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The lightweight Kevlar rope Dave uses on this East Vail waterfall is five times stronger than steel.

Image: Zach Mahone

Like ski racing, ice climbing is a sport that demands precision, if not perfection, to reach its pinnacle. As Red Cliff’s Dave Tucholke, who has made numerous first ascents locally since 1987, puts it, “Good ice climbers are the ones who have never fallen.” It’s about overcoming extremes: pitting mind and body against the elements, namely, a capricious frozen liquid that’s as soft as cork one day and shatters like a dinner plate the next. “A lot of the reason it’s so fun is the fact that ice changes every day,” says Dave’s wife, Mia, a Red Cliff-based professional ice climbing guide. “So you can go and do the same climb day after day, and it’s never the same.” 

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Dave pauses midway up the Fang, a notorious free-standing pillar of ice in East Vail, before placing his next ice screw.

Image: Zach Mahone

Dave, a Minneapolis native, and Mia, a Swedish expat, met in 1995 when both were training to climb Alaska’s Mount McKinley, the highest peak in North America. To prepare for the arctic climate at 20,000 feet, Mia was living in a snow cave at 12,000 feet outside Alma. “Once I saw that, dude, I was like, Well, I pretty much found myself an adventure warrior,” Dave says with a grin and a nod toward Mia. “We’ve been getting after it ever since. We do not sit around and watch the world go by us. We’re setting the pace.”

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Image: Zach Mahone

An ice climber’s tools are highly specified and must be kept sharp as a surgeon’s scalpel. The moment an ice screw (a hollow metal tube augered into the ice that anchors the climber’s rope, clipped to the screw with a carabiner) touches rock behind an ice floe, it becomes too dull to trust. Despite the huge assortment of gear the Tucholkes take on a typical ice-climbing trip, this cache is still less equipment than they need for a typical big-wall rock ascent, their summertime avocation.

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Image: Zach Mahone

One reason the Tucholkes are so drawn to ice climbing is the potential for exploration that it affords. Among many notable feats, their ascent of Polar Circus, a spectacular, 1,800-foot route along the Icefields Parkway outside Banff, Alberta, stands out. Often they set up camp below a climbing zone and don’t see another person for a week. “For the last seventeen years, pretty much all our vacations and all our days off are spent climbing,” says Dave, the snowmaking manager at Vail Mountain, who aims to climb 150 days a year. “If we get time off together, you will not be able to find us.”

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Instead of using their hands, ice climbers hang by their wrists from the articulated shafts of daggerlike axes.

Image: Zach Mahone

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Climbers rely on the fanglike front points of their crampons to gain footholds on ice.

Image: Zach Mahone

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