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Outfitted with only ice tools and crampons, more than 100 elite athletes from around the world will take to the Mile High City to scramble their way up 60-foot-high walls of ice during the 17th annual UIAA World Cup Ice Climbing competition finals, which takes place February 22–24 in Denver’s Civic Center Park.
Though ice-climbing competitions date back to the early 20th century in Italy, this is the first time the UIAA finals are being held in the U.S.—and Colorado was a natural choice for the first American venue. “This is a big deal,” says Vickie Hormuth, director of strategic partnerships for the American Alpine Club (AAC), the organization tasked with hosting the event. “Bringing events like this to a major metropolitan city, where we can gain more visibility for the event and get more people interested in competing as athletes and, in particular, developing youth interest—those are some of the things we hope this event will do.”
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More than 20,000 people are expected to attend the weekend’s event, which features two mind-bending competitions—lead climbing and speed climbing—as well as a free Barbegazi festival, which includes family-friendly activities such as an ice maze, ax throwing, a fat-tire biking course, and snowball targets, as well as food trucks and libations from an ice bar and beer garden.
Though both competitions are enthralling to watch, they couldn’t be more different. The lead climbing competition requires a delicate ballet of power and grace, as competitors use crampons, ice tools, and specially designed holds to clip a rope in and navigate the course—sometimes balancing on nothing more than a pencil-tip wide piece of steel while dangling upside-down to advance to the next hold. Adding another layer of complexity, competitors won’t see the wall and its obstacles until the competition begins.
“Since there’s such a small surface area that’s in contact with the wall, just the tip of the tool, you have to move really slowly and deliberately,” explains Colorado-based Corey Buhay, who is competing for the U.S. team in both the lead climbing and speed climbing events. “It’s really graceful, but by nature, a lot less dynamic.”
Speed climbing, on the other hand, is exactly as it sounds—an all-out, vertical 100-meter dash, during which two competitors scramble up an icefall at top speeds, using razor sharp ice picks and crampons. It’s awe-inspiring to watch, but also dangerous. “The speed climbing event has a history of athletes putting the ultra-sharp tools through their hands while competing,” Buhay says. “What’s considered good technique and good form in regular ice climbing is totally opposite of speed climbing, which is just like move fast, don’t look at your feet, hack at anything, and don’t move deliberately.”
Hormuth is part of the team tasked with overseeing not just the planning of the event, but also the development of the ice walls, which were crafted in partnership with Boulder’s Eldorado Climbing Walls and Ohio-based Clark Reder Engineering. While ice climbing competitions overseas take place in permanent facilities, Denver’s structure is temporary. Hormuth says it’ll be up in the park for about two weeks.
“We wanted to make a wall that’s different and challenging, since it’s the final event and we’ll have the top athletes here,” Hormuth says. “So our wall…is like a square archway and the entire top of the wall has three-dimensional hanging and swinging obstacles. Those are quite difficult as the athletes move horizontally on that takes a lot of skill and balance. It should be exciting climbing.”
If you go: The Barbegazi and 2019 UIAA World Cup Ice Climbing Championships takes place in Civic Center Park, February 22–24. See the full schedule here. You can also watch the events on the American Alpine Club website or the UIAA, as well as the Olympic Channel and the Extreme Channel.