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A SEVENTY-FOOT WALL of ice is beautiful. It spills from the heights, forming blunt arrowheads, ragged beards, and smooth tongues; time, miraculously frozen. It hangs blue in moonlight, glittering bright in the light of day. Its beauty makes your heart ache, and if you lean close you might hear a whisper.
What are you doing alive if you don’t go and try?
It’s one thing to wax poetic about ice; it’s quite another matter to climb up the stuff. But here at the Pioneer Trails District Winter Klonderee at Camp Alexander—tucked into the folds of the Pike National Forest some 45 miles west of Colorado Springs—that’s what 72 Scouts are itching to do. Plenty more would like to have a go, but with just a single day to work with, slots filled up several weeks before the February event.
Tomorrow will see sled racing, ice fishing, hockey, tomahawk throwing, curling, a hike to the 9,230-foot summit of Blue Mountain, and camping under the stars. But there’s no questioning the marquee event.
“The ice climbing is the headliner for my boys,” says Ryan Hume, Varsity Coach for Troop 93 in Parker, Colo. “Boys like to be outside doing things they’ve never tried, and this is certainly something they’ve never tried.”
David Lowe, assistant Scoutmaster of Troop 654 in Parker and former Pioneer Trails District camping chairman, knows it’s important to keep Scouts on their toes with new challenges. “We create our own events for every camporee and klonderee,” he says Friday night. “That way, it’s always fresh for the boys. We’ve never had an ice climb before,” Lowe chuckles. “Officially.”
John Bowerman’s explanation is even better. “It takes a little bit of crazy,” says Bowerman, a Camp Alexander staffer. “But Scouting’s about being a little bit of crazy.”
Officially, credit for Camp Alexander’s ice wall goes to Sean Holveck and Joe Brandon. One of several climbing directors at the camp, Holveck broached the idea of ice climbing at Camp Alexander almost a decade ago. Camp Alexander, Holveck notes, is graced with a north-facing rock wall. Because it’s shaded during the day, it’s ideal for ice climbing. Brandon, the camp’s program and facilities manager, and also a climber, took matters into his own hands in the fall of 2010.
“I just executed by dragging out 400 feet of hose,” Brandon says of his do-it-yourself solution. But it wasn’t quite that simple. After extensive research, which focused primarily on the construction of the Ouray Ice Park in Colorado, the duo spent about two years testing various spraying devices until the perfect combination of mist and freezing temperatures produced the ice wall.
That first winter, Camp Alexander instructors offered ice climbing to any Scout group that showed up each Saturday. From the start there was undeniable fervor, enough that Camp Alexander continued the Saturday program in 2011 and 2012. Brandon and his team also added a beginner’s course and an ice version of the Climbing merit badge to the camp’s 2012 lineup from mid-January to March.
INSIDE CAMP ALEXANDER’S Elks Lodge on Friday night, Scout leaders go over guidelines for the following day’s events. Outside, beneath a smiling quarter moon, Scouts’ tents glow as lights-out time nears. A sea of LED headlamps jitterbug with anticipation.
Saturday morning dawns crisp, clear, and—by Colorado standards—unseasonably warm, with temps in the 40s. This dampens a bit the Klonderee’s official title, “Blue Mountain Ice Xtreme,” but winter has done its work, laying a sheet of ice 12 inches thick across a small lake inside the camp.
Several hundred Scouts (the Klonderee’s official tally is 450) scurry toward the opening event: the Iditarod Sled Race. The race consists of sledding across the icy lake and then charging into the woods to find small flags.
Sled design and strategy takes imagination and hard work—the chaotic scene makes the actual Iditarod in Alaska look tame by comparison. As the sleds, dragged by charging Scouts, careen across the ice, one Scouter observes, “I can see why they need helmets.”
The enthusiasm is both palpable and contagious. Over at the ice wall, Scouts are already crawling, with varying degrees of success, up the slippery face.
INSTRUCTORS AND GUIDES who are boring and blasé? Not here. Dana Evert, assistant Scoutmaster of Troop 280 in Parker, fits the Scouts with helmets and climbing harnesses, and attaches crampons to the Scouts’ stiff-toed boots. He just about leaps out of his own boots when describing what he sees.
“Look at that!” he says, gesturing toward the ice wall. “They’ll go back to school on Monday, and it’ll be, ‘What did you do this weekend?’ ‘Oh video games. I got to Level 45. What did you do?’ ‘Oh, I climbed an ice wall.’”
The Scouts, in turn, display varying degrees of nervousness and excitement. Understandable, given the task ahead of them. The ice wall resembles a boot—a short, vertical section of about 30 feet followed by a 45-degree slope, and then the wall goes straight up. The lower section lends itself to beginners, while the upper section challenges intermediate climbers.
After Evert helps fit them with gear, each Scout grabs a pair of ice axes and waits patiently for a brief primer. Though the wall is expansive, safety rules dictate that just two Scouts ascend at a time. Each Scout is hooked to an instructor, who belays them from the ground, holding the rope taut in case of a fall.
As the Scouts climb, front-pointing into the ice, Scouters offer advice disguised as easy banter: “Nice, easy swing; there you go!” “Kick your feet in like you’re kicking a soccer ball. Good.” “Now reach up to your left, and swing a little harder.” “Don’t hit a bulge, hit a depression.” “Use your feet! Ice climbing’s not about your arms. Gooooood!”
Slowly, the Scouts climb up the ice like cautious praying mantises. Ice chips fall like sparkling shards of glass. On the ground, waiting Scouts crane their necks and shout encouragement (“Nathan, you’re a monster!”).
On the wall, climbers motivate themselves with mutters of their own. “Just a small slip … it’s OK. Yeah, I’m doing pretty good.”
You don’t get a measure of a boy—or of a man—until he finds himself in a tough situation. And this qualifies. This isn’t the climbing wall you haul out at an 8-year-old’s birthday party. Plenty of Scouts don’t make it to the top of the wall, and the ice doesn’t just make your heart ache. It makes your body—toes to legs to forearms to fingers—ache, too.
TODD LIEBBE WATCHES his 13-year-old son, Quinn, who is at the minimum age for the climbing wall, make his way up. Todd plans to try it after Quinn. Why? “I like to give my kids something to laugh at periodically,” he says.
Quinn hauls himself up the short steep, makes his measured way along the angled slope, and then, dad cheering him on, proceeds doggedly up the sheer wall. His arms shake. His legs follow suit. Three-quarters of the way up the face, his shoulders slump.
“I’m done,” he says quietly.
For a moment the still morning considers this fact. Then Monique Ekker, the instructor belaying his rope, says, “I can give you a break. Just relax. I’ll hold you with the rope.”
“OK,” Quinn mutters.
“OK break or OK done?” Todd asks.
“Break,” he says. And after a brief rest, his shoulders straighten. Reaching out, he drives one ice axe into the wall.
His father breathes again.
“Looking good, Quinn!”
Quinn pushes up, a slow kick to the ice, and up again, and then reaches the top. “Now I’m done.” Back on the ground, Quinn explains what made him try again. “The break gave me more power,” he says. The encouragement from his dad, helped too.
Speaking of his dad, Todd makes it to the top, but halfway up the wall his shoulders slump, too.
“It’s a lot harder than it looks,” Ekker says.
“Come on, Dad!” Quinn yells. “Good job!”
Who knows from where Todd draws his strength, but he kicks hard at the wall, and the strikes of his ice axe echo with authority. With a series of hearty grunts, he climbs to the top of the wall. When he reaches the finish line, his son gives him the best reward a dad could want. “Wooooo! Yea! That was awesome!” Quinn shouts.
Todd wears a 13-year-old’s smile when his feet touch the ground.
AWAY FROM THE ICE WALL, Scouts and Scouters enjoy other winter events. Competitive games of ice hockey on the frozen lake feature Scouts swatting madly at a wayward puck with brooms. And near the curling area, boys pull glistening brown and rainbow trout from holes in the ice.
Over at the hatchet-throwing arena, Evan Buckwalter, the Pioneer Trails District camping chairman overseeing the klonderee, explains the 10-step rule during a quick break. A Scoutmaster since 1971 and an avid climber (he summitted the last of Colorado’s 54 14,000-foot peaks on his 54th birthday), Buckwalter has ushered several-hundred Scouts up to various summits. So he knows something about helping Scouts reach the top of, say, an ice wall.
He doesn’t know how many Scouts have reached their goals with his help, but the ones he remembers most are those who needed someone to walk with them, step by step.
That’s where his 10-step rule comes in: Take 10 steps, then rest for 10 breaths, and take 10 more. Says Buckwalter: “You can get any young man to the top of the mountain if you try hard enough.”
Magazine journalist Ken McAlpine also has authored Off Season: Discovering America on Winter’s Shore and Islands Apart: A Year on the Edge of Civilization.
JOE BRANDON’S ICE‑CLIMBING TIPS
- Find a certified instructor (IFMGA, PCIA, and AMGA are some of the first-rate certification agencies), preferably someone who knows the area where you plan to climb.
- Wear sturdy boots.
- Dress in layers for cold weather.
- Use proper ice tools and safety gear (especially, wear a helmet).
- Use the tips of the ice tools when climbing.
- Look for natural holds for the ice tools and your crampons (depressions in the ice versus bulges).
- Use your arms to keep you on the ice.
- Use your legs to propel you up the ice.
- Always maintain three points of contact on the ice.
- Relax and enjoy the climb … it will soon melt away.