer burnout, too many costs that were never recovered. The American Alpine Club says, for them, this year’s decision boils down to money. They didn’t manage to break even in 2019, despite drawing about 25,000 spectators. And Garcia’s 2016 World Cup left him $15,000 in the hole.
Sitting on the bench, I wonder if competition ice climbing had its heyday already. I wonder how many more times this competition can get passed around. I wonder if we’re still relevant, if we’ll matter in five years. In two.
But when I talk to Sally Gilman, who founded the Ice Coop, she shakes her head.
“This is just the beginning,” she says. “Rock climbing didn’t grow [on an exponential scale] until gyms started popping up. We created this place for the community. It’s a place to develop route setters, to develop coaches. I’m absolutely convinced that once we have more facilities like this, the sport is just going to take off.”
As of writing, 12 American ice climbers have just returned home from the 2020 World Cup circuit—the biggest U.S. ice climbing team to ever compete internationally. And Garcia’s youth team is on their way home from the Ice Climbing World Youth Championship in Kirov, Russia. (They placed third overall.) It’s easy to focus on the top level of a sport. It’s easy to think of international medals as the goal instead of just a gauge. But even amid the shimmering prestige of this year’s international competitions, I keep thinking back to Peabody, to the 45 competitors I shared that barn with. A lot of them were first-time competitive ice climbers. Hell, a few were first-time competitors, period. They showed up with gaiters, clunky crampons, old mountaineering boots, borrowed axes. And in the cold and sleet, huge smiles.