Since mid-December, a typical weekend for Matt Troyanek has included a steady stream of visitors to his backyard for a little ice climbing.
The backyard resembles that of most houses in north Laramie — a deck, some grass, a fence, a couple plastic chairs and a few bushes. Oh, and 20-foot-tall pillar of ice.
On a recent Monday morning, the blue and white ice shimmered in the sunlight, water droplets dripping from the crags and crevices on the south-facing side. A sheen of smooth ice covered most of the lawn, dotted with chunks dislodged from the tower.
By way of an extension ladder embedded into the ice on the north side, Troyanek rigged a top-rope belay system from a metal frame.
Ropes in place, he belayed a series of climbers up and down the tower, including Willow Belden, an experienced rock climber trying ice climbing for the first time. Troyanek explained some basic technique as he helped her put crampons over her boots.
“It’s nice to do this in a controlled environment,” he said.
To climb onto the tower, Belden swung an ice axe high, embedding it above her head with a thunk.
“That’s a satisfying sound,” Troyanek said.
Then she kicked the two front-facing points of one crampon into the ice, finding purchase and rising to kick in the other toe. Next, she loosened an ice axe, raised her arm to swing — thunk. A spray of ice chunks bounced down the tower, across her helmet and onto the lawn.
“The higher you can get them every time, the better,” Troyanek said.
Belden laughed at the unfamiliar sensation of clinging to an icy vertical face using hand-held tools and crampons.
“My feet are larger than I expect them to be,” she said.
Except for Troyanek’s yard, the closest place to Laramie for ice climbing is probably deep inside Rocky Mountain National Park in northern Colorado. Last weekend, more than a dozen climbers opted for the backyard instead of the backcountry.
“It’s a fun thing to share,” he said.
At the center of the tower is a 22-foot-tall flagpole he installed earlier this year, with a T-shaped metal frame attached to the top. From each arm of the frame, Troyanek draped sheets of inch-thick porous blue material that’s designed to be used in swamp coolers.
As nighttime temperatures dropped in December, he soaked the fibrous material with water from a power sprayer, freezing it solid.
From there, Troyanek used a finer spray nozzle to shoot water at the tower. The droplets cooled as they traveled through the air, bonding with the frozen mesh-like structure and gradually forming a solid tower of ice that’s essentially freestanding, having melted away from the flagpole itself.
“It’s been a big experimental process in learning how to do this,” he said. “About half the things we do to grow ice just don’t work, and then there’s some surprises along the way.”
Troyanek said he was inspired by a similar ice tower he saw in town a few years ago. He and a friend also built one once by stacking empty 55-gallon drums and trickling water down them.
When the temperature drops below 15 degrees F, that’s when ice-making can happen, he said. On cold nights, he’ll begin spraying in the evening, checking every few hours and moving it once or twice during the night.
“When the temperatures get really low, sometimes it’ll grow in just amazing ways that we never expected,” he said.
Troyanek said a few neighbors have stepped onto their decks to watch a climbing session, and sometimes drivers or pedestrians will stop in the middle of the street when they catch a glimpse of the looming tower.
The south-facing side of the tower is vulnerable to sunlight on warm days and is melting a little at the top. When the ice warms in the sun, it feels soft and plasticky beneath an ice axe. The north side is solid as ever, the ice hard and brittle.
Troyanek has been climbing and mountaineering since the 1980s and is a certified climbing instructor. He currently guides for Solid Rock Outdoor Ministries during summer excursions in the Laramie Range.
He said he loves climbing because it allows him to spend time outdoors and forces him to focus on the immediate task at hand.
“I think what’s satisfying mentally about rock climbing is we are very on-point and focused on exactly what we are doing at that moment,” he said.
He also loves taking people with him, teaching them a new sport and helping them overcome their fears.
“I really like helping other people have a good time in the outdoors,” he said.
As long as ice-building conditions continue, Troyanek said he’ll maintain the tower. As long as winter continues, so will the climbing.
“The nice thing about this is it’s literally in our backyard,” he said.