Like the Alps, but in Iowa
SURROUNDED by cornfields that stretch to the horizon, in a place where molehills pass for mesas, avid outdoorsman Don Briggs has long dreamed of climbing a mountain.
So he decided to build one.
Briggs spends most winter nights hosing down a quartet of grain silos on a friend’s farm -- and relies on the Corn Belt’s frigid temperatures to transform the water into frozen walls of ice that tower nearly 70 feet straight up.
By the time he’s done, the ice encasing the outside of the silos is 4 feet thick in spots -- and ready for the onslaught of ice climbers drawn to this strange marriage of farming and extreme sports.
“The word ‘lunatic’ was bandied about quite a bit. Even my wife thought I was insane when I first told her I wanted to do this,” said Briggs, 57, a physical education instructor at the University of Northern Iowa. “To me, it made perfect sense. The highest point in Iowa is going to be on top of a silo.”
On a recent morning, Briggs walked up the gravel road that cuts through the farm, past the candy-cane-striped barn and battered green tractor. Buttoning up his coat, he hunched his shoulders and tucked his gloved hands into pockets to shield them from the biting wind.
As he strode past a storage shed, Briggs glanced at a thermometer hanging on the metal siding. It was 18 degrees -- in the sun. He headed into the shade and stepped up to the base of the silos. It was early in the season: Only one of the concrete towers stayed cold enough to preserve the blue-toned glassy pillars and ornate icicle chandeliers.
Briggs greeted a group of fellow climbers huddled against a stack of hay bales and slipped a safety rope through a harness strapped around his waist. (The rope is looped through a metal ring mounted at the top of the silo; it snakes down to a climbing partner on the ground who controls its slack during the ascent and descent.)
Briggs clamped metal spikes onto his boots, picked up two ice axes and began to climb his “mountain.”
He plotted each move carefully, an analytic dance between an athlete and a crumbling, dripping, melting stage.
Slam ax, held in the right hand, into the ice above the head. Step upward with the right foot, then the left. Breathe. Repeat the motion, now using the ax held in the left hand.
Sound easy? Try it on ice that’s as polished as a mirror. And consider this: All that held the trim, 5-foot-7 man aloft were slender metal spikes on the tips of his toes and the two ax blades -- each about the length and width of a ruler.
Briggs squinted and spotted a small divot in the ice, a few feet to his left and no bigger than a dime. It was a perfect spot to wedge the spikes on his boot tip. He yanked one foot free and drove the metal spikes deep. The ice crackled. Like a spider web, dozens of fissures splintered the ice around his foot. Exhaling deeply, he hefted his body upward. The ice held.
Briggs grinned. He pulled one of his axes free, found another gap above his head and swung the blade forward.
The ax landed with a thunk, skittered off the ice and bounced into the air. A burst of wind sent Briggs slamming against the ice. Dollar-bill sized chunks rained down on his face and battered his flesh.
Panting from exertion, Briggs kept going until -- 10 minutes later -- he reached the silo’s dome.
“Once you get to the top, the view is amazing,” he said, after slowly rappelling back to the ground. “It feels like you can see the entire world.”
Briggs climbs at least five times a week -- or as often as the weather allows. Each climb is different, depending on the conditions of the ice. An average ice climber can take 15 minutes or longer to traverse the wall. Novices can take more than an hour, if they can reach the top at all.
Briggs has climbed the silos in as little as 3 minutes.
IT’S not a cheap sport -- the gear alone can cost $1,000 or more. But Briggs has stocked enough equipment at the farm for visitors to borrow, thanks to donations from the University of Northern Iowa.
He doesn’t charge climbers: State law limits the legal liability of landowners who allow their property to be used for recreational purposes, as long as the owners don’t charge or profit from the activity. Briggs requires all visitors to sign a liability release form. No one has fallen or been injured at the silos.
The rules are simple: All climbers must wear helmets, heavy boots and crampons, the spikes that are attached to boots to provide better grip on snow and ice.
Since Briggs first iced down the silos in 2000 here in rural Cedar Falls, about 125 miles northeast of Des Moines, hundreds have stopped by to photograph the spires and carefully shimmy upward. A climber from China has joined him on the ice. So have students from Ohio and Minnesota, adventurers from Saskatchewan, and a physician from Northern California.
“It’s not about being fast or fancy. It’s not about falling to your death,” said Dr. Charles Huss, 57, an Iowa City emergency room doctor and regular silo climber. “It’s about letting go of your worries, and losing yourself in the ice.”
More than a dozen Midwestern farmers have asked Briggs how to turn their own silos into climbing walls: Can a clay tile silo be climbed? Can a tractor with an end-loader be used to haul away the bigger chunks that fall off? Would the cattle become alarmed by seeing people swinging in the air?
Briggs fielded so many calls on the subject, he published a how-to book in 2003.
“People told me it’d be a waste of time and a waste of water. Some even suggested I just try bowling,” said farmer Craig Schroeder, 46. With Briggs’ help, Schroeder turned one of his own silos in Tipton, Iowa, into an ice climbing wall for himself and his family.
“But what else,” Schroeder asked, “are you going to do for fun on the farm in the middle of winter?”
EVEN among the adventurous, ice climbing is seen by many people as a foolish endeavor.
To shimmy up a frozen waterfall is to skate on the edge of disaster. While the safety rope is designed to protect climbers from falling, the equipment can fail: Todd Skinner, a renowned rock climber, was rappelling at Yosemite National Park in October when his harness broke, and he fell 500 feet to his death. Cold winds also can cramp climbers’ limbs, send them spinning off a precarious toehold, or slam them against a bare spot on the silo. The sun and air pockets can weaken the ice, creating soft spots that melt unexpectedly.
But part of the appeal is the physical risk and the sport’s diverse routes. Each time Briggs adds water, the shape of the ice evolves. Depending on how fast the water froze, and which direction the wind was blowing, the silos can be transformed into crystal castles, or giant stalagmites.
A winter spinoff of rock climbing, ice climbing first emerged as a sport in the 1960s, when rock climber and mountaineer Yvon Chouinard began experimenting with, and developing, curved ax picks that could grip an iced surface. It caught on in the 1990s, as enthusiasts flocked to the nation’s first ice-climbing recreational park -- an artificially irrigated gorge in Ouray, Colo.
A few years ago, members of Midwest Ice Climbers Inc. cut a deal with owners of a working rock quarry, about 10 miles west of Green Bay, Wis., and now rely both on ice formed naturally from underwater springs and water that’s pumped out of a nearby water table.
“You develop a really good flinch mechanism so you don’t catch those chunks in the face,” said Ron Long, club president and a high school teacher from Green Lake, Wis. “You’ve got to be creative when you live in vertically challenged areas.”
Briggs, who lives in Cedar Falls, has taught rock climbing classes and led outdoor adventures with his wife, Dianna, for nearly two decades. He stumbled on the silo idea while helping a friend plow his farmland.
Sitting on the back of a tiller, Briggs eyed the grain bins.
They were incredibly sturdy. Concrete blocks, nearly 4 inches thick, were bound with bands of steel cabling that wound from the silo’s base to its domed top. When the metal got wet and the weather dropped below freezing, ice formed and clung to the exterior.
Briggs approached his friend Jim Budlong with a proposal: Once the harvest was complete, and the silos sat empty, why not try icing them down?
Budlong agreed, and the two men began experimenting. They mounted gear onto the tops of the silos, which would allow safety ropes to be threaded and anchored to a secure point. They turned an old storage shed into a warming hut, where climbers could dry their axes and warm their hands with a cup of cocoa.
“We also ran into a bunch of problems,” Briggs said. “The hoses would freeze overnight. People would walk over the hoses with their crampons, and puncture them. Sometimes, the ice would form over the hoses, so we’d have to dig them out. Or we’d have a heat wave, when the temperature got up to 40 degrees or warmer, and all the ice would fall off the silos and we’d have to start all over.”
But Briggs pushed on, driven in part by the silos’ following. Students at his school routinely join him in the middle of the night to check on the hoses and make sure the water pumps are working. When Budlong recently sold the farm, the new owners gave Briggs their blessing to continue the activity.
NOW, just a few days into the season, regular climbers like Huss are eager to test themselves on the ice.
Last winter, Huss climbed the silos several times a month. A self-described adventure junkie, the emergency physician has scaled peaks around the world, made several attempts to ascend Mt. Everest and regularly thrown himself into sky-diving trips. A water-skiing mishap earlier in the year left him with a shredded hamstring.
“Everyone thought I’d be out for the season. No way,” Huss said as he tightened his climbing harness around his waist. “I’d miss the camaraderie. Besides, we’re all addicts.”
The ascent, however, wasn’t as easy as in previous years; the injury had left him weakened. Within minutes of touching the ice, Huss’ legs shook with adrenaline and exhaustion.
His forearms burned; his fingertips lost most of their feeling. But there was no time for rest.
“You doing OK?” hollered Ben Caskey, 36, manager of an outdoor gear store in Iowa City. “How’s the leg?”
Huss simply nodded. After more than 20 minutes, Huss reached the top. All he could hear was the sound of the wind and the panting of his own breath.
Shading his eyes with one hand, Huss stared across miles of harvested fields, painted in thick swaths of gold and pink by the setting sun. Herds of cattle appeared ant-like, while bucolic farmhouses seemed no bigger than a postage stamp.
Huss took a final moment to enjoy the view, and then slowly began his descent. He wanted one more climb.
But this time, Huss decided, he’d tackle the more difficult side of the silo -- the path that, at points, would force him to arch backward in order to maneuver around the overhanging ice.