By Leo Wolfson
Via Wyoming News Exchange
CODY — The Cody Ice Festival as people have known it is done. That’s exactly how local professional ice climber Aaron Mulkey and other prominent climbers want it.
“(We’re) letting it die so something new can be created by the community,” Mulkey said. “The most important thing is creating this break.”
Like a precariously hanging ice chunk, the 20-year event needed to be picked off so a better, more-viable route can be established to celebrate ice climbing locally, said Mulkey, a climber of more than 20 first ascents around the world.
Due to the changes and planning needed, there won’t be a festival this year and may not be one next year.
Mulkey said the new event is completely disassociated from the prior ice festival.
“It’s sad it couldn’t be something better, but at the end of the day I think we’re going to get to the point where we should be, which is a community-driven event,” he said.
In its place Mulkey is planning the Wyoming Ice Festival, a winter gathering that will be locally run and owned by a fresh set of organizers, including staff from outdoor sports store Sunlight Sports. Mulkey said ice climbing will still be a focus as the new week-long festival will feature previously held activities such as on-ice climbing and clinics. But it will also incorporate other winter classes like avalanche preparedness, expedition planning, photography and winter camping.
“What we’re planning is definitely much different, much bigger,” Mulkey said.
He said the ice climbing clinics will run in much smaller groups in a wider variety of locations with heightened safety an overarching focus.
A fresh start
In late 2017 Mulkey asked Cody Ice Festival organizer Ari Novak to stop running the event.
“(He) approached me saying, ‘Hey we don’t really want to compete in a small place with two festivals,’” Novak said. “‘Would you take a break year so we could kind of reorganize something new?’”
Novak said he saw Mulkey’s vision and accepted the request after continuing to run the 2018 event due to sponsorship obligations.
Novak took over the Ice Festival in 2016 from Donald Foote Jr. Despite running the event for 18 years, Foote had a series of mishaps managing the event during his leadership including faulty permits, climber accidents and improper climbing activities.
“He certainly did many things differently than I think most logical, safety-minded folks would do,” Novak said.
After handing over the baton in 2017, Foote pleaded guilty to stealing $895 in gear from the festival that year, breaking into the Cody Auditorium and taking the items, before later posting pictures of himself wearing the stolen goods.
Novak contends his two years of ice festival management were successful with top-industry speakers on hand and few mishaps, but did say garnering sponsorship and participants became difficult as Foote’s actions were no secret throughout the Big Horn Basin and ice climbing world.
“We were still fighting the stigma of what had happened over the years under the previous leadership,” Novak said. “There was at least a 30-40 percent reduction in sponsorship because of Don’s shenanigans.”
Mulkey wants a new ice festival in order to completely detach the event from its sordid past.
“They really wanted like a clean break,” Novak said. “A full empty year so people could see this isn’t putting a new name on the same festival. There’s been so many shenanigans with Don Foote trying to hoodwink the community.”
And though Mulkey has no outright criticism of Novak, a Bozeman, Mont., resident, Mulkey said it’s important the event be locally run and organized.
“No. 1 he’s not local and he doesn’t know the South Fork,” Mulkey said. “It’s hard to get the community support behind someone who doesn’t even live here.”
A fresh, but uncertain new start
For the foreseeable future the Cody Ice Festival is retired with no plans for revival, leaving Cody with no ice climbing festival for 2019. Mulkey is noncommittal about premiering his ice event and admits he’d rather wait until 2021 to unveil it.
“We don’t want to rush anything because we want to make sure it’s all done right,” Mulkey said. “(2021) would give us an opportunity to get everything aligned for the next 6-8 months.”
Mulkey said he will know within the next month whether his festival will premier in 2020 or 2021.
Novak said he is not taking any part in organizing the new festival but, if for some reason it does not get off the ground, would consider bringing back his Cody Ice Festival.
“Should they choose not to or if it’s not successful, I would be open to reopening the old Cody Ice Fest,” Novak said. “I see the value in having an ice festival as a community gathering.”
Mulkey said he will coordinate his festival with the release of his tentatively titled “307 Ice” guide book, outlining the best ice climbing locales in the Big Horn Basin.
“That’s going to be the first time in eight years since (the last) guidebook (was published) and a lot has happened since then” he said. “That’s going to be quite big for Cody and this community.”
Keeping the event locally managed will be the top priority for Mulkey, who plans to organize a board of directors to oversee the event. He also plans to establish as a nonprofit.
“The new festival will be run by the community,” Mulkey said. “The community will own it forever. It will never be owned by any sole person ever again.”
Although he questions Novak’s claim the festival has never made a profit, he said he hopes to make the Wyoming Ice Festival a long-standing, successful operation that re-funnels money back into the local community. Mulkey wants his ice festival to champion the sport and city he is so passionate about. He even has hopes that Cody could host a world cup ice climbing event in the future.
“It’s going to be an opportunity for Cody to show itself and make sure it’s done right,” Mulkey said. “Every ice festival in the entire nation is run by the community and that money stays in the community and that’s going to be really important.”
He said he has zero concerns about a lapse in a Cody ice climbing festival causing a reciprocal drop-off in turnout when the event does return.
“The Cody festival right now in the climbing community is a joke, that’s why I talk about two years of break.” Mulkey said. “People look at the Cody climbing festival in such a negative way. That’s why it’s so huge for us to say, the past is the past and this is something brand new.”