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Ice Climber's Guide to Great Falls, Virginia

Rev. 1-15-2015

While hardly a wonderland of ice, there is enough to learn basic skills, warm up for greater challenges, or enjoy a vigorous morning of ice bouldering as your skills improve, all within minutes of Washington DC.

Warning. Everything we said about rock climbing being dangerous goes triple for ice. You can stab yourself, cutting the rope is easy, and falls with crampons carry a high risk of ankle injury. Even the approach hike can be dangerous. Falling in the river is almost certainly fatal. Be careful and use a top rope until you have well advanced your ability to read ice. Climb in the morning , while it's crisp.

  Keep your heels down! 
(My waterfall crampons broken, 
I went old school for the day. 
Honestly, SMC rigids do just as well)
Consider wearing a helmet. It's not impossible for the climber to drop ice on the belayer... though belaying to one side should prevent that. Belaying from above can be smart.

Leading. Climbs are short and ice conditions extremely variable. Though I love leading ice, the practice would seem silly and dangerous here. That said, there is no harm in practicing screw placement (waist-high, make a starter hole, use ONLY concave ice (convex ice shears off). Don't bottom screws into the rock; sharpening is a drag.

Anchors. Rock anchors with slings. If you have ice screws, bring one or 2 for directionals.

Dry Tooling. Don't dry tool anywhere folks rock climb. You will be very unpopular and will richly deserve it. There is simply no reason to scratch up such a limited resource. In fact, the Park Service has expressed displeasure at this activity in some places (Little Stoney Man, SNP), so try to be invisible. Find some hidden place no one climbs; there are many. There has never been any mention of trouble at Great Falls, and let's keep it that way.

The aftermath of sloppy dry-tooling. Dry-tooling is NOT about hang-dogging and flailing, it is about precision placement and planning. Curious that there are no scratches on the holds that actually work--All this punter did was his dull tools. At least they stayed away from popular rock climbs.  But if this is the best you can do, stay with easier climbs for a while. This is just graffiti.

Smashing. If you are dropping chunks of ice larger than hand size, you are doing something wrong. If you dropping more than teaspoon size bits from a peg-boarded late season climb, you are not using what is there. Ice axes should strike in hollows, where the ice is strong in compression, not on bumps where it is fat but will shatter when spiked.  Crampon points should aim for flats or features, and if we keep our heals down, seldom shear. We should be careful when cleaning axes; over placed axes, horsed around, can bring down huge chunks. When the cracks in a formation get to a certain point, move on; they will heal overnight if you can just leave it alone. Ice is a finite resource at Great Falls, and we should always be aware that tomorrow there may be another guy that wants to climb on the stuff we unthinkingly knocked down. Best of all, the gentle touch will put you in good stead when you move on to thin, challenging ice, where there aren't deep placements and you need to preserve what little ice there is for upwards progress.

"If it doesn't stick, swing harder" is almost never true. Even on thick ice, 80% of placements--ax or crampon--should require only a single moderate blow.

A  just-departed group had knocked down over 100 pounds of ice talus, until they reasoned there was too little remaining to climb. I then climbed a half dozen laps, hooking old holes and using features, never displacing more than dust. It simply never occurred to them they didn't need to swing like barbarians. If we are all going to climb here, we've got to be gentle.

Grades. On the New England (NE) ice scale, grades can vary from day to day and from first climber to second. Please take them with a grain of salt. The short length prevents any high ratings; how tired can you get in 25 feet? Mixed grades (M) are more like rock grades in that they don't vary so much with conditions, but that all depends on whether the crux is on thin ice.

Climbs are listed from upstream, referencing rock climbs near by when ever practical. Any Great Falls Rock Climbing Guide should keep you organized. We've never seen any good ice in Great Falls, Maryland, but we'd be glad to add it to the list.

And don't chop your rope! 

 The Gorky Park and Cove areas are inaccessible when the river is even a little high. Best when it hasn't snowed too much, as they do not depend on snow melt.

Gorky Park. 25 feet, NE 3+. Rap approach. A nice smear forms in the damp area just downstream of the big roof. Further to the right, under the roof, there is often a short thin and mixed start, about M4.

Just down stream of the Technostratoman Roof. The thin stuff under the roof goes too.

Dribbles right and left. 20 feet, NE 2-3. Rap approach. 50 feet down stream from Gorky Park are a couple of little dribbles right next to each other. A fun little warm up, sometimes mixed. You can rap in, or you can scramble along the water's edge, working upstream from The Cove.

The Cove, right. 15 feet, NE 3. About 50 yards up stream of the Microdome, this little cove holds a variety of small drips and one reliable flow. A little corner climb forms 40 feet right of the main fall, surprisingly solid for a thin little line, well supported in a corner.

 The Cove Main is clearly visible to the left. The Ice Bouldering area is visible above and behind the Cove Main flow.

The Cove, Main. 20 feet, NE 3-3+. Thin direct starts are generally possible, though most climbers start on the more solid left side. Nice and steep at the top, and very dependable. Inaccessible when the river is up a little. There is also some very steep dry tooling out through the cave (M5). 

  Only 8', but thick and no death-fall. However, even a short jump is very dangerous on ice, so don't fall.

Ice Bouldering Area. 5-8 feet, NE2.  Just about the Cove Main and on the way to the Microdome area. Always fat, always in early, and lasts a long time. In rock climbing, the basics of foot placement and movement are most quickly mastered just a few feet above the ground, where the climber can focus on exactly what is happening and what is working, not success or failure. With ice the same is true; I watch many climbers flail on a rope, flubbing basics they could have better learned in private; this is where I learned them, a few mornings on my own, trying variations and honing basics. This is a place to play with different swings and foot work, both flat footed stuff and front pointing. Work on one-strike placements (moderate force, direct at a hollow, pull downwards at impact so it hooks). Work on one-kick front point placements (firm strike with follow-through, heel low, direct at flat or just above feature), step on to them, and then raise the heels and see what happens (they shear right out). Really look at what you are doing and at how the ice reacts to it. No smashing.

Also saves wear and tear on the more interesting flows. Practice here.

The traversing and thin ice can make it interesting. Melted out but still climbable in March.

Microdome Veil. 20 feet, NE 3. Several thin lines go up the broken area right of the Microdome. Not dependable and short, but interesting and sometimes mixed.

Microdome Right, thinning but still climbable in March. This route is often in for 2 months, amazing for Virginia.

Microdome Right. 20 feet, NE 2-3, depending on how peg-boarded it is. The most popular Great Falls ice climb, good materials for beginners, and fun for all. Reliable and generally quite thick. Ledges keep it from getting vertical, and once picked-out, quite easy and secure.

The Gully. Several extremely variable climbs from NE 2 to M4. Continue down river from the Microdome Left top-out, and descend the first major gulley to the left. Short climbs at the base and mixed routes on the downstream walls. Requires snow and the right temperature swings.

Cigar Box Right, melted out in March. When it's fat it's a workable access downclimb.

Cigar Box Right. 15 feet, NE2-3. A short little climb-out covered by the same anchor. There is also an easy rock descent to the right

 Cigar Box. The bottom is gone in March.

Cigar Box. 25 feet, NE 3-M4. The first dirty gulley upstream from Humidor, a nice corner flow with a steep start. Fat when it's in, tricky and educational start when it is not.

Aid Box Right. The right flow went on cool March morning, but just barely; the crampons were gently placed on holds and the axes placed lightly, with precision.

Aid Box Right. 15 feet. NE 4. Just right of the Aid Box down climb. Short, steep, and desperately thin, these lines are extremely variable. Must be well below freezing, like any thin climb.


  1. I had no idea there was ice climbing this far south! That's awesome!

  2. Gotta love it when VA gets some legit cold like we did this winter. Dead stink bugs and a little more ice to scratch our way up and now back to 70 degrees, life in VA is good! Don't know if you heard about Almost Alpine, our local climbing mockumentary about the sick sickness that is VA and WV climbing but we put it up on Kickstarter, and we are trying to get the word out. Here's the address