Ice Climbing Alaska
In this article, Golden Mountain Guide Pat Schamlix talks about the wonder that is ice climbing in Alaska. Looking for beta? Read more to learn about the adventure waiting for you up North.
- TJ Swann
When most people think of ice climbing in Alaska their thoughts are immediately drawn to the world-class climbing in the Alaska Range or Valdez area and for good reason. Both of these areas draw world-class athletes putting up test pieces most people couldn’t fathom climbing. But what most people don’t know is that within a two-hour drive of Anchorage, there are over 100 routes, many are within reason for the beginner or intermediate ice climber.
There is a reason I told my wife I’d like to live in southwest Colorado, Montana, or Alaska when I retired. I was lucky enough to visit and climb in these areas along with many others, but I think I hit the jackpot with living in Alaska! If I don’t get 40+ days climbing ice a season I get quite upset. Generally, there is climbable ice around Thanksgiving all the way until mid-April (I have climbed before Halloween and in May before), but the prime season is mid-January until mid-March.
Isn't it dark all the time?
I’d say the two biggest questions I get about ice climbing in Alaska are “isn’t it dark all the time” and “how cold is it”. The answer to the first one is “NO, not in the Anchorage area”. Yes, Alaska is quite north and does have long nights but on December 21st (the shortest day of the year) the sun rises around 10:15 in the morning and sets about 3:45 in the afternoon making for about 5½ hours. Use civil twilight and you gain about an hour on each side, making for about 7 hours of “usable light”. Granted, this is the shortest day of the year also. That is why I mentioned “Prime season” above. Jump to mid/late February and you’re looking at 10 hours between sunrise and sunset. The answer to the second question is “it can be”. Just like everywhere else, the temperatures fluctuate throughout the winter, so it really does matter on the location of the climb and the current weather. Winter temperatures can range from -20 F up to 45 F depending on the weather patterns. Climbing when temperatures are below about -5 is more work than fun, both because it’s hard to stay warm (keep your fingers working) and because the ice gets very hard and brittle.
Our approaches in Alaska are MUCH different than those in Colorado and elsewhere. Most of the climbs are approached via hiking/skiing/snow machining up frozen rivers. We basically walk the river to the base of the climb and start from there. Some climbs do however start 100 feet or so above the river, but no long hour-long uphill slogs. Most people that have visited to climb are just flabbergasted at the simple access to amazing ice in the area. If the temps are favorable and traffic wasn’t an issue you could literally belay out of your car for some climbs.
There are also much fewer climbers than in Colorado, especially in the Front Range or Ouray areas. When I go into one of the climbing areas on a weekday I consider seeing another party or two to be busy. If I see more than that I’m bummed that it’s so crowded. However, weekends are a different story.
The Eklutna River area is one of the most popular spots near Anchorage. It’s approximately 35 minutes east of downtown Anchorage at an Alaska State Park trailhead (parking fee required). If the river is safe to walk on, drop down from the parking area and then hike the river to the climbs. In good conditions, it’s about a 25-minute pleasant stroll up the river to the majority of the climbs. If the river is impassable right from the parking area we hike a well-used trail (micro-spikes can be beneficial) for about 10 minutes or so then drop down into the canyon crossing a creek above the confluence then joining the Eklutna River again.
If access is good and you drop down from the parking lot the first climb you will see (about 5 minutes) will be Maddog (WI3/4). This is probably one of the most abused climbs in the state because the top is easily accessible for setting up a top rope. The water supply also usually freezes up in late January, so it doesn’t get to heal itself like other climbs do. Many in the climbing community try to persuade others not to climb this route until it fully forms to no avail, making it into a mixed climb most years.
Continue up the canyon and the next climb you see (on a good year) is Champipple (WI4-). This climb hasn’t formed every year but has become somewhat more common than it has been in the past. You climb a mellow apron to a steep and somewhat hollow curtain.
Almost directly across the river is TJ Swann (WI4+). This is the “ice test piece” of the canyon. When I first started going to Eklutna Canyon (the mid-2000s) I remember thinking one of these days I’m going to climb that thing. It didn’t happen until the winter after I retired in 2016/17. This climb forms differently every year. Sometimes it can be as easy as WI3+, but most of the time it’s a solid WI4 with the left side coming in closer to WI5 (the guidebook calls it WI3 when I read that I immediately thought “somebody is going to get hurt”). Granted these are “Alaska Ice Grades” which seem to be stiffer than most areas in the Lower 48 that I’ve climbed in (excluding Cody, WY).
Continue up the canyon a short way and the jewel of the canyon will come into view after rounding a bend. Ripple (WI3) is a full 55m long that seems to jut straight up out of the river and starts out somewhat steep, rolls over to a short low angle apron, then follows body length plus steps to the top. For many people, this is their first ice climb in the state. I remember taking a friend from California here and his comment was “THAT’s WI3” all I could say was “welcome to Alaska''. We both agreed it would be every bit of WI4 in California.
Around the next bend, you’ll come to Boonesfarm (WI3). This is another long climb that requires a 70m rope if you want to climb to the top from the river in one pitch, though two 60m ropes will get you back down. There is also a bolted anchor about 50m up, but most people skip it and do it in one pitch. The climb starts up on ice/snow/scree until you get established on the thicker ice, goes up a couple of mellow steps then climbs a steep section at the top. The upper section can form into a nice 6’ wide curtain or a small 2’ diameter pillar making for a sportier lead.