Ropeless and halfway up an anemic, 50-foot-tall, body-width pillar, I hear a loud crack, and before the reality of the situation sets in, my mother’s voice echoes through my head: “Get down from there!” As I glance down between my rusty, dull crampons, the danger of solo ice climbing becomes sobering and real. I scan the ice above: 20 more feet to the top. I sink my right ice axe into a perfect blue pocket of ice like an anchor, and then shift my weight as I gently place a front point on a small bulge of bleached white ice; the entire pillar shifts with my movement. Reaching for the rock behind the pillar with my other foot, I send sparks down the wall as I struggle to gain purchase. But then calmness sets in, and I feel my heart rate slow. I shift to problem-solving mode.
The South Fork Valley, 30 miles outside Cody, Wyoming, is known to many ice climbers as the “pillar crop” of the United States. The valley rests at 6,500 feet in elevation, with a Dr. Seuss–esque landscape of 11,000-foot peaks rising out of a sagebrush- and cacti-filled canyon. Vertical walls of kitty-litter rock and the vacillation between freezing and thawing temperatures in colder seasons result in one of the highest concentrations of ice routes and stout pillars in the country, the latter being the ultimate trophy for most waterfall ice climbers. And in the South Fork, you will find both moderate and trophy-sized columns. Here, tales of untouched, steep, blue sheets of ice are actually true. Many routes form reliably every year in the valley, and with only a few dedicated local climbers—Cody’s population hovers around 10,000, and is more known for its cowboys—many only see a handful of ascents each season. Despite the growing number of visitors here, the ice climbs are plentiful and uncrowded.
Approaches here can be grueling (plan for one to three hours for most climbs), but there are routes within minutes of the car too. You won’t find trails or paths to any of the climbs, but you can leave your skis and snowshoes behind—this high desert basin rarely holds any measurable amounts of snow.
Nearly 200 routes line the cliffs, including myriad pillars. Big-game hunters around the globe often wait years for a chance at one of the trophy elk, deer, or bighorn sheep that wander the valley. Pillar climbers are much like these hunters—waiting and dreaming of their trophy-sized harvest.
The Valley’s wealth of ice lay unexplored while history was being written in other destinations like Colorado and Montana. But in 1982, winter had settled into Cody, and two rock climbers got bored waiting for the snow to melt. Local Kurt Cozzens and then-drifter Mark Twight loaded up Kurt’s Z-28 Firebird, cranked up Asia on the radio, and went in search of ice—with lots of stoke but very little experience on ice. The duo would go on to climb the first and only ice route in the valley that year—the now-popular Curtains (WI3). The bounty of climbs that lay further up the valley remained unknown for another year.
Cozzens and his friend Monte Madsen returned to ice climbing in the 1983-1984 season, dragging along Kurt’s teenage brother, Todd. By the time Todd graduated from high school that spring, he was hooked on climbing and soon began an assault on the South Fork’s most impressive ice routes. He established many of today’s popular routes in the late 1980s, including Mean Green (WI5), Broken Hearts (WI5/6), and High on Boulder (WI4). Todd unveiled the valley’s secret ice treasures in a small, fold-up, self-published map in 1991.
By the early 1990s, more climbers began hearing about the valley, and one of North America’s relatively unknown, but very accomplished, ice climbers, Stan Price, began to make his mark. Price, a Wyoming native, tackled some of the South Fork’s most daunting ice features. Eventually, he would connect with his childhood friend, Alex Lowe, to establish what were at the time the continent’s most difficult ice routes, including Ovisight (WI6) and Last Climb Before the War (WI6). Slowly, the rumors of immaculate and untapped ice climbing in the South Fork Valley spread across the Rocky Mountains by word-of-mouth and that small, fold-out treasure map.
I quickly sorted through my options as more sparks sprayed from my crampons, disappearing beneath my feet. I looked down, contemplating my landing zone, and then up to assess my progress. I considered dropping my pack to lighten my load, but kept it on to protect my back if I fell. Driving along South Fork Road early one morning, I’d spotted this pillar, glowing like a candle through the dark shadows of the cliffs. I had never seen this splinter of ice before, so I quickly gathered my gear, hoping a group of climbers would pass by so I could coerce them into joining me. Unfortunately, the South Fork’s isolated nature can be a double-edged sword: Finding other climbers in the valley can be like find a cold drink in the desert. I hiked briskly toward the pillar, feeling the sun rising quickly over my shoulder and knowing this would be my only chance to nab this thing. In a reckless minute, I snapped on my crampons and threw my pack on as the sun hit the pillar, thinking, “This is a bad idea.”
Thirty feet off the ground, hanging on a detached pillar, that bad idea had taken on a whole new flavor. I continued climbing with the lightest, most precise movements I have ever made. Reaching the top of the quivering pillar, I swung high onto the ledge above and watched my tool melt into the ice. As I pulled myself above the fracture line and found safe ground, the pillar detached and exploded 50 feet below. Thrill Jockey hasn’t been seen since, but I still await the next pillar to form—hoping that the next time, I won’t be alone.
The Classics: Don’t miss the finest routes in the South Fork Valley. These lines form every season.
Broken Hearts (WI5, 7 pitches, 200m): Four pitches of moderate climbing bring you to an impressive amphitheater that contains three pitches of pillars of increasing difficulty. For a bigger challenge, try the fifth-pitch variation to the left, called Carotid Artery (WI6 M7). All of the pillars in this drainage form every year, except for the rarely formed seventh pitch and Carotid Artery.
Triptych Pillars (WI4-5, 25-65m): This series of three pillars lies two to three pitches up the Triptych drainage and offers two easier climbs and a higher, more advanced route. In the Triptych Amphitheater, start on the easiest, Triptych Right (WI4), before trying the middle pillar (WI4), a small step up in difficulty. Above the amphitheater stretches the Upper Triptych Pillar (WI5). These columns come in each year, but they’re often overlooked because they are not completely viewable from the valley below. Climb two to three pitches of WI3 to reach the amphitheater.
Mean Green (WI5, 7 pitches, 300m): Locals and visitors alike consider this one of North America’s best ice routes: It comes in every year, offers solid pro, and forms the perfect pillar shape. Mean Green holds one of the valley’s finest moderate pillars on its fourth pitch, but it’s the easier, other five pitches of WI3-4 that make this one of the valley’s best climbs. The route was first climbed in the 1984/85 season by Todd Cozzens and Doug Birkholtz and was one of the first big multi-pitches in the South Fork. Like clockwork, this climb always forms by
The Pillar of Pain (WI5, 1 pitch, 40m): Well known for its 40 meters of vertical blue glass. This pillar lies above High on Boulder (WI4), out of sight, and offers a challenging end to an incredible route: Climb the moderate pitches of High On Boulder for 160 meters, and The Pillar of Pain will provide a final burn for your day. Typically, this climb touches down by December and gets fatter as the season progresses.
Hell’s Angel (WI5, 1 pitch, 40m): Perhaps one of the valley’s most visually inspiring pillars: an angel-like silhouette that offers mindbending climbing with each swing. This climb is one of the newest in the canyon, established by the author in 2010, and comes in reliably by the end of November.
Testpieces: Some of the country’s most committing ice hides in this valley. Add these locals’ picks to your dream list.
Ovisight (WI6, 3 pitches, 180m): One of the valley’s ultimate benchmarks, with a formidable first pitch: 160 feet of pure pillar burn earns you two more pillars above. Many climbers had attempted Ovisight before the route finally succumbed to one of North America’s strongest duos, Alex Lowe and Stan Price, in 1991. Easily viewed from the valley below, Ovisight seems like an easy target, but the steep approach and elaborate climbing make this route a prized offering. When the first pitch doesn’t form, you can traverse the cliffband left to an easier pillar named Who’s Your Daddy, then traverse back right to the second pitch of Ovisight.
Last Climb Before the War (WI6, 2 pitches, 120m): Established in 1991 by Lowe and Price, it has seen very few ascents since, partly because it is rarely in; the last time was in 2010. By far one of the valley’s most difficult routes, two connected pillars roll off the cliff like wax from a candlestick.
The Gambler (WI6, 1 pitch, 40m): An intimidating and physically demanding route: 30 meters of climbing brings you to two free-hanging daggers in a roof to gain the top. Find this route high in the Triptych drainage, hanging in a small amphitheater in the shade.
The Testament (WI5+, 1 pitch, 55m): Perhaps the largest single pitch of vertical ice in the area, this remote pillar will test endurance and strength. This route seems to come in every year, but its isolation leaves much unknown about its condition. During the 2009 first ascent, the author had a standoff with a pack of wolves on the hike.
Long Neck Bottle (WI5/6, 2 pitches, 60m): First climbed by Price in 1998 when the pillar was only a few inches in circumference at the point where it touched the ground. It typically hangs from the cliffs high above the Triptych drainage, but rarely touches the ground.
- Get there: From Cody, head southwest on South Fork Road/Hwy. 291; after about 30 miles, the climbs will begin to appear on each side of the road. Park on the side of the road below your chosen climb. Most of the climbs follow the vertical drainages that rise steeply from the valley floor. Driving times: From Denver: 7 hours. From Salt Lake City: 7 hours. From Seattle: 15 hours.
- Season: Climbs typically form by Thanksgiving weekend and stay in good shape until late March.
- Lodging: The closest camping is the free Deer Creek-Shoshone Campground off Hwy. 291. But the South Fork climbs are typically wet, and drying out gear in the evening at Deer Creek can be difficult. Many climbers head to the Big Bear Motel (codywyomingbigbear.com; $79 and up); other options include the Holiday Inn (holidayinn.com; $95 and up), or the AmericInn (americinn.com; $119 and up).
- Guidebook and conditions: Winter Dance: Select Climbs in Southern Montana and Northern Wyoming, by Joe Josephson (amazon.com, $24.95). The author updates his site, coldfear.com, with current climbing conditions and new climbing areas.
- Food: The Beta Coffeehouse opens at 6 a.m. and offers a great breakfast burrito. (307-587-7707). Our Place (307-527-4420) has home-cooked breakfast and lunch and is very friendly to climbers. For dinner, check out the Wyoming Rib and Chop House (ribandchophouse.com) in downtown Cody; it serves everything from cheap buffalo burgers to a nice Wyoming steak. The Terrace Restaurant and Bar (307-587-5868) provides a wide variety of food.
Author bio: Few are as dedicated to ice climbing exploration as Aaron Mulkey, who has spent the last decade systematically searching the canyons of northern Wyoming. He moved to Cody in 1999 and has established more than 50 climbs in the region.