Climbing Appalachia’s Frozen Faces

Written by Eric Crews; photos by Dom Smith

Here’s something you already know: Every summer, tourists flock to the mountains to view the towering waterfalls.

Now here’s something you don’t: In the winter, these very same waterfalls turn into the best ice climbs in the region.

Unfortunately for ice climbers, the perfect conditions for prime ice are fairly rare, often happening for only brief periods each year.

“We do get good ice here at the New,” says Elaina Arenz-Smith, a veteran rock and ice climber who owns New River Mountain Guides in Fayetteville, W. Va. “But the season comes in and out so quickly that you really have to be on top of it to take advantage of it.”

Dave Frye, an experienced ice climber who lives in Boone, N.C., spends time in the spring scouting various locations that he hopes will be climbable during the winter months, and the early work has paid off over the past few years.

“Last year, I spent several months scoping out north-facing waterfalls and trying to figure out which ones would be best,” Frye said. “When everything froze last January, I was able to maximize my climbing time during those perfect conditions.”

But for those who don’t have the time to get out and explore potential ice routes in advance, one of the easiest ways to experience the sport, and the safest, most effective way is to hire a guide. Guides have  experience, and when it is twenty degrees outside and the conditions are right, experience makes the climb go faster, smoother, and safer.

“It really helps for beginner ice climbers to have the proper gear,” says Ron Funderburke, the lead guide at Fox Mountain Guides.

One aspect of ice climbing that can be hard to handle is the frigid temps that are inherent to the sport.  “It’s really easy to get cold when you are sitting at a belay for an hour,” continues Funderburke. “With a guide you can be sure that you’ll be moving fast and that you’ll spend the majority of your day climbing.”

Top Spots for Appalachian Ice Climbing

Crabtree Falls, VA.
When cold weather comes to Virginia, the five-tiered series of towering waterfalls freezes up and becomes one of the South’s most impressive ice climbing destinations.  The multiple tiers of this waterfall consist of many big and medium cascades all in succession which makes for a very worthwhile multipitch ice climbing destination.

Doughton Park, N.C.
This roadside climbing area on the Blue Ridge Parkway is home to a bevy of great top rope and leadable routes, including The Big Daddy.  Located at Milepost 240 on the Parkway near the Virginia-North Carolina state line, the climbing at Doughton Park is great for beginners as it offers easily accessible top roping opportunities and forms consistent ice throughout the winter.

Rabun Bald, GA.
At 4,696 feet, Rabun Bald is the second highest point in Georgia, located near the border with North Carolina. According to Michael Crowder, author of the ice climbing guide Southern Fried Ice, Rabun Bald is Georgia’s premier ice climbing area: “I will stand this area, when in condition, up against most any single cliff line of ice in the country.”

Celo Knob, N.C.
Considered by many to be the most difficult and remote summit to reach of North Carolina’s six-thousand-foot peaks, Celo Knob offers an enticing, alpine challenge. To reach the summit, climbers must hike, climb, and bushwhack more than three thousand feet. The windswept peak offers one of Appalachia’s most jaw-dropping views.

Whitesides Mountain, N.C.
When it comes to world-class ice routes, Starshine, a 200-foot route on Whitesides Mountain is one of the best in the country. The steep waterfall route is considered to be one of the true classics of the region and is not to be missed by those looking to step it up a notch and tackle a challenging multi-pitch route.

New River Gorge and Summersville Lake, W.VA.
With a multitude of different ice climbing options, including the reliable formation at Junkyard Wall, the New River Gorge holds some of the best and most diversified ice flows in the region. The climbing at Whipporwill on Summersville Lake is the most reliable and accessible ice climbing in the area. •

Watch ice climbers at Whitesides and Summersville Lake at blueridgeoutdoors.com