Suspended halfway down a frozen waterfall, Dawn Glanc clings to the ice. Her hands grip two ice axes she planted into the ice with powerful swings. She digs the razor sharp teeth of her right crampon—a metal plate fixed to the bottom of her boot for traction—into the wall. Should she slip, a rope that connects her harness to an anchor high above her is the only thing stopping her from plummeting down into the gorge. The climber slowly lifts her left leg and does the unthinkable.
Glanc uses her foot to kick violently at a family of cascading icicles blocking an ice cave Glanc needs to repel into. The icicles, which seemed to have morphed into one large overhanging ice monster, chip away in small fragments at first, but as Glanc kicks harder, the pieces falling from the monster grow in size.
Large chunks of ice crash like glass onto the cavern floor, until one last kick provokes a deep bellowing from the ice, and then, the crack. The ice monster has been reduced to crystal wreckage on the floor of the cavern.
"The ice typically breaks the same way each time," Glanc says. "A crack propagates horizontally in a split second and the ice drops straight down. As long as the area below the icicle is free of people and your rope is out of the way, there is really no danger. You just have to be sure you can swing out of the way when you knock it down."
Glanc is a professional ice climber, a practitioner of a small but growing sport with Olympic aspirations. Competitors scale frozen waterfalls, giant slabs of ice and other steep inclines formed of rock and ice. The sport is extreme, dangerous, thrilling and edgy. On every repel or ascent, ice climbers face some of the harshest elements of winter—freezing temperatures and razor sharp icicles.
"Risk is a huge part of climbing," Glanc says. "Each day you have to assess how much risk you're willing to take." To enter the sport takes courage. To become a professional ice climber takes unmatched skill.
Glanc grew up in Brunswick, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland with an elevation of 1,171 feet—not exactly a mountain mecca. During her freshman year at Kent State University, she went on her first climb, taking on a beginner's route at Whipp's Ledges in nearby Hinckley. She quickly picked up the nuances of the sport and felt an urge for more.
At 21, Glanc left school, packed her belongings and moved to the Black Hills of South Dakota to pursue life as a rock and ice climber. She spent eight years there, earning an Outdoor Education degree from Black Hills State University and spending her off hours climbing, hiking, and exploring the incredible terrain.
By 2004, she was again ready to pack up and search for new mountains, new peaks, and new adventures. Glanc moved to Bellingham, Wash. and became a mountain guide for the American Alpine Institute (AAI). Adapting to the transient lifestyle of a mountain guide, she followed the guiding work as the seasons changed—spending summers in Bellingham and winters in Ouray, Colo. where she guided for both AAI and the San Juan Mountain Guides. In 2011, she took up year-round residency in Ouray.
In Ouray, Glanc works for a local mountain guiding service, but dedicates her free time to ice climbing. She's a frequent competitor in the Ouray Ice Festival—the largest Ice Climbing Competition in North America. At the festival, climbers compete in two separate events: Elite Mixed and Speed Climbing. In the Elite Mixed Competition, athletes are given a certain amount of time to ascend a wall whose terrain is a combination of rock and ice. In the Speed Climbing competition, climbers are again given a time limit to complete two adjacent ice routes.
"The mixed comp is harder," Glanc says. "You have one chance to make it as high as possible. No matter how hard you train and prepare, you could easily pop off a rock hold and blow it early on in the route." The Speed Climbing competition is more her style: "I do better at the speed comp because it is pure ice and low stress."
The Ouray Ice Festival is an official competition of the International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation's (UIAA) Ice Climbing Commission, the official body governing ice climbing as a sport. The UIAA claims more than 1 million mountaineers and climbers from 74 member organizations in 56 countries, and membership is growing every year. The group plans to showcase ice climbing competitions in Sochi, Russia, during the 2014 Winter Olympics. The move is part of the UIAA's efforts to one day place ice climbing among the sports included in the Winter Olympic Games.
If the UIAA is successful, an Olympic bid, would likely come well after Glanc's competing days. But for now, she ranks among the top athletes in ice climbing, having won the women's division at the Ouray Festival in 2009 and 2011. She also took first place at the 2012 Teva Winter Games in Vail, Colo. Other competitions have taken her to the steepest frozen waterfalls around the world—in Canada, France, Norway, Greece, Montenegro, Croatia and Iceland.
Whether she's scaling a wall in La Grave, France, or in her backyard in Ouray, Glanc doesn't dare challenge the ice alone. During climbs, her life is in the hands of the person belaying her, the person in charge of catching the rope if she loses her hold. Ice climbers are interdependent in that way, which is one reason why climbers have a tremendous sense of trust and community. To deepen that bond and encourage more female athletes to participate in the sport, this March Glanc and fellow guide Kitty Calhoun held an event in Ouray called Fem Fest, an Ice Climbing festival exclusively for female athletes.
"I encourage young girls to stand up and be something different," Glanc says. "Anyone can be a lump!"
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