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Tricks Up Their Sleeves: Ice / Drytooling Coursesetters Are Full of Surprises

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Marcus Garcia sets the course for the 2021 Ouray Ice Festival. Photo by Allison Ragsdale

Authors Note:  The logs live! This week Marcus Garcia of Durango has been hard at work creating courses for the Ouray Ice Fest, with no spectators due to the pandemic, but a live stream and  increased field of competitors. 

“My goal this year was to bring in the old with the new,” says Garcia, sole routesetter when the pandemic prevented Nathan Kutcher, a UIAA routesetter out of Canada, from attending. Garcia received help from two Durango friends, Rene Garcia and Leigh Dickerson, when they could. 

Garcia says he is using “some old features with a few new features. I built a few volumes for the wall to add dimensions, and a hanging box. I use a few swinging logs that had been used in the past.” The wall is higher and longer this year than before.

Today, as qualifiers begin, we invite you to take a look at the funky, creative world of coursesetting for ice fests and dry tooling, as observed at the Ice Climbing World Cup in Denver in 2019.

In 2002, when Vince Anderson traveled to Kirov, Russia, to compete in an ice-climbing World Cup, the structure offered something revolutionary: hanging, swinging balls of ice.

“They took these plastic barrels, filled them up with water, and hauled them up with chains,” Anderson, longtime routesetter at the annual Ouray Ice Fest, recalls. “Everybody called them Bulls’ Balls—and not everybody made it up them.

“It was very rad, and now it’s normal.”

From left, the innovative and athletic masterminds Jongheon Kim (KOR), Gyuhyoung Min (KOR) and Maxim Tomilou (RUS). Photo by: Alison Osius.

Ice-climbing/ drytooling routesetting creates a wholly different set of challenges than rock, one reason being that it is a challenge to force someone into a sequence when the climber can match hands on a tool. Sidepulls, underclings and other moves, of course, require specific body tension or compression, while steep terrain and long reaches require whole strings of Figure 4’s and Figure 9’s. Still, in plying their craft, ice coursesetters have had to be inventive and devious, if not downright diabolical.

Around 2005, Jason Nelson, another Ouray routesetter, attended a European comp where logs had been chained to the roof of a cave, and brought home the idea to hang logs at Ouray. Strung vertically, the telephone-pole-style logs were known as tuna logs, as if they were big fish hanging from a line.

The logs at Ouray were used for a few years, though they sometimes gave organizers pause when they spun and ropes wrapped on them. Eventually officials cut them into pieces, painted them gold to look like gold nuggets, and used them that way. This latest Ouray Ice Fest, January 24-26, setters hung trapezes off the course.

The hanging cubes move under the climbers’ motion. Kevin Lindlau makes his way as the top American finisher at the UIAA World Cup in Denver in February. Photo by: Adam Pawlikiewicz

Wood has always been considered a good ice simulator, and competitors still kick into and up plywood walls. The holds on comp walls are ceramic (many with various dimples or grooves on top of them) or even metal, which is durable but also easy to slip from, demanding perfect positioning and tension.

In Denver at this year’s UIAA Ice Climbing World Cup, in February 23-24, coursesetters had their work cut out for them: They had to separate a stacked field, yet one representing a great variety in experience and ability, while using a relatively short wall, hence with fewer moves than others.

The three UIAA routesetters were Jongheon Kim (KOR, chief routesetter), Gyuhyoung Min (KOR) and Maxim Tomilov (RUS, world titleist), working on a structure set up at the Civic Center Park, downtown Denver. The event took place under sunny sides and in 40-degree temperatures. No matter: the lead (difficulty) wall contained neither snow nor ice, just all drytooling moves; while the ice climbing wall, perfectly vertical and featureless, offered ice cooled from beneath.

Joe Josephson, a competitor at the original ice-climbing comp at the X-Games in Big Bear,  California, in 1997, said after the event, “It is simply amazing how far this has come. The [comp] routes we climbed …  would be crushed by every single athlete at the Denver Word Cup in a matter of minutes.

“The route setting at the Denver World Cup was remarkable that Maxim, Kim and Min were able to separate out the athletes so only a few topped out and created a fair competition. Denver was much shorter than most, if not all, of the other World Cups that take place on permanent structures. WIth something like 20-25 moves it was half the number of Korea. …. The routes in Denver really represented how much the route setting has evolved even since 2014-15 when we ran two World Cup events in Bozeman.”

“Very long moves” for women and men. Maria Tolokonina is first in the standings and event. Photo by: Adam Pawlikiewicz

Interviewed ringside during the qualifying round, Kim and Min estimated the difficulty of the three rounds of routes as: women and men’s qualifiers (two routes for each gender), M9 and M11, M11 and M12; semis M12 and M14; finals M13 and M15.

Has this site posed various challenges?

Min: Yes, [it is] a new experience. We are used to ice volumes, not wood panels [hanging cubes or volumes].

How long has this job taken?

Min: We usually have at least four days, but [here] there was a delay, so only three days.

[The delay was] for hanging the cubes and putting the quickdraws on and adjusting them for safety.

How long were your days?

[laughs] Too many works (sic)! 8:30 in the morning until 9 p.m.

Is this wall more difficult for coursesetting because it is shorter than some other WC walls?

Min: Yes, because if a wall is longer, it can have more technical moves. This wall, it was difficult to make technical moves in the [extended] roof [hanging structures] section.

How long is this wall and how long are others?

Kim: Twelve meter speed, 14 meter lead.  The wall in Korea is 25, Saas-Fee [SWI] 20, Champagny [FRA] 20.

Reelin’ and a rockin.’ Upside-down women at Denver World Cup. Photo by: Alison Osius

Did you climb the qualifiers?

Min: Oh sure, all three of us. Both routes.

What is the difference with the women’s routes [which were yet to begin at the time of the interview]?

Min: Same routes, more time. We will change two holds.

Are these routes more difficult for the shorter competitors?

Min: [Rueful nod.]

What will the finals route be like?

Min: Very long moves in the roof. You need very strong power and endurance. There will be two dyno moves [for men].

[We have] no dynos in qualifiers because many differences in [experience and abilities of] the athletes.

Women will have one dyno in final.

Kim: First ever for women in World Cup.

Catalina Shirley (USA), age 16, at first crux in qualifiers. She would be the youngest person to pass into semis. Photo by: Adam Pawlikiewicz

How many people would you like to see finish the qualifier routes?

Kim: Two people, I like. Three and four, that’s OK.

The finals?

Kim: I hope one person tops! One man, one woman.

You think one person will do the dyno?

Kim: Maybe.


Kim: Maybe. This is the first time for a [women’s] jump in the World Cup.

[It is to] put on a show. Many people [will] like it. It’s a new style, changing.

The volumes are rocking and bobbing. It must be disorienting. Do the competitors ever get seasick?

Min: No, no. They are too focused.

Opening image: Liam Foster (USA) on a log at 2018 UIAA Ice Climbing World Youth Championships in Malbun, Liechtenstein. Photo by: Michael Zanghellini

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