“This is like the mecca for the United States,” said Dave Collins of Helena, Mont., early Saturday morning.
Bundled in an orange hooded jacket, Dave prepared a pancake breakfast for himself and his wife, JaLina, who was just returning from a walk down to the river. The Collinses drove down Thursday to set up camp on the South Fork, putting themselves within a short drive to more than 20 frozen waterfalls.
The cascading pillars of ice were the targets of dozens of climbers ranging from young to old and novice to expert during this year’s Cody Ice Festival. In its 15th year, the annual festival is renowned for offering professional clinics and some of the best ice climbing in the lower 48.
“The terrain up here is pretty unforgiving,” Dave said, who was still weighing the day’s options.
On Friday the Collinses ascended “Bozo’s Revenge,” a fall that can cause soreness just on sight.
“Plus I hauled his backpack and my backpack!” JaLina said in between laughs and bites of pancake.
Bozo’s Revenge is a fall that looks as if its left side has recently broken away — not the most reassuring site to climbers.
Even though Dave has been ice climbing for six years, the lunacy and danger of the sport hasn’t been lost on him. When he was first propositioned with the opportunity to strap on crampons (spiked cleat-like boot-attachments used for walking and climbing on ice) and defy gravity, logic and his better judgment, he thought, “No way, that’s only for crazy people.”
But now ice climbing trips to Cody and Bozeman (where Dave is originally from) have become regular adventures.
“This (festival) is pretty wild,” Dave said.
The couple, still unsure if they would spend their Saturday climbing or recovering, focused on breakfast and the passing family of Bighorn sheep snacking on the foliage just a few yards away from their picnic table. Thanks to the extended Presidents’ Day weekend, the Collinses could afford to devote a day to the calmer aspects of the South Fork before proceeding with their plan to scale Broken Ribs, an ominously named fall that couldn’t discourage Dave and JaLina.
“Any day you’re out climbing with your wife is a blessing,” Dave said, flipping his last pancake.
A short walk from the Collinses’ campsite was another breakfast scene, this one consisting of five residents of Rapid City, S.D., that met each other through the close-knit rock climbing community of the Black Hills.
Nineteen-year-old Jack Torness stood at the end of a picnic table, cutting an avocado into slices before adding them, along with greens and spices, to a skillet of scrambled eggs. About an hour from a decent restaurant, Torness was cooking a breakfast more intricate and nutritious than what millions of Americans prepare for themselves each day from the comfort of their own homes.
“You have to figure out a way to eat well,” Torness said, stirring the eggs with a plastic camping utensil.
Torness, who learned to rock climb at Wyoming’s Devils Tower, said he was introduced to ice climbing by an ex-girlfriend’s dad. Now two years later, he says he goes up as much as possible, getting valuable reps that have left him experienced beyond his years of climbing and existence.
Presumably waiting for breakfast to be done, Jerry Winterenter and Robbie Frieel sat on opposite sides of the table, adjusting and sharpening their crampons for the day’s climb up Bozo’s Revenge.
Saturday was the group’s third day down the South Fork. The quintet arrived 5 a.m. Thursday and had spent their first two days climbing Cabin Fever and Wyoming Wave, the latter of which Chris Pelczarski called “one of the nicer routes I’ve ever done.”
Pelczarski, 30, is a writer and photographer for Black Hills Faces magazine, though he said he doesn’t mix work with his passion for climbing because he would always rather strap on his boots than his camera.
Pelczarski might actually be better known for a story of which he was the subject, not the author. On Feb. 13, 2012 Pelczarski performed an act that earned him the (not entirely accurate) moniker of “the naked ice climber.” With his feet the only part of his body unexposed, Pelczarski climbed Bridal Veil Falls in South Dakota’s Spearfish Canyon, attracting a few shocked head turns and a verbal warning from the National Forest Service.
This year marked the third trip he and Winterenter have climbed together during the festival.
The group hiked two and a half miles — “It’s not the first time I’ve been lost out here,” Winterenter said — on its way to Bozo’s Revenge. Group members returned to their minivan (a practical, if not usual vehicle for outdoor sports) around 3:30 p.m. Torness and Frieel sat on the van’s cargo area, resting their bodies. The accomplished crew had five hours to kill before heading to Cody for the night’s festivities. Perhaps the 24-pack of Coors Light and bottle of Red Label scotch whiskey helped pass the time.
Both the Collinses and the Rapid City crew were climbing independently of the 24 clinics offered during the Ice Festival’s three days. The clinics, led by ice axe-wielding veterans, give less-experienced climbers a chance to learn the ropes.
Cody’s Jennifer Pollock, who works as a surgical technician, got her first-ever taste of ice climbing Saturday when she went to Three Fingers along with 16 other beginners and clinic leader (and event organizer) Don Foote.
“I was very nervous before I left,” said Pollock, who is no fan of heights. “The fear of falling, the fear of ice breaking. But once I started doing it, I felt real safe.”
Pollock originally planned to tag along with the clinic only to take photos. But when offered the chance to throw on some gear and give it a shot, Pollock pushed aside her nerves. Being part of a large group of other, equally nervous climbers helped Pollock gather her courage.
“It was just such a rush. Just seeing their faces when they came down and how excited they were. That’s when I knew I had to try it,” she said.
Pollock has some rock climbing experience and said ice climbing is easier in some aspects because you can create your own path up the face you are ascending.
It wasn’t until Pollock admired what she accomplished that her nerves crept back in.
“I’m not a fan of heights, but I’ve been trying to overcome it,” she said. “It didn’t really bother me until I got to the top and I looked down.”
But despite her phobia, Pollock said she is already planning her next ice climbing trip.
“I’m not a cold-weather person, per se, but that was totally worth it.”
Like many of the event’s participants, Pollock concluded her Saturday at the Cody Auditorium, where climbers and locals looking to socialize mixed for a night of music, food, games and drinks.
Jalan Crossland of Ten Sleep performed his organic brand of bluegrass and country while those in attendance treated themselves to the hoppy delights offered by New Belgium Brewery.
“That was a blast,” Pollock said. “The food was excellent.”
Hundreds of T-shirts, water bottles, backpacks, paintings, photographs, goggles, hats, jackets, and much more were given away as raffle prizes and silent auction items. The cheapest item of the night was a T-shirt given to anyone able to muscle out three pull ups while hanging from two ice axes.
Foote thanked the event’s many sponsors, which helped provide gear, music, food and drink to the festival. More information can be found at www.southforkice.com.