Ice climbing in Ithaca has long been a hidden treasure of sorts, outlawed officially but not strictly enforced, and the area’s gorges make it an attractive destination for climbers looking for an acceptable spot to ply their trade.
There are no shortages of locations, such as Taughannock Falls, Six Mile Creek Gorge, Buttermilk Falls, Tinker Falls and a host of others. The waterfalls take some time to freeze over but once they are solid, they can be climbed for months as long as temperatures stay low enough.
A feasibility study was commissioned in early 2015 to assess the ice climbing possibilities in Tompkins County, funded through a $13,800 grant from the Tompkins County Tourism Program. The study was designed to examine whether or not it would be safe to legalize ice climbing around Tompkins County, bearing in mind that the increased tourism and possible permit revenue could provide a monetary boost to the city during the barren winter months.
Currently, the only way to legally ice climb around the area is with a special permit acquired through the city or county government. The only officially sanctioned program of ice climbing is run through Cornell’s Outdoor Education program, an elective course held over the winter at Lick Brook Falls that is open to the public as well as students.
Rob Cook, who manages the ice climbing program for Cornell, said the ice climbing program is always one of their most popular outdoor winter classes, routinely filling up quickly and developing a waiting list. Much of the classes are taught by community members, as well as Cornell or Ithaca College students.
Cook, who has been climbing both ice and rock for years, said the feeling of ice climbing can be very satisfying, especially with a decent freeze. An Ithaca College grad, he started while there and hasn’t stopped since. While rock climbing can be somewhat straightforward, since the surface hardly ever changes, Cook said he enjoys the dynamism of climbing ice, a terrain that is undergoing constant subtle changes.
“The movement of it is enjoyable, the way your body moves,” Cook said. “It’s a challenge, and it’s also a really unique environment. It’s cool to get out in the winter when it’s less comfortable, but if you can overcome that and deal with those things […] it’s pretty cool to climb a frozen waterfall.”
Ithacan ice climbers are hoping, however, for a much colder winter than last year’s, when warmer temperatures meant a less solid, and sometimes nonexistent, freeze on the gorges. Cornell’s class was cancelled last year, but Cook’s hopes are up that this year’s winter will come through.
Danger is undeniably a deterrence for prospective ice climbers, and that same factor has scared off legislators and other organizations, such as the state parks, from allowing ice climbing. Cook said as far as he knows, Cornell’s program has not had any accidents. Cook said there are some groups that have pushed for legalization, but the movement has not yet reached the level that would incur any change.
As for its attractiveness to the general public, Cook said ice climbing can be a great group activity; it basically forces socializing since you are almost always with someone else and communicating for safety as you scale the façade.
“It’s a thrill and it’s fun to go out with your friends,” he said. “It’s something to do outside and spend time with others. That’s a really enjoyable part of it.”