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.”