When you think about ice climbing — if you’ve ever actually thought about ice climbing, that is — images come to mind of climbers moving in tandem on intricate ice formations while immersed in the beauty and silence of nature.
That image will get turned on its head this weekend at Denver’s Civic Center when more than 100 of the world’s best ice climbers compete in front of thousands of spectators on man-made walls at the Ice Climbing World Cup Finals – the first of its kind in a major American city.
Of course, the notion of ice climbing may seem like an oxymoron — especially if you’ve fallen on ice in your driveway recently. And in one of the two events that will be contested Saturday and Sunday, participants will actually be climbing a wooden wall using ice-climbing equipment and ice-climbing techniques rather than grappling spider-like over actual frozen water.
The Denver event will mark the sixth and final World Cup competition of the season, so titles will be on the line for climbers who have been on the circuit since early January, traveling to Korea, China, Switzerland, Italy and France. Previous U.S. World Cup ice-climbing events have been held in Durango (2016) and Bozeman, Mont. (2014-15).
The American Alpine Club, headquartered in downtown Golden, is organizing the event. The AAC’s goal is to expose people to the sport, which proponents hope will be included in the Winter Olympics, and to promote the development of America’s competitive ice climbers.
“It’s got to be one of the most dynamic and athletic endeavors I have ever witnessed,” said AAC chief executive Phil Powers. ”Bringing that to the center of Denver and allowing people to witness it and be amazed by it is just going to be an extraordinary thing. It’s about the athletes, and our responsibility, but it’s also about sharing this with one of the most amazing high-altitude outdoor communities in the United States. People are going to love it.”
Visit Denver is organizing a Winter Festival associated with the event at which visitors can try an assortment of participatory activities including ax throwing, human curling, an ice maze, fir-tree throwing on a target range, arm wrestling, a slingshot snowball game, and a fat tire bike course. Other diversions will include food trucks, an ice bar and beer garden, music and fire pits.
“We wanted to put on something complementary to the competition because it does last for a fairly long time, all day Saturday and Sunday,” said Justin Bresler, Visit Denver’s vice president of marketing. “I think it’s a great celebration of winter sports.”
This won’t won’t be the first time Civic Center park was transformed into a playground for elite winter athletes. In 2011, it was the scene of a two-night ski and snowboard “big air” competition with a ramp that soared 106 feet in the air. An estimated 14,000 spectators attended. That event charged admission, but the event this weekend is free.
Two climbing walls will be built, attached to a superstructure of scaffolding. One, covered with actual ice, will be about 40 feet high and will be used for speed climbing. The other, 60 feet tall, will resemble an indoor climbing wall made out of plywood planks. Climbers will be wearing boots with crampons, as they do on ice, but they will be kicking the front points of their crampons into the wood. They will be using “dry” ice tools, similar in appearance to what they would use on ice, but with picks designed to snag on holds fixed to the wall. Ropes will be in place for protection against falls.
“We’re working with four different companies to build the structure, because nothing like it has ever been built in the United States,” said Vickie Hormuth, director of strategic partnerships for the AAC. “It’s never been engineered anywhere the way we’re engineering it, because we are doing this in a metropolitan area where the weather is not dependable. Most other World Cups are up high in the mountains, so they can depend on the weather a little bit more. They climb on blocks of ice or an ice flow that they’ve created with a hose.”
To make it work, the ice wall for speed climbing will be refrigerated. The ice will be formed around a structure laying flat on the ground, and when it’s finished, it will be hoisted into a vertical position and secured to the superstructure it shares with the lead climbing wall.
“We’re building the ice on the ground because we need it to be as vertical and as flat of a surface as possible,” Hormuth said. “It’s not like it will be free-standing ice. It will be backed by metal within this big frame. We are the first people using this technology for a World Cup ice climbing event. (It) has been used for other ice events across the world, so we’re sort of translating this technology into vertical ice climbing.”
The speed climbers will scamper up the ice wall in a matter of seconds. Ascents in lead climbing are longer, more complex, and involve overhangs that require great dexterity and spider-like moves to negotiate.
The American Alpine Club dates back to 1902, and since 1993 its offices have been in a 95-year-old building in downtown Golden that previously housed Golden High School and Junior High. After deciding to move here from New York City, the AAC renovated the building, which it shares with the Colorado Mountain Club, the American Mountaineering Museum and the AAC library, which was established in 1916.
The climbing will be live-streamed at americanalpineclub.org/watch-ice-climbing.