Frozen Ascent

The devotees of Pennsylvania’s most elusive sport are waiting for their next challenge.

photo by Rob Ginieczki


Rob Ginieczki says he still remembers when “vertical football fields of ice” formed over the Laurel Highlands.

A weather system called an Alberta clipper had sent a shot of clear, cold air through the Great Lakes states in January 1997. Ginieczki and other ice climbers wait the entire year for such weather: cold enough to create solid, blue ice on every surface where water flows or seeps but clear enough to leave their ascent unhindered by snow. The formation that appeared on a mountain rock quarry near Connellsville “rivaled anything I have seen on the East Coast,” says Ginieczki, author of the “Griz Guides” series of ice climbing and mountain biking books. “It was 250 feet of vertical-to-overhanging ice.”

Ginieczki and his friends geared up, made the first ascent of what they dubbed “The Secret Cliffs” and looked down at the endless rolling hills of western Pennsylvania. Ginieczki won’t disclose the exact location of the Secret Cliffs; there are issues regarding access and property rights. Even if he did divulge those details, it’s not like you could visit the location tomorrow.

Ice climbing is Pennsylvania’s most fleeting sport. Although alpine climates offer a full season of scaling, local destinations such as Ohiopyle State Park and the Chestnut Ridge provide winterized cliffs, ridges and waterfalls for a few weeks at most.

Still, when the climbing options are there, they are choice, according to the small community of aficionados who wait all year for them. “The sandstone [in western Pennsylvania] is really compressed and gives you excellent friction where there is rock,” says Fred Gunter, owner of Exkursion Outfitters, an online retailer of outdoor gear. “That ties into ice climbing because with the type of strata we have here cracks go very deep and allow surface flow to accumulate into ideal ice. Go to these places [in the fall] and you’ll see just a little seepage, but winter is a different world.”

The sport requires an uncanny amount of mental focus and upper-body strength. Climbers use crampons to stay affixed to the ice, but they climb by digging into the surface with ice picks and pulling their bodies with a chin-up-style motion. There are two options for security in the event of a fall: A climber can hike to the top of a formation before the climb, tie a “top rope” around a tree or other sturdy anchor and attach it to a body harness. Or, a climber can place an ice screw hooked to the harness into the cold surface every 10 to 20 feet.

“It takes mental discipline and safety consideration,” says Tim Anderson, author of the climbPA blog. “You are talking about climbs that have only been there for a couple of days or even hours. No one has tested them before.”

Most ice climbers are experienced rock climbers. Novices can sign up for outings through the Explorers Club of Pittsburgh or the Allegheny Outdoor Institute. That would provide a taste of the experience before shelling out $1,000 to purchase necessary equipment.

It’s a heavy cost for a sport that at most can be practiced six weeks out of the year. For western Pennsylvania’s group of a few dozen hardcore ice climbers, though, the idle months just lead to gleeful anticipation.

“When that week of sunny days and single-digit temperatures comes, every ice climber will be out there,” says Gunter. 

Want to learn more about the sport? Try these sites to start:

Categories: Sports