Rob Ginieczki says he still remembers when “vertical football fields of ice” formed over the Laurel Highlands. A weather system called an Alberta clipper had sent a shot of clear, cold air through the
Great Lakes states in January 1997. Ginieczki
and other ice climbers wait the entire year
for such weather: cold enough to create
solid, blue ice on every surface where water
flows or seeps but clear enough to leave their
ascent unhindered by snow. The formation
that appeared on a mountain rock quarry
near Connellsville “rivaled anything I have
seen on the East Coast,” says Ginieczki,
author of the “Griz Guides” series of ice
climbing and mountain biking books. “It was
250 feet of vertical-to-overhanging ice.”
Ginieczki and his friends geared up,
made the first ascent of what they dubbed
“The Secret Cliffs” and looked down at the
endless rolling hills of western Pennsylvania.
Ginieczki won’t disclose the exact location of
the Secret Cliffs; there are issues regarding
access and property rights. Even if he did
divulge those details, it’s not like you could
visit the location tomorrow.
Ice climbing is Pennsylvania’s most
fleeting sport. Although alpine climates offer
a full season of scaling, local destinations
such as Ohiopyle State Park and the Chestnut
Ridge provide winterized cliffs, ridges and
waterfalls for a few weeks at most.
Still, when the climbing options are
there, they are choice, according to the
small community of aficionados who wait all
year for them. “The sandstone [in western
Pennsylvania] is really compressed and
gives you excellent friction where there is
rock,” says Fred Gunter, owner of Exkursion
Outfitters, an online retailer of outdoor gear.
“That ties into ice climbing because with the
type of strata we have here cracks go very
deep and allow surface flow to accumulate
into ideal ice. Go to
these places [in the
fall] and you’ll see
just a little seepage,
but winter is a
uncanny amount of
mental focus and
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upper-body strength. Climbers use crampons
to stay affixed to the ice, but they climb by
digging into the surface with ice picks and
pulling their bodies with a chin-up-style
motion. There are two options for security in
the event of a fall: A climber can hike to the
top of a formation before the climb, tie a “top
rope” around a tree or other sturdy anchor
and attach it to a body harness. Or, a climber
can place an ice screw hooked to the harness
into the cold surface every 10 to 20 feet.
“It takes mental discipline and safety
consideration,” says Tim Anderson, author
of the climbPA blog [ climbpa.blogspot.com].
“You are talking about climbs that have only
been there for a couple of days or even hours.
No one has tested them before.”
Most ice climbers are experienced rock
climbers. Novices can sign up for outings
through the Explorers Club of Pittsburgh or
the Allegheny Outdoor Institute. That would
provide a taste of the experience before
shelling out $1,000 to purchase necessary
It’s a heavy cost for a sport that at most
can be practiced six weeks out of the year.
For western Pennsylvania’s group of a few
dozen hardcore ice climbers, though, the idle
months just lead to gleeful anticipation.
“When that week of sunny days and
single-digit temperatures comes, every ice
climber will be out there,” says Gunter. PM
WANT TO LEARN MORE ABOU T THE
SPORT? TRY THESE SI TES TO START:
» NEice (Northeast Ice Climbing)
» Explorers Club of Pittsburgh
» Rob Ginieczki’s Griz Guides
The devotees of
elusive sport are waiting
for their next challenge.
BY NICK KEPPLER