VALDEZ -- More than 300 people flocked to this year's Ice Climbing Festival in Valdez, the premier event for the nascent outdoor nonprofit Levitation 49.
Climbing ribbons of frozen water in spectacular Keystone Canyon, festival-goers spent three days exploring the area, making new friends and reinforcing the idea that Valdez has plenty to offer outdoor enthusiasts year-round — including skiing, fishing, hiking, biking and hunting.
Alaska Pacific University student Fallon Connolly, wearing a pink tutu and climbing with her boyfriend at Bridal Veil Falls, moved to Alaska four years ago from Massachusetts.
"When I moved up to Alaska, I had a vague idea of being an outdoors person. I took a climbing course at APU, and then the winter came. Since there was no more rock climbing, I tried ice climbing and I really hated it," she said. "My hands went numb, I got the barfies. But I kept doing it. It got easier, and now it's a good time."
Ice climbing in Valdez is unique among ice festivals in the U.S. The well-known Ouray Ice Festival in Colorado has great ice, but it's only half as tall as the features in Keystone Canyon. "Nowhere else can you climb this caliber of ice from right off the highway," said Lee Hart, Levitation 49's executive director.
The Valdez festival began in 1983, making it one of the country's oldest ice-climbing festivals. Three years ago, Valdez native Nick Weicht took over planning for the festival, revitalizing it and increasing participation from 30 to this year's 300 or so.
"Dude, it's awesome," he said as he was belaying a competitor in the speed-climbing competition. "The size (of the festival) is rad, but the quality is just phenomenal. We've got so many good people here having a good time -- it's definitely where friends are made and adventures are had."
On the second night of the festival, Weicht made sure everyone had fun by hosting a spaghetti feed and bonfire at his mom's house in Valdez's old town. Dozens of wooden pallets went up in a ball of fire, fueled by some sort of liquid Weicht spread over them, defying the thick snowflakes that were trying in vain to extinguish the flames.
The town of Valdez is usually quiet in winter. There's heli-skiing, which has been going strong for decades, but many of the other winter recreational opportunities have historically been under-utilized and not well-known outside the local community. Levitation 49 is seeking to change that.
"On a gray day like this, you can't ski very well because the light is too flat at the alpine level, but you can come ice climbing," Hart said. "We're the northernmost ice-free port [in Alaska], so you can go paddling in Prince William Sound year-round. We're putting in more singletrack trails."
Hart sees these recreational opportunities as the beginning of a renaissance for Valdez. She imagines a vibrant town year-round, with young, active people moving here because of the lifestyle amenities and bringing new businesses with them.
"I'd love to see Valdez get its own brewery," she said.
"These days, with the Internet, so many people can live anywhere they want," she said. "They're choosing destinations for the lifestyle amenities. There's just so much here in Valdez."