Stairways into Winter

Ice Climbing
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In the past 15 years, new techniques and more advanced equipment have revolutionized ice climbing, allowing vertical ascents of frozen waterfalls—the ultimate stairways of ice. If you have dreamed of conquering gravity in a winter wonderland, here are the best places to go throughout North America.

To learn more about the sport, get Snow and Ice Climbing by John Barry, a great primer for newcomers to this most technical of all climbing disciplines. Log onto the International Ice Project at for reports from 30 major climbing spots and a calendar of ice-climbing festivals nationwide.
Valdez, Alaska
Alaska's ice mecca, Valdez is one of the best ice-climbing venues on the planet. In Keystone Canyon, you'll find dozens of spectacular ice routes, including Bridal Veil Falls and Green Steps (both experts only). Each year in early March, Valdez hosts a major ice-climbing festival attracting many legendary climbers. For festival details, call Chugach Mountain Adventures (907.835.5182) or contact the Valdez Visitor's Bureau (800.770.5954. A top guide service for Valdez is St. Elias Alpine Guides (Anchorage, AK 888.933.5427. the company also offers summer ice climbing on the Kennicott Glacier in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, along with major summit climbs, ski mountaineering trips, and glacier travel seminars.

June Lake & Lee Vining, California
Vertical ice is the hallmark of Lee Vining Canyon and June Lake, located on the eastern flank of the Sierra Nevada mountains, near the resort town of Mammoth Lakes. Each winter, water flowing from alpine reservoirs and natural creeks crystalize into columns of glistening blue ice. These frozen cascades—hundreds of feet in height—compose the best ice-climbing area west of the Rockies. American Alpine Institute (360.671.1505. conducts ice-climbing seminars and private climbs throughout the climbing season, generally late December through mid-March. A typical class lasts two days and costs about $220 per person, including all climbing gear. Apline Skills International (800.916.7325. also runs two-day Frozen Waterfall courses in January and February at a cost of $240. the company provides all the equipment, including the latest high-tech hardware.

Ouray, Colorado
Known as te Ice Capital of the Rockies, Ouray operates the only true Ice Park in America, with regulated water flows and easy access from town. Ouray's ideal conditions attract vertical-ice legends from around the world, yet the reliable staff and the accessibility of Ouray's icefalls makes this a great training ground as well. Telluride-based Michael Covington (970.728.3546) is a superb instructor who offers custome guiding for $250 per day or $40 per hour throughout the winter. If you prefer a more structured program, American Alpine Institute (360.672.1505. offers winter ice programs December through April, at a cost of $200 per day for two clients per guide. Because AAI holds permits to operate in the nearby San Juan and Uncompahgre National Forests, its seminars augment Ice Park training with climbs on larger, backcountry ice flows such as Dexter Creek Falls, Camp Bird Mine Falls, and Skylight Falls.

Paul McMenamin is the author, editor, and photo director of the original Ultimate Adventure Sourcebook.

Published: 14 Nov 2001 | Last Updated: 14 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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