With her purple ponytail dangling beneath a grey helmet, Ceri Evans kicked one crampon-clad foot, then the other, into the plywood walls of The Ice Coop, a unique Boulder climbing gym, on a recent snowy Wednesday evening.
Smoothly and purposefully, 15-year-old Evans began placing the sharp metal tips of her bright orange ice climbing tools onto holds attached to the wall, periodically biting the handle of one tool as she readjusted her grasp.
Suspended by her spiky boot toes and the picks of her tools, she moved horizontally along the wall, confidently kicking her feet and moving to new holds.
If you go
The Ice Coop, 2500 47th St., Unit 2, Boulder; 720-219-0977. Hours vary; reservations required. theicecoop.com.
“Don’t lose focus; you got it,” said Keiko Tanaka, 32, watching from a few yards away on the gym’s padded maroon flooring while taking a video of Evans on her phone. “Move those feet. Lead with your feet. You got it.”
Welcome to “The Coop,” a 2,000-square-foot climbing gym that’s unlike any other in North America. The Ice Coop is focused exclusively on dry-tooling, a spinoff of ice climbing that involves scaling walls or rock using hand-held pickaxe-inspired tools and special climbing shoes — called “fruit boots” — outfitted with spikes.
Dry-tooling is not new, but it’s growing in popularity in the United States, both as a competitive sport and a casual hobby. Until 18 months ago, when Sally Gilman and Colby Rickard opened The Ice Coop, there wasn’t really a dedicated space for dry-tooling athletes to train. The gym also serves the dual purpose of being an off-season or indoor training ground for ice climbers.
Some other gyms, including CityRock in Colorado Springs and The Rock Lounge in Durango, offer dry-tooling routes in addition to their standard bouldering and top-rope areas. There’s also an outdoor ice climbing and dry-tooling training facility in Michigan, Peabody Ice Climbing Club. But as far as Gilman and Rickard know, The Ice Coop is the first and only purpose-built indoor dry-tooling gym on this continent.
The couple hopes their gym makes dry-tooling and ice climbing more accessible to newcomers. To that end, they offer gear rentals and lessons, and have worked hard to create a welcoming, supportive atmosphere where beginners can learn and grow. (Day passes are $12 and gear rental packages start at $15.)
“If you’re interested in ice climbing, it is a really tough sport to break into,” said Gilman, 60. “There’s a lot of very expensive equipment involved and it’s very technical. It’s cold. It’s very scary if you’re not used to it.”
They also hope The Coop becomes a training hub that helps boost U.S. performance at competitions, including internationally on the ice climbing World Cup circuit. And, in the short time that it’s been open, the gym is already making a difference: At the annual Ouray ice festival and competition in late January, nearly all of the top finishers trained at The Coop, Gilman said.
Competitive dry-tooling and ice climbing are different but closely related sports. When competing, athletes use tools to climb on ice or specially designed dry-tooling walls — sometimes both during the same run — with the goal of finishing the route as quickly as possible (or before time runs out).
“When you’re going on ice, you’re swinging and embedding the pick of the tool into the ice,” said Gilman, who’s been ice climbing for 10 years. “When you’re dry-tooling, you’re just very carefully, very gently putting your pick on a hold.”
Ice climbers and dry-toolers can train at standard indoor climbing gyms, but since they can’t practice swinging ice axes and kicking their crampons into the wall at most of those facilities, it’s just not the same.
“It’s sort of like the difference between Wiffle ball and softball or baseball,” said Rickard, 51. “If you always trained on a Wiffle ball and then you went to go play in the Major Leagues, you would not have an understanding of how the ball responds or how to hit it.”
And even outdoors, dry-toolers have a hard time finding places to train — there are just a handful of established dry-tooling areas in Colorado, and none that are super accessible from the Front Range. Some people build their own at-home dry-tooling structures called “woodies,” Gilman said, but that’s just not possible for everyone.
“There were very limited places where people could train if they were going to compete or focus on a training regime for competing,” said Gilman. “And furthermore, people who were traveling to competitions, they just didn’t have the experience.”
So, in 2019, Gilman hired an architect and engineer to help build out The Ice Coop, which is located next door to Rock and Resole, the East Boulder climbing gear store and shoe resoling company that Rickard and Gilman also own.
The Ice Coop opened in August 2019, with Gilman and Rickard continuing to expand its offerings. The walls are 10 to 12 feet high and feature a variety of colorful holds from around the world, which helps athletes prepare for international competitions.
Though the coronavirus pandemic disrupted gym operations, The Coop has maintained a sense of community while adhering to all state and local guidelines. (As of right now, climbers must make reservations, wear masks and remain socially distanced in the gym. Capacity is limited.)
“Coming in, I didn’t know anything,” said Courtney Taylor, a 34-year-old Boulder IT professional who’s been climbing regularly at The Coop since it opened. “But very quickly, I felt like I was part of a community and everyone was so supportive. They’re equally as psyched on one of the World Cup climbers breaking through in their training as they were for me just linking up a few moves on an easy (route) or finally just being able to complete a move I’ve been struggling with.”
The team behind The Ice Coop believes dry-tooling and ice climbing will only continue to grow in popularity, in part because they’re fun sports to watch.
At the gym and in competitions, dry-toolers climb on large, dangling three-dimensional structures and boxes, often twisting their bodies into carefully choreographed positions while hanging upside-down. On the wall, they make big, impressive moves to reach tiny, slippery holds that are just out of reach; sometimes, the climbers’ tools slip off and they fall.
“It’s kind of like mixing gymnastics with climbing — if you watch a competition, it’s more like ‘American Ninja Warrior’ mixed with climbing,” said Tyler Kempney, The Coop’s 29-year-old manager. who offers coaching and advice to the gym’s climbers. “It’s just really showy and fun and that’s what people are drawn to. Compared to rock climbing, all the movements are more exaggerated so everything looks bigger. It’s more visually appealing.”
In Rickard’s view, the tools used in ice climbing and dry-tooling are great equalizers that help reduce the gaps between climbers of different ages, genders and body types, which makes the sports more approachable.
And while this may change as the sports continue to grow in popularity, another big draw is the friendly, laid-back atmosphere.
“I did not gravitate toward competitive sports, especially if they were cutthroat — that just wasn’t my mindset,” said Rickard. “But with the dry-tooling competitions, it’s still a challenging sport but you’ll find people helping each other. After they try a route and come off, it’s, ‘Hey that hold is pretty tricky, be aware,’ and, ‘This is what I tried and it didn’t work. I hope you get it.’ “
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