Obsession and Ingenuity, Part II: The Old Man and the Ice Tower

Posted on: October 24, 2007


The 2005 Ghost Raven Ice Tower on a crisp winter day. Each year the tower(s) in Fox, Alaska—built from the ground up—take on a different form. [Photo] Jeff Apple Benowitz

The north tower on January 6, 2006. Looking north to Fox at the base of the hill to the right with the Alaska oil pipeline cut. Highway going north to Prudhoe Bay on right. [Photo] Courtesty of Alaskan Alpine Club

During the winter of 2003-2004, the fixtures of Silver Gulch—a bar and microbrewery in Fox, Alaska—had something to talk about. John Reeves was at it again.

The local, known for his esoteric (and sometimes exorbitant) yard gewgaws, was spending countless hours birthing what he called "Foxman's Raven." Just in case the 80-foot ice blob wasn't enough of a spectacle, Reeves made sure it was smattered with rainbow coloring and built alongside the byway (as major as roads get in Fox).

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No matter his neighbors' opinions, Reeves and his assistant, Doug Buchanan, were pleased: they'd created vertical ice in their back yard; ice more satisfying than any within a couple hours' drive (for another tale of obsession and ingenuity, check out "Part I, Michigan"). "It started. It grew. It reached 80 feet high. It was fun. We climbed on it," Reeves said on www.alaskanalpineclub.org. "And it melted... at precisely 1:06 p.m., 10 July 2004."

The following year he used similar tactics to construct a tower 152 feet tall, "The Ghost Raven Ice Tower." The year after that, it was "Twin Towers": a north-south sculpture pair, each of which reached nearly 100 feet.

"Passing cars on the road are stopping to let their drivers watch the water freeze," Reeves reported in 2005. So while you wait for this year's creation (www.alaskanalpineclub.org is bound to have updates), enjoy Jeff Benowitz's tale of Ghost Raven's hard-nosed and foolhardy.

THE OLD MAN AND THE ICE TOWER

As I slid my car between a 1940s era rusted gold dredge and a matching dilapidated outhouse, an old man in a homemade fur vest stood before me, aiming a crossbow toward the top of a leaning ice tower that gleamed 150 feet above the trans-Alaskan pipeline.

Doug Buchanan, Alaskan Alpine Club and Fox Ice Towers devotee, pleased to reach the top. Buchanan often assists John Reeves, ice sculpture progenitor, with the growth and coloration of the towers. [Photo] Jeff Apple Benowitz

Doug Buchanan lowered his weapon when he saw me crutching in his direction, and he greeted me with what had to be a false smile. His gaze, fixed on my broken leg, displayed a mixture of grim amusement and possible satisfaction. The patriarch of the Fairbanks climbing scene, a man with more beard and smoke rings than even gristle, Doug took special affront at my youthful arrogance. Noting the camera I had around my neck, Doug greeted me with a condescending, "You here to take pictures?"

The north tower, with flood light at base, December 31, 2005. [Photo] Courtesty of Alaskan Alpine Club

When I first came to Alaska, I was a punk-ass kid with no climbing experience beyond having slogged up the West Buttress of Denali. Hearing me talk, though, you would have thought I was the next Messner. Over time, as I climbed more and talked less, I managed to salvage some respect from the local climbers—from all of them, that is, expect Doug. Though he hadn't climbed since the last leash controversy in the early 1970s, and he held my ascents in Denali National Park against me. According to standard Buchanan discourse, the reason Alaska was not a sovereign country, free from the oppressions of America, could be traced back to a few climbers like me who justified the Feds' presence here by filling out park permits.

During the winter of 2005, Doug put down his pipe and virulent anti-federalist pen and started pouring water on top of water in a friend's gold-rush-era junk-filled backyard. Soon he had an enormous, slightly tilting, pile of ice: a virtual tower on the outskirts of the city. Still old school, Doug bought himself a pair of modern leashless tools and asked around for folks to climb it with him. Hearing about his endeavors, I grew curious—and wondered whether I might have a chance to redeem myself.

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