Flows, Seeps and Drips: A Selected Guide to Colorado Ice Climbs

by George McEwan Feb/2009
This article has been read 4,784 times
Within Colorado you will find ice climbs at all grades from fat ice WI3 to desperate poorly protected WI6. You will also find that many of the quality climbs are concentrated into a small (by North American standards) area. So one visit to one area should allow you to climb all the routes you want, if not in a day then at least in several days. All the climbs are in quite different landscapes. From the remote forests and high alpine peaks of the Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP,) to the desert like red sandstone of Redstone, through to the roadside 'ice cragging' of Ouray, you'll find a landscape and venue to suit whatever level of commitment you are looking for. Cheap fuel (or 'gas,') cheap motels close to all the main climbing areas and reasonable car hire make the state an ideal ice climbers road trip venue.
+George McEwan leading The Drool, 94 kbGeorge McEwan leading The Drool
© George McEwan

Climbing Areas

When describing the areas I am working on the assumption that the climber is arriving in Denver. All the areas are then described as though you are driving from Denver and working your way west. The inset map will give you an idea of the geographical layout of Colorado.

Colorado is extremely popular as an ice climbing venue, partly due to its reliable conditions but also because it is accessible for many US climbers. Overcrowding can be an issue in many of the popular areas and climbs. If you are planning on climbing at weekends or during US National holidays then expect a very sociable time, with every other ice climber in the United States keeping you company. Three top tips: Start early so you are first on the climb; start late, climb fast (be prepared to descend in the dark) just when everyone is packing up; or avoid climbing at weekends and National Holidays. Another quirk is that top roping is very popular. I've found this to be an extremely widespread practice in Colorado, even on multi pitch climbs (Rosie and I had soloed up Avocado gully thinking we'd beat the queues only to find two Americans top roping the crux pitch half way up the 120m climb!). Just be warned that there is a different attitude to top roping over there, than we have back in the UK. If you want to leave the crowds behind, just be prepared to walk that wee bit more. One last little quirk about Colorado. Denver is a mile high. Many ice climbs are around the 9000ft mark, with some of the climbs, especially in RMNP at an altitude of 12000ft. So don't be to surprised if on your first day out it feels like you are sucking air and dragging leaden limbs around.

What follows is a selection of quality climbs that reliably come into condition each season. There are heaps more ice climbs out there, so if you are heading out it's a good idea to invest in the excellent ice climbing guide authored by Jack Roberts.

Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park was established in 1915. Situated about an hour and a half drive north of Denver it is also one of the most popular national parks in the US. Estes Park, the main base for climbing here is at an altitude of about 9000+ft. If you have just arrived from the UK, you will very quickly notice the altitude. As many of the routes are situated at relatively high elevations conditions are usually reliable, with ice forming up by early November. The main hazards in RMNP are the strong, Cairngorm-like winds. This does have the advantage that any snowfall tends to clear off the mountains very quickly. Just watch out for windslab on some of the approaches.

Lock Vale Gorge

It burns my heart to see 'Loch' spelt this way, but that's how it is in the book! This is a great wee area to kick your trip off. A half hour walk brings you to a 300m long cliff with a great variety of ice climbs dripping down its north face. It has mellow WI 3 ice through to M7 mixed desperates. You can lead the routes, or join the masses in top roping all the climbs. This is a very popular area, particularly at weekends. It is also a bit of a cold hole, so take some hot drinks and a big duvet to keep the belayer alive.

If you want to kick off on something cruisy then Mo' Crystal 30m WI3 I on the extreme right hand side of the cliff is a good choice. Or perhaps after sitting in an aircraft for eight hours you need to rid yourself of some thrill suckers. Just next door to the left is Crystal Meth 30m WI4/5 I. Guaranteed to get the blood pumping and you wishing you'd gone for the easy option as you hook your way up some steep intricate ice. If mixed climbing or "dry tooling" as the Americans call it, is your thing then go to the extreme left hand side of the cliff. Mixed Feelings 35m WI5/6 M6 II, is a superb route. An easier than it looks traverse leads you to the well protected crux. Stiff well protected dry tooling moves up overhanging rock, which then allow you to hook a scarey vertical ice shield. Finish up this to a huge tree for a belay.

Wild Basin

If walking is not your thing then cruise on up to Hidden Falls 50m WI4 II. This is a classic WI4 ice climb, a straightforward twenty minute walk from the vehicle. There are several options here, you can climb the main fall LH or RH both about the same grade with the steep bit at the top. There is also a smaller fall that forms up on the further right hand side of Hidden Falls. This small icefall consists of 30m of WI4/5 hooking, usually with poor or difficult to arrange ice gear. After shaking your way to the top you can set up an Abalakov thread, reflect on the fact maybe you should have done the easier main fall, and rap off the route. Another popular spot, so watch out for crowds.

Glacier Gorge

Time to get away from the milling masses. All Mixed Up 200m WI4 IV/V is one of the classic multi pitch water ice routes in the park. I reckon its a bit of a steal at the grade, but it is set in a superb alpine location. An easy atmospheric approach takes you to the beautiful Mills Lake. The climb lies a steep half hour grunt uphill. Three pitches of tasty climbing take you to the top where you can walk off easily to the right (looking down). This route is situated in text book avalanche terrain so 'heads up' regarding snow conditions.

Black Lake

This will definitely see you leaving the crowds far behind. Top tip: use snow shoes or skis for the approach here. You'll easily save yourself around two hours approach time if you do, and a heap of sweat and toil. This area has a clutch of middle grade classics in the WI3 to WI4 bracket, set in a huge corrie surrounded by mountains on three sides. Watch out for strong winds here. Reflections and Black Lake Ice are two routes that can be done in a day, both are about WI3 and several pitches long. You will see a stack of other icefalls in this area. They are good to do, but not as large as you think once you are below them. I reckon the gem is North West Gully 100m WI4 V. A peachy climb again with a very dramatic backdrop. Abseil off this one using Abalakovs. Watch out for major avalanche hazard on the approach and above this one though.

Boulder Canyon

You can drive back to the Denver area via this spot. Stop off at Nederland and treat yourself to some bakery delicacies at Laura's Mountain Bakery on the way. Many of the routes are 'farmed' from directing the water flow down particular sections of the cliffs. There are two main areas, the lower and upper falls. You can easily spend a day here and have some great ice climbing fun. Loads of ice and mixed stuff to throw yourself at. If you get bored with ice you can indulge in some sunny rock climbing on the Castle Rock, just next to the main parking area.

+George McEwan on thin ice at Boulder Canyon, 155 kbGeorge McEwan on thin ice at Boulder Canyon
© George McEwan
Mount Lincoln

A reasonably cheap place to base yourself and access both Mt Lincoln and Vail, is Georgetown. It is an old Victorian era silver mining town. It's also got a superb Victorian bar with great beer and cheap bar meals. Mt Lincoln is just over an hours drive heading west - if the road is clear of snow and dry. Watch out for ski traffic early in the mornings, particularly at weekends or you could get stuck in some awful traffic jams or find yourself racing out-of-control SUVs! How far you have to walk to get to the climbs on Mt Lincoln does depend on how much snow is on the reservoir approach road. We managed to get fairly close (about 20 minutes walk) just using chains on our bog standard hire car. As you drive down to the reservoir you'll easily see the climbs high on the side of the mountain.

There are a wealth of multi pitch and single pitch routes here. Lincoln Falls Major 120m WI3 III, is a nice tick. If you fancy some steeper stuff try Ole'Abe, 50m WI5- II. Steep pillar climbing with reasonable gear. Other climbs abound that you can get onto and do your stuff, or top rope if you fancy just working on technique and your head, for the soon to come bigger, steeper climbs.

Vail

This area has been over popularized in the climbing media lately. Staying close to this area will cost you. It's not a bad drive from Georgetown to Vail though - about an hour and a half and at least Georgetown has cheaper accommodation. Parking to approach the routes can also pose problems so take care where you leave your vehicle, lest it be towed or ticketed. Vail's most famous climbing area - the Rigid Designator area is easily seen from the main highway. The classic ice climb here is Rigid Designator 50m WI4/5 II. If The Fang is formed then that's one to go for at WI5/6 (the locals have hung a chain down the line of the route to encourage it to form). Lurking behind the ice climbs are some modern mixed climbing testpieces. Jeff Lowe's famous test piece Octopussy is located here. Frigid Inseminator WI5 M6 II is an accessible classic of this ilk. Bolt protected climbing for 10m leads on up to the hanging shield of ice. Just be careful with it as it can be difficult to protect and has collapsed with a climber attached to it as he told me as I led off up the climb. If all this steep stuff is not to everyone's liking, hike over to the left where you'll find a pleasant WI3/4 called Spiral Staircase. Next door to it is another dry tooling test piece called Secret Probation WI5+ M7 II. This has bolts protecting the crux initial section, with ice screws for the scary ice. If you don't fancy leading this, you can access the route by climbing Spiral.

+John Ashbridge leading Rigid Designator, 114 kbJohn Ashbridge leading Rigid Designator
© George McEwan
Redstone

Situated just outside Carbondale. Redstone has a fine wee collection of single to multi pitch climbs. If you are going well you could do most of the main climbs in a couple of days. As well as some quality climbs, it also has a natural hot springs called 'Penny Springs' just two minutes from the main road and it's free. The locals have created wee hot pools by building dams around the natural springs. A great way to relax climbing-stressed muscles. As you drive south past Avocado Gully look out for the steam from the natural hot springs on your left. Marble Falls WI4 30m+ is one of the classics and yes, very popular. It is fairly wide so it can accommodate several teams if they choose their lines with care. Avocado Gully 120m WI3/4 II is a fun outing with a crux on very thin and steep ice. If steep pillars in the sun are your thing then The Drool 40m WI5 I is for you. The contrast between white ice and red stone is remarkable. Just watch out for sun-rotted ice and lots of water if the weather is especially sunny.

Glenwood Canyon

Easily accessed from Carbondale. Glenwood Canyon has some fine routes. The most reliably in condition is Hidden Falls 115m WI4 IV. The crux of this route is getting over the Colorado river. Usually it is frozen enough upstream past the power station to jump across without any problems (check out the access here, it does appear to vary depending on how co-operative the Power Utility Company are feeling). A steep uphill grunt takes you to the base of the climb, which is set in a striking scooped out bowl. The climbing is steep and on brittle ice, so take care.

+Rifle Ice, 59 kbRifle Ice
© George McEwan
Rifle

Although the guidebook raves about this venue I've never been that impressed with the ice climbing here. I've been twice and both times I've been disappointed. The Final Curtain 30m WI4 appears to form up reliably though. Be warned it can be a lot harder than the grade suggests. There are if formed, lots of other pillars here and some dry tooling climbs. Maybe you will be luckier with conditions.

San Juan Mountains

Situated in the south west of the state, the San Juans hold the greatest concentration of quality ice routes in Colorado. Many of the climbs are high in the back country and require long approaches, often through deep snow, but are well worth the effort. These mountains are also the avalanche capital of the US. So extra vigilance is required when climbing here. This is the place to be carrying transceivers, shovels and probes. But then with those sort of high-risk conditions, you may just want to chill out at the Ouray Ice Park with its designer ice and negligible avalanche hazard.

Ouray

This is a unique venue and probably the main climbing venue everyone associates with Colorado. The Ice Park uses water farmed from an upstream reservoir. All the climbs are formed by spraying water down the vertical sides of the Uncompahgre Gorge. Acres of reliable ice from WI3 to WI6, plus dry tooling test pieces. But be warned the aerated nature of the ice does mean that gear on many of the harder climbs tends to be difficult to place, or suspect if you do get some in. Top roping is very popular here, almost to the point that no one leads climbs. Although to redress this balance some areas are exclusively set aside for the authentic ice warrior to lead and scare themselves on!

Around Ouray are dotted a multitude of quality, natural ice climbs. Dexter Slab 220m WI3/4 III lies just as come into Ouray from Ridgeway. A superb wee outing and not all that well described in the guidebook. The approach is only about fifteen minutes, the route gets the sun in the afternoon (stonefall danger though!) and the climbing is well worth it. Horsetail Falls 120m WI4/5 II is a few minutes from the road on the way to Red Mountain pass a striking ice climb and therefore very popular. Bear Creek just across from here has a clutch of multi-pitch routes situated in its upper reaches, including some fun pillars. Scramble up a rock ridge and pick up an old miners path to access these climbs.

+Ouray Ice Park, 133 kbOuray Ice Park
© George McEwan
+George McEwan on Road Warrior, 83 kbGeorge McEwan on Road Warrior
© George McEwan
Camp Bird Road

Another very popular area with huge avalanche potential. This is not the place to be during an avalanche cycle. There are two main climbing areas here. The Ribbon area and the Skylight area. The Ribbon 250m WI4 V is the three star classic and popular, so get there mega early. Or late if you don't mind descending by torchlight start late when everyone has gone home. When we did the route the second pitch was very thin with next to no gear, and felt like Scottish VII.6. All the in - situ belays are sketchy, the bolts looking like the original ones. So back em' up. Superb climbing on this route though, wonderfully exposed. The Skylight area has some superb wee climbs. The first route you meet when walking up the old road is Road Warrior 50m WI5+/6 I. Not always formed up well, but it is fun to do and is in the sun. Other top ticks are Choppos Chimney 90m WI4/5 II on some nice steep ice, The Skylight 100m WI5 M5/6 II/III which also provides some mixed climbing variations on the first pitch and Slip Slidin' Away 90m WI4 II with some harder variations possible.

About a few km back down the road towards Ouray there is a route called Out Of The Mainstream 400m WI4/5 V. This has some sections of good climbing, particularly the last pitch but its a long way to climb for one quality pitch. Best done early in the season when there will be more ice and less snow in the lower sections. At least it will be quiet.

Silverton

An hours drive over Red Mountain pass lies the old Victorian mining town of Silverton. Many of the climbs are located up the Eureka mine area. A four wheel drive vehicle might be useful here, but we found our rental car with chains could cope with the drive up. Again this whole area is major avalanche country, so exercise caution when climbing up here. Eureka does have a clutch of superb multi pitch alpine classics. Stairway to Heaven 280m WI4 IV is just superb. Big stairs of ice leading up to easier terrain. You can walk off this climb which I reckon, is very hazardous due to windslab laden slopes or you can easily abb the route using Abalakovs and a couple of trees. Its sister climb is Whorehouse Hoses 265m WI4/5 IV. This is a bit similar to the Canadian climb Polar Circus in character, but shorter. A superb 60m steep pillar takes you out of an overhanging bowl and onto easy ground. An access pitch through a narrow slot (this can be scary to lead with water thundering down underneath the ice) takes you to some easier upper snow slopes and a choice of exits. The right hand one is the harder and goes at about WI5 on ice dotted with mushroom like features. Highway 66 260m WI4 IV, although not as consistently good as the other two is still worth doing. The higher you climb the more interesting it gets. Descent is by abbing and downclimbing.

Telluride

Around Telluride, which is another old Victorian mining town, you will find some of the classic ice routes of the US. Telluride is easily accessed from Ouray by an hour's drive. Ouray has cheaper accommodation so best to base yourself there. Top ticks here are Bridalveil Falls 150m WI5+ IV the mega classic of the area. Conditions on this climb do vary enormously, from a straightforward WI5 bash, through to a chandelier horror show that only the very ill, or extremely talented would touch. On the approach watch out for avalanche danger. There are access issues surrounding this route so check out what the current form is. Another North American classic is just over the hill in the next valley. Ames Ice Hose 200m WI5/6 M6 IV has a reputation for scary steep climbing, particularly the first pitch. When we climbed it the route was in great ice climbing shape although it was very steep, with the second pitch being the crux involving steep hooking and poor screws. Conditions vary enormously on this route so check it out with the locals first. The last pitch is steep for WI4 by the way and arguably closer to WI4+. To inspect its condition you can scope it out from the highway.

If you are into short, sharp pillars then throw yourself at Silver Pick Falls 40m WI4+/5 I. It's a very attractive wee sandbag, (er! I mean climb) forming a perfect pillar at the back of a scooped out bowl.

So there you have it. Colorado ice climbing. There are more than enough routes to keep you busy on an average trip. Just make sure your tools are razor sharp, your biceps and forearms are pumped up and your brain is in the off position. As they say in the States, "Enjoy!"



Logistics

Getting there?

Flights to the US are reasonably cheap at present. Many of the main carriers all fly to Denver. Check out flights from KLM and British Airways. If you are flying early season i.e. about November, early December you could pick up flights for about £250. As you go into February expect to pay around the £400+ mark. If you have a valid UK passport you will not require a visa if your trip lasts less than 90 days.

Season?

If the Autumn is cool i.e. cold, ice can start forming by mid to late November in the higher areas, such as RMNP. By early December, there is enough ice to keep people occupied. The Ouray Ice Park opens around the 15th December, but best to check this out before heading out in early December. The season can last right through to early April. Early in the winter tends to be colder (expect average temperatures around the -10 mark,) with less snowfall. The main dumps of snow start to arrive around the tailend of January, with most of the snow being dumped in March.

Grades?

Ice is notoriously difficult to grade. Conditions vary greatly. What is a mellow WI4 cruise early in the season, can be a horror hook fest on rotten ice near the end, or vice versa. So use the grades as a guide and make your own call when you are at the base of the climb. All the grades are given using the North American water ice grading system. WI4 roughly equates with Scottish technical 5 on ice, WI5 to Scottish technical 6. The M grades are generally used for mixed climbs (this usually means dry tooling.) As a rough guide M6 will feel like a Scottish technical 7, but may prove to be a bit pumpier. Objective grades are given for the overall commitment of the route. Don't confuse this system with the Scottish grading system. There is no relation!

Accommodation?

Generally motels are the cheapest, easiest option. If you are planning on staying for a few days, negotiate your price - you may be surprised at what a bit of haggling can do. Generally prices quoted are for the room and you are looking at around upwards of $50 for two. Mind that tax is added onto this price. Eating out is not as cheap as Canada. You can still get good value breakfasts though, so check around. Ouray has the best choice for budget accommodation. Top tip if you are tight on the pennies is the Riverside Inn in Ouray. They have some excellent Cabins at about $33 a night. Camping is not an option, at least as a long term arrangement. You need to dry gear and warm yourself up.

Guidebook and further information?

Colorado Ice (ISBN 0-9656109-0-X) by Jack Roberts is excellent. It has all the info you need, as well as an inspiring collection of photos. It's also a good read.

+Rosie Goolden leading Dexter Falls, 113 kbRosie Goolden leading Dexter Falls
© George McEwan

Transport?

You will need a vehicle to climb in Colorado. Public transport is almost non-existent. A bog standard car is all you need, just make sure it has chains (use of chains may be a legal requirement on some roads.) If it doesn't you can buy them from places such as a Sears Department Store for around $30. Four wheel drives are useful, but very much more expensive. Although car hire is relatively cheap, watch out for the insurance costs. You do not have to take out any insurance plan such as CDW. If you bend the vehicle though you are hit for the full cost. Fuel is pennies. You are looking at paying approx. $2 to $2.50 for a gallon of petrol and the Americans think that is expensive!

Gear?

Don't come out here with your Cairngorm mixed gear i.e. mallets and stubby crampons. You won't like it. Invest in some designer ice gear, with razor sharp picks and curved shafts plus crampons to match. Black Diamond Express are the screws of choice for me. You can buy them out in the States but I found they were cheaper in France! Take time to sort out a system for racking screws and importantly, placing pro on steep ice. Clipper leashes and ice screw racking systems will make life superbly simple. A set of snowshoes, which you can hire are worth it especially if you plan on going off the beaten trail a bit. If you do go into the back country ensure you are up to speed with the avalanche outlook and safe travel techniques.

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