Time Out: A Slippery Slope

Finding peace climbing on the ice

"Relaxing" seems like an odd word to describe clutching a pillar of ice 100 feet up. But for Chris Lohss, 36, ice climbing is the perfect escape from the stress of running a small business. "Up there, it is cold, it is beautiful, and it is quiet," says Lohss, whose Gallatin Gateway (Mont.) company, Lohss Construction, has about 25 employees and $10 million in revenues. "Slamming your tools into the ice is also a great way to relieve frustration."

Like rock climbers, ice climbers work with a partner to safely ascend a sloped, vertical, or overhanging wall. But where rock climbers rely on their hands and slipper-like shoes to finesse their way up a rock face, ice climbers use ice tools and crampons—spikes attached to the bottom of boots to prevent slipping—to pick their way up an ice formation.

The journey can be arduous, and that's much of the appeal. Climbers say the sensation of sinking an ice tool into a solid slab of blue ice is similar to hitting a golf ball just right or knocking a baseball out of the park. "Your tools become an extension of your hand," says Dick Jackson, an ice climbing guide and owner of Aspen Expeditions in Aspen, Colo. "It's kind of a Zen thing."

And if you use the proper technique—focusing on your feet and resisting the urge to muscle your way up—ice climbing can be as easy as climbing a steep ladder. Climbers fall all the time, but usually without consequence. There are many methods for protecting a climb. Assuming the terrain allows for it, the easiest way is to hike to the top of the climb and secure a rope there. Once this top rope is in place, the climber ties one end of the rope to his harness and his partner runs the other end through a belay—a device that acts as a break for the rope—attached to his harness. As the climber moves up the ice wall, the person "on belay" takes up slack in the rope to minimize any slip.

The best ice climbing is found in the Northeast, Rockies, and Canadian Rockies, where the combination of freezing temperatures and rocky terrain form slabs that can be climbed. Some areas, including the Ouray Ice Park 70 miles north of Durango, Colo., speed up the process by irrigating rock faces. Ouray also holds an annual ice-climbing festival, which includes competitions and clinics. Such clinics are a great way to see what the sport is all about or to hone climbing skills.

But if you are new to the sport, your best bet is to hire a professional guide who can literally show you the ropes. A private session, which includes equipment, ranges from about $300 to $500 a day. You can search for climbing guides who are certified by the American Mountain Guides Assn. (amga.com). The group doesn't have a specific designation for ice climbing, says Program Director Henry Beyer, but its alpine certification requires that guides know about winter climbs. Says Beyer: "You want someone who really understands what's safe."

You'll likely spend your first lesson getting comfortable with the equipment—which includes a harness, crampons, helmet, and tools—learning important safety measures, and practicing on terra firma. Before the day is over, you'll have the chance to step your way up a frozen staircase. If you never do it again, the memories, and the bragging rights, will still stick with you. But veterans say you may well get hooked. "Even if you've climbed in the same area year after year, it feels like a different climb each season because the ice changes so much," says Lohss. He started climbing 18 years ago and gets out at least 20 times each winter, sometimes using lights to climb at night. Says Lohss: "Anything to get my fix."

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