MCA Ice Fest

 Ice Fest... Climbing fun for everyone!

Ice Fest... Climbing fun for everyone!

I am a horrible member of the Mountaineering Club of Alaska (MCA). I only attend one event a year: " Ice Fest". Most of my problem is the club meets on Tuesdays... and I am perpetually priory engaged with training on Tuesday nights. That said, from what I can tell, I am missing out. There is a ton of knowledge of the outdoors and mountains held by the membership of the MCA and everyone seems more than happy to share what they know. And it sounds like there are a number of trips that the club sponsors. Anyway, on to Ice Fest. 

Ice Fest occurs around the end of each September; usually the third weekend of the month. This is my third Ice Fest, and the 40th anniversary of the event. From my point of view, the organizers seem to have things worked out to a fine art at this point. Whatever happens behind the scenes, as a student participant, things have been great all three years I have gone. The event has gotten so big that they had to put a cap on registration this year... so if you want to do it, register early next year to make sure you get in!

What is Ice Fest?  It is two days of 130 students going out on a glacier and learning how to climb ice. Skill levels range from having never seen crampons before to having lead ice climbs before. We get divided up into groups of 10-12 students, based somewhat loosely on skill level and experience. Each group has three instructors (all volunteers just there to share what they know! Thanks instructors!!) who are knowledgeable in the ways of climbing ice and glacier travel. We meet up at 9 am in the parking lot on the first day and head out. Depending on your skill level, instruction will start with the basics or you will get right into climbing. You spend all day on the ice and head back to the parking lot around 4. 

 Students and instructors out on the ice!

Students and instructors out on the ice!

Instruction varies depending on the group you are in. In my three years of attendance, I have had basic instruction: 

 Sharp pointy things on my feet. 

Sharp pointy things on my feet. 

  • how to put on a crampon and walk on it;
  • the difference between a mountaineering axe and in ice tool;
  • how you swing an ice tool

to more intermediate instruction: 

  • keep your heels down when you climb;
  • how to build an anchor;
  • how to build a v-thread;
  • how to place an ice screw

to more advanced techniques:

  • Let's mock lead climb ;
  • let's learn a figure 4 (aka somehow make your body into a pretzel... while wearing pointy things on your feet and hanging off a single ice tool);
  • let's climb overhangs!

So there is something for everyone there. After you get back from the ice, everyone heads back to camp (the club rents out a camping area for the weekend; a lot of the fee for the event go to paying for this and for the glacier access) and grab some dinner. Some people head up to the Long Rifle and for a hot meal. Others make some Mountain House or grill out... whatever your style is. Later in the evening, the club provides wood for a bonfire and a keg or two. Festivities last well into the night... 

Groups meet up for day two of climbing somewhere between 8 and 10 the next day. The instructors get some liberty of start time. Spend another day on the glacier practicing climbing before heading back to real life in the evening. 

As a side note, if you are interested in attending next year, have never climbed, and have no gear, don't let that stop you!  All gear aside from the harness and your clothing can be rented. Alaska Mountaineering and Hiking (AMH) has a special rental rate for the weekend. REI also rents gear. The club also has some gear to rent out. Expensive, high end ice tools are available to demo. Or you can just borrow someone's; not everyone will be climbing at once! You just need to beg, borrow, (please don't) steal, craigslist, or just buy a climbing harness.  

Anyway, onto a brief description of my experience this year:

 Headed out to find a climbing spot!

Headed out to find a climbing spot!

The camp ground is rented from Friday through Monday. There is the option to camp Friday night. I elected to drive up Saturday morning this year. It is about 2 hours from my house in south Anchorage. I met up with my group right at 9 on the dot. 

 Yup, this is a selfie from the top of the route. I was pretty sure I was going to drop my phone.... 

Yup, this is a selfie from the top of the route. I was pretty sure I was going to drop my phone.... 

This year, my group had people who have never climbed ice and people who have lead ice. In the past, the groups I have been in have been a little more homogeneous in skill. I have cleaned some multi pitch waterfall routes before. It wasn't pretty, but I didn't die so I think it was a success. I aspire to be confident enough to lead these routes. Maybe someday. Regardless, it was a great group of enthusiastic climbers ready to learn!

We headed out to the picnic tables where we stopped to put on crampons. We got a bit of history from one of our instructors about the "French" and "German" techniques of using crampons. After some helpful tips of "remember you have sharp things on your feet and walk carefully" and "walk up and down slopes using these techniques" we headed off to find a place to climb. We ended up in an interesting area with a few other groups. 

Some of instructors set up some top ropes while the rest demonstrated belay and climbing techniques. The routes we had were long, but with breaks. There would be 20 feet of ice, then an ice ledge to climb over before continuing up another 15 feet, then another ledge, then 20 feet of vertical ice to the top. As the day wore on the ice went from solid and more brittle to soft and wet. Ice that had frozen over (small) deep water filled crevasses melted. One unfortunate guy dropped an ice tool down this. It is long gone; a mountaineering axe sunk shoulder deep didn't even come close to touching the bottom or retrieving the tool. And here we learn the value of leashing your tools! This a point my instructor made a few times throughout the weekend. Way to drive the point home. We spent about 5 hours climbing before we had to tear down the setup and head back. 

We got back to the parking lot and I went through my gear and tried to organize it to some degree. One of my instructors from last year saw me; she was looking for some people to head up to the Long Rifle. Sure! A cheese burger sounds great. We headed up and meet up with some other climbers. 

After dinner, she dropped me off at my truck and I headed from the glacier parking lot to the camp. Last year I made the mistake of camping right by the fire pit and wanting to sleep at 12 am while the party was still going on. This year, I located the fire and parked as far away as possible. I spent some time (still) organizing gear for tomorrow and headed over to the bonfire around 8.  

 Sweet shot on the wall... photo courtesy of one of my group members, Jon. 

Sweet shot on the wall... photo courtesy of one of my group members, Jon. 

I didn't know anyone. So I did what I do best; stand around awkwardly not knowing what to do with myself. I ended up chatting with a few people and running into an acquaintance from college. Turns out we both like outdoor activities! So that was cool to reconnect there.  Around 10, I was tired and headed to my truck. 

 Climbing all sorts of features!

Climbing all sorts of features!

I was too lazy to set up a tent and my backseat is spacious so I just threw my pad and sleeping bag out and called it good. 

My group met at 10 on Sunday. I had plenty of time to make some instant coffee and try to figure out how to heat up my breakfast burrito with my Jet Boil. I burned part of it, but the rest was luke-warm and delicious. I rolled up to the parking lot around 9:40. We were the last group to head out and took a few stragglers who missed their group meet up times with us. 

We ended up on the same spot of ice as before. Today's goal was to learn how to lead climb. I helped demonstrate lead climbing. I belayed the leader up and then followed and cleaned the route. I helped set the v-threads and anchor before rappelling down.  We spent the day mock leading, practicing anchors, and of course, climbing lots of ice. 

We headed back to the parking lot around 4. After a great weekend, it was time to drive home and think about all the future ice and mountain climbing I aspire to do!