Silo Ice Climbing

Make the best of a cold March with a spring break staycation featuring Himalayan-style climbing in the comfort of your local barnyard.

STORY BY EMMA LOCKWOOD  |  PHOTOS BY PHILLIP HARDER

As all Iowans know, necessity is the mother of invention.  A covered bridge is safer in the snow.  A reservoir is a great replacement for a lake.  A grain silo is all you need to train for an ascent of Everest.  Wait. What?

The story of silo ice climbing is as unlikely as it is unexpected. In 2001, Don Briggs, a professor at the University of Northern Iowa was plowing a cornfield for his friend, Jim Budlong. As he ran the tractor back and forth along the horizon his thoughts wandered in a manner familiar to anyone who has worked a field. Briggs is an experienced mountain climber and had completed expeditions to Alaska, South America and the Himalayas.  As he worked, his thoughts drifted off to the high alpine walls he had experienced in his travels.

How Silo Ice Climbing Got its Start

Ice_Box_0It was the end of the farming season and the fields needed to be turned one last time before the temperatures dropped and the landscape was blanketed in snow.  As the sun set, a group of grain silos suddenly lit up along the horizon.  The sight reminded Briggs of the view of so many other rock walls that he had visited - a sleek, gray spire rising up against gravity and challenging the landscape with its boldness.

On the next pass, in the habit typical of mountain climbers, Briggs began to search for a weakness along the silo’s surface that might allow an ascent - something climbers refer to as “a line.”  Then, like a modern day Don Quixote, who saw giants where there were only windmills, Briggs imagined a mountain.  With him standing on top.

Concluding that climbing the structure dry, in the fall, wouldn’t provide a great enough challenge, he began to wonder what the difficulty would be if the silo was covered in ice - like a frozen waterfall.

“The invention of the sport of ice climbing is generally credited to Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia,” Matt Boelman said.  Boelman is a local ice climber who was part of a team of four Iowans who set off to climb to the summit of Mount Everest in 2011.

“Prior to starting Patagonia, Chouinard owned a company that manufactured specialized ice axes, boot spikes called ‘crampons,’ and ice screws that were specially designed for climbing frozen waterfalls.”

“For a long time, frozen ice was only climbed in its natural form, deep in the wilderness and high on alpine walls,” Boelman continued.  “Then as the sport expanded, people began to seek out ice climbing in less remote locations that could be made safe for training.  Ice farming quickly followed.”

After doing a little research and consulting a few structural engineers, Briggs saw promise for farming ice in Iowa.  After mastering the technique that winter, Briggs began offering a class on basic ice climbing at the University of Northern Iowa.

“Nobody really knew what to expect,” Briggs recalled. “But we knew it was going to be fun and we knew that it was going to be a challenge, so the students were all over it.”

Since that first season more than a decade ago, the course has continued to grow in popularity while UNI remains the only state university in the country to offer ice climbing as part of their regular curriculum.

Every class starts in the barnyard at the base of the silo and goes from there.  The climbers get outfitted with rental equipment in a small warming house next to the silo where they are fitted with ice axes, crampons and a climbing harness.  Outside the climber is then tied to a rope that runs to an anchor at the top of the silo and then back to a partner, who belays the rope to prevent the climber from falling.

Taking the Ice Climbing Experience Public

“People think that it looks like a dangerous sport,” says Briggs.  “But in reality it is far less dangerous than the drive that people make to get here!  In fact, in 15 years, we have never had a serious accident.”

After a few years of offering the ice climbing seminar through UNI, Briggs began to offer the experience to the public.

“The first time I climbed silo ice, I couldn’t believe how difficult it was,” said Boelman. “On most mountains the ice forms up at a slight incline, sort of like a staircase.  However, on the ice silo, it’s at least vertical and can often be overhanging.  It’s definitely some of the toughest ice around.”

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Boelman has what many would describe as a love-love relationship with ice.  As the Vice President of Perficut Site Management, Boelman oversees the company’s snow and ice management services.

“I work ice and I play ice,” says Boelman with a smile.

After a couple of years of training for ice climbing in Iowa and elsewhere, Boelman joined an expedition to climb to the summit of Mount Everest in Nepal.  The 29,035-foot peak is the higest in the world and takes more than two months to ascend.

“I can’t say that climbing Everest is like climbing an ice silo in Iowa,” laughed Boelman.  “But I will admit that it was great preparation.”

“Whether you’re trying a new experience locally or taking on a life-long goal after years of training, I’ve always felt that the most important thing in life is to reach for big things and work hard to make them reality.”

Learn more at SiloIceClimbing.com

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