By Mark Wilcox
February 6, 2013 --
JACKSON — The Tetons loom beautifully across the valley from one prime piece of property in Jackson. But even if this piece of land ever gets developed, one sales pitch a realtor will never use is one that the current occupants of the space rely on: the spot rarely sees the sun in the winter.
"It was intended to be part of acondominium complex that didn't get built," said the space's current concessionaire. "Y'know — another financial meltdown thing."
It's a good thing the south-facing spot backed up against the mountain sees so little light or its current occupants might suffer a literal meltdown. The space is the new Teton Ice Park, and the sunless winter is what keeps the ice climbable on the 40-foot retaining wall behind the Love Ridge Condominiums on Jackson's Town Hill.
"If you get a lot of direct sun on the ice, it changes it and makes it looser," said owner Christian Santelices. Partly because the retaining wall doglegs and some parts of the wall see more sun than others, ice park instructors monitor it every day that it's open to make sure it's as safe as possible.
"Our first priority is that we maintain a safe venue in an unsafe sport," Santelices said.
Of course, Jackson has been a haven for unsafe sports enthusiasts for some time, and with few accessible ice climbs in the Tetons, Santelices saw an opportunity to bring the sport mainstream in the valley with the park, which opened late in 2012 in Jackson.
However, he first founded an ice park at Grand Targhee near Alta in 2009. It was the first commerical ice-climbing venue in the nation, he said. He abandoned that park when he realized it wasn't making economic or environmental sense to truck in the massive amounts of water to use at the less-accessible park. So far this year at Snow King, where he is connected to the town's water supply and has a location minutes away from most valley residents, Santelices said he has used 300,000 gallons of water to build the ice pillars that flute gracefully up the lengthy retaining wall.
His setup relied on sponsorship deals for much of the gear, which includes the curved double ice axes and the mean-looking crampons that climbers use to Spider-Man up the walls. He also has a warming tent for changing into gear while out of the elements; a fire pit, generators and spotlights that add a social aspect to evening climbs; ropes; helmets; specialized boots; and more. Off the top of his head, he said he probably has $20,000 invested into the park.
And though it's too early to really tell how well the ice park will do, Santelices said he thinks he can avoid a meltdown in this location.
"I think it's sustainable," Santelices said after about a month with open walls. Even so, he said he has has marketing work to do, specifically in attracting large groups and events. He said the venue lends itself to large groups and social climbing, making it perfect for corporate or educational teambuilding.
"This venue is really perfect for that — it's way better than Targhee in that regard," Santelices said. "There's so much area to stand and spectate and take a break and so forth — it's not so much in your face."
Snow King strategy
Earlier this year, Snow King ski hill approached Santelices about the project as a way to diversify its winter offerings. The ski hill has been subsidized by the Snow King Resort for many years, but this year the entities split. While the resort was taken over by a new company, the ski hill — which has been bleeding red ink — became its own entity, leaving managers scrambling to find ways to make it profitable again.
"I think [the ice park's] in line with our vision of creating a world class recreational facility," said Mountain Operations Manager Adam Shankland. "We've got a lot going on here already."
The ski area has buttered its bread as a thriving race venue with a tubing park and major events like the World Championship Snowmobile Hill Climb on the side. In the summer, it has miniature golf, an alpine slide and will soon get a zipline. It also hosts outdoor concerts, commercial tandem paragliders and the scenic chairlift. The ice-climbing venue simply adds one more arrow to the recreational quiver.
"It's just an exciting step in the process of making the Town Hill into a viable entity," Shankland said.
Shankland isn't the only one excited about the unique business run by Santelices, who is also an Exum mountain guide.
"Everybody wanted to make it happen," Shankland said. "I hope it's working out for Christian because a lot of our longtime locals are excited about it being here."
The sport statewide
While Jackson is a fairly virgin venue for ice climbers, other portions of the state have their crampons thrust more firmly into the ice. Cody is a notable ice-climbing destination, and last year a company based in Ouray and Durango, Colo. was one of two companies to get permitting to guide ice-climbing expeditions in South Fork Valley. The other is Jackson Hole Mountain Guides.
"I hear the ice is rad — I've never been there myself," said an office representative of San Juan Mountain Guides. She said the company has only booked a few destination tours to Cody so far since acquiring the permit.
"It's a new deal with Cody — I know we're trying to get ice climbing up there because it's a neat place," she said. "But we haven't had much success in selling that trip."
Even so, the Cody Ice Festival, put on by Founder Don Foote Jr. since 1997, has had success. It draws climbers from "all over the world" to Cody annually during President's Day Weekend to participate in the "friendliest little ice festival in the Northern Rockies." The event has grown in popularity and is often featured in climbing magazines and other specialty publications.
The sport, by nature dangerous, is building up layers of recognition in the state, much like the frozen falls have to build sheet on sheet. But one thing should keep the sport, and businesses behind it, going.
"Ice climbing's super fun," Santelices said.
Wyoming Business Report Staff Writer Mark Wilcox wholeheartedly agrees with Santelices' summation after axing his way up the walls at the Teton Ice Park for the first time.