Add water, temperatures consistently below 26 degrees and adventure seekers looking to take the boredom out of the long cold Iowa winters and you have a unique sport called “Silo Climbing.” If you have ever passed through the flat lands of Iowa, you would understand that ice climbing is a sport that one would only dream about experiencing close to home and not actually participate in.
Don Briggs, University of Northern Iowa Professor and Cedar Falls resident, was helping a friend till his farmland back in 2001 and a line of silos caught his attention. Briggs, an avid rock and ice climber, pondered how he could turn those silos into a means to assist himself in pursuing his hobby in the middle of miles of flat land. He researched and perfected icing the silos for climbing and now, nine years later, people from as far away as China have climbed these silos. Briggs also teaches a Silo Climbing class at the University where students receive Physical Education credit for the course.
Imperfect Women recently had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Zak Fleming who recently completed the Silo Climb. Zak is 32 years old and lives in the Des Moines, Iowa area. He is physically active participating in ice hockey, rock climbing and skiing and recently completed the Climb Iowa– finishing in 11th place with a time of 6:19. Climb Iowa is a fundraiser on behalf of the American Lung Association where the participants race to climb Iowa’s tallest building. It is a vertical stair climb of 41 floors.
IW: Welcome to Imperfect Women, Zak and thank you for taking the time to talk with us. This is really a very unusual sport. What motivated you to want to complete this climb?
ZF: I ‘ve been rock climbing and doing some trekking and light mountaineering for years so when the opportunity presented itself, I jumped on it. We are also working on some bigger trips where we might have the chance to use some of these ice skills so I wanted to try it to see if I liked it.
ZF: The place where we went is on a farm just outside of Cedar Falls where the University of Northern Iowa’s campus is. They do have another location for students to climb if they take an ice climbing class, but non students climb at the 1st location.
IW: What kind of equipment do you need and how expensive is it?
ZF: You need cold weather gear, special boots, helmet, climbing harness, ice axes for your hands and crampons which are the pointed cleats you wear on your boots. The silo provides everything you need to climb with the exception of the cold weather clothing. It does help to have your own gear as I didn’t need to wait in line to climb like my friends, but for $25 you get to climb as much as you want and all the equipment.
IW: Is this considered a type of sport in Iowa and are people competitive?
ZF: Ice climbing is a sport in general. As far as climbing silos, I think it should be considered a sport just because there is a lack of natural waterfalls to climb in Iowa. We do have some places to rock climb but there are few places in the country to ice climb natural features. Many places are starting to “farm ice”- pun intended- to create an environment for people to try the sport. There is a collegiate climbing competition held at the silo in February. My climbing friends and I are competitive and we try to out do each other by doing more difficult routes and using better techniques but the climbing community is very laid back and we help each other get better at the sport.
IW: Was this your first time?
ZF: This was my first time ice climbing and climbing a silo. I climb at an indoor climbing gym 2-3 times a week and travel a little to climb in the summer so I felt I was well prepared. However, my experience didn’t help with this as I was tired in my first 30 feet. Somehow I managed to pull it out and finish the climb, once I relaxed and got a rhythm going.
IW: What was your time climbing the silo?
ZF: I’m not sure but somewhere around 15 minutes. It feels like an hour. I ended up climbing four different routes all successfully. Topping out was the only real goal for me.
IW: How cold was it the day that you climbed?
ZF: It was pretty nice. About 20-28 degrees F and no real wind chill. The sun was out in the afternoon and I got a bit of sunburn on my face. It’s cold when you are standing around watching but you generate a lot of heat when you are climbing. My clothes are pretty good for this type of thing so I was comfortable -but they have a climbers shack to warm up in and grab some snacks and cocoa.
IW: It looks like the silo is pure ice. Can you tell us about the actual climb up to the top and how difficult it is?
ZF: It is pure ice, the silo just gives the ice a place to grow just like a natural waterfall. It’s about 85 feet to the top and the ice gets a real pretty blue color when it’s thick. There is a lot of details to the ice that the pictures don’t show. It isn’t smooth like sheet ice, it is more like a collection of interlocking icicles. Its really quite beautiful and calming when you’re on it. Climbing takes a lot of energy and the key to getting to the top is to relax and not overwork. This sounds overly simple but you get tired from pulling yourself up with your arms. If you use your legs and stand up on your crampons then you only use your arms to keep your self on the ice. Over gripping is another challenge, everyone has a tendency to grip the ice axes too tight. This makes the blood flow in your hands decrease and they get tired faster. A relaxed grip is best and you only want to labor your arms and hands when you need to. This also keeps you warmer as the lack of blood flow in your hands makes them cold. Its the same principals as rock climbing but when I got on the ice I was so excited I forgot everything and tried to muscle my way up. In general it is a difficult sport and they say that very few people make it all the way to the top on their first try.
IW: Can you tell us anything about how they go about preparing the silo for climbing?
ZF: I was interested in this myself so I stuck around until they closed to watch them prep the ice for the next day. They have anchor points at the top of the silo with ropes that are used to belay climbers. At the end of the day they pull up hoses with custom heads built to spray the water evenly. Then they just turn on the water and let nature take care of the rest. They do hang old ropes on the waterfall to make columns and caves in the ice. The water runs down the ropes and the silo freezing to it and building up until it can support a climber, I would say 4-6 feet thick. These features make the climbing very interesting.
IW: To your knowledge, has anyone ever been hurt during the climbing of silos?
ZF: No. Climbing is inherently dangerous but climbing with a top rope is about as safe as it gets. I would say the biggest danger is from falling ice. If someone would stand or climb under another climber a piece of ice could hit them. I kicked off a piece of ice that was the size of a small garbage can. It probably weighed 35 pounds and could have given someone a real headache. Most people get small cuts or abrasions from the ice falling off their ice tools from above their head, but I cant say I know of anyone getting seriously hurt.
IW: Were there any women that climbed with you on this day and if so how did they do?
ZF: We did climb with some women. One of my climbing partners brought his daughter Tori. She is 17 and is just starting to climb so the techniques are new to her. She made it about half way to the top and stopped. There there were other women at the silo that day that did very well, topping out multiple times and using good techniques. I rock climb with several women, including my wife, and women make better climbers than men. Men have a tendency to muscle up the wall, not using good technique and lack the skills needed to do more difficult climbs. Women on the other hand are more flexible, have better balance and use the right techniques because of a lack of the same upper body strength as their male counterparts. As a person progresses to harder climbs, technique is more important than strength. It is a lot like yoga on a vertical surface and many climbers at my gym participate in yoga.
IW: Thank you so much Zak for taking the time to share this adventure with us. Do you have any new adventures planned in the upcoming months?
ZF: Actually the biggest adventure I have planned is becoming a father. My wife and I are expecting our first baby. Other than that I am planning a trip to go to Tanzania for an attempt to climb Mt Kilimanjaro in September. It should prove interesting to balance having a family and trying to satisfy my longing for travel.