Ice climbers call it Polar Circus. But this ain’t that kind of clown show. Take the tallest building in Greenville (the 30-story Landmark), multiply the height by seven and sheet it in solid ice, then for ambience, top it with a bone-chilling wind whipping down from the Arctic. Welcome to the ice climbing Big Top of the Canadian Rockies. It’s one of many frozen mountain faces Steve Bomar scales for fun. “It’s really hard to explain unless you’ve experienced it,” reveals the Greenville native. “It’s rewarding on many different levels—the physical challenge, the mental part, the vastness and being immersed in God’s creation, even the suffering. It sharpens your mind in a way you don’t necessarily appreciate until later.”
The quiet-natured 55-year-old grew up locally playing the usual sports—soccer, football, Little League baseball. Steve liked to hike, but had never even snow-skied when an old roommate from Clemson days talked him into summiting Mount Rainier in the late 1990s. “That first time? I was hooked,” he recalls. “I liked it a lot, and there was even a point that I almost moved to Aspen to be closer to it.” Although he remained grounded in the Upstate, today his climbing log lists frigid adventures spanning summits from Alpamayo in Peru, to Conway, New Hampshire, and Valdez, Alaska, to Lake Placid, New York.
Strength and precision are hallmarks of this extreme sport. But some argue ice climbing is not a sport bit rather an acrobatic show of manual labor and nimble carpentry, which requires shimmying up 800-foot-tall icicles for hours on end. “Yes, I’ve fallen a few times,” admits Steve. “It’s not fun. Time stands still. You hope the rope catches and the protection you put in was good, and if it was, you’ll only fall for a short distance and hopefully not stab yourself in the process. Nobody wants to fall.” Stab yourself? Yep. You heard him right.
Ice climbing emerged from traditional rock climbing and mountaineering well over a century ago, but new materials and technology have pushed its popularity to heights as tall as the peaks these climbers ascend. Ice picks and axes now have specially designed handles and leashes. Throw in a pair of crampons, and you’re rigged with a sharp-edged equipment trifecta that can save—or end—a life. Other advancements include steel and aluminum ice screws and lightweight harnesses allowing the climber to hug an ice wall, waterfall, or glacier for hours. If the expedition is an extended mixed climb (ice and rock), athletes can carry an estimated 60 pounds of gear including a tent, sleeping bag, food, and first aid.
“In Alaska, the pilot dropped us on the glacier. There’s literally nothing around except you,” Steve says, painting a frosty picture of one polar walkabout. “That was a two-week trip. I think the coldest it got was 25 below, but we had the right sleeping bags. It’s not as bad as it sounds.” What was bad was crossing a crevasse field alone on Emmons Glacier on the northeast flank of Mount Rainier. “My partner at the time had bolted on ahead. There was no one else on the mountain,” he recalls. “If I’d made one mistake, no one would have ever known. If you fall in, they wouldn’t know where to look for you.”
Even with inherent dangers, the WYFF business and human resources manager has introduced his wife and son to his passion. “This year, we’re going to Telluride and looking to do some climbing in Ouray,” he shares. “Whether you’re advanced, or a novice, the most important thing is to know your limits and stay within them.” Sound advice from a man who was once terrified of heights. “I respect them now,” he closes with a sly smile. “It’s quite exhilarating if you do it right. Exposure is part of the thrill.”