Ice climbing is unforgiving sport

Posted: Wednesday, January 17, 2001

RED LODGE, Mont. (AP) -- It is a half-hour climb through dense, slender pines before Pete Shelley reaches the base of Rock Creek Falls.

He isn't even breathing hard when he pauses, his fit 47-year-old frame steadied by trekking poles.

A light frost clings to the underside of his dark mustache as he considers the falls before him. Frozen into a blue-green sheet, the falls snakes between boulder fields and rock cliff faces speckled with rust and bright lime-green lichen.

The frozen water looks like a smooth line of toothpaste squirted across the jagged, broken, angular country.

It is easy to be lulled by the soft tinkle of water under ice, the sigh of a cool breeze. But this can be a cruel place. The ice is hard. The falls is an unforgiving teacher. Only eight days earlier a Billings ice climber died from a fall here.

He studies the ice, looking for a clue to the accident, trying to impose some order on a chaotic event.

Shelley, a Red Lodge ice climber, knows firsthand how dangerous the Rock Creek Falls can be. Nineteen years ago, he came up to check out the falls for a climb and fell when his ice ax broke free. It was a 150-foot human toboggan ride he will never forget.

''Once you hit the ice and start sliding, there's no stopping. It's zero to 60 in no time,'' he said. ''I went head-first, tail-first, and when I landed I thought, 'That wasn't any fun.'''

While lying on the ice assessing his injuries, his dog came over and licked his face.

''I tried to get up and knew something was wrong.''

Shelley had fractured his right leg just below the knee. Alone and with nightfall quickly approaching, he realized he would have to hurry out.

He had just read about a British climber who had broken two ankles after a fall on a Himalayan climb and had to crawl for three days to get out. Fortified with the knowledge that his trek was much shorter, Shelley slid on his rear to the bottom of the ice floe, then broke off a large tree branch.

Hopping and using the branch as a crutch, Shelley made it the 1,500 vertical feet back down to his car.

His car had a manual transmission, so to operate the brake he had to lift his right leg up with his hand. Slowly he navigated back to Red Lodge and a clinic.

''It just wasn't my time,'' Shelley said of the fall that could easily have been fatal. ''I've never gone solo again. It's not worth it. I kind of wised up after that.''

Shelley is one of a small cadre of climbers who dare to scale frozen waterfalls. It is a dangerous sport with little room for error.

In a two-week stretch in December, three climbers were killed in the region.

Christopher Allen, 30, of Billings fell to his death on Dec. 23 at Rock Creek Falls. And on Dec. 10, Robert Tribble, 43, of Cody, Wyo., and Duane Monte, 50, of Bend, Ore., fell to their deaths from a frozen falls -- named High on Boulder -- southwest of Cody.

The deaths have been a serious blow to a relatively small community of climbers. But the dramatic improvement in equipment -- such as ice axes and the ice-pick-like crampons that fasten onto boots -- have made the sport easier to learn.

With the growing popularity of indoor climbing walls, more people are gravitating to rock climbing and then to ice climbing.

''The advent of easy-access ice in Colorado has spawned interest and the gear has gotten really good,'' said Rob Hess, of Jackson Hole Mountain Guides, in Jackson, Wyo. ''We get more and more interest all the time.''

The causes of ice-climbing accidents are often difficult to determine.

Gordon Warren of the Shoshone National Forest said of the Cody climbers' deaths: ''I don't know that we'll ever know. We think they got to the top and one of them slipped. It's definitely a dangerous sport. These guys are taking a chance and they know it.

But Bob Newsome, owner of Sunlight Sports in Cody and a veteran climber, said he's more concerned about the danger to his son when he learns how to drive a car than when he's ice climbing.

''I've fallen. You are going to fall. It's a case of minimizing that,'' he said. ''I don't believe it's more dangerous than rock climbing.''

Maybe Newsome's right.

After all, the American Alpine Club reported only 25 climbing deaths in Montana, Idaho and South Dakota between 1951 and 1999. Wyoming saw 107 deaths during the same period.

Nationwide, there have ben 1,194 climbing fatalities in the United States and 259 in Canada over the 48 years that records have been kept.

Most of the accidents occur on rock and snow-- not ice.

But why climb at all? Newsome said if you have to ask, you probably won't understand.

Part of the allure is doing something different, something few others can or will do, he said.

Some people are out to conquer, others to explore and some to seek the adrenaline spike that can ''shoot through the roof.''

Shelley said the sport also is aesthetically pleasing.

''It's not a totally crazy adrenaline sport,'' he said of climbing frozen waterfalls. ''You're also in some beautiful places.''

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