CEDAR FALLS – A climber dangled 70 feet off the ground on a freezing February weekend and asked to come down.
Don Briggs said no.
“He was so close to the top,” Briggs said. “I told him, you’re not coming down yet, you’re too close. Keep going.”
The climber did as he was told. He scaled the final six feet of the eighty-foot, ice-covered silo that Briggs invites climbers from all over the country to try out. And after he rapelled down the icy wall and back to the earth, the climber thanked Briggs for pushing him past a self-imposed limit.
And for a moment, Don Briggs felt like he was back in a wrestling gym.
“It’s fun to help people improve,” he said. “I love it when somebody gets higher on the wall on their second try.”
Briggs coached the Northern Iowa wrestling team for 15 seasons. He coached 51 All-Americans during that time.
But it didn’t end well.
The Panthers suffered four straight seasons with losing records in dual meets, culminating in a 1997 season when the team hosted the NCAA championships in the UNI-Dome but didn’t advance a single wrestler past the second round. An internal investigation into minor NCAA violations that barred the coach from recruiting off-campus didn’t help.
Briggs resigned after that ’97 season – “I was fired, let’s be blunt,” he said.
“It was very hard, because wrestling had been my life until that point,” Briggs recalled. “When it was taken away from me, I just remember the devastation: What am I going to do now?”
As part of his resignation, Briggs took a teaching job with UNI in a new “Outdoor Pursuits” program.
He told The Gazette in April 1997 that the job “may not even interest me.” But, feeling in need of a new pursuit in life, Briggs joined the group on a trip to Green Bay, Wisc., to climb ice. He fell in love with the sport immediately, and started making frequent trips to places like Colorado and Scotland to climb.
He didn’t realize it right away, but an activity so grueling and mentally challenging helped him move past the wrestling phase of life. And when he talks about climbing a structure once, and then doing it from the backside just to make it more difficult next time, you can practically hear Dan Gable saying “once you’ve wrestled, everything else in life is easy.”
“I’ve never thought about it that way, but it has [replaced wrestling],” Briggs said. “You have a climb, and you have an opponent. You may have to adjust your technique to wrestle a certain guy, just like you would with a climb.”
In 2001, Briggs was helping a local farmer plow his field when a silo jutting up into the sky kept grabbing his attention. As a relatively new climbing enthusiast, he kept thinking he could reach the top. And then the idea struck him.
At first, it was primitively done: Some garden hoses draped over the silo, freezing into curtains of ice. Eventually, Briggs would move the operation to Rusty Leymaster’s farm, and today it features a system of pulleys, spray nozzles, and precise calculations of temperature and wind.
“It’s not rocket science,” Leymaster said. “But it’s well-thought out. Don’s attitude is, we’re not waiting for somebody else to do it. How can we get this done?”
Briggs’ proactive move brought something like the ice formations of his trips right to his backyard. By now, it’s become something of a mecca for Midwestern climbing. A group of men from Kansas City made the trip to Cedar Falls this month just to spend a weekend climbing the silo. Newspaper photographers often stop by for snapshots. A television reporter did a story this winter, reading her sign-off from the top of the silo.
And while nobody profits from the wall – the staff are volunteers and students of Briggs’ ice-climbing class, and the fee goes toward equipment and maintenance – Briggs has gained plenty from it.
“An identity, I think,” he said. “I was looking for something to be a part of after coaching. A lot of people now call me ‘The Ice Man.’ We’ve been out to Colorado, and you meet people from other states. When we say we’re from Iowa, they say, ‘Oh, do you know those guys who climb the silo?’ It’s neat.”
“Don makes things happen,” volunteer and friend Cliff Roy said. “I’ve been fortunate enough to hang my wagon on him, and he does the lion’s share of work. But there’s a lot of reward.”
When pushed to reflect, Briggs said he thinks he’s made the best of losing wrestling.
“I really feel like I’m better off,” he said. “Because I realize there are things out there besides wrestling. I’ve climbed all around the world. I’ve been to Mount Everest base camp eight times. Last summer I climbed in Scotland. I’ve had Thanksgivings at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.”
He adds that the determination, guts and strength instilled from the sport help him reach the top of all the ice he climbs. But when he’s there, he’s sure to remind himself it’s better than a sweaty gym.
“I think about that just about every time.”