No matter the time of year, Coloradans crave a relationship with mother nature. Ice climbing may be one of the most intimate winter experiences the mountains have to offer. Locals and natives looking for respite skip long lift lines and crowded lodges in search of frozen waterfalls and ice walls to ascend, slowly and methodically, using crampons and ice picks. For the founder of next ascent guidebooks, Rob Holzman, conquering a new climb feels like fitting together the pieces of a puzzle.
“Finding the right moves, the best stances, the best places to place protection or ice screws, it is often like solving a puzzle,” he said. “It makes me feel like I accomplished something nearly every time I get out and climb.” Southern Colorado’s Sawatch and San Juan mountain ranges offer everything from off the beaten path day-long ice climbs, to options for every skill level at the manmade Ouray Ice Park.
Take a Stab at It
The climbing community in Colorado and across the United States has grown exponentially in recent years. According to Holzman, rock climbing gyms often serve as an introduction to climbing, and some enthusiasts make the transition to ice climbing. Rock climbing gyms offer year round opportunities for climbers to engage in the sport. While ice climbers aren’t afforded the luxury of an indoor facility to improve their skills, many rock climbers take to the ice in the winter.
Holzman began ice climbing in his home state of Pennsylvania years ago. He’d climb after work with a group of friends, setting up top ropes on abandoned railroad tracks in the town of Scranton. It wasn’t until one of those friends moved to Vail that Holzman was introduced to Colorado ice. “It was amazing to learn what I was missing and how much better the ice in a destination area like Vail was,” Holzman said and eventually made the move west himself.
To get started, Holzman recommends taking a trip or lesson with an American Mountain Guides Association certified guide as it’s the safest way to learn. Some guide services even offer discounts on Groupon in an effort to make ice climbing accessible to locals and tourists alike. While looking for a new adventure, Denver resident Andrew Dale purchased a Groupon from Front Range Climbing Company in Colorado Springs. With only a few rock climbing experiences under his belt, Dale and his girlfriend Emily traveled to Lake George to scale the ice wall at Camp Alexander. As a beginner, Dale said the most challenging part was getting comfortable sticking his toe picks into the ice wall. “It’s a strange feeling when I’m used to having my foot on something solid,” he said. Dale says his introductory ice climbing experience satisfied his hunt for an activity that would push his boundaries and comfort levels.
According to Holzman, as long as you have proper guidance, very little skill is necessary to give ice climbing a try. “Some balance and a little strength is helpful, but as you learn to use ice tools, gentle is better, so you don’t need to be very strong as a beginner,” he said. Families, couples, and singles of any age can enjoy ice climbing together. There are plenty of online climbing community forums, such as The Mountain Project, that connect climbers to partners and mentors in any region of Colorado.
Colorado’s Ice Climbing Headquarters
Every November, ice farmers in Ouray carefully grow and tend ice using dozens of sprinklers to spray water over the walls of the deep, shady, and cold Uncompahgre Gorge. Using natural and manmade elements, they create 14 different ice climbing areas and three miles of vertical terrain, attracting climbers from all over the world. The Ouray Ice Park has terrain for everyone, ranging from beginner climbs to a lead only area. Every January, the park hosts the Ouray Ice Festival, a great time to give ice climbing a try, with four days of clinics, demos, and celebrations. (The next festival is scheduled for January 18-21, 2018.) During the rest of the season, the park doesn’t offer gear rentals or
classes, but there are plenty of guide services in the small town and surrounding areas. In Colorado, ice climbing conditions are best from December until March.
There’s an App for That
Guidebooks and routes are available in the palm of your hand. In addition to print guidebooks, Next Ascent publishes guidebook apps, including the official Ouray Ice Climbing Guidebook App. It includes maps and directions to climbing areas, as well as GPS data, topographical data, descriptions, and ratings for all routes.
Where to Climb
While most conversations about “must-climb” routes circle back to Ouray, there are an abundance of ice walls waiting to be ascended in Colorado. Between Buena Vista and Salida, ice walls form and waterfalls freeze along Chalk Creek (CR-162) and South Cottonwood Creek (CR-344), according to MountainProject.com. Front Range Climbing Company recommends the Silver Cascade climb near Helen Hunt Falls in North Cheyenne Cañon in Colorado Springs and Denver’s Clear Creek Canyon, which offers ice flows of ranging difficulty.
No Two Climbs Are the Same
Adding to the thrill for adventure seekers, ice climbs are unpredictable and constantly changing with weather and wind patterns. According to the science section of IceClimb.com, “Ice-climbs are temporary features of winter, and are in a perpetual state of falling down during their short life-spans.” Groundwater, streams, and melted snow freeze to form ice climbs. Early season climbs often depend on ground or surface water, as it generally freezes more quickly than fast moving waterfalls. Waterfalls need colder temperatures for a longer period of time in order to freeze, but once they do, they build quickly to create new climbs every few days. Ideal climbing conditions occur at ideal temperatures. According to Holzman, “Climbers often refer to ice as being plastic, as it feels you are sinking the tools into plastic,” he said. “If it’s too warm, the ice is very runny and water is present. If it’s too cold, ice is very brittle and breaks off. The plastic is what’s really fun to climb.” The experts at Alpine Adventures, Inc. say ideal climbing ice is formed when temperatures are warm enough during the day for ice to soften, usually in the low 30s, and cold enough (in the low 20s) at night for the ice to build up and refreeze. Climbers should expect and plan for ice walls to change daily, often dramatically. Rather than predicting conditions, climbers must be prepared to handle any conditions they might encounter.
What You’ll Need
Equipment is the foundation for a positive experience while ice climbing in Colorado. Weather conditions change rapidly, and quality clothing can play a critical role in a climber’s comfort and safety. Climbers often carry clothing and gear they’re unlikely to need, but in rare circumstances, those items may save lives.
Colorado certainly has the ice climbing terrain to satisfy a climber’s adventure craving.For Holzman, successfully
choreographing a new climb leads to an incomparable sense of accomplishment. “Some of my most memorable experiences have been on multi-pitch routes in Colorado,” he said. “The longer, taller climbs really make you
feel like you are doing something amazing.”