Walking on water

Cold snap provides climbers with icy terrain to explore

Posted: Friday, January 16, 2004

JUNEAU Most of the time in Juneau, ice climbing requires walking to the Mendenhall Glacier and a bit of walking on ice before reaching safe crevasses to climb.

The cold snap that hit Juneau in the last two weeks has provided some more exciting options for Juneau's small ice climbing scene, though.

Waterfalls on the North Douglas Highway, near Eaglecrest Ski Area, on Blackerby Ridge and on Mount Juneau have frozen, providing ice climbers with ample opportunity to test their skills.

''Right now, the climbing is as good as anywhere you're going to find it,'' said Jason Fellman, who has climbed for 10 years, two of which have been in Juneau.

Glacier ice is a good place to learn the basics of ice climbing, many local climbers said. But to really understand the essence of the sport, climbing on waterfalls is essential.

''The waterfalls are more challenging, more beautiful,'' said Fellman. ''You have to pick your route and find places that are going to be good places for you ax. On the glacier you don't have to worry about that you can just close your eyes and swing.''

Becky Janes, who has been ice climbing for about 10 years and owns the adventure travel company Adventure Bound Alaska, has introduced several female rock climbers to the sport of ice climbing.

She's been out several times in the last few weeks, swinging her ice ax at ice formations off the Eaglecrest Road and in North Douglas.

Because she's climbing on ice, and not rock, the same formation will provide a totally different challenge on different days, Janes said.

''It's just beautiful,'' she said. ''It's always changing. Every year there's not going to be a route that's the same.''

Cheryl Levitt, who accompanied Janes on three climbing trips this week, has been climbing for about four years. Like many climbers, she started off borrowing other people's gear and just going ''along for the ride,'' she said. Now, she's learning to set up the rope systems that keep the climbing relatively safe.

She's also focused more on the form of her climbing and her endurance.

''My technique isn't very efficient so my forearms burn out,'' Levitt said.

Janes calls this the result of a ''grip of death'' that climbers use when they try to use their arms more than their legs. The Juneau ice climbing community is relatively small and fairly dispersed, said Bill Forrest, who has been climbing here for eight or nine years.

''I can name a half-dozen people who probably do it on a halfway regular basis,'' he said. ''It's not a big community because there's not a lot of places to do it. ... It's not like going to Colorado and seeing hundreds and hundreds of people out there.''

The small community can be to the climbers' advantage when the weather turns cold, Fellman said.

''In New Hampshire, where I climbed, sometimes you have to wait in line to get to a waterfall,'' he said. ''Here, you're climbing on ice that's never been climbed.''

A climb can get ''climbed out'' if too many people pick their way up it, Fellman said. Climbers can chip the ice away, leaving a brittle route with little ice to swing an ax into.

''I've never seen that happen here,'' Fellman said.

Christine Schmid is a reporter for the Juneau Empire.

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