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Like the Alps, but in Iowa

Where others saw simply a silo, one Corn Belt outdoorsman imagined a Matterhorn. Just add water, wintertime and fellow climbers.

January 01, 2007|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

Cedar Falls, Iowa — SURROUNDED by cornfields that stretch to the horizon, in a place where molehills pass for mesas, avid outdoorsman Don Briggs has long dreamed of climbing a mountain.

So he decided to build one.

Briggs spends most winter nights hosing down a quartet of grain silos on a friend's farm -- and relies on the Corn Belt's frigid temperatures to transform the water into frozen walls of ice that tower nearly 70 feet straight up.

By the time he's done, the ice encasing the outside of the silos is 4 feet thick in spots -- and ready for the onslaught of ice climbers drawn to this strange marriage of farming and extreme sports.

"The word 'lunatic' was bandied about quite a bit. Even my wife thought I was insane when I first told her I wanted to do this," said Briggs, 57, a physical education instructor at the University of Northern Iowa. "To me, it made perfect sense. The highest point in Iowa is going to be on top of a silo."

On a recent morning, Briggs walked up the gravel road that cuts through the farm, past the candy-cane-striped barn and battered green tractor. Buttoning up his coat, he hunched his shoulders and tucked his gloved hands into pockets to shield them from the biting wind.

As he strode past a storage shed, Briggs glanced at a thermometer hanging on the metal siding. It was 18 degrees -- in the sun. He headed into the shade and stepped up to the base of the silos. It was early in the season: Only one of the concrete towers stayed cold enough to preserve the blue-toned glassy pillars and ornate icicle chandeliers.

Briggs greeted a group of fellow climbers huddled against a stack of hay bales and slipped a safety rope through a harness strapped around his waist. (The rope is looped through a metal ring mounted at the top of the silo; it snakes down to a climbing partner on the ground who controls its slack during the ascent and descent.)

Briggs clamped metal spikes onto his boots, picked up two ice axes and began to climb his "mountain."

He plotted each move carefully, an analytic dance between an athlete and a crumbling, dripping, melting stage.

Slam ax, held in the right hand, into the ice above the head. Step upward with the right foot, then the left. Breathe. Repeat the motion, now using the ax held in the left hand.

Sound easy? Try it on ice that's as polished as a mirror. And consider this: All that held the trim, 5-foot-7 man aloft were slender metal spikes on the tips of his toes and the two ax blades -- each about the length and width of a ruler.

Briggs squinted and spotted a small divot in the ice, a few feet to his left and no bigger than a dime. It was a perfect spot to wedge the spikes on his boot tip. He yanked one foot free and drove the metal spikes deep. The ice crackled. Like a spider web, dozens of fissures splintered the ice around his foot. Exhaling deeply, he hefted his body upward. The ice held.

Briggs grinned. He pulled one of his axes free, found another gap above his head and swung the blade forward.

The ax landed with a thunk, skittered off the ice and bounced into the air. A burst of wind sent Briggs slamming against the ice. Dollar-bill sized chunks rained down on his face and battered his flesh.

Panting from exertion, Briggs kept going until -- 10 minutes later -- he reached the silo's dome.

"Once you get to the top, the view is amazing," he said, after slowly rappelling back to the ground. "It feels like you can see the entire world."

Briggs climbs at least five times a week -- or as often as the weather allows. Each climb is different, depending on the conditions of the ice. An average ice climber can take 15 minutes or longer to traverse the wall. Novices can take more than an hour, if they can reach the top at all.

Briggs has climbed the silos in as little as 3 minutes.

IT'S not a cheap sport -- the gear alone can cost $1,000 or more. But Briggs has stocked enough equipment at the farm for visitors to borrow, thanks to donations from the University of Northern Iowa.

He doesn't charge climbers: State law limits the legal liability of landowners who allow their property to be used for recreational purposes, as long as the owners don't charge or profit from the activity. Briggs requires all visitors to sign a liability release form. No one has fallen or been injured at the silos.

The rules are simple: All climbers must wear helmets, heavy boots and crampons, the spikes that are attached to boots to provide better grip on snow and ice.

Since Briggs first iced down the silos in 2000 here in rural Cedar Falls, about 125 miles northeast of Des Moines, hundreds have stopped by to photograph the spires and carefully shimmy upward. A climber from China has joined him on the ice. So have students from Ohio and Minnesota, adventurers from Saskatchewan, and a physician from Northern California.

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