Professional ice climber, AMGA guide and trailblazer Dawn Glanc carves a place for women in the sport
Soft snow swallowed my shins, where I stood quietly on the edge of a protected alcove. Behind me, the Uncompahgre River flowed, descending toward the small mountain town of Ouray, Colorado, two miles north as the crow flies. The flow rushed beneath a sheet of snowflake-coated ice and burbled through a patchwork of current holes. I slowly slid the rope through my belay device and keenly listened. My ice climbing partner and American Mountain Guide Association member Dawn Glanc stepped methodically toward the giant tower of dense, bright blue ice. Behind the icebound Ralston Creek is a wall of cliffy, gray volcanic rock, which created a tight amphitheater around us. This multipitch climb is known as Horsetail Falls. On the right hangs a continuous tier of cauliflowers with dangling shears too thin and punchy for us to ascend, Glanc (pronounced glance) explained. The center is a long chandelier of choppy crystals. Our line is to the left, where the face is thick and steep with a relatively short initial pitch — which is good for a novice climber like me.
Glanc tactfully moved up the ramp with her crampons and ice tools — step, step, swing, swing — to the base of the fortress. Her ice screws chimed as they swung like a necklace along her harness. From the bottom of Uncompahgre Gorge, I can hardly hear the erratic wind shaking the steep slopes of Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir above. Shwack, thump, thump. Shwack, thump, thump. Glanc climbs the vertical cyan facade.
Glanc’s beaming smile is as big as her sarcasm and as strong as her climbing skills, both of which are matched by precision and care in the mountains. By the end of our 20-minute approach hike, she made me feel confident and trustworthy on the other end of our rope, I realize. I was at ease and refreshed. Glanc holds space without ego, despite being a total powerhouse and pioneer in this sport.
A ROCKY START
Glanc, 45, was born and raised in the plains of Brunswick, Ohio. The midwest town of 16,000 residents in the Buckeye State sits 26 miles south of Cleveland and the shoreline of Lake Erie. Sandwiched between a younger sister and older brother, Glanc was the middle-child-who-didn’t-belong, she said. Her angst surfaced as a Jekyll-and-Hyde mien: She aced every class and behaved bell-to-bell, yet was arrested for public intoxication by the eighth grade. Her senior year, she was grounded from driving her car and picked up road cycling. For the first time, she could channel her energy on 80-mile day rides.
A few years later, beneath an umbrella of citrus-green oak leaves and surrounded by moss-casted boulders, Glanc found climbing — in her backyard, of all places. Whipp’s Ledges, a stack of pebbly sandstone, near the southeast corner of Hinckley Lake stood a mere 30 feet above the forest floor. The 21-year-old college sophomore was enrolled nearby, at Kent State University, and a new friend invited her to top rope.
“I didn’t actually know anything about what we were going to do — Facebook didn’t exist. But these cliffs were near my parent’s house,” Glanc said, as I unclipped the ice screws from my harness and handed them over to her.
That first pitch was exhilarating for me. I took a deep breath and asked Glanc about her time at KSU. She was studying aging and exercise physiology. But soon after her first climb, she attended a recreation management class featuring a ropes course. Everything clicked.
“I was like, ‘This is a career path? You go rock climbing, guide people on ropes courses, and do team building as a job? I wanted to do that,” she says, as she started leading the second pitch. Behind us, on the other side of the gorge, the frozen face of Bear Creek Falls was in full view, and my nerves turned into excitement.
BEAUTY IN THE BLACK HILLS
So, Glanc transferred to Black Hills State University in South Dakota, near the Wyoming border, to pursue a degree in Outdoor Education. There she got roped into ice climbing, by way of local gear shop employees, in the rounded promontories of the Black Hills. In the late 90s, pre-Facebook and -DVD era, the only resource to learn about ice climbers was magazines. Alpinists like Jeff Lowe and Kitty Calhoun stand out in memory, but Glanc wasn’t fueled by external influence.
“I was fixated with ice climbing, first with leading and then soloing. That passion was driven by the pure love of what I was doing. I had only a few climbing partners, and they were incredible during that formative time,” she said.
In 1999, she graduated and started ice climbing with a couple of Wyoming residents outside of Cody. Their ‘guide book’ was a tri-colored pamphlet without topography lines. Dark blue indicated rivers and light blue showed where ice would fill in.
“We were really out in the wild. It was a very different time. There was no social media or forum to gather beta or verify a climb,” Glanc said.
She was the first person to climb many of those routes (rated WI3-4+) throughout the early 2000s.
“We’d look at this massive valley and say, ‘I guess this is the line,’ then trudge up these drainages and try to find ice. So much of the experience was exploring, walking and taking your heavy pack out to climb just one pitch. My gut was driving me: If I knew I could climb it, I would get on it. It was an awesome time.”
Hatched from college, Glanc secured the “perfect” life-balance. She was a Domino’s Pizza delivery driver by night and spent every day climbing and mountain biking. She was also a top rope guide for Sylvan Rocks Climbing School and Guide Service, which was founded in 1989 by Susan Scheirbeck.
“Because there was a female owner, I had a chance with that job,” Glanc said. “I still love and am inspired by them so much. And there was this group of women who sport climbed in the Black Hills area, and the fact they could climb so hard was like, whoa, but they were also psyched for you.”
Back then, her female climbing partners thought her ice climbing was totally nuts, she said.
But in 2001, she landed a cloud-nine job at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, as the outdoor program director.
“I dreamt up places to take these guys to hike, rock climb and mountain bike, then lead the program,” Glanc said. “I was in the field 90% of the time and getting paid really well with benefits, a retirement plan. It was awesome.”
We started our hike-down descent, postholing and scrambling over fallen logs.
“But then, the Afghanistan War triggered a deployment cycle and the majority of the workforce was gone,” Glanc continued.
Glanc was stuck in a cinder block cave managing paperwork. She had to make a change. So she moved to Bellingham, Washington, hoping to work for the American Alpine Institute year-round. However, she was unaware that a first-year guide was not going to have those luxuries.
“I was the lowest on the totem pole,” says Glanc. “I left a $40,000-a-year job to make $80 a day for six weeks — I don’t know if it was the smartest decision. I blew through my savings and was broke within a year.”
She filled in her bank account through signature collection for healthcare initiatives. In 2005, a door opened when a Ouray-based AAI guide was fired — Glanc jumped on the opportunity to relocate, sight unseen. Ice pioneers Jeff Lowe and Mike Weiss had climbed Telluride’s 365-foot Bridal Veil Falls, in 1974. From the early 80s to 90s, ice climbers had started visiting Ouray to clamber up the park’s human-created frozen falls. Ouray became known as a mecca for ice.
SIGHT UNSEEN: OURAY, CO
As Glanc drove down Red Mountain Pass into Ouray, she fell in love.
“I saw Horsetail Falls. Everything around me was frozen, even the ice park, and it was only December 1st. All I wanted to do was climb. I’ve never missed a winter here since,” Glanc says, as we zigzag across the slope.
The upper half of the ravine was socked in. Tiny snowflakes whipped around our faces and shook the needles on the trees as the wind howled. I felt like an adventurer in a completely foreign landscape, despite that I grew up in the San Juan Mountains. I could understand the exhilaration of ice climbing and how this special place became her haven. Glanc’s first winter in Ouray, she worked 15 days per month: enough to pay her bills including gigs with San Juan Mountain Guides. The rest of the time, she ice climbed.
Years before she chiseled ice here, Glanc had heard of the Ouray Ice Festival Competition. The event launched in 1996 as an avenue to fund the Ouray Ice Park, now one of the largest ice climbing parks in the world.
“I’d aspired to compete in the festival’s competition, and I didn’t know what mixed climbing was but I needed to learn it,” Glanc said.
Her second winter in Ouray, at 32 years old, she competed for the first time ever — and scored the podium. Glanc was the first person to climb for the finals round, and climbed with borrowed gear.
“For the first time, I didn’t have leashes for my tools,” Glanc recalled. “Luckily, there was so much ice on the mixed climb that I avoided the rock by connecting the ice blocks, and I finished second. I thought I was the shit. Steve House said, ‘Hello, Dawn.’ Then, Ouray set off fireworks! That’s one of the happiest days of my entire life.”
Compared to the popularity of backcountry skiing, ice climbing was extremely niche. Back then, the standard of excellence was Tic Tac, an M7 route in the ice park that “everyone climbs now,” Glanc explained.
“A handful of people were dedicated ice climbers — less than 20,” Glanc said. “On the weekends you’d see 100 climbers or so in the park: it wasn’t the volume you see now, and the park wasn’t as big. Both the number of ice climbers and size of the park have expanded. And what’s really changed is women being there. We can go to the ice park now — and climb hard, build our own anchors and put up our own ropes — and not have swarms of onlookers like we’re circus freaks.”
Glanc set up an anchor for us to rappel down into the alcove at the foot of Horsetail Falls.
HER OWN PRIORITIES
After discovering Ouray, Glanc’s ice skills continued to excel. By the end of 2009, she secured her AMGA certification in both rock and alpine disciplines. She won the Ouray Ice Festival Competition twice and podiumed two more times, from 2008 to 2012. She placed first at the mixed climbing competition at Vail’s Winter Mountain Games. Brand support began to take off including a partnership with Mountain Hardwear. Industry validation finally created inroads for her family to respect the nonconventional path she’d pursued.
“My dad has a warped conservative view that women shouldn’t go to college, because we’re going to become moms — I wanted nothing to do with that way of life,” says Glanc. It wasn’t until I was a sponsored athlete and won the 2009 Ouray Ice Festival Competition that my family saw what I was doing as valid.”
We cross a frozen ice bridge over the Uncompahgre and start our return hike.
Then Glanc accomplished six first ascents (graded WI5-5+) in the West Fjords of Iceland, from 2014 to 2016. She traveled to climb in Canada, Norway, Greece, France, Italy and Montenegro. She snagged a handful of first ascents in Hall of Justice, a mixed climbing area outside of Ouray. And from 2015 to 2018, she was a co-owner of Chicks Climbing and Skiing, which was founded in 1999 to empower female ice climbers through women-led programs.
Beyond climbing, Glanc wanted to help her community grow. She served a four-year term as city councilwoman, starting in 2015.
“It’s our civic duty to give back: you have to participate if you want to see change,” says Glanc. “My biggest accomplishment was proposing and pushing for Ouray to proclaim itself as the Outdoor Recreation Capitol of Colorado. If we took on that title, we would need to work everyday to be even better — and I’m so proud we did.”
As we placed our gear in the back of the truck, I think about Glanc’s go-getter attitude, leadership, humor and tremendous energy. I am in awe that nothing can slow her down.
A month after our climb, tragedy hit. Glanc blew her ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) while skiing in March 2019. Then, before her knee fully healed, two tendons burst in her right hand while doing office work — what was most likely an overuse injury. Altogether, she was sidelined from guiding and ice climbing for more than a year. And her doctors forecasted that she may never climb at an elite level or possibly ever lead again.
“My world spiraled so fast. I lost my sponsorships. Was I going to climb again? Was I going to run again? It was one of those moments when things were torn down,” she told me on a call, while she walked her puppy in Ouray. But her physical therapists believed they could get her back 100%. Throughout the pandemic, recovery became her world. By the end of the summer, she rock climbed again, despite two deformed fingers in her dominant hand. She said, “I finally feel like life is coming back together. I’m slowly picking the pieces.”
Among the positives, Glanc secured work as the head ranger of the new Ouray Via Ferrata, providing stability versus juggling five seasonal gigs. Next year, she’ll start guiding groups on the route. This winter, she plans to carefully rebuild her ice climbing ability. And her priorities have shifted. She wants to focus on guiding in her backyard, instructing others and taking on lower-risk objectives. To start, she’ll launch a handful of ice and mixed climbing programs for women and kids with San Juan Mountain Guides this winter.
“My injuries shifted my perspective about what’s going to be important,” Glanc said. “I like ice guiding: I want to be with people and help them realize their full potential.”
MORGAN TILTON is an award-winning travel writer specializing in outdoor industry and adventure coverage worldwide. When she’s not writing, you can find her splitboarding, uphilling, snowboarding, nordic or alpine skiing in the Elk Mountains. Follow her journey at @motilton and www.morgantilton.com.
Hero image by Michael Clark Photo