Text and photos by Michael Forsberg
The advertisement on the Yucca Dune outdoor recreation shop web site simply read: "Don't be a Dorothy! I know five minutes on this section of ice will have you clicking yer heel spurs and whimpering 'I wanna go back to Kansas'... It can do that to ya! So come and get all shook up on the only climbing in Nebraska that makes sense (or doesn't make sense…). Niobrara Ice Jam.Yes, Valentine, Nebraska."
The statement was a bonafide throwdown challenge to the ice-climbing community to come climb Nebraska. The challenger, Tim Ryschon, a physician from Valentine as well as an avid climber and owner of Yucca Dune (an outdoor recreation shop in Valentine), knew from his own climbing experience that he lived near first-rate, ice-climbing opportunities on the Niobrara National Scenic River and that one of the best ice-climbing bluffs along the river was on Lee Simmons' Niobrara River Ranch, just upstream of Smith Falls State Park.
Here was the idea: Yucca Dune employees and local volunteers would organize the event, the ranch would provide access to the bluff, there would be a warming hut with refreshments, a movie night of climbing and ski films in town, and those who wished to stay near the ice bluffs could rent attractive, spacious cabins at the ranch, just across the river from the climbs.
This would be a low-key event. There would be no opening ceremony and no set hours. Climbers would simply check in at Yucca Dune, sign a liability waiver that would make them responsible for their own safety while on Simmons' property, provide their own gear and climb to their heart's desire. So over three days in late-January 2008, the first-annual Niobrara Ice Jam was born. The only question was, would anybody show up?Day 1:
It was still dark and the temperature had just dropped to below 0-degrees when I met Stuart Schneider for breakfast at the Grazin J's café in Valentine. Schneider, chief ranger for the National Park Service's Niobrara National Scenic River, which stretches 76 miles across north-central Nebraska, has been a ranger in the National Park Service for 29 years. He's worked in a diversity of habitats, from the high
As the sun broke the Sandhills horizon, we headed east out of Valentine on Nebraska Highway 12 and traveled about 15 miles until we turned south on the road to Smith Falls State Park. Just before the park entrance, we turned west onto Niobrara River Ranch property, crossed the river bridge and followed a two-track trail through woods and up the canyon before topping out on the prairie.
As we unpacked our gear, two vehicles with Colorado plates arrived carrying two couples from Denver: Joe Walker and Janet Nord, and Fred Seyffert with Ida Lau, along with a photographer and writer covering the story for the Norfolk Daily News.
When I first met the Coloradans, I was searching for a touch of skepticism in the air about whether, parked here in the pasture between barbed-wire fence and frozen cow pies, they really thought there was something worthy of climbing in Nebraska. If there was any skepticism, it disappeared quickly as Schneider led us down a game trail through the woods and to the edge of the cliff that suddenly appeared out of the dark border of trees. Peering over the edge, there was a 150-foot vertical wall of ice that merged with the river far below.
These climbers were going to be "top-roping," which meant that multiple anchor points would be established on top of the cliff. One person (the belayer) would stay on top, anchor into these points and attach themselves into one end of a rope. The climber would rappel down the face to the bottom of the climb and tie into their end. Then the belayer would take in rope as the climber ascends the route. If the belayer does the job well and keeps slack out of the rope, then the climber would only travel a short distance in the event of a fall.
While the Colorado group set up top-ropes for their climbs, Schneider and I hiked over to the other side of the face to practice on an easier route, what he called a Water Ice 2 (WI 2) climb. Climbs are rated 1 through 6. On a WI 1 climb you can walk up it in crampons without any ropes or gear. A WI 6 climb is a wall that is overhanging vertically, and is insane. I had rock climbed through college and had some minor mountaineering experience, but that was years ago. Although much of the rope management work with ice climbing is the same and some of the balance techniques are similar, that was where my knowledge stopped and the learning curve began.
The rest of the day Schneider gave me a crash course in ice climbing, beginning with learning how to "read ice." There was good ice and bad ice: Ice that was clear or blue in color and smooth and dense was firm ice and good to climb. Ice that was white and rough, with bubbles in it and where you could hear water running behind, was not. I also learned that the ice surface and structure can change quickly and is never the same year to year, day to day and even hour to hour, particularly here on the Great Plains, where temperature and humidity can vary widely from one extreme to the other throughout the winter season. Schneider also explained to me some of the basic ice-climbing mechanics - how you set your feet into the ice, how you set and pull out an ice ax, and how you can assume certain resting positions that give various muscle groups a break while still maintaining a firm hold on the ice.
As I rappelled down the face, a lot of muscle memory immediately came back from old rock climbing days. But when I began my climb up, I learned quickly this was not like climbing rock. In rock climbing, your primary tools are your hands and your feet. The old adage is to be one with the rock, smearing, jamming or otherwise molding your feet and hands on the rock's surface to ensure that you have enough grip and balance to move your body upward to your next hand or foothold. More or less it is intuitive, and your tools (read hands and feet) are pliable, shapeable and flexible instruments. On ice, however, you are one more step removed. Instead of hands to grip with, you use ice axes. Instead of molded flexible climbing shoes, you use heavy boots with crampons (metal frames with spikes) bound to your boots much like skis are.
These are not flexible instruments, so you must learn proper technique to hold and swing the ax to make sure you get a firm "stick" into the ice, and you must know how to "kick" a step in firmly with the numerous points on your crampons. Not only must you see it, but you must be able to hear and feel it. That takes time, practice and more practice. It took me well over a half hour to do the climb. It took Schneider, who spent much of his climbing years in the mountains of Colorado doing things on rock and ice that would make most people's palms sweat, less than five minutes. Claiming he was getting too old for this and was out of shape, he shimmied up it like a monkey climbing a tree.
By late afternoon, the temperature had risen to just above freezing. The river that was full of ice in the morning was now running free. As we sat above the climb and I tried to rub the cramps out of my forearms and calves, two bald eagles flew over the river below us and three large bull elk sauntered out of the pine-covered slope across the valley on the north bank and into the open grassland, catching the last solar rays of the day.
When we pulled gear and hiked back out toward the prairie, we met the Colorado climbers coming up the trail. They were grinning ear to ear. One of the climbers, Ida Lau, skipped by us as if floating on air, "Look at the sunset" she said to no one in particular as she pointed off to the west at the sun sinking into the gentle curve of the hills. Then she stopped, turned to us and said, "I honestly didn't think it would be like this. It's beautiful."Day 2:
Overnight the temperature had plunged to -20 degrees. Rim ice had formed and was floating downriver in trashcan lid-sized chunks shortly after sunrise as we made our way to the ice wall. Up top, where we were setting up a rappel, we stopped to watch a Townsend's solitaire, a robin-sized gray bird, fly from the crown of a tall cedar to the cliff face to get a drink, grabbing onto an imperceptible little hold on the cliff face where groundwater was dripping out of the soil just below the lip of the canyon. Then another solitaire came in to drink; then another.
An hour later, we had rappelled down and set up anchors and ropes on a traverse that allowed me to move horizontally across the ice wall and photograph groups of climbers as they ascended and descended on their climbs. Waiting for the day's climbers to arrive, I could really study the ice wall up close for the first time.
At this spot the Niobrara makes a wide, sweeping, U-shaped bend along the south bank and forms a tall, nearly vertical bluff that in the summer looks like a weeping wall. Press your hand on its vertical surface and it is as saturated with water as a wet towel as it slowly drains down into the river below.
In the winter, along this canyon wall and others up and down the river corridor, the groundwater drips out like a leaky outdoor faucet, slowly building layer after layer of ice as the long stretches of deep midwinter cold settles into the valley. Once the ice is formed, it won't completely melt the rest of winter, being as it's well-shaded by the canyon's south rim. Much of the ice here is almost sky blue in color, a sign of dense ice with little air in it. Perfect for climbing.
As Schneider set a final ice screw to create a hook to hold our gear on the traverse, he explained that in this spot there was roughly a 160-foot pitch from the river to the top of the rim, and that this year there were easily 40 to 50 potential "lines" on this face, most of them never climbed. "In fact, I can see about 20 lines right where we are standing."
As soon as he said this, we suddenly heard voices from above. Then a climber with a white stocking cap peered over the lip of the wall, hollered "Rope" and tossed one end of a bright red climbing rope over the edge.
"My God, this is Nebraska?" "Do you see this, Jeff?" "Look at all those lines - this place is amazing!"
A group of six climbers had shown up from Wyoming and the Black Hills of South Dakota. Once they got on the wall, they let the superlatives fly.
"Man, I'm pumped!"
"This is gnarly!"
"Can you believe this?"
Schneider grinned. "When rock climbers swear it's usually because they're hating it. When ice climbers swear, it's because they love it."
The climbing and banter went on the next several hours. They climbed routes with local names like "Bellino's Ice Folly," "Black Cow Down" and other new routes that have never been named. To Schneider, however, the whole show is not just about the ice, but more importantly, where the ice is.
The Niobrara River Valley, often called the biological crossroads of North America, is where six different ecological communities meet. "There is no other place in the world I know of where you can climb a route starting literally at the bank of a Great Plains river, climb a sheer wall of ice 160 feet high with water that comes out of the ground, top out on a northern boreal forest among a bog of birch trees and club moss, then walk out in the middle of a mixed grass prairie." He's right.Day 3:
This morning fresh river otter tracks appeared on the north bank, cutting the corner of an ice shelf, then disappeared at the river edge where the otter plunged back in and headed downstream. Far above along the ice wall, the Townsend's solitaires were back, this time accompanied by northern flickers, drinking deep from the seeps below the lip of the canyon in the same fashion they had yesterday.
The climbers from South Dakota and Wyoming had left to climb on another ice bluff upriver, but the Colorado climbers emerged on the rim of the canyon about noon for their third and final day, determined to climb on the less visited far eastern face before heading back to Colorado.
I rappelled halfway down the face to photograph them up close and personal on their ascent, anchoring myself in place next to the series of narrow, vertical columns of ice they would be climbing, shaped like the long, fluted cylinders of a huge pipe organ in a church sanctuary.
The word sanctuary seems an apt description of this place. Fred, the first climber of the day and an experienced climber, said climbing ice here, particularly these ice pillars, was as good a climb he has had since a recent trip to the Canadian Rockies and rivals a lot of the climbing in Colorado's Front Range or Ouray Ice Park. But he was quick to point out that there was something special here - solitude. In Colorado, he said, many of the climbs that are easily accessible are right at the foot of a highway, and oftentimes you simply are setting your feet and ice ax in the same holes as someone else as you work a climb.
For the next few hours, the Colorado climbers and Mike Tortorella, a teenaged friend from Sutherland who had joined them, picked their way up various routes. One their final climb of day, Schneider and I left the ice wall and moved across the river to watch from below.
Ida rappelled down to her position, studied the wall, and then picked a line. She began working up the center of the blue ice, organ pipe-shaped pillars, moving deliberately, gracefully, almost as if doing a dance. Days later after returning home, she enthusiastically posted this on her blog, explaining the climb:
"Line 4, is definitely a W15. It's nearly a 60ft. wall of ice shaped so that you can stem it too, though not as widely as #3. Very sustained vertical ice. There's two small rest ledges at about 25 ft, and then 40 ft. Thank god for the rests!! Again lots of awesome hooking. I even got a good knee bar in near the top of the second section. Even though I was 4th on the line, I couldn't see any other pick marks. By the time I got to the second rest area, I could barely hold my axes! Very strenuous climb. With a cheering section across the river, I mustered the last of my strength to climb the final 10+ ft of ice then scale the rooty 5+feet of dirt. Roots rule! They held well and in the end I simply grabbed them with my hands to top out…literally crawling. What amazing climbs! It's the best I have ever climbed - personally and ice quality wise. It was the perfect climb to end our wonderful primer to Nebraska Ice. The reporters and locals all asked us if we think we liked it enough to come back. Without hesitation…yes!"