When you’re scaling a frozen waterfall, swinging razor-sharp axes, there’s a lot that can go wrong, which explains why the rugged sport of ice climbing is the most daring form of climbing.
The principal risk is falling. In sport climbing, everyone falls; climbers consider falling from dry rocks “safe.” But in ice climbing, even a short fall can be disastrous if, say, the climber’s crampons catch a ledge on the way down (catastrophic leg damage) or an ax goes flying (instant impalement).
So the skilled ice climber brushes aside thoughts of falling — not an option! — and focuses instead on slightly less devastating challenges: gale-force winds, for example, and bitter-cold conditions that can create hypothermia, frostbite and the kind of brain fog that leads to poor decision-making.
Hunger, exhaustion, exposure, avalanches — the list of hazards continues. And then there’s the ice itself, which climbers must learn to read correctly. Read it wrong, and you could find it melting mid-climb, or becoming so brittle that it shatters while you’re driving a screw into it.
The best plans go awry. After all, ice is temporary. In this cold, unstable environment, athletes can only count on themselves.
“You have to be able to cope,” says sixteen-year-old Keenan Griscom, a world-class ice climber who lives in Arvada and hopes to nab another first-place finish at the 2020 UIAA Ice Climbing World Youth Championships in Kirov, Russia, next month.
Despite the extreme danger associated with the sport, Keenan’s been addicted to ice climbing since he was five years old, when he ascended vertical ice for the first time with his father, Glen Griscom.
“I firmly believe that anybody who says they can’t do the stuff they love because of their kids is just using their kids as an excuse,” says Glen, a longtime recreational climber and sales manager for Camp USA, the world’s third-largest manufacturer of climbing gear.
Glen started climbing on the East Coast in 1992. His quest for adventure eventually led him across the country to Zion National Park, where he worked as a climber on a search-and-rescue team in the late 1990s before moving to Colorado, a climber’s paradise, in 2000, and settling into his current position with Camp USA.
Given Glen’s passion for climbing, no one was surprised when, in 2007, he literally roped his son — then a sensitive preschooler with wild hair — into being his climbing partner. “We spent most of our time trad climbing,” Keenan explains, referring to the traditional style of rock climbing, in which climbers place all of their own equipment and remove it when a pitch is complete. That’s how all rock climbers enjoyed the pastime until sport climbing took off; through the 1980s, trad was simply called “climbing.”
Keenan doesn’t have many memories of those initial climbing excursions, but things come into focus around 2009, when Glen and his wife, Tanya Griscom, took their son on a road trip to Ouray Ice Park, a man-made ice-climbing mecca in the Uncompahgre Gorge of the San Juan National Forest, with three miles of vertical terrain and over a hundred ice and mixed climbs.
Since gear manufacturers don’t make tyke-size ice tools (who wants to arm a five-year-old with an ax?), Glen had to MacGyver it, using a hacksaw and grinder to retrofit a set of ice tools.
Tanya remembers putting her kindergartner on a belay. Keenan wasn’t quite strong enough to penetrate the ice with his tiny axes, so Glen trailed behind his forty-pound son, making sure that his tools stuck to the mountain.
Keenan climbed a 45-foot route during that first outing, and the Griscoms loved sharing their passion with their son. But then, if it weren’t for ice climbing, there wouldn’t be a Keenan at all.
Glen and Tanya Griscom have been making an annual pilgrimage to Ouray since 2004, the year after they met at the Ouray Ice Festival. Tanya was a rookie checking out the January ice fest with a friend, and Glen fitted his future wife for her first pair of ice-climbing boots at a demo booth.
“I asked for her driver’s license for collateral for the boots,” Glen recalls. In retrospect, he probably didn’t need to employ the sneaky tactic, since Tanya was equally smitten. The two married that September, and didn’t waste much time on solid ground.
Glen and Tanya spent their weekends rock or ice climbing in Colorado and beyond. When Keenan arrived in 2004, they packed him along on day trips and multi-day backpacking excursions. “We took Keenan everywhere,” Tanya recalls. “He grew up in nature, climbing. That’s been his life.”
Keenan climbed outdoors almost exclusively until Earth Treks Golden opened in 2014. He immediately joined the club’s competitive climbing team and began competing in bouldering and sport-climbing competitions under the auspices of Carissa Gross, the head coach at Earth Treks.
While Keenan excelled at rock climbing, his personal passions were ice climbing and mixed climbing, which involves traversing both rock and ice. The problem was, neither ice- nor mixed-climbing competitions were really a thing in the United States — not for kids, anyway. While youth athletes can apply to compete at the Ouray Ice Festival, for instance, only a few are accepted, and they’re up against some of the top athletes in the world. Of the sixty competitive ice climbers coming out of the U.S., only a handful are under eighteen.
That there are any at all is largely thanks to professional core climber Marcus Garcia — whom Rock and Ice magazine’s Jeff Jackson once called the “best climber you’ve never heard of.” During his decades-long rock, ice and mixed-terrain climbing career, Garcia has put up more than 200 first ascents. He’s currently ranked sixth in the world in the ultra-daring discipline of speed ice climbing. His real legacy, though, may well be his contribution to youth climbing.
Commonly known by its French name, Union Internationale des Associations d’Alpinisme (UIAA), the International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation is the governing body for global ice-climbing competitions. Athletes from over thirty countries participate in the organization’s annual Ice Climbing World Cup circuit, as well as its bi-annual World Championship. But a climber has to be at least sixteen years old to go up against adults in a UIAA World Cup, and after decades of competing in UIAA-sponsored competitions, Garcia realized that if young ice climbers were going to have an opportunity to compete in this country, he might have to create it.
Garcia had been training youth rock climbers in his home town of Durango since 2004 as a way to share his passion with the next generation. “I had great mentors when I was coming up, and it was important to carry that forward,” he says.
He decided to establish a youth ice-climbing competition in Durango: the North American Youth Ice Climbing Championship. Of course, if he was going to hold such a contest, he’d need competitors, and none of the kids he trained knew how to ice-climb...yet. So he asked some of his young pupils if they’d be interested in learning how to ice-climb. They were eager, and Garcia was soon training five of them.
Managing the ice tools was tricky, but Garcia’s protégés showed a lot of promise. Still, there was another big hurdle that had to be surmounted before he could host an ice competition in Durango: infrastructure — specifically, a lack thereof.
Ice-climbing competitions aren’t actually held on ice. “That wouldn’t be fair to competitors, because the ice is constantly changing,” explains Garcia. Instead of competing on natural ice, ice climbers face off on plywood panels built to mimic difficult ice-climbing routes.
Garcia built a forty-by-twelve-foot plywood climbing structure, then used a crane to lift it into place in Buckley Park in downtown Durango. That’s where, on December 30 and 31, 2014, ten climbers from Colorado, Montana and Canada competed in the first-ever U.S. youth ice-climbing contest, which included two qualification rounds and one final round.
While the event might not have had a huge turnout, “it was a huge success,” Garcia says, “because it paved the way for a USA Youth Ice Team.”
The North American Youth Ice Climbing Championship was open to climbers ages thirteen and up, so Keenan Griscom couldn’t participate in 2014. But some of the U.S. athletes who did compete — superstar Liam Foster included — did so well that the UIAA and the American Alpine Club, America’s oldest nonprofit organization for climbers, asked Garcia to travel with his group to the 2016 Winter Youth Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, to build awareness about ice climbing.
Youth ice climbing is huge in France, Russia, Switzerland and South Korea, but pretty much everywhere else, Garcia says, it’s “lean.”
While Garcia wanted to push ice climbing abroad, he was also building awareness in Colorado. He bought the Rock Lounge, an indoor climbing spot, in Durango in 2016 because he wanted to see more young athletes excel at climbing, and that December he hosted another big ice-climbing competition in Durango, the UIAA World Ice Climbing Cup. Since the contest climbing structure was already built, Garcia held another North American Youth Ice Climbing Championship, too. It cost $70,000 to put on both events, and Garcia relied on donations from sponsors, including Camp USA. He also contributed $10,000 out of his own pocket.
The Durango competition was the only internationally sanctioned UIAA World Ice Climbing Cup in North America during the 2016-2017 season. But what was important for the Griscoms was that Keenan was finally old enough to enter the accompanying youth championship, his first international ice-climbing competition.
The then-thirteen-year-old competed in several youth events, qualifying in the preliminary rounds and crushing it in the finals, where he and climber Cody Stevenson tied for first.
After wrapping up both ice-climbing events, Garcia started putting together the first USA Youth Ice Climbing Team, to represent the U.S. in UIAA-sponsored ice-climbing competitions in 2017. The initial team comprised seven athletes, including Keenan, who’d been training with Garcia at ice-climbing camps. That February, Garcia took the gang to Guillestre, France, to compete in a UIAA Global Youth World Cup Series event.
To help fund the trip and pick up future bills for budding athletes who would otherwise struggle to afford a costly sport like climbing, Garcia founded a nonprofit, Kidz Rock.
The contest in Guillestre was Keenan’s first Global Youth World Cup competition, and the young ice climber made it into the finals in both of the two ice-climbing disciplines, speed and lead. Speed ice climbing involves racing up an ice face for time; lead ice climbing gauges an athlete’s ability to master a difficult route. In Guillestre, where more than thirty athletes from around the world competed, Keenan placed ninth in lead and sixth in speed. The USA Youth Ice Climbing Team came in third overall.
The event really fueled Keenan’s competitive fire. “It was so cool to compete in a different country at a world-class level,” he says.
Back in Colorado, Keenan resumed training for sport climbing and bouldering competitions at Earth Treks Golden. But he was soon feeling antsy. “I wanted to spend more time training for ice climbing,” Keenan says — so Gross, his coach, encouraged him to shift his focus to dry tooling, a form of rock climbing in which ice axes are used to climb rock that’s not covered in snow or ice.
At the end of 2017, Keenan applied to compete in the Ouray Ice Festival in January 2018. He was one of the youngest athletes accepted into the competition, and he placed thirteenth in the lead climbing event and sixth in speed.
After Ouray, Keenan joined Garcia and the rest of the USA Youth Ice Climbing Team in Malbun, Liechtenstein, for the 2018 UIAA Ice Climbing World Youth Championships. The team nabbed a fourth-place finish, but Keenan didn’t quite get the accolades he’d hoped for. After making it into the finals, he slipped off a hold, placing lower than expected.
“The holds for these competitions are quite specific,” Glen explains. “One of the biggest advantage any foreign competitor has is access to facilities that use special holds made from resin and steel.”
After Keenan fell in Liechtenstein, he and his father decided to build a dry-tooling training wall in their back yard. The result was a 21-foot-long, 8-foot-deep plywood structure with three 7-foot segments covered in resin and steel holds. The wall is the only one of its kind in Colorado, and has attracted pro climbers from across the state, including Liam Foster, Tyler Kempney and Chris Snobeck, the first American to climb A Line Above the Sky, a D15-grade dry-tooling route that’s currently the most difficult confirmed climb on record.
Snobeck met Keenan in 2016. “At that point, he’d just started getting into ice and mixed climbing, and a lot of what he was doing was trying to figure this out,” Snobeck says. The seasoned pro climber became a mentor to Keenan, and has helped him develop both his skills and mental fortitude. “Pretty soon, the kid really started pushing the grade. He wanted to know more and more,” Snobeck recalls. “That’s when we started spending more time together.”
Snobeck says he was psyched to see Keenan progress from “hard routes” to “nearly impossible routes,” and that he has a feeling 2020 will be Keenan’s best year yet. That’s saying a lot, considering that Keenan won a gold medal in lead climbing last year at the Ice Climbing World Youth Championships in Oulu, Finland, where his U.S. youth team placed second overall. “I was the third competitor to climb, and the only one to top out the route,” Keenan recalls. “It was one of those perfect climbing competition routes.”
Making it to the top felt “weird and unreal,” he adds. Then, after he climbed, Keenan had to sit back and wait for seven more athletes to make their attempts, which was nerve-racking. But in the end, he came out on top.
There are more contests ahead. While ice climbing isn’t currently an Olympic sport, many athletes are hoping that changes this decade. In order to make it into the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, the International Olympic Committee would have to approve ice climbing after the host city submits a proposal to include the sport. But that could happen. “It’s looking more and more like ice climbing will make it into the Winter Games,” Garcia says, pointing out that rock climbing was recently approved for this year’s 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Hoping to appeal to a younger audience, in 2016 the IOC authorized a package of new warm-weather events, and rock climbing made the cut.
If ice climbing is approved for 2022, Keenan will be ready.
For the past two years, he’s been able to compete in CityROCK’s Ice Fest, an annual, multi-day dry-tooling event in Colorado Springs that gives novices and pros a chance to participate in ice and mixed climbing. The November competition has been around for twelve years, but youth participants have only been allowed to climb since 2017. Keenan became eligible in 2018, when he placed first in the youth division; he came in second in 2019.
He’s continued to compete at the Ouray Ice Festival, including the 25th anniversary event last month, when he placed 17th against some of the best climbers in the world. He’s now training for a couple of 2020 UIAA World Cup competitions over the next month, in Oulu and Kirov. But this time, Garcia won’t be at his side.
While he was training young athletes on the USA Youth Ice Climbing Team, Garcia also competed for the USA Ice Team for four years. He won’t be on the 2020 team, though. “I ended up sixth in the world in speed, and was expecting to be on the USA Ice Team again this year, but I didn’t make it,” Garcia explains.
“We put out a call for applications back in October, and we received 53 applications for thirty spots,” says Caroline Bridges, a spokesperson for the Golden-based mountaineering nonprofit. “For a variety of reasons, Marcus didn’t make the team.”
He’s a little sour about that. Because in addition to giving his USA Ice Team spot to another athlete, the American Alpine Club, which puts together official teams to compete for the U.S. in international ice-climbing competitions, also took over the youth ice-climbing team that Garcia had started.
“I received a letter thanking me for bringing up the youth and creating great athletes, but was told they no longer needed me,” Garcia says.
There have been “misunderstandings on all sides, and an unfortunate lack of communication,” says Bridges. “Marcus has been an extraordinary mentor, and has driven the youth category forward in many ways.” She calls both his training facility and coaching “a huge asset” for local youth.
Today, the USA Youth Ice Team is composed of climbers from across the country. “We are still working through a lot of growing pains,” Bridges adds. “For the past two seasons, we have focused more on having an organized team manager than on any official coaches, which is where the confusion comes in.”
As the original coach for the USA Youth Ice Climbing Team, Garcia helped dozens of young climbers excel athletically, but he says the big payoff was watching them develop confidence, self-esteem and other life skills.
“If it hadn’t been for Marcus, Keenan never would have started competing in ice-climbing competitions,” Glen says.
And Garcia continues to mentor Keenan from Durango, giving him workouts to complete in Golden. “Keenan is an incredible athlete, but he also really respects his limits, and wants to make them strengths,” he notes.
Having won an international competition, Keenan has already accomplished more than some athletes will during their entire careers, and he’s just getting started. “I think Keenan’s going to be the next big-name climber in the sport,” Snobeck says.
It’s easy to root for Keenan, one of those atypical teenagers who can carry on an interesting conversation and doesn’t hesitate to look adults in the eye when he talks. While some pro athletes are egotistical, Keenan is soft-spoken, humble and collaborative. “He’s one of the most grounded climbers I’ve met,” says Snobeck.
“Keenan was there when I first started coaching. He’s the kid who always comes to practice with a smile on his face and some fun socks,” Gross adds. “His teammates really look up to him.”
Highly motivated to improve, Keenan’s always willing to listen, and he accepts feedback. As Garcia puts it, “He recognizes weaknesses and takes criticism.”
It takes time and dedication to compete at an elite level, and while Keenan is making a name for himself as an ice and mixed climber, he trains and competes in rock climbing, too. Since August, he’s been on a rigorous training schedule that starts on Monday night with a two-hour-plus climbing session at Earth Treks Golden, followed by weightlifting. On Tuesday night, Keenan works on power and endurance for up to four hours on his home climbing wall, often with Liam Foster. Then on Wednesday, he’s off to the Ice Coop, an ice-climbing and dry-tooling gym in Boulder, where he spends several hours practicing difficult moves and progression with Tyler Kempney, another coach and mentor. By Thursday, Keenan’s back at Earth Treks, messing around on the bouldering wall for two hours, focusing on “power,” he says, before hitting the hangboard for some supplemental grip training.
“Training takes up a lot of time,” he admits, “and it’s a lot of time being sore and tired the next day.”
But it’s not all sports all the time. A sophomore at Arvada West High School, Keenan is a talented artist. He draws and paints, and will lose himself in his art for hours on end. When he thinks about long-term goals beyond climbing, he’s interested in a career in graphic design or maybe welding. Right now, though, there are still more challenges to climb.
“A lot of high school and college athletes are just as dedicated as Keenan, but many of them have team members to push them forward and hold them accountable,” notes Glen. For climbers like Keenan, the desire to persevere has to come from within: “Keenan’s the only one holding Keenan accountable,” his father says. “To me, that’s the most impressive thing about him.”
“I’m down to train really hard, because if you go hard enough, it pays off,” Keenan explains. “When I see my progression, that motivates me to train harder the next week.” But there’s also this: “Climbing is just really, really fun,” he says.
Two hot topics in youth sports are overuse injuries and burnout, common issues impacting young athletes across a variety of sports.
Adolescents and teens are much more susceptible to overuse injuries than adult competitors because their bodies are still developing. Training for climbing with repetitive, high-intensity workouts can trigger a host of problems ranging from strained finger tendons to stress fractures to tendinitis in the shoulder or wrist.
“Absolutely, we worry,” Glen says of his son’s regimen. “We force him to stretch and to do counter-balance training. For every pull, there’s a push. That’s something Marcus focuses on a lot.”
So far, training smart has paid off for Keenan, who hasn’t experienced any overuse injuries. But he knows how important it is to prevent injuries before they happen, because recovering from one is a long, tedious process.
In 2015, early in his competitive climbing career, Keenan broke his tibia and fibula when he fell during a routine bouldering session. Healing the fracture required surgery, complete with screws and pins and “lots of inactivity and rehab,” he remembers. He was laid up for six months.
“He worked really hard doing physical therapy, and healed properly,” Glen says.
Keenan’s been injury-free ever since.
He’s also avoided burnout, an increasingly common plight for many single-sport youth athletes.
“When you train hard, you have to recharge,” Keenan explains. So on weekends, he climbs outdoors to break the monotony. “I never want to be inside on the weekends,” he says.
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“He’s constantly outside getting after it,” Tanya says. It helps that Keenan’s parents love to spend time with their only child, climbing, skiing and mountain biking whenever they can get away.
When it comes to climbing, Glen can’t keep up with his son anymore. “A lot of the things we do together are bigger objectives, like multi-day trips or routes that take a day and a half to access,” he explains.
The father-son duo has climbed some epic terrain in Rocky Mountain National Park, Grand Teton National Park and Yosemite National Park, and last year they spent four days at Wind River Ranch, putting in some seriously grueling hours in the Colorado backcountry.
It’s intense, and they can’t get enough. “You’ve spent a full day of hard work, and then when you top out, you look down into the valley you just climbed, and there’s not many people who get to be here,” Keenan says. “It’s that moment that makes you want to go back the next day, even though there was all that suffering.”