Climbing the icy towers of downtown Whitehorse

Four new towers are taking shape beside Shipyards Park, and they’re likely to be the tallest, most impressive structures along the waterfront…

Four new towers are taking shape beside Shipyards Park, and they’re likely to be the tallest, most impressive structures along the waterfront — until spring, anyway, when they’ll melt away to reveal empty sky once again.

That’s what happens when you build with ice.

Chris Gishler started building the ice-climbing towers before Christmas on a lot behind Domino’s Pizza, with a bit of wire fencing and some wooden boards — “to give the starting water something to stick to,” he said.

With hoses running all the time, the towers climb first to six metres, then three-metre sections grow on top, until the towers top out. The tallest will eventually be 18-metres high.

He’s planning on the facility being operational by next week.

Although they won’t last forever, the ice towers are incredibly strong.

“We’ve been climbing on it since day four,” he said.

“We’ve designed the structure to be self supporting — you’ve got to make sure the base is wide, and solid,” he said. “We’ve spent a long time on construction — monitoring and testing.”

In his fourth winter building ice towers, Gishler noted the strength and bonding capacity of ice continues to be remarkable.

His Equinox Adventure Learning operation, which also runs the climbing wall and zipline at Takhini Hot Springs, had an ice-climbing tower in operation last winter.

“It turns us into a year-round company,” he said, adding that the ice towers were a big hit.

This winter, Gishler paired up with Northern Vision Development Group, which owns the waterfront lot, to bring the unique looking structures to downtown Whitehorse.

He was waiting for city approval before he turned the hoses on.

The city’s main concern was about what would happen with all the melt water in the spring.

Gishler said that most of the mass of the structure will disappear through evaporation, and the towers will start to lean and droop.

But he expects climbing will persist through early April.

The towers definitely attract attention, but Gishler realizes the hard-core ice climbing crowd is a fraction of his target market.

“There is ice climbing around Whitehorse, but it’s not like Canmore,” he said of the Alberta ice-climbing mecca, where every icefall and frozen waterfall is climbed and scrutinized.

“I’m sure there are lots of great spots around here, it’s just that people don’t know about them.”

The towers are an entry-level exposure to the sport.

With that in mind, he’s building an “ice hike” through the four towers, connected by bridges, tunnels and traverses leading to the highest tower.

It’s less strenuous than using picks and crampons to go straight up the towers, but hikers still get to wear the spiked crampons, and tether to a safety line as they make their way up and across.

Group bookings form the bulk of Gishler’s business — he’s also planning to be open once a week for youth drop-in climbing.

The whole process is much more involved than regular climbing wall outings. “There’s a lot more to know about before you climb, and there’s a lot more equipment to learn about,” he said.

 On top of that, he’s got the Germans coming for the Fulda Challenge, and there are plans for a special