By Brett French

The Billings Gazette

CODY, Wyo. — The temperature is around minus 10, not counting the windchill. Fat snowflakes are pelting what little exposed skin exists in a group of about 20 bundled folks who have postholed through snow and tread unsteadily on a partially iced-over and rock-studded Aldrich Creek for more than a mile.

Conditions are brutal, and Angela Vanweimeersch couldn’t be happier.

“Welcome to Cody, Wyoming, where everything is wildly inconvenient!” she jokes, spreading her arms to take in the surrounding snow-dusted and contorted cliffs rising 300 feet above.

Her last name seems longer than her slight, 27-year-old frame. Yet in five years she’s honed and toned her lean physique into an ice-climbing instrument as sharp as any crampon or ax she wields. Her wit is also incisive.

“None of us even like to ice climb,” she says to another climber as she steps into her harness. They just like to look cool, she said.

Big ice

Vanweimeersch was drawn to this remote location along Carter Mountain — located about 40 miles southwest of Cody — five years ago by its reputation for plentiful waterfalls and weeping walls that coat the craggy rock in flowing chandeliers and sheets of ice.

More than 200 climbable pitches exist within a 10-mile radius of the South Fork of the Shoshone Valley. Some climbing routes are five and six pitches long, compared to two pitches at more popular places like Bozeman’s Hyalite Canyon. The Shoshone climbs are some of the biggest pure vertical ice in the lower 48 states — “pure” meaning it’s all ice and no rock.

“Climbing here is fantastic,” Vanweimeersch says. “There’s a high concentration of high, steep water lines. The ice is sticky and good. It’s just world class.”

The hook that first got her to visit the area was the Cody Ice Festival, now in its 20th year. The event connects climbers and teachers to explore the unique area. This is the second year that Ari Novak has overseen the event, which he says continues to grow. This year 300 climbers, from beginners to experts, signed up for clinics.

“It’s kind of becoming a destination climbing location,” he says. “Word is getting out that Cody is this untapped gem.”

The festival promotes safety, stewardship, education and camaraderie. Nightly speakers, food, beer and presentations are offered after clinics in the town’s old gym. Climbers also have a chance to snag some free climbing swag.

Mark Clavarino may have traveled the farthest to climb during the festival. The 33-year-old Melbourne, Australia, resident is road-tripping across America, climbing and skiing this winter — sports that aren’t easy to execute in Australia.

“You’d be surprised, there is some ice climbing in Australia,” he says as he struggles in the finger-numbing cold to strap on his crampons, a snot-cicle hanging off his mustache. “You’ve got to travel a long way, the season is really short and the ice is s*** though.”

Newbie

Vanweimeersch took a strange route to the sport. She was hitchhiking in Southern California after dropping out of college and adventuring around the globe. The man who picked her up was touting ice climbing. As a youngster she’d seen photos of such climbers in a National Geographic magazine and held on to them. Intrigued, she moved to Ouray, Colorado, which has become ground zero for ice climbers with its artificial wall that’s easily accessible.

“Nobody wanted to climb with me because I was a total Gumby,” Vanweimeersch says, but she persevered, borrowing and buying second-hand gear.

“I didn’t grow up with any of this stuff. It’s been a steep learning curve.”

Instead, she grew up a competitive ice skater in Detroit, so she has always been physically active, but ice climbing clicked on a whole different level. Now she can’t seem to get enough, and she likes that she’s on the cusp of a wave of more women ice climbers entering the sport.

“There’s so much more finesse in ice climbing than you would think,” she says. “It’s more than just pure strength.”

Cold reality

Despite the freedom and pleasure Vanweimeersch has taken in the sport, ice climbing has also carved a deep hole in her heart. In 2016 while climbing in Pakistan her boyfriend, Scott Adamson, and his climbing partner, Kyle Dempster, were killed on a mountain aptly named Ogre II.

“It’s something that comes with the sport,” she says. “People get caught up in the hype of big mountain dreams, but it’s dangerous.”

To try and make sense of the tragedy, Vanweimeersch trekked to the remote territory last summer with friends to get a sense of the place, say goodbye and come to terms with the loss of a loved one. Visiting such high altitudes also put her life at risk. In 2014 while climbing in Nepal she suffered from cerebral edema and severe chest pains. Even after returning home her symptoms worsened. Adamson was there to help her heal. Had she never suffered from acclimating to high altitudes, she may have accompanied the two men on the Pakistan trip. She may have died as well.

It’s a story she recounted on her blog, along with the difficulties of traveling and fat tire biking in the rocky, isolated mountains.

“There was some sort of transformation along the way,” she says. “It could be kind of heavy, but there were some funny parts, too.”

Vanweimeersch talked about the adventure, her boyfriend and his death to the group gathered at the Cody Ice Festival.

“Every time I started to work on it I cried,” she says.

The location for the talk seemed appropriate considering that Adamson was posthumously awarded the Jack Roberts lifetime achievement award at the Cody Ice Festival in 2017.

Carry on

Vanweimeersch realizes that many people are affected by the loss of a loved one and still remain strong, which motivated her to write about her adventures and the struggle with her friends’ deaths.

“It was some kind of strange task keeping my brain occupied,” she says of the trek. “It was cool riding on a glacier at 15,000 feet. I didn’t want it to be a cry fest. I wanted to make him proud and do something cool.”

Recently, deep in a cold, rocky canyon overshadowed by 12,319-foot Carter Mountain, Vanweimeersch was doing something cool: passing on her passion for a wild sport that lets humans tenaciously cling to walls of shear ice in wild and beautiful places — a sport that seems like a metaphor for her life.

“It’s so fun to pay it forward,” she says. “I think the coolest part is seeing the sport through a beginner’s eyes. That mentality to be fierce on the ice gets me jazzed.”

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