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.
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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.