Exploratory Ice Climbing Deep in Wyoming With Aaron Mulkey

Mulkey climbing a frozen curtain in Wyoming
Mulkey ascending a sea of white.Aaron Mulkey collection

Tucked in northern Wyoming, where the old West still reigns, sits the small town of Cody, built in 1896. Past the museums, saloons and log cabins is Bighorn Basin, a labyrinth of steep mountains, cold rivers, and hidden slivers of frozen waterfalls.

To self-professed ice climbing “addict” Aaron Mulkey, the mountains surrounding Cody offer a lifetime of adventure. Like a treasure hunter, he’ll ride snowmobiles for hours, and thrash up steep hillsides with hopes to find hidden gems. To date, he has more than 100 first ascents outside of Cody, some hanging ice daggers, some frozen smears of white, others a mix of ice and rock. “My passion has always been first ascents,” he says of his 20 years with the sport.

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mulkey hanging on his tools on steep rock
Tools on the rock, feet in the air, another Mulkey first ascent.

Mulkey is one of the country’s top ice climbers, and his favorite place to climb is in the hills surrounding his home. That’s why this year he’s writing a guidebook to his local areas, complete with maps and approach/descent descriptions so others can enjoy it too. His as-of-yet-unnamed guide is due out fall 2020. He’s spending this season revisiting his old favorite routes to describe and photograph them for his new book. “It’s the remote wilderness aspect that keeps me here. There are few visitors. There’s still true adventure,” he says.

In addition to his work as a guidebook author, Mulkey works full-time in an office and is a husband and father. Yet he still makes it out to climb every weekend, regardless of conditions.

He’s out of the house at dawn and home each night past dark. In this time he’ll climb hundreds of feet of ice and cover a dozen snow-covered miles by trail. “Cody will never be the most popular place because it’s wild,” he says, “Out here, it’s grizzly and wolf country and you won’t see anyone else.”

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Since there are so few local climbers to choose from, each weekend he recruits partners from out of town, many of whom drive four to five hours to meet him for exploratory missions in the mountains. Outings involve getting lost, hiking all day to find nothing to climb, and other times, after rounding one more corner, discovering routes of his dreams — multi-hundred-foot ribbons of white and frozen waterfalls of fat ice. His film Pursuit shows this journey.

The Pursuit from Aaron Mulkey on Vimeo.

These outings aren’t just for recreation. Mulkey needs to climb to balance out his high-stress job. Monday through Friday, he works as vice president of a $200 million pharmaceutical company, where he oversees a staff of 800. His intense weekends balance out this stress. By Monday morning, when he’s limping into work and his arms feel like jelly, his mind is swept clean and he’s ready to get back to the grind.

Ice climbing also comes with its dangers. Like the time 15 years ago when a pillar Mulkey was climbing on broke off, sending him flying through the air. When his rope stopped him, he found the ice pick on one of his ice axes lodged into his bicep. The blade had cut him to the bone. “It felt like I got shot in the arm,” he says. Despite his arm throbbing and tensing up, Mulkey continued climbing for the next two days. During that visit, he’d discovered an area so incredible that he needed to climb; it was like an addiction. He ticked off seven first ascents during that trip – “I felt like a kid in a candy store.”

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Figure on a landscape
A figure on a landscape. Aaron Mulkey collection

When temps began dropping this fall in the mountains above Cody, Mulkey has already logged five new routes for the year and had his eyes on several more. “My routes are for anyone that wants an adventure, he says. “But it’s not a paved path that will bring you there. These remote routes in an alpine setting provide an experience you won’t get anywhere else.”

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