Ice climbing Yellowstone’s Lost Creek Falls

Hunter D'Antuono

The packed snow squeaked loudly beneath the climbing party’s boots at Yellowstone’s Tower Junction parking area, ice axes glinting in the afternoon sun. Their walk soon gave way to undisturbed, gossamer stretches of powder as they passed Roosevelt Lodge and entered into the blueish shadows of Lost Creek Canyon.  

About a half mile in, Lost Creek Falls appeared through the pines – an imposing but beautiful tower of solid ice.   

“They say the number one rule in ice climbing is: Don’t fall,” quipped Suzie Catharine of Livingston. 

Catharine, 31, an accomplished rock climber, said Sunday marked her 4th or 5th ice climbing outing.  

Single-digit temperatures were already beginning to chill fingers and toes as the party slipped into their climbing boots and cinched on their crampons.  

Another important rule, even before climbing begins, is wear a helmet. The hazards posed by falling ice are constant. 

Catharine’s boyfriend, Matt Whitman also of Livingston and the most experienced ice climber of the bunch, made the first ascent, or lead, up the brittle ice wall  to secure an anchor around a tree at the top. The line of rope he took up with him would serve to belay other climbers. 

“Gahhh! My hands are so cold!” echoed more than once from all members of the climbing party as they made their climbs.

Hands are especially prone to going totally numb in ice climbing, not only because of the frosty conditions, but because the technique demands ice axes are swung with arms outstretched overhead, where they are far away from the heart and gravity works against blood trying to reach them. 

But the whole party agreed that there are few better ways to appreciate the beauty of winter than seeking out frozen waterfalls nestled in snowy canyons. The aesthetics, when compared to summer rock climbing, are hard to beat.  

“The prettiest rock climb doesn’t come to anywhere close as beautiful to even the ugliest ice climb,” said Gretchen Simms, a 6th season ice climber and ardent rock climber.

It also helps that the best ice climbing spots in the region are nestled in particularly beautiful landscapes. Prime locations, according to Whitman, include Pine Creek Falls in the Paradise Valley, Hyalite Canyon south of Bozeman and the South Fork of the Shoshone River near Cody, Wyoming. 

The easiest mistake someone new to the sport can make is not layering-up properly, said Whitman. Often people get sweaty tromping through the snow on the approach to the climb and that sweat turns cold later once one slows down and stops to prepare for the climb at the base of the wall.  

Another common newbie habit is over-gripping the ice axes – a vice-like grasp restricts blood flow making one’s hands even colder and also generates fatigue. 

Ice climbing, like any sport, comes with its own set of potential dangers. 

“Falling ice can really cut up your face,” Whitman said. “Leading and taking a fall is really scary. The crampons can stab your calf. You can fall on the rope.”  

But the dangers, for some, are what increases the sport’s appeal.  

“It’s super fun, because it’s higher stakes,” said Simms.  

Even so, Catharine points out the sport can be easier to get into for novices than rock climbing. 

“Ice climbing is a little more accessible,” she said. “You can take someone out there who hasn’t done it before, and they can climb just about anything.” 

It turns out the best conditions for climbing are when air temperatures are near freezing, which makes the ice slightly softer and stickier, allowing axes to sink in more readily. At colder temperatures, the ice is far more brittle, shattering into innumerable stinging shards with every swing, as it did at Lost Creek on Sunday.  

The climbing party suggested anyone interested into getting into the sport who does not have  friends or acquaintances who are accomplished climbers, to hire a private guide or take a course at an ice festival. 

And when it comes time to purchase one’s own gear, Whitman said to expect a price tag of around $1,500 in boots, crampons, ice axes and ice screws.  

But in the meantime, the group said it’s relatively easy to borrow other climbers’ gear.  

“It’s a welcoming sport and an apprenticeship sport,” said Catharine. “People are pretty generous with their stuff, because they want to bring other people into the fold – into the obsession.”