Our third day in Ouray (pronounced “you’re-ay,” not “ooh-ray” according to the locals) saw us get a comfortably late start. One of the advantages to the town being a whopping 5 minute drive away from the ice park is not feeling rushed in the morning; this allows for a stress-free gear-up and a hearty breakfast in town before heading out for the day! Once done dragging our feet, Ian and I headed in to the canyon to see what adventures we could get into this time. We got word that our Vertical Rock friends were set up in the “Scottish Gullies,” a popular area of the park characterized by a wide variety of routes. Once we located a good place to drop in, we set a secure anchor and rappelled down to join the party. We warmed up on a couple WI3’s and 4’s that offered fun, challenging terrain on enchanting cascades of ice. Here again climbing with a small community proved invaluable. With no less than a half dozen ropes set up at a time, we were provided the opportunity to experience far more routes per day than would be possible as just a climbing pair. It really was bringing the “gym effect” to this world-class outdoor crag! Once warmed up, we were inevitably drawn to the main attraction of the day: “Tic Tac,” M7.
Ian on rappel.
Tic Tacis a frustratingly difficult mixed climb with a desperately strenuous crux that ejected nearly all of us from the wall with impunity. It starts benignly enough with a slabby, 45ft section of WI3 ice which brings you to a wide, flat ledge at the base of the rock section. The remaining 35ft of slightly overhanging rock is where the real test begins. While not totally featureless, the line follows a thin crack offering soaking wet, dirt-caked edges only big enough for the very tip of your ice tools, and virtually no footholds where you’d want them. This is probably a good time to remind the readers that ice climbers wear metal crampons on their boots bristling with sharp spikes designed to give solid traction on an otherwise tractionless surface. On ice, they do their job phenomenally well. On rock? Well… not so much. If you can find a positive edge in the right place, hooking your crampon’s front-point onto it will actually hold quite securely. Finding a positive edge in the right place on Tic Tac, however, seemed tantamount to finding a shaved polar bear tanning in the desert. Enter the art of “dry-tooling.” Dry-tooling is everything it advertises itself to be: Using your ice gear to climb rock. Originally employed to bridge barren gaps between ice flows, dry-tooling has taken off into a climbing sport all its own. And believe me when I tell you that it’s likely the hardest climbing you will ever do. The moves are incredibly strenuous, the placements require surgical precision to hold, and the threat of falling with your extremities brandishing razor sharp spikes demands some serious focus and nerve. All lessons I was now learning, and in spades.
Climber heading toward the mixed climbs with the comp route ‘prow’ in the background.
Methodically I worked my way up 20ft to the crux. Here the tool placements got especially dicey, and it seemed like anything resembling footholds had vanished. My forearms were screaming and my crampons sparked as they skittered desperately across the smooth wall. As I ventured my tools higher, searching vainly for anything my tool would stick to, I swore my forearms were about to explode. When I matched tools on the only horizontal lip I could find, inevitability kicked in when one tool popped, jarring the second with it and blowing me off the wall. When the rope arrested my fall, I was a disheartening 8-10 exhausting moves away from the crux. I hung for an embarassingly long time attempting to recover my strength, determined to conquer the route. When I was thrown off a second time in the same spot, I was simply too spent for a third try. I lowered off to let someone else fight the good fight, and to recover my strength and my pride. Dry-tooling is no joke; I haven’t been that pumped on any climb of any kind, before or since! Ian roped up next and bested my performance; after much taking, falling and utterings the likes of which should never be repeated, he impressively deciphered Tic Tac, muscling all the way to the top. We rounded out the day with a few climbs of classic ice park quality, and headed back to town to unload and re-energize.
The author muscling up “Tic Tac.”
Day number four was a bright, sunny, and exceptionally warm day. The temperature had been steadily climbing throughout the week, and it would now peak at nearly 50 degrees! For the ice climber, this means two things: First, the ice would be soft and easy to stick to. Second, you were going to get wet. If you’re not careful, you could get downright soaked, at which point the balmy 50 degree temperature might as well be 50 below. Smart layering was the order of the day–sweating was inevitable, but enough could be done to prevent you from getting dangerously chilled. Ian, myself and a couple friends from the gym decided to try a new area of the canyon called “Five Fingers,” a section of steep ice pillars with plenty of vertical faces to choose from. After locating a suitable place to anchor, we rapped down to the canyon floor to examine our options. We warmed up on a couple of interesting WI4’s that sported some challenging terrain requiring somewhat unorthodox moves to negotiate, making for good practice with balance and weight distribution. Belaying involved an unusually high occurrence of dodging falling ice, as the sun’s warm rays began to penetrate the wall’s outer layers. After a few laps on the routes we had set up, we decided to move upstream and see what other climbs were available. By now I was feeling confident in my abilities, and had my eye out for something I could cut my teeth with as far as my first ice lead. I didn’t have to look long. As we rounded a large buttress dividing two areas of the crag, a moderate, inviting wall lured me in. The route began with an easy ramp, building in steepness as it rose in height. The first half, eclipsed in shade by two massive pine trees, seemed solid and thick, with plenty of places that would take a good ice screw. The top half stood gleaming in the sun, vertical and engaging but still with what appeared to be good stances to place protection. I’d seen enough–this would be my first ice lead.
Leading in the “Five Fingers.”
As I racked up with a dozen alpine draws and ice screws, I went through some mental centering. My years of experience leading sport and trad I knew would count for little here, since ice technique was so different from rock. Instead I focused on what I knew would carry over: Focus. Whatever you’re leading, focus is key, and the more that’s at stake, the more it’s necessary. Leading on pre-placed gear in the gym requires focus to climb well. Leading sport outside, where the falls are bigger and the floor annoyingly un-padded, even more so. Leading above trad gear that may pull out raises the stakes a couple more notches, and leading on frozen water ratchets it up about twenty. Ice is unpredictable by nature. Couple this with the reality that a leader is laden with copious amounts of laser-sharpened steel, and you’ll understand why focus is primary, and why falling on ice is universally frowned upon. The focus however, remains the same–ice simply demands more of it. Things like fear, doubt and panic are barriers to progress and can even be dangerous, and as such have no place in your head on lead. If you were smart from the start and executed good judgement by selecting a lead you know is below your ability level, all that remains is to stay focused on the task at hand. Stay in the moment and climb like you know how to, and your experience will be successful and rewarding. Let your mind wander to unproductive thoughts of panic, and your experience will be very different indeed. Once racked and ready, I craned my neck to gaze nearly 100ft up to the lip of the canyon wall. “Yup, that’s happening,” I affirmed aloud. Having faith in my skills and confidence in my mental composure, I kicked in my front-points and started up the route.
Author working up first ice lead.
I cruised up the first half with ease, stopping to place a screw roughly every ten feet or so. The ice was thick, my climbing was solid and the placements were bomber–I felt like I was on a roll. The top half of the route however, wasn’t about to let me off so easy. As the ice turned vertical, it was obvious that the top half, gleaming in the sun, was not quite the same quality I had enjoyed so far. The higher I climbed, the more rotten it became, with an aerated, almost slushy superficial layer needing to be chopped or hammered away to find more solid ice underneath. This “cleaning” process is especially endearing to your belayer(s), who have the pleasure of dodging all the crumbling chunks of ice you rain down on their heads. Ice belaying, as you might imagine, is often done from behind trees, rocks, walls or other immovable objects to shield you from the inevitable showers of appreciation the climber generously sends your way. As the ice became sketchier and the climbing more difficult, I appreciated the experienced advice and reassuring encouragement I received from my friends far below. With the stakes at their highest, my focus remained steadfast. Every foot placement was calculated, every tool strike swung with precision. The exposure melted away along with my awareness of much else beyond what I was doing. I had one purpose in life for immediate future: to climb well and to climb smart. With methodical care I gained the top pillar and climbed level with the canyon lip. After placing one final screw to protect what is commonly the most difficult and dangerous maneuver of any top-out ice climb, I sunk my tool in to prepare to pull the lip. Immediately a 2ft wide slab of ice sheared off and slid toward me. I paused briefly as I quickly scanned for a new spot to strike. Not done yet, Steve…I thought to myself. A second swing buried deep, into the softer earth of the ground beyond the edge. A relief, for sure; As long as I keep my angles right, that one will hold…After another precarious step up I sunk my second tool in and carefully mantled the lip onto the the flat, solid ground above. I turned as I stood, peering over the edge into the canyon below, sparkling with energy beneath the sunny blue sky. I raised my tools into the air so my friends below could see that I was safe and victorious. And hooked.
15 feet away from victory.
My fifth and final day in Colorado was bittersweet. We snuck in a couple of classic lines early in the morning, rounding out the trip with some long and interesting routes in the “Alcove” area of the park. Before I knew it, I was sitting in a restaurant with a friend from VR, eating lunch with a spanning view of the high mountains around town. The thought of heading home was a sobering reality. Peering out of the window on the airplane headed back East, I was privy to the setting sun spilling glowing red-orange light that filtered dramatically through the sprawling mountain ranges scraping the thin clouds below us. Even with sore feet, sore forearms and weathered hands, I found myself wishing I could have stayed to climb for a month. Looking back on the exciting times I had with my friends from the VR community, I knew I’d be back next year.
Come join us next year and help us represent VR in Colorado!!
Vertical Rock Outdoor School