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One of ice climbing’s best secrets is a little gold-rush town in southern Alaska. Lucky for you and me, the town of about 4,000 at the foot of the Chugach Mountains host a three-day ice climbing festival every February. The Valdez Ice Climbing Festival is a bucket list event for ice climbers of all skill levels.
First, though, you have to get there. So let’s breakdown down that beta. The closest major airport is in Anchorage. Fly to there. February is the off-season in Alaska and flights are cheap. I flew from a small Midwestern airport to Denver International and then to Anchorage for $400 round trip—cheaper than driving my van to Colorado to ice climb. Tickets from Denver were $330 to $350 round trip.
Realize that when you land in Anchorage that it’ll likely be late at night or very early morning so you’ll want to get a hotel stay near the airport when you land. Rooms are easy to come by and inexpensive this time of the year.
You can get to Valdez two ways: A 45-minute flight from Anchorage or a five and a half hour journey by car. The $115 flight is the obvious choice, but prepare for both possibilities. My first flight to Valdez was canceled due to snow and driving became the only option. Rather than rent a car, check out Facebook for the rideshare/carpooling group of ice climbers, who like you will be heaing to the festival. That’s how I got my ride with Valdez local Jeremy Talbott—the definition of Alaskan hospitality.
Accommodation options in Valdez during winter are limited but good. I stayed at the Best Western and got free hot breakfast and free shuttles to and from the airport. The shuttles are key because the festival is based out of the airport, where you’ll find Puddle Jumpers Saloon and stock up with lunch for your excursion to Keystone Canyon.
The ice climbing in Keystone canyon was even better than I imagined. Ice flows tower 800 feet just a ropelength from the road. If you don’t want to lead just yet, topropes are set for the festival on the first pitch of Bridal Veil Falls, Greensteps, and Horsetail Falls. Over a dozen ropes await and are on a first-come first-serve basis. No clinic needed to enjoy the fat blue ice here.
Over the course of two days you can participate in clinics including a BIPOC Introduction to ice, steep ice with Marcus Garcia, and adventure photography with Eva Capozzola. I followed Marcus to the base of Greensteps (WI 4), to listen to him teach about efficient steep-ice climbing. As I looked up at the massive tiered ice flow I couldn’t help but think of the slogan for Valdez: “Even mother nature has favorites.”
Once we all had the basics, Marcus taught drills fixing our stances and grips as we climbed by having us tap our helmets in between tool placements. Next, I ventured to Tunnel Wall for a dry-tooling clinic with Kevin Lindlau. This was one of the most unique experiences I had as we were actually inside an old railroad tunnel.
Worn out from a day of climbing, I loaded back onto the shuttle withfellow climbers and headed back to the airport. After a brew Puddle Jumpers it was off to hear Marcus Garcia’s presententation on how climbing has changed his life.
Rest days in Valdez also offer unique opportunities. You can borrow ski gear or snowshoes from the middle school free for two days and go tool Valdez’s glacier lake, where you’ll see towering icebergs that got locked by winter. I got a stand-up paddleboard and paddled around in the port of Valdez watching sea otters dart through the water.
The hospitality and adventure that Valdez offers really make it one of a kind. I’ve never felt so welcome and celebrated as an ice climber—the locals were excited to see us enjoying their area and bringing business with us. Regrets? My three-day stay wasn’t long enough. I intend to remedy that next season.