Up 80 feet: Silo ice climbing is a homegrown adventure

Posted Online: Jan. 27, 2012, 11:13 am
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By Ann Scholl Rinehart
Don Briggs may be the only Iowan who bemoaned the mild temperatures and late start of cold weather earlier this winter. Briggs, 62, of rural Cedar Falls, Iowa, needs the temperatures to be consistently below 26 degrees before he can fire up the business he loves to share: Silo Ice Climbing.

In fall 2001, Briggs, a physical education instructor at the University of Northern Iowa, landed on the idea of silo ice climbing. He was plowing a friend's farmland when the line of silos across the field caught his eye. An avid rock climber since the early 1980s, Briggs first wondered what it would be like to scale the silos. Then he hit on what turned out to be an original idea: What if he sprayed water on the silos to create ice so that the silos could be used for ice climbing?

"I was excited," Briggs says of his "ah-ha" moment. "I was like a little kid."

He shared the idea with his farmer friend, who was game to give it a try. Originally, Briggs, then a newcomer to ice climbing, thought he was creating the icy silos just for him to enjoy. "Try keeping that a secret," he says of what were then four silos, one measuring as tall as 70 feet. His idea quickly became a business.

Once the weather cooperates, Briggs starts the silo ice-climbing season, which usually extends into mid-March (after temperatures get above 40 degrees, climbing is suspended). The public can climb on Saturdays from 10 a.m. until dark and Sundays from noon until nightfall. Occasionally he offers night climbs, lighting up the silo and also hosting a bonfire.

About four years ago, Briggs moved the silo ice-climbing business to the farm of his neighbor, Rusty Leymaster. The farm is located three miles west of Cedar Falls and is about a mile from Briggs' home.

"He just knocked on the door one night and introduced himself," Leymaster recalls. "My daughter was home at the time and I asked her, 'What do you think?' She thought it was great."

Leymaster and Briggs have become good friends. Leymaster likes that his cement stave silo, which he estimates to be about 25 years old, is being used again on his 400-acre farm. He says he enjoys "99 percent" of the people who come to his place to climb. Leymaster has climbed the silo a few times himself and even had the chance to see his 88-year-old father scale it as well.

"I had never rappelled or anything," says Leymaster, 56. "The first time I climbed it I was panicking. Once you realize you're not going to fall -- you're in a harness -- it's not terrifying. There's a sense of accomplishment when you make it. It's physically challenging. There's some technique involved."

He learned a lot just by watching other climbers. "It's just another activity for people to do in the wintertime," Leymaster says. "Lots of people are cooped up. It's just another activity for people to give a try."

Briggs decided to ask Leymaster if he could set up the business at his farm after a mishap at his other friend's farm. Instead of falling straight down to the ground when it started to melt, the ice fell against a metal grain bin, causing $15,000 damage. While his friend welcomed him back despite the calamity, Briggs couldn't take a chance on the same thing happening again. He likes that Leymaster's farm is closer to his own home so he can keep an eye on the silo through the night when he is spraying water, which involves rigging hoses.

"We use a lot of water, but it's all well water and it all goes back down into the ground, so we're not wasting anything," he notes.

Briggs estimates that 90 percent of the silos in the state of Iowa are not in use. He would love to see more of them being used for ice climbing. Farmer Craig Schroeder, 51, of Tipton, Iowa, agrees. He heard about Briggs' venture and consulted him so that he could use a 60-foot silo on his farm for ice climbing. He shares it only with friends. It is not open to the public.

"I did it so I have a good, close place to ice climb in the winter," Schroeder says. "We have a ball. We'll climb at night. It's just a lot of fun."

He's grateful that Briggs brought silo ice climbing to Iowa. "It's introduced us flatlanders to (ice) climbing," he says. "It's a controlled setting you can learn in rather than trying to figure things out for yourself. From here you start looking at going on ice-climbing trips, climbing real waterfall ice."

Schroeder and Briggs are in agreement, though: Silo ice climbing is more difficult than climbing ice created naturally. The ice is harder and more brittle so climbers have to be careful about tool placement, Schroeder notes. He also explains that the ice tends to be overhanging on the silo so climbers have to use their arms more than their legs. "It's more strenuous," he says. "Rather than resting on your feet most of the time, you're hanging from your arms."

On a good day—and when he's in good shape—Briggs says he can scale the silo to the top and ring the cowbell mounted there in less than five minutes. Otherwise, it takes him about 15 minutes. Making it to the top of the 80-foot silo is "cool," he says.

"You can see the UNI Dome and the UNI campus. You can see across the land. It's a nice good feeling to know you made it to the top. It beats you up. You're pretty fatigued when you get there. It's like a good workout."

Ann Scholl Rinehart is a frequent Radish contributor. To learn more about Briggs' business, visit siloiceclimbing.com.



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