Once a year, climbers from around the globe gather at The International Climbers Festival, the longest-running event of its kind. ICF is just like Comic Con — but instead of capes and costumes, attendees wear dirty sun hoodies and approach shoes.
Now in its 29th year, ICF draws climbers from across the world to the wind-blown cowboy town of Lander, Wyoming for four days of clinics, competitions, and subcultural camaraderie.
Thursday: Strong Turnout and Immaculate Vibes
2022’s iteration of ICF sold out entirely. By noon on the opening Thursday, Lander City Park — an idyllic haven of free camping — was full up with climber ‘mobiles.
Before the climbing itself revved up and Wild Iris reverberated with quickdraw clipping, power screams, and send celebrations, the festivities kicked off with an art crawl. The run-up event consumed several blocks of downtown with craft tables and curious pedestrians. One artisan sold shirts that read, “No One Cares You Climb 5.13.” Another supplied drink koozies made from recycled climbing rope.
Like any festival worth its salt, the warmth of long overdue reunions hummed in the air. Old friends from long-concluded climbing trips embraced on the sidewalk. Instagram friendships blossomed into in-person connections.
Wyoming locals like to joke that in the summertime, the license plates turn green (the precise shade of Colorado plates). During the climber’s festival, plates of every color cruised along Lander’s main drag. Quebecois rolled in from the north, and naturally, Coloradans from the south.
A Note on ICF History and Structure
The main character of ICF’s origin story is the late Todd Skinner, a groundbreaking American climber and a legend of Wyoming climbing lore. Back in 1994, Skinner and friends founded the festival to celebrate their Lander community, and to invite yonder climbers to check out the newly developed crags.
A single German attended the inaugural festival, ergo its “International” status. It’s impossible to exist in the Lander climbing scene without encountering Skinner’s legacy. One route at the ever-popular Wild Iris climbing area is called “In Todd We Trust.”
ICF is spread out across three primary venues: Lander City Park, Wild Iris, and the Lander Bar. After rousing from slumber in the park, attendees meander to Wild Iris to climb legendary, bulletproof limestone, and then generally finish the day at the bar — which is the Wyoming equivalent of the legendary Miguel’s Pizza and the default meetup spot for post-climbing nourishment and beer. The Lander Bar kitchen staff’s forearms put Popeye to shame, and they didn’t get that way from slinging pizza.
Friday: Gear Expo and City Park Fun
On Friday, the jam-packed ICF schedule kicked off in earnest with clinics, a bustling trade fair, and a competitive decathlon of climbing-themed lawn games. A poised teenager managed to stack and stand on a tower of 14 milk crates while onlookers yelled “Venga!” in support.
I managed to steal a few minutes with the champion of “table bouldering,” who humbly admitted that he had “quite a bit of experience.” Nearby, a group fiercely debated the ethics of using tape gloves for the hand jam pull-up competition.
The trade fair— a proper “who’s who” of climbing brands — felt like a mini Outdoor Retailer. Hot new Summer ’22 gear was on display, including Heinz Mariacher’s latest footwear innovations over at the Scarpa booth.
Several new upstarts represented at the show, too. I spoke with the folks behind Lacaida — an innovative band of Arkansans selling meter-marked ropes with increased safety and route development in mind. When asked about his background, the founder of Lacaida told me proudly, “I’m the guy that convinced Walmart to sell Bidets.”
Friday afternoon wrapped up with an informal dyno competition, and the youth division was particularly entertaining. The 8-16 age range includes a huge spectrum of climbing abilities. Bonafide future Olympians faced off against barefoot youngsters who made up for their non-traditional technique with pure charisma.
I didn’t have the chance to attend any clinics this year, but the list of offerings was absolutely stacked. From “Advanced Age Redpointing (AARP)” to “Mushrooms as a Tool for Athletic Performance,” attendees could choose from over 40 educational opportunities — surely something for everyone.
Saturday: The Main Event
Saturday was the day of the Limestone Rodeo, arguably the centerpiece of ICF and certainly its most prestigious competition. Beginning at 8 am, teams of two ventured out to Wild Iris and racked up points by redpointing the hardest routes they could muster. This year, Ben Crawford and Reed Johnson won the overall category, ticking off a number of 5.13s in the process.
Also on Saturday, Tommy Caldwell hosted a Climbing Advocacy Day. Land managers, policymakers, local community leaders, and recreation organizations convened at the crag to learn about climbing’s role in Lander’s economy and the sustainable growth of recreation in Wyoming.
As Saturday’s many adventures wrapped up, folks funneled back to City Park for a series of keynote speakers. Chris Kalous, James “KG” Kagami, Brittany Goris, and Hayden Jameson took their turns waxing poetic about far-flung expeditions and perspectives on the state of the climbing union.
The audience hung on every word, gazing at the projector screen, yearning to get out there themselves. The collective psyche for the climbing life was palpable.
A Celebration of Shared Passion
From my perspective as a Lander resident and multiyear ICF attendee, this year’s fest went off without a hitch. The booths and Sportiva-clad hordes have come and gone, nothing but tumbleweed leavings, tick marks, and echoes of reverie behind.
A pleasant sense of recalibration comes in the wake of a congregation like ICF. Great festivals and conventions exist for many reasons, but product marketing and networking are ultimately secondary. After basking in the merriment of this year’s ICF, it’s clear that the event succeeds for one reason above all else: community. To feel like we’re a part of a group.
At ICF, climbers know that those around them will understand their jargon and match their energy. Unlike the company at a family Thanksgiving, fellow climbers won’t stare glassy-eyed while you explain how a cam works.
To share a deep passion with hundreds of friends and strangers is genuine bliss, even if it’s born from the trivial pursuit of climbing cliffs and boulders.
Tickets for ICF typically go on sale in the Spring. Check out the festival’s website for more details — and see you next year.