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What Does Climate Change Mean For Ice Climbing?

Courtney Flatt

Ice climbers are a lot like snowboarders and skiers – they count on winter weather to create the right conditions for their sport. But here’s a big difference: mountain resorts can manufacture snow; no one has invented a machine to freeze waterfalls. And as winter temperatures rise, outdoor recreationalists worry that climate change could threaten some ice climbing destinations.

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 to ice climbers.

Today a group of Whitman College students are taking turns scaling the 50-foot ice wall.

Brien Sheedy directs Whitman’s Outdoor Program. He’s been bringing students here to climb the Weeping Wall for 13 years.

Sheedy: “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.”

Conditions like the right amount of water and cold enough temperatures.

Kevin Pogue is a professor at Whitman College. He teaches a class on weather and climate and sometimes helps lead ice-climbing trips with Sheedy.

He says temperatures must be cold for an extended time to be able to safely climb the ice.

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

The region has had 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 where the Weeping Wall – and other ice waterfalls in the Pacific Northwest – will form.

Take, for example, the Columbia River Gorge. 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.

Pogue: “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.”

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

Pogue: “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.”

With that, brings a whole new set of skills. Plus avalanche awareness.

Like ski resorts manufacture snow, it is possible to manufacture ice. But it’s more difficult. Conditions must be colder, for one thing.

One of the premiere ice climbing locations in the U.S. to manufacture ice is Ouray Ice Park in southwestern Colorado. 78 feet of pipe run along the top of a canyon. The pipe sprays water onto the rock walls nightly. That creates 250 climbing routes.

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

Koprek: “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.”

Back at Washington’s Weeping Wall Brien Sheedy – who’s climbed Mount Everest twice – says 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.

Sheedy says, if the ice doesn’t form here as often, he may take students on more trips to climb ice in crevasses on Mount Baker. That’s about a seven-hour drive from the college. The Weeping Wall is about 45 minutes away.

On this day, the warm weather makes the climbing easy. And wet.

Sheedy: “I think this might be it because we’re going to lose an awful lot. We would need another prolonged one to two week cold spell to get it to form back up again.”

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

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

Copyright 2014 Earthfix.

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