West Virginia’s fleeting ice flows are here today, gone tomorrow.
When the Mountain State is deep within the grip of Old Man Winter, Chris Bailey keeps a very specific emergency pack in his truck. This pack doesn’t have flares or fuel, but it does contain a rope, crampons and ice axes. The emergency is one of epic proportions: an ice flow has come in, and suddenly everything in Bailey’s life takes a backseat.
He might be the strong, silent type, but he knows how to break the ice. Bailey, owner of Rising Sun Construction in Morgantown, has over 21 years of climbing experience under his extensive tool belt. From multi-pitch traditional routes to classic mountaineering summits, Bailey has climbed everything from the vertical rock of Idaho’s iconic Elephant’s Perch to the ice and snow on Mount Rainier in Washington State.
But cut to his core, and you’ll find his true passion is hunting—and climbing—Appalachia’s ephemeral ice flows. “The ice comes in so different every year,” Bailey says. “If you’re an ice climber, when the ice comes in, you take off work; you do whatever you have to. It’s only there for a day sometimes; there’s just this jewel diamond element to it.”
“There’s this research and planning aspect of it. You have to be a weather man, you have to be an explorer, and you have to be able to get out of work when you need to or you’re not gonna get a lot of climbing done in the winter. Just because ice forms one season doesn’t mean it’s going to come in the next. That’s the ethic of ice climbing here. It’s so ephemeral, but if people are willing to search it out, there’s this wealth of great climbing.” –Chris Bailey
Bailey laughs when he recalls his first ice climbing experience: top roping a flow on a road cut outside Charleston, WV. “The ice was thin and the cars were driving by,” he says. “I remember we didn’t know not to stand right under the ice as someone was climbing it; the ice breaks and falls off on your belayer. We used regular old static climbing ropes; the ropes weren’t dry treated to resist water, so they were frozen and basically like steel cables.”
Fast forward 16 years and Bailey has climbed ice all over West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, as well as the Adirondacks, the Catskills, New Hampshire, and big flows in Alberta, Canada. “I took the ginger style I developed in West Virginia into my other climbing experiences,” he says. “Swing just hard enough to pull yourself up, but not hard enough to break the ice.”
West Virginia ice can be tricky. According to Bailey, Appalachia’s continuous freeze-thaw cycles mean the ice doesn’t temper well. He uses the analogy of a blacksmith forging a sword to explain the conundrum: if the blacksmith poured the iron into the form and simply let it cool, the blade would shatter upon first strike. The blacksmith’s tedious process of heating, pounding, cooling, and reheating the iron is what tempers it, strengthening the blade every time the process is repeated. The same goes for ice—flows that form quickly and don’t stick around for very long are brittle and don’t maintain contact with the rock on which they formed. Ice flows that can withstand direct sunlight and temperature fluctuations grow thicker and strengthen with each daily cycle.“What makes ice climbing in West Virginia tough is that the ice forms quickly and goes away very quickly; it doesn’t have a chance to temper; it never gets thick enough to where a few sunny days won’t take it down,” Bailey says. “It delaminates from the rock, and it remains very brittle. If you hit it with an ice tool, a lot of times it’ll fracture in a way that you don’t want. It’s unpredictable; it can be fine or it can completely shatter and fall apart.”
For Bailey, this element of ephemerality adds to the adventure. “As an ice climber, you start to see leaves change, you feel the crispness in the air, and you start to become excited about those drools of ice that may appear,” he says.
Kevin Shon shares in that excitement. Shon, program coordinator for the Outdoor Recreation Center and climbing program manager for Adventure WV at West Virginia University, has been climbing rock for 15 years and ice for five. Partner to Bailey on previous outings, Shon is part of the tight-knit community of local ice climbers who make due with West Virginia’s fleeting flows. “The ice is in and out real quick here,” he says. “You’ve got to go when the goods are in. In our area, the odds are good, but the goods are odd.”
Bailey keeps a detailed journal, filled with aspects of places he’s climbed, places where he’s seen ice in previous seasons, and cliffs that have potential for ice. “Throughout the year, most cliffs have wet spots where moss and vegetation hang down, you think ‘water must drip here.’ You make it a point to look for those conditions, and you drop everything to get out when the ice comes in.”
Often times, those conditions happen after sunset. With the work day over and no direct sunlight, climbers are free and ice has better chance of forming. “Night climbing is often the scene,” Shon says. He encourages skeptics not to be dissuaded by the cold—having cold weather gear, like synthetic wool layers and a down jacket, is crucial. “I’d definitely recommend a thermos of hot drink,” he adds. “Know we have to climb at night and know we have to climb in the cold—it goes a long way.”
Bailey is quick to point out that lead climbing Appalachian ice is risky. “I can be bold, but I want to be smart when I’m bold,” he says. “It does tend to be adventurous; you can’t really fall in West Virginia.” In addition to rock and ice, climbers should expect mixed routes to include dirt and roots. “With a lot of ice climbing in West Virginia, you’re gonna end up climbing frozen dirt, hooking tree roots, just doing things you typically wouldn’t want to be doing when you’re climbing.”
Bailey’s most memorable ice climbing experience is one that is no longer available due to access closure. Somewhere between Elkins and Seneca Rocks on Route 33, 100-foot ice flows reliably form each winter. “Ice as thick as a Volkswagen,” he says. “It’s reliable for leads, but some had 30 to 40-feet of frozen grass and dirt to top out; some of the scariest ice climbing experiences I’ve ever had.”
While the Rt. 33 flows are now closed to ambitious climbers, Bailey suggests the perennial ice in Connellsville, PA, as a safe—and legal—alternative. “The ice doesn’t come in as reliably, but it’s almost just as tall and just as cool,” he says. For a more adventurous outing, Bailey prefers to seek out mixed routes that form in the Cheat River Canyon. He and Shon have climbed flows in the Bull Run area of the Canyon, and have plans to seek out new lines this season.
Because the quality of rock and ice often aren’t conducive to safe ice or mixed leads, Bailey recommends setting up top ropes whenever possible. Make sure you can spot where the ice contacts the rock to make sure it’s formed completely. “One of worst things a beginner can do, besides personal safety mistakes, would be going to an ice crag when the ice isn’t ready and bashing it up before it has chance to form,” Shon says. Helmets are an absolute must—chunks of ice will fall near the belayer. “It’s just part of ice climbing,” Shon adds. “Chunks of cascading ice can bruise and cut. Belayers and bystanders both should be positioned out of the way as much as possible.”
Shon advises those transitioning from rock to be aware of differences in technique between rock and ice climbing. “A lot of rock climbers think there’s a smooth carry over to ice climbing, but it’s markedly different,” he says. “The footwork is especially unique. There is no smearing or edging; you’re essentially using the points of your crampons at all times.”
How to get started
- Seek a mentor
CB: “I think everyone should have a mentor. The word mentor is not in our lexicon anymore; you’re gonna need a good mentor unless you want to die.”
KS: “Find someone who has your best interests in mind when you go out.”
- Read, research, study
CB: “I’d read and reread Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills.”
KS: “Books are important to do your homework. I recommend Ice and Mixed Climbing: Modern Technique by Will Gadd.”
- Have an adventurous spirit
CB: “Ice Climbing is about exploring, not chasing grades. When we’re out ice climbing, we’re becoming more connected with the earth and the landscape around it.”
KS: “The perception of ice climbing is that it’s uncomfortable because it’s cold. The reality is that there are a lot ways to stay warm, so don’t be discouraged.”
- Find used gear
CB: “There’s something special about starting with gear that’s a little older. I find it a little nostalgic; it goes with the crazy nature of ice climbing. You’re gonna be bushwhacking; none of the ice climbing areas here have trails to them. You don’t want to hike in with a $300 pair of pants, because you won’t walk out with a $300 pair of pants.”
KS: “Try and borrow as much gear as you can in the beginning. Know how to take care of and sharpen the points of your crampons and picks of your ice tools. Turf (ground) shots up high on routes are common, and hitting rock can fold the points over.”
Where to ice climb:
- WV— Cheat Canyon: Bull Run
Morgantown: “Toyota Falls” in White Park
Summersville Lake: Whippoorwill
- PA— Connellsville
Ohiopyle: Meadow Creek
- MD— Swallow Falls State Park