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The top destinations for ice climbing

Ice climbing is proving a popular choice of holiday activity for adventurous travelers. So where are the best places to do it? BD counts down the top ice climbing destinations

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As temperatures plummet, the temptation for many is to retreat to home comforts, restricting outside ventures to ones that are forced – such as going to work. But for some, freezing winter is the perfect opportunity to head out and find adventure, getting adrenaline pumping through those cold bodies.

While many winter-sport enthusiasts choose to ski, a growing number are strapping on hiking equipment and going in search of the nearest steep ice formation – glaciers, frozen waterfalls, and precarious, frosty rock edges.

For readers that aren’t yet experts on huge slabs of inclined ice, Business Destinations has compiled a list of the eight top destinations for ice climbing, and the varying difficulties of many of the best climbs.

Valdez
Alaska (Valdez-Cordova)
Frequently named the best destination in the US for ice climbing, the state of Alaska’s breathtaking Valdez region houses vast glaciers and mountains that tower out of the sea. The best climbing locations are Mineral Creek, Solomon Gulch, the Keystone Canyon, and the 17 Mile Wall, although the majority of these take less than a day to complete. Valdez has long been a popular destination for ice climbers, with roots stretching back to the 1970s when climbers discovered the attributes of Keystone Park. Since then, a community of ice climbers and other winter sports obsessives has grown here. The area records 300 inches of snow each year in the city, while just outside it gets much thicker, meaning all sorts of winter activities are perfectly catered for. It is now host to an annual ice climbing festival, which attracts thousands of enthusiasts. Other activities in the area include glacier hiking, sled trips, snowcat skiing, and heli-skiing in the nearby Chugach Mountains.

Yosemite
California (Yosemite National Park)

One of the lakes at California's Yosemite National Park
One of the lakes at California’s Yosemite National Park

California might not be the first place you think of when seeking icy cliffs, but the state’s Yosemite National Park boasts some of the world’s best. The Widow’s Tears is the longest continuous ice climb in the entire US mainland and takes 18 hours to complete. Other easier formations include the Silver Strand Falls, which has a 175m drop, or the 150m-high Upper Sentinel Falls. Writing in 1963, famed climber, businessman and environmentalist Yvon Chouinard stressed the importance of the national park to all climbers. “Yosemite climbing is the least known and understood, and yet one of the most important schools of rock climbing in the world today. It is a strange, passionate love that I feel for this valley. More than just climbing, it is a way of life,” he enthused.

Chouinard is believed to have invented the curved pick while climbing the Mendel Right route in 1966

Mammoth Lakes
California
Another snow-capped, mountainous location in California shows the state is not just sunny beaches, tech start-ups and desperate film stars. Mammoth Lakes is the best place from which to tackle the towering Sierra Mountains, Owens River Gorge or the large walls of nearby Yosemite National Park. The area is surrounded by steep, rugged masses of rock that are covered in sheets of ice during the winter months. Some of the most popular ice formations for experienced climbers include the 2,453m-high Deadman Summit, the Indiana Summit, the Geothermal Boulders, Rock Creek, the Buttermilk, and the remote Alabama Hills. Some consider the Lee Vining Canyon area the best place in California for ice climbing, which has plenty of schools for the less experienced climbers. Close to Mammoth Lakes are the world-renowned Mendel Couloir climbs, which sit either side of the north face of Mount Mendel. Chouinard is believed to have invented the curved pick while climbing the Mendel Right route in 1966.

Keene
New York (The Adirondack Wilderness)

A sign for New York's Whiteface Mountain
A sign for New York’s Whiteface Mountain

The largest wilderness on the east coast of the US, the Adirondack Mountains are an unusual formation to the northeast of Upstate New York. A perfect setting for busy big wigs on Wall Street keen for a bit of adventure on the weekend. The land, which stretches across six million acres, has been protected from development by legislation dating back to 1885, and is the largest state park in all the 48 connected US states. It is a rare and untouched expanse of forests, mountains, and water sources. The area has over 250 climbing spots, and popular ice formations include the Pharaoh Mountain that gives spectacular views once completed. A half-day climb, it initially takes in a 30ft vertical section before easing up. The Trap Dike, which gives climbers a continuous route to the summit of Mount Colden, and Avalanche Lake are also popular spots.

Rjukan
Norway
The best locations for extreme ice climbing aren’t just found in the US. Europe has plenty of its own ice formations for climbers to tackle – not least, the stunning frozen waterfall in Rjukan, Norway. Climbs tend to be in the WI2 to WI5 grade range – meaning ice sheets at 60° to 90° angles, most of which allow a few rests on the way up. Located in a valley in the southern part of the country, Rjukan has grown to be Europe’s premier destination for ice climbers. In 2005, a local named Andreas Spak set up the Rjukan Ice Festival, which has become the European version of Ouray. It gets busy during February, when the region is at its coldest, and is also a popular destination for skiers. Climbers can also visit the site in Rjukan where a daring attempt by Norwegian paratroopers during World War II to prevent the Nazis from building an atomic bomb took place. The story was made into the acclaimed 1965 film The Heroes of Telemark.

Ouray
Colorado, USA

Ice climbing at Ouray in Colorado
Ice climbing at Ouray in Colorado

Located in the San Juan Mountain Range, Ouray has become so popular for ice climbing that it now hosts its own sporty gathering, the Ouray Ice Festival, which many consider the pinnacle of ice climbing events. Again, climbers began turning up in the 1970s to take in the vast landscape and defeat the sheer walls of ice on the Uncompahgre Gorge. While the challenges in Ouray were already considerable, in 1994 climbers manipulated a local water source over the gorge, creating even more gruelling routes. It’s known as the Ouray Ice Park, and houses the annual festival. Running every January since 1996, the festival welcomes all manner of ice climbers, speakers and experts, as well as acting as a showcase for equipment manufacturers to test out new methods.

Kandersteg
Switzerland

Exploring the mountains in Switzerland
Exploring the mountains in Switzerland

Another European ice climbing festival can be found in the Swiss municipality of Kandersteg. Although the ice here is not as reliable as in other places, when the waterfalls of Kandersteg freeze, many say they provide the most challenging and enjoyable climbs in the world. Near the Oeschi Forest are waterfalls that offer beginners the perfect type of formation to practice climbing on, although they can get very busy. Another area, the Allmenalp Waterfall, has stunning ice formations, but the temperature can be quite volatile, so the conditions are often unreliable. The Kandersteg Ice Climbing Festival, now in its fourteenth year, runs at the beginning of January for three days and offers climbers numerous competitions, training classes, talks from world-renowned climbers, as well as a massive party.

Helmcken Falls Spray Cave
BC, Canada

A view from the top: Canada's Helmcken Falls Spray Cave
A view from the top: Canada’s Helmcken Falls Spray Cave

Hard to reach, but certainly worth the journey, the Helmcken Falls Spray Cave in Canada is a staggering icy hollow. Featuring steep, treacherous climbs, the cave becomes a vast ice cone during the freezing winter months. Some climbers describe it as the single most difficult ice climb in the world. A 141m waterfall on the Murtle River within the Wells Gray Provincial Park of British Colombia, the Helmcken Falls Spray Cave is the fourth-highest waterfall in Canada. During the winter, the ice cone can grow to 50m, and the best time to see it is towards the end of January and throughout February. For a place to stay while visiting, the Helmcken Falls Lodge offers special winter rates that allow easy access to the cave. Other activities include snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and sledding.

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