The Hall of Justice cave, at 10,000 feet near Ouray, Colorado, is described on Mountain Project as the home of “hyper-industrial dry-tooling.” It has walls and smears of ice, but is mostly a seeping, chossy, capacious limestone cave crossed with bolt lines. Last August, Mikayla Tougas, 19 and visiting from the East, was dry tooling on the M11- Pull the Trigger when she did a burly roof move, cut her
feet loose, and heard a chant erupt from below: “One of us, one of us!”
Liam Foster and Keenan Griscom had pegged a fellow devotee of the curious and complex art of using crampons and ice axes on hard technical rock as well as ice terrain. Dry toolers undercling, torque and dyno on steep walls and roofs.
Foster and Griscom were part of a youth team of about a dozen, and soon so was Tougas.
“My joining the team just kinda progressed from there,” she says with a laugh.
The USA Ice Climbing Youth Team may be spread out geographically, but is connected electronically and, periodically, proximally.
Catalina “Cat” Shirley, of Durango, Colorado, who refers to teammates as her best friends, says, “It’s 12 teenagers just hanging out.” She also says, of the loose Hall of Justice, “It’s the one place we can have because the rock climbers don’t want it.”
They train together as possible, stay together at events, share meals cooked by their longtime coach, Marcus Garcia (“He makes really good egg dishes,” Cat says), and bond at comps and, say, when pushing a stuck team van out of ditches and snowbanks.
The youths attend about three events a year—such as the Ouray Ice Fest, CityRock in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and the Alpine Fest in Portland, Oregon—and have traveled to international youth events for three years, mentored by Garcia, of Durango, Colorado, a longtime all-around climber and a member of the UIAA Youth Commission. The team includes youth in Durango and Boulder, Colorado; New York; California; and Alaska. Participants may attend training camps, one in summer and one in winter, in Durango. Trips are almost entirely self-funded, with Garcia helping youth raise money for airline fares.
In the big picture, Rock and Resole, a climbing-gear shop in Boulder, has announced that it is opening the country’s first dedicated dry-tooling (no ice around) training center. Some gyms, such as City Rock in Colorado Springs, allow dry tooling on some walls or on a Treadwall.
The Denver World Cup, February 22-24, attracted 23,000 spectators and was covered by the Wall Street Journal, the Denver Post and Popular Mechanics, among scores of other agencies (and on rockandice.com and gymclimber.com). As of early April, some 90 media agencies had created an end total of a staggering 206,688,239, a number that has only increased since with subsequent coverage by major outlets such as Outside magazine.
The attending youth left the Monday afterward with Garcia for the Youth World Ice Climbing Championships and a UIAA Ice Climbing European Cup in Oulu, Finland.
The team subsequently placed second in Oulu; and had been fourth in Malbun, Lichtenstein, in 2018; and third in Champagny, France, in 2017.
The youth team is part of the USA Ice Climbing program managed for the American Alpine Club by Kendra Stritch, climber-competitor, of Stillwater, Minnesota. With rock climbing already appearing in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, the UIAA hopes to put ice climbing on the program for the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing. In any lead-in process, all eyes will be on youth.
Three youth-team members were interviewed at the UIAA Ice Climbing World Cup in Denver (which had an ice-less lead wall and an ice speed wall); while Liam Foster, studying in Scotland, was interviewed separately. Since then, on May 26, he climbed his “dream route” A Line Above the Sky (D15), in the Dolomites, the hardest dry-tooling route in the world when put up by his friend Tom Ballard, who died in March on Nanga Parbat. Foster posted thanks to Tom “for the best route I have ever climbed.”
Catalina “Cat” Shirley, 16, Durango, Colorado
Best hits: 12th in lead at adult World Cup in Denver, February 2019. Third in speed and seventh in lead at Youth World Ice Climbing Championships in Finland, March 2019. Third in lead and fourth in speed at UIAA Youth World Championships in Champagny, France, 2017. Second in speed, Ouray Ice Fest 2019.
Identity: “I’m primarily an ice climber. I’ve been doing it for four years now. I got my start in rock climbing, but it never stuck the way ice did.”
Civilian life: Is a student at Animas High School, Durango, Colorado.
On dry tooling: “It takes full commitment: locking off and moving your body around a hold. You can fall if you twist a tool in the wrong way or don’t keep the angle. You can just pop off.
“The more you climb the better you get at judging just how far your specific tools go on the holds. You gain more awareness of your tools and what they’ll do. Eventually they start to feel like your hands.”
Training and approach: “Months and months of training go into this [comp]. …
“Marcus encourages goal setting. We all have goals outside and personal goals for the mental aspects, which I sometimes struggle with … being this young and competing at this high level is a lot of pressure. I’m here to have fun but I’m also here to perform.
“I have a tendency to get stressed. It’s better now as I’ve gotten older. Marcus says it doesn’t matter if you popped off early, [that] one comp would never define you. Take it as an opportunity to grow.”
Known for: “The entire team makes fun of me for the amount of food I bring climbing, but I always get hungry, and they’re lucky because I share.”
On airport security: “You always have to check a bag because of all the sharp things. We’ve definitely had files taken away.”
Mikayla Tougas, age 20, Greenfield Center, New York
Best hits: last October, sent First Blood (M11) at St. Alban in Quebec. First female ascent. Sixth at the UIAA Ice Climbing Youth World Championships, 15th the next day at the European Championship. Women’s winner, 2019 Smuggs Ice Bash Drytool Comp, January, 2019, Burlington, Vermont.
Was attending her first adult World Cup event in Denver, placed 15th (lead).
Civilian life: Is a firefighter and studying to be an EMT, seeking an associate’s degree in psychology at SUNY Adirondack.
Background: Came to the sport from a background of bouldering, competing and coursesetting—brought core strength.
On competing: “Any failure at one comp is just something to learn from. My goal is to have fun and do my best. Use all my knowledge I’ve gained… apply everything.”
How she trains: “Dry tooling outside all the time. I spent the whole month of August in Colorado [Durango, Ouray and Boulder]. The Spot [gym] had a Treadwall rigged for dry tooling.”
Plans: Hopes to do whole World Cup tour next year.
Sayings: “We have tons. If we go climbing together, one of us is always saying, ‘It’s bomber.’ It refers to a hold that’s not so good.” Dry tooling is often in caves that have not been developed for rock climbing due to choss. “Holds are breaking, and you’re flipping upside-down. Or we tell each other, ‘Don’t run out of talent.’ It’s needling but it’s joking.”
Travel tale: Planned to attend a Firefighters 1 class in her hometown the night she flew back from the World Youth Championships in Finland.
“I arrive at 5:30 and the class is at 6:30. It’s a 45-minute drive.”
What if her flight was to be delayed?
“I hope it’s not. I’m already missing a lot of classes. It’s a lot to miss because it’s skills.”
Keenan Griscom, 15, Golden, Colorado
Best hits: First in lead and speed, UIAA Ice Climbing World Youth Championships, Oulu, Finland, March, 2019. Sent Zero to Hero (D11+ ), Hall of Justice, Ouray (2018), flashed Red Bull and Vodka (D11+), Vail, Colorado.
Civilian life: Is a student at Arvada West High School.
Climbing since: “My dad started me on ice at age 4, and I’ve been rock climbing since before I could walk … before I can remember.”
Trains: “On average 17 hours a week during drytooling season. Twelve of it is dry tooling, about four is for rock climbing conditioning. During rock season, it flip flops.”
Venue: “Me and my dad [Glen] built a dry tooling structure in our backyard. It took us four months. It’s 21 feet by 12 feet tall by 9 feet deep. There’s two vertical walls with caps on either side and two 20-degree walls that lead into a horizontal roof, prob 3-4 feet.”
What about the neighbors? “We’re all a little worried about the kicking, ‘cuz it gets pretty loud.”
On the team: “We’re all good friends, we text frequently, hang out by email. We’re trying to figure out a universal wall, and set circuits the same height, same angle, and send them to everyone.”
Goals: “I just want to climb. The comps are so much fun and everybody’s so nice and wants to help each other. [Outdoors] I want to get on Jedi Mind Tricks [M13] near Lake City, Colorado] and Saphira [M15-, Vail, Colorado]…. And Line Above the Sky and an extension [to War Without End], Parallel World [D15 and D16, at Tomorrow’s World, Dolomites, Italy]. There’s also Storm Giant [D16, Fernie, British Columbia, Canada]. That needs a second ascent.
“Right now all the hardest routes are endurance, just long and hard the whole way. We [with Chris Snobeck] want to develop a crag that’s not short but not 80 draws long. … We want to find a route where there’s no rests. If every position is so hard you can’t release tension, you can’t rest.”
Liam Foster, 19, St. Andrews, Scotland, and Durango, Colorado
Best hits: A Line Above the Sky (D15), at Tomorrow’s World, Dolomites, Italy, in May, which has received something in the ballpark of 10 ascents, one being by. Also sent French Connection (D15), Syncope (D14, third try) and American Connection (D12+), flashed Edge of Tomorrow (D13), there in March; also Je Ne Sais Quoi (D14+) there in August 2018; and Super Wobbler (D13+), Hall of Justice, Ouray, Colorado, January 2019. 2018-2019 winner in speed at the Ouray Ice Fest, sixth in lead in 2019. Second in speed and lead (behind Kevin Lindlau), North American Championships, Fenton, Michigan, March 2018.
Civilian life: just completed first year at the University of St. Andrews (studying math and physics), Scotland, is transferring to CU Boulder this autumn.
Got away with: building a small dry tooling training structure in a friend’s backyard in St. Andrews. “I had to take it down, though.”
Other claims to fame: Youngest American to send D14, 13 and 12. “Although Keenan is hot on my heels!”
On sending his then hardest route, French Connection, at Tomorrow’s World, the cutting-edge d.t. crag developed by Tom Ballard, who died in March with Daniele Nardi attempting a winter ascent of Nanga Parbat: “Tom and I were planning on meeting up and climbing for the past two weeks. I first heard about the tragedy when I was walking down the terminal in the Oslo airport to get my next flight on the way to Oulu and got a text from a friend saying simply, bad news from Pakistan. I knew exactly what it meant.
“Tom was an incredible person. … and incredibly strong, I remember him essentially campusing Je Ne Sais Quoi to get his draw off the anchor, which was probably the most impressive climbing I’ve ever seen.
“I’ve never cried after getting off a route before. French Connection wasn’t the hardest I’d tried or the closest margin with which I’d sent before. It just felt as though Tom was there in his cave watching and cheering and probably poking a bit of fun here and there. I’m incredibly grateful that he left Tomorrow’s World for us to enjoy. It’s inspired me immensely and preserves the ideas of one of the world’s best climbers taken too soon.”
Short-term goal: (since achieved) Climb A Line Above the Sky.
Long-term goals: Continue representing the USA in international-level ice climbing. Podium at an Ice Climbing World Cup. Represent the USA at the Olympics if/ when ice climbing becomes an Olympic Sport. Win the Ouray Ice Festival.
Opening photo: Mikayla Tougas burling it out in the Hall of Justice. Photo by Marcus Garcia.