It is a sport that began out of necessity. On high mountain peaks, those seeking summits faced rock, snow and a medium of unique challenges: Ice.
Ice climbing grew into a sport of its own, luring climbers to the beautiful danger of sharp edges and moving on a landscape alive, growing, shrinking, strengthening and atrophying by the degree and the hour. When it’s cold, ice is brittle. When it warms it becomes soft and stickier. On cold nights, when temperatures drop below freezing, ice can evaporate. Every climb you think you’ve mastered can change the next day.
The risks are high when climbing ice. And in the Tetons, even getting to ice climbs can be a challenge with long drives and slogging approach hikes. But now there is another option.
On December 22, ice climbing in Jackson became a lot more accessible. The Teton Ice Park opened at Snow King Resort offering no-approach urban ice.
Ice is striking to see and scary to climb, said Christian Santelices, a mountain guide and owner of the new Teton Ice Park in Jackson. It is a sport requiring mental and physical stamina, as well as a mastering of a variety of tools.
Santelices wanted to open the sport of ice climbing to newcomers, while also providing more winter work for area guides like himself.
Santelices also wanted a place where people could train for ice climbing, getting in multiple routes in one session to practice technique, without the arduous approach in the Tetons that can require full-day commitments. He also wanted to create a space where some of the risks of the sport are mitigated. Climbers are all top roped, meaning a belay system can catch them if they fall. Santelices clears the routes, breaking precarious icicles that could fall climbers as they ascend.
Even so, the clatter of ice chunks falling echoed at the park December 23.
“It’s not a safe medium,” Santelices said. “This is not a safe place.”
But that is perhaps part of the appeal; conquering fear, managing the risk.
Dave Wade, who works for Jackson Hole Mountain Guides, came to the park, where he hopes to teach ice climbing lessons, the day after it opened to check out the quality of climbing. The ice was steep and the park allowed him to easily jump from one climb to the next, similar to a climbing gym. The park will allow Wade to push himself and progress.
“There’s no way around ice climbing being dangerous,” Wade said. “But if you can add in the factor of being strong and confident, it helps a lot. It goes a long way to you having a successful climb.”
About 20 years ago, a friend introduced Santelices to ice climbing in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California. Santelices wanted to be a multi-faceted climber who could pull from a quiver of skills to climb mountains that required proficiency on ice and rock. Ice climbing relies on some of the same skills as climbing rock, but offers new challenges, like maneuvering crampons and wielding axes. The first major climb Santelices attempted after learning to ice climb was the Maestri Route on Cerro Torre in Argentina. The ice climbing section wound through ice mushrooms plastered to the side of the mountain. It remains one of the most amazing places Santelices said he’s ever been and it was a climb where he needed all the skills he’d learned. He was hooked on the sport.
Santelices opened the Teton Ice Park at Grand Targhee Resort near Alta in 2009. It was open for two seasons, but logistical issues, including access to water, were expensive challenges.
When the opportunity came up to open the ice park at Snow King, it seemed a better fit. There was easier access to water, with a fire hydrant atop a large wall ideal for climbing. The set-up allows for more climbs and safer viewing.
It took more than 250,000 gallons of water and about 10 days to grow the ice with the warm temperatures in Jackson in early December.
Growing the jagged ice was trial and error. Santelices moved shower heads atop the wall to try to control the spray. All of the pillars are self-supported as opposed to stuck and leaning on the wall. It makes them safer to climb. He has already decided ways he’ll tweak the process next year, using hay bales at the bottom to create a natural ramp on the routes.
The park offers a mix of options, from beginner climbs that allow for stemming, where a climber’s feet can brace against two different faces, as well as pillars with routes that rise straight up. There are 11 routes in the park with variations on each. Ice climbing routes are rated on a system using the term “water ice,” or WI, followed by a number. The most difficult level of ice climbing completed is a WI 7. While not officially rated, Santelices estimates the most difficult climb in the park is probably a WI 5, if a person was leading. The tallest climb is 40-feet high. Santelices rents gear and he, along with other guides, provides lessons for all levels. People can also climb on their own after passing safety checks with an on-site guide.
Garrick Hart, a high school teacher and an Exum Mountain Guide in the summer, climbed the day the park opened and came back the next day with two of his children. All three of Hart’s children — 14 year old twins and a 12-year-old — ice climb. Although they are at different levels of ability, they can all go to the park and climb together, Hart said.
The Park also allows Hart training and practice before heading into Grand Teton National Park to climb. Leading ice climbing in the Tetons is dangerous and difficult. The more practice and training he gets, the safer and stronger he is when he heads out to tackle large climbs. The ice park had only been open two days and Hart had already completed more pitches of ice climbing than he had all last season in the Tetons.
“I think this is the best ice climbing in the Tetons right now,” Santelices said to Hart.
Hart paused to consider it.
“It’s definitely the best approach.”
For hours, pricing and more information visit the Teton Ice Park’s web site.
— “Peaks to Plains” is a blog focusing on Wyoming’s outdoors and communities. Kelsey Dayton is a freelance writer based in Lander. She has been a journalist in Wyoming for seven years, reporting for the Jackson Hole News & Guide, Casper Star-Tribune and the Gillette News-Record. Contact Kelsey at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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