What is a rock climber stuck in the gently rolling hills of Iowa to do? You might travel to a farm just outside of Cedar Falls, where prairie-bound mountaineers have found a way to test the confines of gravity by taking advantage of freezing temperatures.
80 feet of vertical ice… A frozen waterfall that covers the north side of a silo just west of Cedar Falls and a challenge to even the most experienced of climbers.
Charlie Wittmack, Explorer: ”Iowa is packed with outdoor opportunities. I mean the state is really filled with people like me doing tons of different things like / this. I mean this is world class climbing in Iowa.”
Charlie Wittmack knows a lot about climbing. He has stood atop mountain peaks all over the world and in 1993 became the first Iowan to climb the world’s highest mountain when he reached the summit of Mount Everest.
Charlie Wittmack, Explorer: “I mean we’re just out here training and having a good time. You know it’s great to come out here and bring new people into the sport in a setting that is very safe and accessible. Safe most of the time and it’s just fun. You know if you love the outdoors, you love doing stuff, and that’s what we’re doing out here.”
Dribbling water down from the top of a silo hoping that it would freeze so you could later climb it, was the brain child of Don Briggs. Don is a physical education instructor at the University of Northern Iowa. One day while helping a friend with some fieldwork he began eyeing the surrounding silos and imagining ways to climb them.
Don Briggs, University of Northern Iowa: “And then all of the sudden the light bulb went on. Maybe we could spray it down with water and if the ice would adhere to this silo, maybe that would work. So I asked the farmer and he said ”Sure go ahead. I don’t use the silos anyway and just help yourself, go ahead.”
Don received some expert advice and learned all one needs to make ice, is water and freezing temperatures. Both are readily available during an Iowa winter. Don also learned that to get the worlds attention, all you have to do is create a uniquely Iowa challenge.
Don Briggs, University of Northern Iowa: “We had actually a world champion ice climber from Canada. And he climbed the ice and he said this is one of the most difficult places to climb. I’ve climbed a lot of different places and silo ice climbing is more difficult than anything I’ve ever climbed because it’s pure vertical.”
The silo is open to anyone who cares to test Iowa’s gravitational pull. If you care to climb, all you need is warm clothing. The ropes, helmets, safety glasses, ice axes, harnesses, boots and crampons are all provided. $35.00 buys you an all day pass and a lesson on climbing with an emphasis on safety. And, If you should loose your grip, it also buys you the peace of mind, that the person on the other end of the rope is trained to keep you from an icy demise.
Don Briggs, University of Northern Iowa: “The biggest thing out here is our rule number one, no one gets hurt. Safety, safety, safety is what we practice at all the time. We check everything three times. We don’t need any injuries. You know we’re out here to have fun and not to get somebody hurt.”
People that have tested the ice encrusted silo range from experts to novices. Climbers have to be at least 10 years old but there is no upper age limit. So far, the oldest person to challenge the ice, was 86.
Jacob Steil: ”It takes a lot more arm strength than regular climbing and it’s a lot harder.”
Jacob made it all the way to the top of the silo but does belong to a climbing club and has the advantage of young muscles. It’s not an easy climb, and not everyone is capable of summiting the silo, where success is shared with the ring of a bell.
Don Briggs, University of Northern Iowa: “It really helps to be in -- in good shape for this. A lot of people think you have to be really strong upper body wise but actually it's your legs that get you up the silo. We've had -- I'm going to say maybe one in 25 people make it too the top their first time and most people get up about 10/20 feet and they start to fatigue. their arms get really tired because they've been using their arms to climb as opposed to their legs and they'll come back down and go into the warming house, get a cup of hot chocolate, and relax a little bit and then go back out and they always go higher the second time. So, it's a real quick learning curve with the -- the silo ice climbing and it's fun to watch the people progress as they -- they get better.”
The Silo is on Rusty Leymaster’s farm, about 3-1/2 miles west of Cedar Falls and just off Highway 57. It was 4 years ago Don Briggs approached Rusty with what seemed to be a questionable request to ice down one of his grain bins.
Rusty Laymaster: “I thought he was absolutely crazy and my youngest daughter happened to be home at the time. She said dad let's do that and Briggs hopped all over it and then like they say the rest is history. It took off from there. This gives me something to do in January and February when things are pretty slow around here. I mean it’s been very enjoyable”
At 80 feet, the silo is roughly the height of an 8-story building. The reward for climbers who reach the top is not only a feeling of accomplishment, but also a view that according to Don, “Is really pretty cool!” Climbs begin when temperatures are consistently below 26 degrees. You can check for climbing conditions or find directions to the silo by visiting siloiceclimbing.com.
Don Briggs, University of Northern Iowa: “My dream someday is to be driving down the highway and look off in the distance and see a silo, another silo, with ice on it and that somebody else is taking this on and run with it.”
Don has shown that there are plenty of Iowa fields where dreams can become realities and that if you build it, they will come.
Mary VanHeukelom: Oh, I think it's wonderful that Iowa has something like this. I think we have all these little hidden nuggets in Iowa and this is another one of those things. It is just beautiful, you know, you get out into the country and then all of the sudden you've got an opportunity like this right here in front of you.