I’ve been going to ice climbing festivals for going on 20 years, and I’ve started to notice some themes at these tribal celebrations. Each one is a gathering of the climbing community; I romanticize these gatherings as the modern-day equivalent of the great tribal Pow Wows of centuries past, where the First Nations elders would tell stories, the youngsters would show off their physical prowess through games of skill, and the guy who sold the beer would do very, very well. Today’s festival communal bonfire is the slide show, and the games of skill are represented in the competitions, formal and informal, that always take place. Small sub-groups split off into bars, romances are kindled and broken, children conceived and plans made for hunting the mythical big ice climbs lurking over the horizon like the bison of old. Like I said, it’s a romantic comparison, but I believe in the idea of climbing tribes that are normally spread thin, gathering in celebration of a common idea: climbing icicles.
Each tribal gathering has its own character. The Michigan Ice Festival, which I just did, is unique for the toughness of its attendees. Let’s face it, the “UP”, or the upper peninsula is one damn cold, windy, and all-around tough place to live. On the last trip I saw a local clearing his driveway in sub-zero temps–wearing a pair of shorts while riding a John Deer mowing tractor jerry-rigged with a plow, no gloves. These people are tough, creative, and psyched, and they have an unbelievable amount of ice to play with, often beautifully pasted onto the vertical walls of Lake Michigan. Compared to snowmobiling or plowing your driveway in shorts, well, ice climbing is just another fun way to get after it in the winter. I always return from Michigan with the realization that winter is optional in a lot of places, but in Michigan, well, you’re in it DEEP. Maybe that’s why the people are so warm.
Ouray Ice Fest in Ouray, Colorado, is likely the biggest of the festivals I regularly go to, and it’s all about showing off ice climbing in a really accessible and beautiful way. The ice laden (there is nowhere in the world with more good quality ice in less distance than Ouray) canyon offers perfect spectating both for the competition and informally for your friends, new and old. The stunning high-altitude Colorado sun can turn a sub-zero day into a pleasant afternoon lounging session around the huge demo gear area, but losing that sun can turn the ice back into explosive crystal just as fast. Every ice climber should visit Ouray once; it’s the only festival where your hotel can have its own hot springs, and you’ll likely leave with a tan. Maybe visit this one twice.
The Washington Valley Ice Festival is always way bigger than I think it’s going to be. I did a show there last year, and remember looking out at this sea of faces and thinking, “Wow, where did you all come from?” It’s always a well-run event that hides its size under the hardwood canopy of the state with the best license plate motto ever, “Climb free or die.” Well, not exactly, but the ice climbers in New England go hard, and have some of the best ice climbing anywhere in the world. Mount Washington is still the only place in the world where I’ve had to scuttle from rock to rock like a cockroach to keep from getting literally blown off the mountain; bring your goggles if you’re going up high, but you can also hide on the climbs in the beautiful woods. I cut my teeth in high school on New Hampshire ice climbs, and it’s good to see the festival going strong. Every climber should visit there at least once.
The Adirondacks Mountaineering Festival always surprises people who don’t know the east coast of the US; ice climbing in New York? There are mountains, not just Manhattan? But it’s really good ice climbing. If you only know one climber on the east coast that climber is probably Vinny, the affable owner of the Keene Valley Mountaineer; he’s an institution, and although I haven’t been to the fest for five or six years I always ask, “How’s Vinny?” when I hear someone talking about their trip. You will too – he sets the tone for the fest and it just permeates through it all. The fact is that the Adirondacks are one burly mountain range, and hide a truly endless quantity of high-quality ice climbs. New lines are always going in, and will be for generations. The convoluted terrain hides endless cliffs and gullies just waiting for exploration. Every climber should visit Keene Valley at least once.
And then there is Bozeman. It is probably the most “western alpine” of the festivals despite few of the routes being above treeline. The terrain is bigger, the approaches to the big rigs often longer, and the whole vibe is definitely more “mountaineer” than sunny sport climber. Hyalite Canyon, the home of the ice climbs, is a sort of giant western corral, full of bucking ice climbs, wild-west driving antics (cars regularly get thrown off the road and go exploring the woods), and climbers looking for–and finding–the ice motherlode. The event’s organizer, Joe Josephson, is a living legend in the ice and mountaineering world. His “Montana Style” filters through the event. He has a big, if occasionally rough smile, and makes everyone from novices to the elite feel welcome. Last year Conrad Anker helped organize a high-end competition. It was definitely Montana style, and certainly one of the wilder ice competitions I’ve ever done. Every climber should visit at least once.
The above are what I’d call the North American “Big Five,” but there are other great ice festivals around the world. One of my favorite European events is the L’Ice Climbing Ecrins. It is held in the Ecrins mountains in France, which are massive. At night a huge hall fills with climbers speaking French and 40 other languages, all feasting on some of the best food I have ever eaten at a festival. Best of all, on most days you can climb a grade six ice route in the morning and then yank on perfect limestone in the afternoon. Kandersteg in Switzerland is awesome as well. It has massive slide-shows, is well organized, huge fires, and drunk dancing! Every climber should visit these festivals at least once too.
There are also a dozen other smaller events around North America and the globe. For example, there is the Portillo Ice Festival. It is held at around 14,000 feet on the border between Chile and Argentina. Patrick Moore organizes a competition, slide shows, demos, and all things icy in a uniquely South American way. I really need to get back there, I just miss the wine, openness and joy people there bring to my favourite sport. And the Cody Ice Festival, can’t forget that one! Don Foote puts on a great event that you should really attend at least once…
In a perfect world I’d spend my year touring these events, seeing friends, climbing lots, and exploring new festivals and places through the global tribal gatherings that ice climbing festivals offer. Ice festivals are truly unique in the climbing world, and every climber should go…