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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Ice climbers test nerves of Palouse Falls State Parks staff

Spokane photographer Rika Ream traveled to Palouse Falls State Park during last weekend’s bitter cold weather to marvel at the ice around the 185-foot waterfall. The scene was spectacular. Daring ice climbers dropped her jaw even farther. She captured this photo of Jess Roskelley of Spokane leading a climb in the fragile ice in the mist of the main waterfall with Scott Coldiron, who’s belaying from below. “We were both wearing (kayaker’s) dry suits because of the spray,” Roskelley said. (Rika Ream / Photo by Rika Ream)

Spokane photographer Rika Ream traveled to Palouse Falls State Park near Washtucna during last weekend’s bitter cold weather to marvel at the ice around the 185-foot Palouse River waterfall.

The jaw-dropping white scene was mesmerizing, and a pair of daring ice climbers dropped her jaw even farther.

A photograph she captured of the climb has frozen the attention of a few Washington State Parks officials, too.

The image she posted on Sunday on Facebook shows Jess Roskelley of Spokane climbing up the vertical wall of fragile ice in the frosty mist of the main waterfall. Scott Coldiron is belaying from below.

“We were both wearing kayaking dry suits in 1-degree temperatures because of the freezing spray,” Roskelley said. “It was pretty miserable.”

State Parks officials saw the photo as it was reposted on The Spokesman-Review’s Outdoors Blog.

“I am concerned that posting the photograph of the ice climbers will be perceived as an encouragement of that type of recreation at Palouse Falls State Park,” said Audra Sims, manager for the seven southeastern state parks in the Blue Mountains Area.

“We are not encouraging the public to proceed past the posted signs into potentially hazardous areas.”

Roskelley, a pro climber who has challenged ice on Mount Everest as well as in Alaska, Canada and South America, was not particularly alarmed by the state parks sign his group passed as they hiked the precarious unofficial trail to the base of the falls.

“Warning,” the year-round sign says, “Travel beyond this point is on unmarked, potentially hazardous trails. Users assume all risk associated with travel beyond this point. Rescue costs will be at the expense of the injured party.”

This is pretty much the scenario wherever he plies his craft, Roskelley said.

Sims said she wants “to do everything possible to ensure public safety as well as the conservation and protection of the natural and cultural resources located within the boundaries of so many Washington State Parks.”

Visitors unskilled in climbing occasionally “have overestimated their ability and underestimated the resource,” she said.

“Volunteer fire departments have felt a strain in responding to the increase in and technical difficulty of emergencies, such as high angle-to-vertical rescues.”

Inviting public visitation while managing public safety and protecting the resources is a delicate balance that state and national parks alike try to achieve, she said.

Concern for visitor safety in the rugged park with its vertical walls, crumbling rock, slippery boulders and treacherous falls-basin currents has grown in recent years along with the increase in visitation – and injury accidents.

“What was once a quiet park has become a lot more popular, especially since Palouse Falls was officially named the state waterfall in 2013,” said Virginia Painter, State Parks spokeswoman in Olympia.

“In 2012, the park had 85,000 annual visits. That number grew to 121,000 in 2015 and 172,600 in 2015.

Until a few years ago, major accidents were fairly rare at the park, which is served by volunteer emergency crews from very small area towns, such as Kahlotus, population 190.

Responding to emergencies hits these fire districts hard in terms of time and funding, she said.

“In 2015, the fire district staff responded to 11 emergency rescues, including five cases of people who had to be flown out by helicopter,” Painter said. “A similar number of emergency responses occurred this year, and there was one drowning.”

“Every step beyond the warning signs is steep and slippery even when the area isn’t covered by snow and ice,” Painter said. “There’s also land ownership and cultural issues we deal with.”

When contacted on Tuesday by The Spokesman-Review, Roskelley said, “I’m sorry if I caused any concerns. I was just doing what climbers do, checking out the climb.”

Other visitors were already down by the water when he and Coldiron arrived, and the others weren’t similarly equipped with crampons, ropes and other ice climbing gear.

His father, John Roskelley, a former Spokane County Commissioner who was considered America’s premier mountaineer in the 1980s, said he could understand the park manager’s safety concerns.

“It’s a fact of life that the tools, boots, crampons and other gear has gotten very good and even regular climbers can buy that equipment and get themselves into trouble,” he said.

“We were careful,” Jess Roskelley said. “My assessment after checking it out is that you’d have to be a real idiot to get down there to try to climb that spray ice.

“Protection is tough to place. The ice formed by the mist from the falls is brittle, crumbly and poorly adhered to the rock.

“And I’d say it’s extremely rare to be even as good as it was last weekend.”

The weather window for climbing ice along the vertical walls along Palouse Falls may be only a few days a year and may not even exist every year, he said.

“I know a few ice climbers who’ve checked it out in the past and the could punch their arm through the ice,” he said. “They packed up and got out of there.”

Roskelley said he climbed one pitch of about 155 feet before descending.

“I’m done with Palouse Falls,” he said. “I’m not going back, that is not unless another Ice Age comes and the entire waterfall freezes. In that case, I’ll be the first one there.”