OverviewAbout 35 miles southwest of the unlikely town of Cody, Wyoming, in the southern Absaroka mountains, is an area sporting the highest concentration of frozen waterfall ice routes in the continental US.
Among ice climbers this place is sort of a best-kept secret. It is said that if you can climb well here, you can climb well anywhere. IMO There is no point in going unless someone in your party can lead WI4's solidly.
Roadside ice, short approaches and toproping are not what you will find in the South Fork area. Approaches tend to be relatively long (1-2 hours) with possible river fords and goodly elevation gain.
The classic long routes here seem to mostly follow creek drainages. You might climb a pitch or two, then walk up snow in the drainage to the base of another pitch. Interspersed there might be sections of WI2-ish ice bouldering which you may or may not want to rope up for.
Descents tend to involve a mix of downclimbing and rappelling off bolts, slung trees, and v-threads. Definitely know how to make a v-thread and bring extra v-thread material and slings/rings to reinforce tree anchors. Be mindful that bolts have been known to shear off in summer storms - these are creek drainages of course. Some routes have walk-offs, but I have not been on any of those.
The area is remote, and the nearest help is a long way off, so self-sufficiency here is important.
The rock is a volcanic conglomerate not unlike that found in the Pinnacles of central California, ie. not very good. Locals say that rock gear is not of much use here - perhaps just bring a selection of pitons. "Kitty litter" seems to be the popular nomenclature for the rock quality :)
Getting ThereFrom the town of Cody drive west and turn left on South Fork Road (State Highway 291) about 45 minutes to an hour, depending on your destination and conditions.
The pavement ends about 32 miles from town, and becomes unpaved gravel. High clearance probably isn't necessary, though in some conditions 4WD might be useful.
Cody is served by the Cody-Yellowstone Regional Airport.
GuidebookThe definitive guidebook to the area is Winter Dance : Select Ice Climbs in Southern Montana & Northern Wyoming, Joe Josephson, First Ascent Press, 2004. The book has a map of the South Fork area, approach notes, first ascent stories, and lots of great photos.
The old guide / map (which I have never seen) is noted for having some pretty serious sandbags, a fault which is mostly corrected in Winter Dance. For example, I am told that Mean Green (300m, WI5) used to be rated WI4 in the old guide.
It could probably be argued that ratings in the WI3 to WI3+ range are still a bit stiff. Be prepared ...
On the WebCody Ice website (conditions & weather)
South Fork Ice Climbing Festival (usually around President's Day)
ColdFear.com - Aaron Mulkey's Cody ice climbing site
Cody ice climbing info on mountainproject.com
CampingThis area is located mostly within the Shoshone National Forest's Washakie Wilderness.
Dispersed camping regulations may apply outside of established campsites (which are likely to be closed in winter).
Contact the Washakie Ranger District for more info :
Washakie Ranger District
Ruth Esperance, District Ranger
333 East Main St
Lander, WY 82520-3499
LodgingMost people seem to stay at one of the hotels in town.
Mike's recommendation: Robin's Nest B&B.
Keith notes: Bison Willy's has shut down (both the bunkhouse and the hostel in town).
Weather / Avalanche ConditionsWeather Underground for Cody, Wyoming (5000')
National Weather Service forecast for Cody, Wyoming
The South Fork area is not known for high snowfall, and avalanche hazard is generally pretty minimal. That said, it tends to be pretty windy, and slabs can form on steeper aspects, so stay aware.
An ice climber was killed in an avalanche here in January 2009 (see this article).
Wildlife ConcernsBighorn Sheep - upon entering the South Fork area you will see signs that say "Don't Stress the Sheep". This area is a crucial winter range for bighorn sheep.
Recommendations: Stay as far clear of them as possible, don't spook them, be quiet around them. They may seem unaffected and nonchalant, but if they look frightened or nervous, walk away. These sheep can be literally "frightened to death".
Grizzly Bears - during early and late season (October, November, March, April) it is said that you may see grizzlies in the area.
Recommendations: Make plenty of noise on the approach, and carry pepper spray. Don't leave lots of extra food in your pack at the base of climbs or leave food scraps around.
Access Note - Ice climbers should be aware that if wildlife concerns arise, access may be limited by the USFS.
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