Hardcore Alaska

Ice-Climbing for Credits


Staff Writer, UAS Whalesong 

Imagine clinging to the face of a frozen waterfall, called the curtain, with only ice tools and crampons.  

Twenty-two UAS Outdoor Studies students spent four days on vertical ice walls from February 8 – 11. After a preliminary class on campus, they took an Alaska Marine Highway ferry to Skagway to learn how to ice climb. 

On the trip students learned how to tie knots, belay, use ice tools and crampons, and the correct climbing form. While on the ice, students learned to keep feet parallel, loosen their grip, get good placement of hands and feet into the ice with both the ice tools and crampons (called sticks in climbing jargon), trust the equipment and stay confident while climbing. These tips helped them progress onto more advanced climbs. 

Climbers of all skill levels participated in the class. 

Matt Berry, geography and environmental studies major with an ODS emphasis, was the volunteer teaching assistant for the class. He took the ice climbing class last year and was excited to do it again. 

“This trip was a lot of fun,” Berry said. “For me, it was about being in a leadership position and help control and allow the students to learn how to ice climb, anchor, and learn everything that goes into ice climbing.”

The climbing locations were informally referred to as the bouldering wall, the amphitheater, the curtain, and the lead wall.  All locations were about 300-400ft in elevation along the Klondike Highway. The bouldering wall was a strip of ice for practice along the side of the road, the amphitheater was a tall advanced ice wall, pillars of ice from a waterfall formed the curtain, and students practiced leading on the lead wall. Forest Wagner, Assistant Professor of Outdoor Studies, has been teaching ice climbing for about 15 years. He has climbed at the four spots for a decade because they hold the ice even when it’s warm. 

“This trip went really well in the sense that everyone’s climbing advanced,” Wagner said. “One of the outcomes is that people feel confident doing the activity without me there and I think that’s probably realistic for this group, and I don’t feel like that with every group.” 

On the last day, the students had the opportunity to lead a climb. Instead of Wagner and assistants setting up belays, a group of about seven students climbed a route up the lead wall while continuously setting in ice screws as their only protection if they fell. Once they got to the top they made an anchor and threw down a rope for the rest of the class to climb on. This tested their abilities and showed them how it would be to climb alone or how to set up a route for other people.  

UAS freshman Sadie Inman took the challenge of leading a climb on the last day. 

“It’s really scary to lead but it’s mostly a mental game,” Inman said, “and you have to make sure that all of your points are good, but you also can’t get too scared otherwise you get sloppy. I got sloppy for a minute there but you just have to shake it off and keep going.” 

She said she is grateful for the ODS program because it helped her realize she doesn’t want to work in a lab for the rest of her life. 

“The ODS program gives a bunch of college students the ability to learn cool skills, and it’s a really cool opportunity to have ice climbing or glacier travel. No other college really has that,” she said. 

The UAS ODS program offers many courses that get students into Alaska’s outdoors and moving. It also teaches various skills, like climbing, that can’t be taught in a classroom.  

Berry said he wants to be a professional mountain guide and loves ODS because it is designed to give practical and technical skills that are required for the profession. 

“This ODS program gives me the skills that goes in conjunction with my environmental studies degree,” he said. 

Madison Perry is an exchange student at UAS from Missouri, studying ecology. She had never climbed before and said she really liked ice climbing. 

“I came to Alaska and I thought ‘what is the most Alaskan thing I could do?’ and it turns out it was ice climbing,” Perry said. “This class was the one that screamed hardcore Alaska.”

(Editor’s Note: Whalesong reporter Kortney Stevens, an exchange student from Utah, and photographer Sierra Lissick , a transfer student from California, were also on the ice climbing trip.  “It was very exciting, life changing, and I learned a lot,” Stevens reported. “I am grateful that I had the chance to go and experience something so extraordinary with some amazing people.” 

“It was really liberating, in the sense of doing something new and accomplishing it. Summit fever is real, and it was worth all the physical pain” Lissick said.)

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