Big Ice, Cold Fear

Kurt Cozzens peered out the window of a Turbo Cessna 182 at the ice-plastered walls of Ishawooa Canyon. A wide grin spread across his face.

By Aaron Mulkey | February 4th, 2010

Here at Aldrich Creek, the author Aaron Mulkey takes on the <em>Hell’s Angel</em> (WI 5), one of his 50 first ascents in the South Fork Valley, just outside Cody, Wyoming.” title=”Here at Aldrich Creek, the author Aaron Mulkey takes on the <em>Hell’s Angel</em> (WI 5), one of his 50 first ascents in the South Fork Valley, just outside Cody, Wyoming.” style=”float: right; margin: 0px 0px 10px 10px;”><b style=Kurt Cozzens peered out the window of a Turbo Cessna 182 at the ice-plastered walls of Ishawooa Canyon. A wide grin spread across his face. It was January 14, 1985, and he had just seen what, over 20 years later, would become one of Cody, Wyoming’s, most important ice-climbing discoveries.

After graduating from the University of Wyoming, in Laramie, with Paul Piana, Todd Skinner and Monte Madsen, possibly the university’s finest graduating class of climbers ever, Kurt enjoyed traveling the globe with that crew for a few years.

Eventually, however, he was drawn back to his hometown, Cody, where he decided he wanted to be a pilot. Kurt had met a young woman. let’s call her Jane, who was already a pilot, but knew nothing about climbing and wanted to learn. They agreed to exchange expertise, and soon Kurt found himself soaring over Ishawooa Canyon and the greater South Fork Valley.

Kurt was marveling at the blue cascades of ice coating the walls when Jane, who was flying, realized the plane was too low. She had misjudged the height of the ridge and now they were headed straight toward a mountain. She pulled back on the yoke, but the Cessna clipped the last row of trees on the 11,000-foot ridge. A violent crash tore the plane apart, sending scraps of metal flying. The cockpit, all that was left of the Cessna, came to rest in the snow. Miraculously, the two sustained only minor injuries.

Because they had not logged a flight plan, however, nobody knew their whereabouts. This realization slowly dawned and they realized that their survival was in their hands. The two were on an exposed mountain, at 11,000 feet, wearing sneakers and lightweight down jackets. Kurt figured it was at least 20 miles to the nearest road. They began moving.

Twenty-four hours later, Kurt and Jane reached the valley floor, soaked, frozen and starved. Lights flickered in the distance, and they hailed the driver of what turned out to be a UPS truck, which delivered them back to town.

The South Fork Valley, just 25 minutes outside Cody, is one of the richest ice-climbing treasures in the continental United States. A scenic road snakes through the immense and ice-plastered mountains, which rise with little hesitation from 6,000 to 11,000 feet. Today, along a five-mile stretch of dirt road that runs up the valley, some fine ice climbs are found just minutes from the car.

Few places have such a rich and unknown history. In 1979, six years before the plane crash, Kurt Cozzens first put pick to ice in the valley area. A few years later, Kurt taught his younger brother, Todd, then 16, how to ice climb.

I drug his ass up everything, Kurt recalls today. Turned out, Todd became a very accomplished climber.

It wasn’t just the quality of the routes they were doing that was exceptional; it was their size. Some of the original classics in the South Fork Valley include the 500-foot routes High on Boulder (WI 4) and Moonrise (WI 5), the 750-foot Main Vein (WI 3), and the 1,000-foot Broken Hearts (WI 5).

Todd Cozzens struggled to convince people to come check out these ice-climbing gems. Cody is miles away from everything, and it was difficult to persuade his friends that a trip was worth the effort. Todd got creative, and in 1984 put together what would become North America’s first ice festival. A small clique of Todd’s friends came for the purposes of establishing more new routes, and partying it up in a wall tent in the Deer Creek campground.

During the festival, Todd Cozzens and Doug Birkholtz established one of North America’s top ice routes, Mean Green (WI 5), protecting the six-pitch 1,000-foot route with pound-in ice screws and Bird Beaks. On the fourth pitch, Doug took a 30-foot whipper onto an ice screw. The north-facing Mean Green remains a classic testpiece.

Word of the South Fork Valley snuck out and drew some of climbing’s best athletes, such as Alex Lowe, Jeff Cristol, Doug Chabot and Todd Skinner, all of whom climbed there with the young Todd Cozzens.


Ten years ago, Todd Cozzens’ hand-drawn map to the South Fork Valley drew me out of Cody like a pirate searching for booty. Today, after a decade of exploration and over 50 first ascents, I know there is even more than the eye can see.

The past decade of exploration has produced a whole new slew of modern classics such as Wyoming Wave (WI 3, 500 feet), Spying and Flying (WI 4, 700 feet), Ro Shambo (WI 5), Hell’s Angel (WI 5), and the 60-meter rope-stretcher The Testament (WI 6). Today, there are nearly 300 routes here, and even more waiting to be climbed.

After leaving your car, you walk through sagebrush and past cactus, lured by the alpine oasis high above the desert terrain. The unique combination of adventure and isolation found in the South Fork is addicting. A good friend of mine, John Frieh, has traveled over 20 hours one way just to climb 150 feet of ice for a day. He has done this the last two years in a row!

The South Fork Valley has earned respect from many accomplished climbers for having some of North America’s hardest test-pieces, such as Long Neck Bottle (WI 7), Barely Legal (WI 7 M8), The Gambler (WI 6) and the never-repeated Alex Lowe route Mean Streak (WI 7 M7). Among these frozen sandbags are classic routes we can all do, like Bozos Revenge (WI 3).

The climbing area is about 25 minutes from the town of Cody, named after Buffalo Bill Cody, and rooted in Western cowboy culture. Today Cody’s draw is its plethora of surrounding world-class adventures such as rock and ice climbing, kayaking and mountain biking.

Still, the roughneck roots remain strong, and if you’re not careful, you might find yourself getting 86’d from the local Silver Dollar Bar, like one of my ice-climbing partners, S.K. He had saddled up next to a fine-looking woman, and launched into humorous tales of his climbing antics. Her boyfriend quickly took notice and shouted, Hey, that’s my girlfriend!

S.K. replied by saying, I heard that in Cody, you don’t lose your girlfriend, you just lose your turn. The boyfriend went after S.K., who quickly climbed up the wall and onto some wood beams, elusive as a matador. We soon found the safety of the alley, where a short walk across the street took us to Cooter Browns. We were safe, at least until the next day dawned with another local adventure.


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