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Ice climbing: Peak performance

Don Foote and Travis Hannon, both of Cody, reach the top of a frozen waterfall during last year’s ice rescue evacuation class. Don Foote and Travis Hannon, both of Cody, reach the top of a frozen waterfall during last year’s ice rescue evacuation class. Tribune file photo by Carla Wensky

Water Fall Ice Festival brings climbers to Cody

Jim Shimberg has been waiting for this weekend for a year.

A climber for more than three decades, he set eyes on Cody for the first time last winter when he came to town for the annual Water Fall Ice Festival. Unfortunately, a broken leg suffered in the weeks prior to the festival prevented him from even venturing out.

“I didn’t have a chance to climb,” Shimberg said. “In fact, I never even got the chance to go see it.”

The “it” would be the fabled South Fork valley, home to one of the highest concentrations of natural climbable ice found anywhere in the nation. It would be the reason why Shimberg is setting aside his life as a private climbing guide on the East Coast and flying from New Hampshire to Cody this weekend to participate in the latest edition of the community’s annual ice climbing festival.

“The South Fork is one of the best places in the country to go climbing. That’s the reputation it has,” Shimberg said of the locale. “I hadn’t heard about it until three or four years ago, but when I did, it was people telling me how wonderful the ice was, how amazing it was and that sort of thing. When you hear that from other climbers, it makes an impression.”

Enough of an impression that when Sterling Ropes offered him a chance to attend as a technical representative for the company, he jumped at the opportunity. This year, the festival will be just one of three western climbing festivals he attends.

“Cody is just kind of a down-to-earth festival,” Shimberg said. “It isn’t fancy. It just is what it is and that makes it the genuine thing. The festival isn’t some big, massive enterprise, and that’s part of the allure. It’s grass roots, not a big blown up competition. It’s just me and Joe Neighbor out there climbing next to each other and having a good time.”

Shimberg’s passion for climbing has taken him around the globe. Last month, he was in Morocco. China, Thailand, Canada and Spain are also countries he’s traveled to recently as a guide. He’s also climbed a wide array of locations throughout the United States. Despite that experience, he’s still excited to get his first taste of South Fork ice.

“It’s not for the weak of heart,” Shimberg says of the South Fork. “You have to hike in just to get to the climbs, and in some cases that can be an adventure all by itself. That’s just the way it is in the wild west. It’s part of the deal and I’m excited to come out and be part of it.”

Shimberg was introduced to the sport of climbing in his early 20s. Harboring a love for camping, hiking and just about anything that involved the outdoors, he decided to give climbing a try.

He fell in love with the sport and has never looked back.

“I started working for a climbing shop in Manchester and then at some point I said to myself, hey, I should start taking people out and make a little money doing something I love to do. I still love it. I love to guide. It’s like every trip I’m living vicariously through the experience of the people I’m climbing with.”

Like many ice climbers, Shimberg’s ice climbing experience started on solid rock and later morphed to life on the ice.

“To be honest, I was just looking for something to do in the winter and skiing got expensive,” Shimberg jokes. “Ice is just a different medium. It’s fun to climb on a frozen waterfall.”

Shimberg will conduct a clinic or two while in Cody. He’ll work to get the word out about the products he represents to the climbing community. He’s also scheduled to give a short slide presentation to showcase climbing opportunities in the Northeastern United States during one of the festival’s evening activities.

“You support these festivals because they’re run by a small group of people who are trying to introduce the activity to the area,” said Shimberg.

And for that reason, Shimberg is hopeful many new to the sport of ice climbing will find their way to Cody this weekend to check out the festival. His advice — don’t be afraid to start small.

“People come to these festivals without owning any stuff, so don’t feel like you need to go out and buy everything all at once — you won’t need it,” he said. “Get a harness and a helmet. Check out a couple tools and some crampons for your feet and don’t worry about the new and improved model. Just go out there, learn to belay. Enjoy the outdoors. Don’t get wound up in the details of the equipment. It’ll still be there when you figure out what you want.”

The Water Fall Ice Festival begins Friday night and runs through Monday in Cody.

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