Every year, CityROCK climbing gym in Colorado Springs, Colorado, holds an ice climbing competition without any ice. There can’t be: It’s indoors.
Colorado Springs may be high desert, but it’s home to a disproportionate number of Front Range ice climbers, and the annual CityROCK Ice Night is their night. The gym shuts down its normal operations, brings in route-setters and clinic instructors from across the state, and gives the ice climbing community free reign. It’s just $10 to spectate and $50 to compete—just enough for the gym to almost break even.“We pretty much just chalk it up to our contribution to the sport,” says Grant Wilson, who sets routes and organizes CityROCK’s ice climbing initiatives, including Ice Night.
The gym has been holding Ice Nights since 2006. Back then, it was called “The Rock” and was based in Monument, Colorado in a poorly insulated venue next to an ice rink.
“It was freezing in our space, so we decided to start an ice climbing event,” says CityROCK gym founder and owner Joe Grosjean. That there was no ice didn’t matter; that first year, Grosjean, an engineer, hung a fully grown pine tree from the ceiling, and climbers swung into it with ice tools. That first competition was a chance for Colorado Springs to flex some muscle. “The goal was to get all these pros in town, and then get the locals together to beat up on the pros,” says Wilson, laughing.
It was a hit.
Today, competition routes follow more of a “drytooling” style, which involves less swinging and more careful placement of ice picks onto holds made of metal or plastic. But the routes reflect their creators’ imaginations, showcasing everything from giant plywood dice swinging on chains to six-foot-long wooden “icicles” that climbers have to bear-hug in order to navigate. And, as always, anyone off the street can compete, no experience required.
“Ice Night is a tradition with us, and a chance to mix things up in the gym, get creative and clear out the cobwebs,” Grosjean explains.
Over time, though, it has become more than that.
For the past 10 years, ice climbing has grown in popularity throughout the U.S., says Wilson. (Participation in Ice Night has more than tripled during that time.) But despite that growth, Wilson has watched gym after gym refuse to admit tools and crampons within their doors, leaving ice climbers starved for ways to improve their skills in a controlled setting.
“One of the biggest struggles gyms have is liability,” he explains. The other issue is that drytooling routes take up valuable real estate, thinning out the number of rock climbing routes traditional gym goers can access. For CityROCK, these risks are worth it. To this day, it remains the only rock-climbing gym in the country that provides ice-tool-only routes all season long.
“For whatever reason, Colorado Springs has become this really strong grassroots drytooling community. There’s this spirit of doing all this for the climbers,” says Wilson. “For me, doing this is just about finding ways to grow my individual contribution to the community.”
Fortunately, that attitude is contagious. Linda Wiedel first discovered drytooling at CityROCK back in 2010. She’s been training on the gym’s drytooling routes—as well as ice climbing outside—ever since. For her, it’s often a practical alternative to driving three hours to the nearest drytooling or ice-climbing crag to train, and the friendships that have come out of it have been more important.
“The community is tight knit, but not exclusive,” she says. “Every year, I participate in the ice fest in some way, shape, or form, because I want to give back and encourage other people to try the sport.” And it’s working. The 2019 Ice Night, which took place in November, had 56 competitors. More than a handful were trying out the sport for the first time.
All Cooped Up
In August of 2019, ice climbers Sally Gilman, Tyler Kempney and colby rickard opened the country’s first ice climbing-specific training facility in Boulder. Dubbed The Ice Coop, the space features a bouldering wall and soon-to-be-finished lead wall made of plywood (crampons allowed), hanging elements similar to those found at CityROCK during Ice Night (see right) and specialized holds used in Ice Climbing World Cup competitions. It’s currently the training ground for the Boulder- and Denver-based members of the U.S. Ice Climbing Team, as well as a venue for classes and events. Learn more and sign up for clinics at theicecoop.com. —C.B.