5 Best Early Season Ice Climbing Areas in Wyoming
Northern Wyoming is home to several fantastic early season ice climbing venues that are among the first waterfall ice climbing areas to come in nationwide. Below-freezing temperatures arrive in the state’s high-elevation mountain ranges sometimes as early as late August. Shortly after, ice climbs start to form in the highest elevation venues above 11,000’ (mostly in the Bighorn and Wind River Mountains) from mid to late September. In mid to late October, the 9-10,000’ venues such as Carter Mountain near Cody start getting cold enough to form good ice and by November there’s ice climbing all over the state. As local ice climbing guides it’s our job to scout, climb, and guide these areas as soon as they are in good condition, so we are incredibly fortunate to be among the first people in the country to climb waterfall ice in the country each year. Lots of eager ice climbers have asked us questions about where to find good ice during the fall months in Wyoming, so we thought we’d share some of our favorite early season ice climbing venues for more folks to enjoy!
1. Cloud Peak Wilderness, Bighorn Mountains
Cloud Peak Wilderness is remote, rugged, and lesser known for its ice climbing than the surrounding mountain ranges, but the area reliably produces some of the first waterfall ice climbing in the country. We’ve climbed ice in the higher reaches of the Bighorns as early as the first week of September. The approaches are often long (>5 miles) but the lack of snow in the early fall makes for quick hiking and significantly reduced avalanche hazard compared to the spring season. The climbing is incredible, with a range of moderate to very challenging ice and mixed climbs on big granite faces high in the alpine. Some of our favorite climbs in the area include Thundercloud Couloir (WI3 M5) in the Lost Twin Lakes cirque and the East Face of Bighorn Peak, which is home to two challenging 1500’ mixed routes (both WI5 M6-7) of exceptional quality.
2. Carter Mountain, Absaroka Mountains
Carter Mountain is the most accessible early season ice climbing area in northern Wyoming and is home to several classic ice and mixed climbs. Historically, Carter Mountain was the first ice climbing area to be climbed near Cody and it’s consistently the first Cody venue to be climbed each season. The north facing aspect and high elevation of Carter Mountain means that ice starts forming early in October and is often ready to climb by the end of the month. The nature of the climbing is akin to the South Fork but with shorter approaches as the Carter Mountain Access Road takes you within a mile of most of the climbs. Our go-to climbs in the area are Curtains (WI3), a three-pitch moderate with a ten minute approach; the Wig (WI5), a steep and challenging pillar; and Aaron’s Gift (WI4 M5), a moderate trad mixed climb on excellent rock.
3. Snowy Range, Medicine Bow Mountains
The quartzite crags of the Snowy Range near Laramie, Wyoming feature excellent Scottish-style traditional mixed climbing in the fall. The area is east facing and receives a good deal of sun exposure, so it normally takes until late October or early November for ice to form from snow melt in the Snowies’ northeast facing gullies. As the area is very high in elevation and has no real spring-fed water sources, there is only one consistent waterfall ice climb three pitches in length (the Sundial Route) but it is very prone to avalanches. The safer and higher quality climbing is more mixed in nature and follows ice runnels, turf ledges, and sinker pick seams in large dihedral systems up to 6 pitches in length. Highway 130 closes in mid November after the snow starts to pile up, so the area is best climbed before then. Our favorite climbs in the area are on the Old Main formation and range from M4-M6 in difficulty.
4. Pilot Creek, Absaroka Mountains
The upper Clarks Fork Valley near Pilot Peak is an excellent single pitch ice and mixed climbing venue readily accessible from the road in the early season. The limestone bands above Pilot and Index Creeks contain dozens of quality waterfall ice and bolted mixed climbs ranging from WI3-WI5 and M5-M10. Area classics include Corner Pocket (WI3), the Sword of Damocles (WI5), Superfly (M8), and Rocket Man (M9). The climbing season typically runs from November to March but a snowmobile or ski tour is required for access starting in early December.
5. South Fork Valley, Absaroka Mountains
The South Fork is Wyoming’s premier ice climbing destination and one of the best places to ice climb in the continental US. The central valley of the South Fork is home to over 300 pitches of waterfall ice and many more climbs can be found in the more remote parts of the drainage. South Fork ice climbs are generally challenging with 1-3 mile approaches, have multiple pitches, and range in difficulty from WI3 to WI6. Several of the most classic multipitch ice climbs in the country are located in the South Fork, including Broken Hearts (WI5-6, 9 pitches), Mean Green (WI4-5, 7 pitches), High on Boulder, (WI4, 3 pitches), and Main Vein (WI3+, 5 pitches). Conditions range from year to year, but generally the climbing season in the South Fork is one of the longest in the country and runs from early November to mid April.