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

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

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).

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 “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 ( is bound to have updates), enjoy Jeff Benowitz’s tale of Ghost Raven’s hard-nosed and foolhardy.


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.

Climbers working up “Pitch 2” of the leaning Ghost Raven Ice Tower. Created in 2005, this is the tallest Fox sculpture to date (152 feet). [Photo] Jeff Apple Benowitz

“It worked last time,” Doug said. His scowl warned against any attempt at ridicule. He explained that he’d picked up the crossbow at the local dump, rigged it with a spool of thread and was intending to launch an arrow over the top of the tower, then pull up a static line for jugging. The last time he’d achieved this feat, the tower had been less than its current lofty height. Now, as shot after shot led only to a tangle of filaments, I began to flake out my lead lines.

Finally Doug said, “You sure you want to lead this thing with a broken leg?” With some of that youthful arrogance still present, I said, “Sure, looks easy.” No one else had a rope out, and after a brief hesitation, and some conflicted glances at the bottle of whiskey by his feet, Doug mumbled his assent.

After weeks of unusually warm weather, the tower was now severely overhanging. Dragging my broken leg, I proceeded to ascend a series of vertical steps up one side by swinging my tools, pulling up, locking off and then moving up my good leg. The jerkiness of my movement resembled that of a Swiss rope-climbing toy, without the mechanical precision. Partway up, I broke off an icicle and sucked moisture from it, till the tell-tale taste of sewage stopped me.

“Hey Doug,” I shouted down, “Is this water potable?”

“Oh yeah, sure, good as any,” he said.

I took his word for it and quickly dropped what was left of the poo-sicle. Doug continued to cheer on my ascent with hearty laughter. When I crawled into a cave to find better ice for a screw, he could barely hold the belay between guffaws. When I got stuck in the cave, however, he stopped laughing.

As I wiggled my way back out, Doug said, “Jeff I take everything I’ve said about you back. Well, except the ‘You’re crazy!’ part.”

About fifty feet from the top, muscle fatigue and my youthful arrogance caught up with me, so I found a belay stance. Doug quickly followed my pitch, said he was glad I led the rotten stuff down low and then busted a few overhanging moves (that had me wondering if he really were over sixty) to gain the tower’s summit ridge.

After Doug belayed me to the top, he was uncharacteristically laconic. “Nice go for a one-legged fellow, but we need to get off this thing. It’s gonna fall over. I heard it creaking while I brought you up.”

The break that inspired Benowitz to go for the lead. [Photo] Jeff Apple Benowitz

The south tower, with the north tower on the left, December 24, 2005. Locals considering the routes.
[Photo] Courtesty of Alaskan Alpine Club

“You’re kidding. There is no way this thing is gonna topple. Water has incredible cohesive strength. Besides, did you bring up the whiskey?”

“Damn, forgot it again.”

Looking around, Doug pointed out how pleasant it was that, “There ain’t a Mountain Ranger in sight.”

Finally seeing eye to eye, I kept my mouth shut and didn’t point out the fact that, “There wasn’t a mountain in sight either.”

Back on the ground I dug out a flask of Ouzo, and Doug between slugs took photos of my carbide-tipped-crutches leaning against the tower and thus let me know I had earned his respect. He also told me that and $4.99 “would get ya a cup of coffee if they were willing to serve ya.”

My judgment, on the other hand, is still up for review, for on the very next day the Ice Tower fell over, narrowly missing the pipeline.