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Midwesterners reach new heights with silo ice climbing

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Ice climbers prepare to ascend 70-foot-tall silos outside Cedar Falls, Iowa. University of Northern Iowa instructor Don Briggs began icing the silos seven years ago, and teaches a one-credit ice climbing class at the school. (Courtesy of Andy Rowland)

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University of Northern Iowa instructor Don Briggs ascends ice on a 70-foot-tall Cedar Falls, Iowa silo. Briggs began icing silos seven years ago, and teaches a one-credit ice climbing class at the university. (Courtesy of Andy Rowland)

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Climber Brett Mjelde pauses in an ice cave during his ascent up a 70-foot-tall silo outside Cedar Falls, Iowa.University of Northern Iowa instructor Don Briggs began icing the silos seven years ago, and teaches a one-credit ice climbing class at the school. (Courtesy of Andy Rowland)

The four large gray silos tower above the Iowa plains, monuments to the Farm Belt sitting unused on a 160-acre farm just outside Cedar Falls.

But on one side of the steel tubes, a bright thick sheet of ice runs nearly all the way up the 70-foot tall silo, where it’s been slowly freezing for nearly three days.

The silos, once used to feed cattle, have found a new life as an unorthodox training facility for an ice-climbing class taught by the University of Northern Iowa.

Climbing enthusiasts living in the vertically challenged Great Plains don’t have a lot of options for practicing their sport. But Don Briggs, an instructor at the university, has found a way to rise above the problem.

Using three water hydrants and hoses up to 300 feet long, Briggs began freezing layers of ice on a friend’s silo to practice ice climbing in the winter of 2000. Seven years later he’s still at it, expanding his activities to three adjacent silos, an annual climbing competition with national sponsorship and a for-credit class at the university.

“My whole life I had seen people ice climbing,” said Thomas Robertson, a sophomore at UNI who took the class in early 2006. “I wanted to do that, but growing up in Iowa I never had the chance. It was really cool.”

Briggs’ inspiration for the ice-climbing project came to him out of the blue one day.

“I was helping my friend in his fields and started looking at his silos,” he said. “I started wondering if I could climb them. Then I said, 'Ah, winter’s coming soon, it’s getting cold.' But I thought, ‘What if I hose them down, and climb the ice?’”

Briggs decided to approach a farmer friend of his, Jim Budlong, with his proposal.

“I thought he’d tell me no, or think I was crazy,” Briggs said. “But he was in the middle of chores; he dropped his stuff and said, ‘You wanna start spraying right now?’”

The process Briggs uses to create the ice hasn’t changed much in seven years. A long hose is run up the side of each silo, with a showerhead-like attachment on the end.

Briggs says he and his crew have gotten the ice as thick as 6 to 8 feet in places, and it takes about three days of round-the-clock spraying to create a surface that’s safe enough to climb.

Each silo’s structure is inspected before spraying begins to ensure that it is structurally sound, but Briggs isn’t concerned about the possibility of collapse. Silos are built to withstand the forces the ice places on them, he says.

Climbers on the silos perform a “top-lead climb,” in which a rope is run from the ground to the top of the silo, around a pulley, and back to the climber. A person on the ground takes in line as the climber ascends.

Each climber is equipped with a pair of ice axes for the ascent, as well as a helmet, climbing harness and crampons, or spikes that strap on to a climber’s boots. The crampons have front-facing toe spikes for kicking into vertical ice as well as downward-facing spikes for sole traction. With the equipment, even a novice can move easily on the silos, said Will Gadd, a professional ice climber.

“They really make you pretty invincible when moving on ice,” Gadd said. “You would not fear a frozen sidewalk outside McDonald’s with these things.”

Climbs on the silos are free because under state law, organizers of an event cannot be held liable for injuries as long as they’re not charging a fee. Each participant is still asked to sign a waiver, but Briggs says so far there haven’t been any serious climbing-related injuries.

The project has spawned a few imitators around the state who have sought out Briggs for advice. Briggs published a book in 2003, “Silo Ice Climbing, Ice Climbing in the Midwest,” in an effort to spread the practice around the region.

The silos have gained national attention from an annual climbing competition that Briggs started in 2001. It has been sponsored by Red Bull and BackCountry.com, an online outdoor gear store. The competition wasn’t held this past season after Budlong sold the farm to a new owner who was leery of a full competition. But the new owner allowed the ice-climbing classes to continue.

Briggs says he expects the competition, which draws 40 climbers from 10 universities as far away as Saskatchewan, Canada, as well as 300 to 400 onlookers, to resume next year. Participants in the past have included Gadd, the X Games Ice Climbing champion in 1998 and 1999 and winner of the 2000 Ice World Cup.

“It’s not any different than real ice, that’s the great thing,” Gadd said. “You go to a gym, it’s plastic holds on a wall, but this is the real thing. It gets plenty cold in Iowa, and it’s water flowing down and freezing. It was a really fun event to drop into.”

Briggs’ project may be the only place to ice climb on a silo, but the practice of “ice farming,” or artificially creating real ice to climb, has become more common in the sport, Gadd said. He says other groups have created icefalls in natural terrain in Colorado and Utah, and on man-made structures in Russia.

Around campus there’s been a steady increase in the number of ice climbers since Briggs started his annual one-credit class, which runs from January to late February each year and draws about a dozen students.

Students taking the class often return to the silos during the winter months with friends in tow, and UNI senior Andy Rowland says the silos have started to catch on.

“The class is relatively small,” he said, “but we’re starting to get a lot of people out here climbing.”

E-mail: aac2127@columbia.edu