NPR Story
8:00 am
Thu March 6, 2014

What Does Climate Change Mean For Ice Climbing?

Originally published on Sun February 23, 2014 11:01 pm

DAYTON, Wash. -- High up in Washington’s Blue Mountains, behind trees and across the Touchet River, is what locals call the Weeping Wall.

Water seeps through the permeable basalt and can freeze on the cliff’s moss-covered face. When the conditions are right, that creates a curtain of ice that is irresistible for ice climbers.

When the ice freezes and makes this 50-foot cliff climbable, students often make the 45-minute drive from Walla Walla, Wash. to scale the wall.

On this day Whitman College's Brien Sheedy is teaching six students how to make their way up the ice. Sheedy, who directs Whitman’s Outdoor Program, has been bringing students here to climb the Weeping Wall for 13 years.

“I used to be able to put trips on the schedule when I first started at Whitman College leading groups here. But then the last several years it’s been so unpredictable that we say that we’re going to do ice climbing at some point in the winter, but that it’s going to be condition dependent,” Sheedy said.

Those conditions include the right amount of water and cold enough temperatures.

Kevin Pogue noticed the wall when he moved to Walla Walla in 1990. He and fellow climbers named the wall after a famous climb in Canada's Banff National Park.

Pogue is a professor at Whitman. He teaches a class on weather and climate. He said temperatures must remain cold for an extended time to be able to safely climb the ice.

“We basically need to get temperatures for a week where it’s in the single digits or low teens, and where it never gets above freezing during the day,” Pogue said.

Pogue says those conditions could be harder to come by as climate change causes winter temperatures to warm.

The region has experienced a slight warming trend since 1990. That’s according to NOAA’s National Climate Data Center.

Pogue says fewer and shorter cold spells means fewer years when the Weeping Wall – and other ice waterfalls in the Pacific Northwest – will form.

Take, for example, the Columbia River Gorge. which Pogue calls one of the best ice-climbing destinations in the United States. Pogue says ice climbers swarm to this area bordering Oregon and Washington when the gorge’s hundreds of waterfalls freeze – which tends to happen about every five years.

“What we’ll see is that the Columbia Gorge, maybe it’ll go from being once every five years or so to once every 10 years or so, as things warm up,” Pogue said.

That could mean ice climbers have to search higher in the mountains for climbing destinations.

“The people that are dedicated ice climbers will just have to ski in or snowshoe in to get up higher in the mountains where the conditions are colder,” Pogue said.

And that requires a whole new set of skills, like ski mountaineering or snowshoeing and avalanche awareness.

Just as ski resorts can manufacture snow, it is possible to make ice for climbing. But it’s more difficult. And there's no way to freeze a waterfall or a wall of water when temperatures are too warm.

One of the premiere ice-climbing locations in the United States to make is Ouray Ice Park in southwestern Colorado. Seventy-eight feet of pipe run along the top of a canyon. During the peak ice-climbing season, the pipe sprays up to 300,000 gallons of water onto the rock walls nightly. That creates 250 climbing routes.

Kevin Koprek manages the park. He said climate change is a concern for the ice-climbing industry. Koprek said the ice park will soon install equipment to monitor temperature and UV rays in the canyon.

“We’d like to move forward having as much information as possible and try to identify trends and use that information as we develop practice and policy operating the ice park,” Koprek said.

Farmers in the Midwest also make ice for climbing by pouring water down the insides of grain silos. Whitman College's Brien Sheedy said ice climbs formed from dripping pipes were some of his favorite climbs in Boulder, Colo. until the leaky pipes were fixed.

Back at Washington’s Weeping Wall Sheedy said one of the best parts of this climb is its accessibility. You can see it from the side of the road on the drive up to Bluewood Ski Area. He said beginning climbers have driven from Western Washington to learn to climb the Weeping Wall's face.

If the ice doesn’t form here as often, Sheedy said he may take students to climb ice in crevasses on Mount Baker, about a seven-hour drive from the Whitman College.

Today the weather is warm enough to make the climbing easy. And wet. Dripping water soaks the students, and chunks of ice periodically break off the cliff.

Sheedy said this might be the last ice-climbing trip of the season because so much ice is melting.

"We would need another prolonged one- to two-week cold spell to get it to form back up again,” he said.

The students on this trip are hoping for such a cold spell. This is freshman Emma Massie’s first ice-climbing trip. Her clothes are soaked with water that’s dripped from the ice wall. But the conditions aren’t going to keep her away.

“So normally when climbing season is over, slash winter happens, you can’t rock climb outside. But this opens up a whole new winter sport,” Massie said.

Massie said she wants to continue with her newfound sport for years. She just hopes climate change doesn’t get in the way of her plans.

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