What follows is a detailed recap of our icy adventures in Colorado at the world-famous Ouray Ice Park! Who says you have to climb indoors in the winter!?
Having arrived in town late the night before, all we’d seen of Ouray, Colorado was the small, one-main-road town nestled in the massive looming shadows of the surrounding mountain ridgelines. At dawn the rising sun spilled vibrant, glowing light into the 8,000ft valley, revealing the breathtaking majesty of the encircling mountain ranges. This place is too beautiful for words to describe, and even pictures can’t do it justice. After a quick stop to rent some ice boots and crampons (the spikey metal platforms that clamp to your foot and allow you to walk up vertical ice), we headed into the ice park proper. After a 5 minute hike to the “lower bridge” area, we came upon two friends (and VR members!) working their way up a 100ft twisting pillar of ice descending from where the bridge met the canyon wall. Both experienced ice climbers, they made quick work of the WI5+ named “Tooth Decay,” then linked up with Ian and myself to hike further up the canyon to join the rest of our friends. Up and up we went, trudging up the steep trails weighed down with packs full of clothes, ropes, hardware, water and ice axes. The hills left us gasping hard, heads throbbing in the thin mountain air, but the stunning views at every turn was the only medicine we needed. Once we reached the area of the mile-long ice canyon dubbed the “New Funtier,” we went to work quickly building a safe anchor on the cliff edge and rappelling down the 80+ feet to the canyon floor. There we joined a group of about a dozen climbers, half of which were VR members as well! To clarify, this epic week-long excursion of ice and snow was by no means an official VR sanctioned/sponsored trip. The Vertical Rock community is simply so tight-knit and friendly that gym friends, both staff and members alike, decided to coordinate this adventurous climbing vacation. Various friends flew in and out of Colorado on their own schedules, leaving no shortage of partners to climb with during the week. As a first-time ice climber, I was certainly grateful for the wealth of experience and knowledge available to me by way of our circle of friends. I learned a lot, and quickly; I was climbing much more challenging ice than I was expecting to, with confidence in my skills thanks to the generous tutelage of those who have gone before me.
One of the spectacular views from our hotel in town.
My first few climbs however, were something of a wake-up call. The first route I sunk my tools into was an easy, ramp-like WI2 named “Slog.” Rock climbing skill translates over to ice in strange and unexpected ways, with certain aspects needing to be relearned. One of these aspects is footwork–a lesson that took a couple falls off this beginner’s climb to hammer home. Being tied in on top-rope, the falls were no big deal, but it definitely had me stop for a second to analyze the cause of my errors. I’m a fast learner though, and I wouldn’t fall off ice for the rest of the trip. Not that there weren’t some close calls, but proper technique is what allows for a foot or tool to break loose without succumbing to the greedy clutches of gravity. Constant attention to the angle of your tools, elbows and heels is a must! After sorting my feet out, I went back up Slog for round two, this time scaling a harder variation that took me up a thin, vertical section of a clear ice sheet layered on top of the rock. The ice was hardly an inch thick, making for good, precarious fun. After taking my turn belaying a couple friends up the ice, we packed up, climbed out, broke down our anchor and hiked further up the canyon. Upon reaching our friends at the new section of wall, we built a new anchor and rapped down to join them. This area proved to be a little more challenging, and even more fun. Just like in rock climbing, one of the quickest ways to improve your skills as an ice climber is to climb with individuals who are better than you. This was the exact approach I took here, studying the habits and movement techniques of more experienced friends. We warmed up on “Lewis,” WI3, then moved over to “Pocahontas,” WI4. Pocahontas was a really fun route with a lot of variety to it; beginning with a low-angle slab section, it quickly turns vertical as you get tucked up underneath a beautiful array of ice chandeliers. This route has you wind your way up and around a 6ft wide pillar, then stem across an in-cut corner to top out on a flatter, vertical face.
‘Lewis,’ WI3 runs up the rope on the far right, climber scaling ‘Pocahontas,’ WI4 center, and ‘Miller Time,’ WI4+ on the left.
The final climb of the day was “Miller Time,” WI4+. This was my first taste of mixed climbing, as the ice hung over a 6ft section of bare rock near the start. Mixed climbing is simply a combination of ice and bare rock, requiring much greater skill and strength to negotiate. While possible to skip by climbing the ice to the left or right of the rock wall, we didn’t fly all the way across the country to take the easy way up. After watching one climber try and fail to get past the rock section then another climber figure it out, it was my turn to tie in. I began by sinking my right tool into the ice on the right side, as high as I could reach. Next, I placed the front-points of my left crampon on a half-inch lip of rock a couple feet off the ground, then pulled for all I was worth. This allowed me to chop my right foot into the ice, just barely giving me the reach to sink my left tool in above the rock wall. The next move required what is almost a one-handed lock-off pull up, in order to desperately chop my right foot into the ice at nearly waist height. My left forearm and bicep screaming, I swung hard with my right tool and was relieved to hear and feel the pick bury itself securely above the ice curtain. I made the few additional moves to pull over a wide bulge to a ledge halfway up the climb, where I proceeded to take a much-needed break, hyperventilating in the thin mountain air as I waited for my arms to stop burning. Welcome to mixed climbing! Once recovered, the rest of the route was a breeze by comparison. With daylight quickly fading, I topped out and set up to belay Ian up out of the canyon. Once he was safely topside, we packed up our gear and hiked out of the ice park. The day’s adventure culminated with a hot shower and a group dinner, which proved to be one of the most enjoyable parts of the day as we swapped stories, caught up on the day’s exploits and made plans for the following morning.
Ian in action, topping out of the ‘New Funtier.’
Our second day began with a hike up to the “Upper Bridge” area, where some of the longest climbs in the park beckoned for us to try our luck. We hiked up past the gazebo, as well as the small wooden shack which served as the main ‘office’ for the ice park. Outside the office, two benches flanked a burning coal pit for warming hands and spirits between climbs (how’s that for Western hospitality). Just north of the lead-only section of the park we found what we came for. It’s worth mentioning that of the nearly 200 routes in the Ouray Ice Park, 98% of them are able to be top-roped. With so much world-class ice so accessible to beginners, it’s no wonder the ice park is so popular. In fact, throughout our travels in the park, we met climbing parties from Australia, New Zealand, Poland and Austria–while we flew across the country to climb in the park, many flew from across the world…That’s a serious testament to the famous quality of the ice in Ouray! This diversity actually proved to be a small problem as we set up to climb our first route of the day. The party on the climb adjacent to us was a group of Italians who spoke exactly no English! This would later make for a challenge in coordinating trading anchors, but climbing appears to have a sort of universal language, and thus we were able to make it work. When I was finished building my anchor and setting up to belay, I had Ian tie in and approach the cliff edge. The 130ft+ length of “Whtt’s World,” WI4+ meant we would have to belay from the top of the climb. Even my 70m rope wouldn’t be long enough to rappel down to the bottom or be usable for a slingshot top-rope setup. Since I would be lowering my climber out of my view and out of earshot, we had a friend act as a spotter by standing on the bridge overlooking the deep canyon; his ability to see both me and the climber as well as relay commands was critical to both safety and efficiency. The extended length of the climb made for a long, cold belay, but I hardly noticed the discomfort as I was too busy enjoying the unbelievable views surrounding us. Ouray has a rare majesty about it that never fails to charm and awe you, and I felt privileged to be there.
Hiking up to the ‘Upper Bridge’ area on day two. Elevation: 8,000ft.
Once Ian arrived safely at the belay, we traded spots with the Italians and threw a rope down on “Berzerker,” WI5. This route was even longer, with sustained sections of vertical ice requiring careful footwork and some serious endurance. Again we placed a spotter on the bridge, as much to take incredible pictures as to relay commands. I went first this time, excited to get on such a massive ice wall. I enjoyed the stunning view as I was lowered down, watching another climber lead up a diehedral of ice with methodical care. I wonder if I have what it takes to lead ice, I thought to myself. I would soon find out… Once I finally touched down, straddling two snow-covered boulders over the running stream below, the magnitude of the towering ice walls hit me. Looking way, way up at the sliver of blue-gray sky visible from the canyon floor, I suddenly felt very, very small. “Well, there’s only one way out!” With that, I sunk my tools into the deep blue ice and started the long and extremely fun climb to the top. This was the most fun I had to that point climbing ice, with fun moves, awesome views and a super-long stretch of peerless ice. Being a competitive endurance athlete when I’m not climbing rock or ice, any physical exertion of extended nature is right up my alley, and I thoroughly enjoyed the entirety of ‘Berzerker.’ After the satisfying top-out, I quickly traded places with my belayer and sent him down to get in on the fun. Once he was finished we handed off the rope to two other friends and took a quick food and drink break before moving one more anchor over to set up on the final climb of the day.
Getting lowered by Ian into the deep canyon below to get on ‘Berzerker,’ WI5. Ian and I paired up as a climbing team for most of the week. It was a pleasure to climb with someone who’s skills and judgement you trust–something that’s not always guaranteed in the outdoor climbing scene. Yet another example of the unbeatable benefits of the VR community!
Enter the “Pick O’ the Vic,” which conditions on the day had it rated at WI6. This park classic would be the tallest climb of our trip, topping out around 150ft above the canyon floor! Unlike “Berzerker,” which had a couple small ledges on the way up you could pause to rest on, Vicoffered no reprieve from its relentless vertical ice curtains. Once a climber began, there would be no rest until topping out some fifteen stories later! I dropped in as the second to climb this behemoth, rehearsing in my head all the various skills and techniques I had learned thus far–I knew I would need them all to climb this route well. Since my rope didn’t come with a steering wheel, I ended up touching down about 20 feet downstream of the start of the climb. This required an awkward but fun traverse that had me literally climbing sideways over the stream I was trying seriously hard not to fall into. Once in position, I took a deep breath and went to work. The start was hardly inviting, as the cascading ice stopped short of the canyon floor, leaving a 6ft gap with nothing but open air underneath the overhanging ice curtain I would need to surmount. After pulling a few strenuous but fun moves reminiscent of the mixed climb we did the day before, I was on the vertical face and ready for the long haul. And while long it certainly was, I found myself wishing it would never end! The ice was in perfect condition, my climbing was spot on and the fun was off the charts. I was careful to maintain good footwork, and shake out my arms at regular intervals to avoid getting pumped out or worse, get the ‘screaming barfies’ (a brief internet search will explain this fun phenomenon, if you’re unable to figure it out from the name). I was elated when I topped out, not only having not taken a fall, but also feeling like I climbed with skill and confidence. Styling a WI6 on my second day ever of climbing ice is a testament to the charitable guidance I received from my friends in the VR community! After hiking out, showering down and hanging gear up to dry, we met up for the nightly group dinner with even bigger and better stories to tell this time around. With ambitious plans already being made for day three, I couldn’t wait to see how we’d top the unbelievable climbing we’d done so far!
Can you find the climber? The author starting up ‘Pick O’ The Vic,’ WI6.
Stay tuned for Part II of the Ouray Ice Park Recap!
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