South­west Colorado’s trea­sure trove of wa­ter­fall ice climbs.

South­west Colorado’s trea­sure trove of sin­gle­and multi- pitch wa­ter­fall ice climbs

Climbing - - CONTENTS - Writ­ing and Pho­tog­ra­phy by Ken­nan Har­vey

Wa­ter­fall ice in the San Juan Moun­tains of south­west­ern Colorado is al­most as plen­ti­ful as the 48-ounce steaks served free in Texas ... if you can eat the whole thing in one sit­ting, that is. And much like the al­lure of those free steaks, so too do the sil­ver threads of San Juan ice come with their own hid­den price tag: The climb­ing is at al­ti­tude, the tem­per­a­tures can be bit­terly cold, and the re­mote, snow-laden val­leys are se­ri­ous, avalanche prone, and in­tim­i­dat­ing.

THE SAN JUANS COM­BINE the majesty of the Alps with the re­mote seren­ity of the Wild West and the boom-and-bust ethos of the hard-rock min­ers who came here in the 1800s. The peace­ful and pros­per­ous Ute Tribe roamed the area for cen­turies be­fore gold was dis­cov­ered close to Sil­ver­ton in 1860 dur­ing an ex­pe­di­tion led by Charles Baker, a miner pre­vi­ously in­volved in Colorado’s first gold rush at Cherry Creek. How­ever, the le­gal min­ing boom did not be­gin un­til 1873 when prospec­tors pres­sured the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to ne­go­ti­ate the Brunot Treaty with Chief Ou­ray, re­mov­ing four mil­lion moun­tain­ous acres from the Ute Reser­va­tion. In the decade fol­low­ing, most of the quaint min­ing towns were in­cor­po­rated.

The range is vast, a 12,000-square-mile area strad­dling the Con­ti­nen­tal Di­vide. Home to the head­wa­ters of the mighty Rio Grande River, 14 sum­mits over 14,000 feet, and 314 peaks over 13,000 feet, the San Juans com­prise enough ge­o­logic di­ver­sity to in­spire a gen­er­a­tion of post-im­pres­sion­is­tic Van Goghs—with or­ange and yel­low vol­canic per­mu­ta­tions, glaciated red sand­stone, dark, sweep­ing quartzite, and fos­sil-laden lime­stone.

The high el­e­va­tion brings cold, snowy win­ters and a life­time of ice and alpine ob­jec­tives. The San Juans are first in line for south­west­ern weather flows laden with Pa­cific Ocean mois­ture. In the sum­mer, this leads to reg­u­lar mon­soonal thun­der­storms; in win­ter, through a process called oro­graphic lift, the lofty peaks force in­bound fronts up­ward, caus­ing them to ex­pand, cool, and con­dense into mas­sive snow­storms. Wolf Creek Pass, on the south­ern end of the range, holds Colorado’s sin­gle-sea­son snow­fall record of 837 inches.

Avalanche con­di­tions in the San Juans are ever chang­ing, and suit­ors must as­sess them daily. High­way 550, which bi­sects the range, is con­sid­ered one of the most dan­ger­ous high­ways in the world and the most avalanche prone in the lower 48. There have been nu­mer­ous fa­tal­i­ties, but thank­fully with bet­ter fore­cast­ing, the con­struc­tion of a snow shed, and fre­quent road clo­sures, no plow driv­ers have died since 1992. And these are just the road­side risks! The San Juans are in­fa­mous for an un­sta­ble, faceted snow layer from early-sea­son snow­falls—ask a lo­cal or check in with the Colorado Avalanche In­for­ma­tion Cen­ter be­fore head­ing into the back­coun­try.

There are six dis­tinct named ice-climb­ing ar­eas, in­clud­ing Du­rango, Sil­ver­ton, Tel­luride, Ou­ray, Lake City, and Wolf Creek. Tel­luride is home to Bridal Veil Falls (WI5), at 365 feet Colorado’s tallest free-fall­ing wa­ter­fall. When Jeff Lowe and Mike Weiss claimed the first as­cent in 1974, the route achieved in­stant, Ever­est-like sta­tus. The impact was as rad­i­cal as Alex Hon­nold free solo­ing El Cap.

Dur­ing this pe­riod, ver­ti­cal ice was barely con­sid­ered pos­si­ble and climbers of­ten rested on their tools to place the pound-in ice pro­tec­tion. But Lowe and Weiss climbed the over­hang­ing Bridal Veil all free, on­sight, us­ing pro­to­type ice pitons de­signed not to frac­ture the brit­tle medium. As Lowe re­calls, “We were amazed at our suc­cess when we reached the top; we now knew we would never have to con­sider any ice climb in terms of aid.” Ac­cept­ing that the skills gained

climb­ing smaller ob­jec­tives in turn al­low for greater alpine pro­fi­ciency, speed, and stamina, this as­cent al­tered the vi­sion of alpin­ism through­out the world. Lowe and Weiss climbed the 3,500-foot Grand Cen­tral Couloir (5.9 A2 WI5) on Mount Kitch­ener in Canada the fol­low­ing year, and in 1976 Nick Colton and Alex Mac­In­tyre climbed the 3,800-foot north face couloir on the Grandes Jo­rasses (M6 A3 WI6). Ver­ti­cal ice on big alpine faces was no longer im­pos­si­ble.

Another ice pi­o­neer from the 1970s, Michael Kennedy, de­scribes his time in the San Juans thusly: “It was an ex­cit­ing time to be fer­ret­ing out new routes: Most of the ob­vi­ous lines hadn't yet been done, and ver­ti­cal ice was still con­sid­ered hard. Wool was the soft shell of the day; Gore-Tex hadn’t been in­vented; ice tools and pro­tec­tion were prim­i­tive. And we were young, caught up in a feel­ing that our ad­ven­tures were un­prece­dented.” Kennedy com­pleted the first as­cent of the super-clas­sic Ames Ice Hose (WI5) and Kennedy’s Gully (WI4), among oth­ers.

AS EN­TRANC­ING AS ICE CLIMB­ING IS, when you stop to think about it, it’s also silly. Imag­ine a tod­dler hav­ing a tantrum, arms and legs kick­ing and hit­ting. At­tach cram­pons, ice tools, and a hel­met, and voilà—a com­plete skill set. It is also dan­ger­ous and un­pre­dictable. As long­time Colorado climber Pete Takeda ex­plains, “Ice pro­vides an edge, a risk—like us­ing live ammo in a war game.” Given all this, I some­times won­der if I shouldn’t just hang up my alpen­stock.

Ac­cord­ing to Mark Twain, “The alpen­stock is (a tourist’s) tro­phy; his name is burned upon it; and if he has climbed a hill, or jumped a brook, or tra­versed a brick­yard with it, he has the names of those places burned upon it, too.” My own would be in­scribed with San Juan gems like Ames Ice Hose, The Seven Year Itch, Stair­way to Heaven, and Trea­sure Falls. Each climb has been hard-won, con­jur­ing mem­o­ries of the metal­lic taste of fear af­ter fight­ing through a pump, des­per­ately over-grip­ping past a no-fall zone. Clip­ping the be­lay and lean­ing into the soli­tude, feel­ing small within the tow­er­ing peaks like a sailor in the crow’s nest. Em­brac­ing that fiery, nau­se­at­ing rush of blood back into my fin­gers af­ter tam­ing a frozen mon­ster.

For­tu­nately, how­ever, not all of the San Juans’ ice climbs are fe­ro­cious beasts. There are also plen­ti­ful and eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble sin­gle-pitch op­por­tu­ni­ties at Cas­cade Creek and the farmed Lake City Ice Park and Ou­ray Ice Park, the venue for the Ou­ray Ice Fes­ti­val, again the brain­child of Jeff Lowe. Eas­ily toproped and just sec­onds from the car, its only short­com­ing is over­crowd­ing.

Sil­ver­ton hosts the pop­u­lar 900-foot Stair­way to Heaven (WI4), lo­cated in a side gully within a deep val­ley. There is po­ten­tial avalanche hazard here, both on the ap­proach slope from the high peaks above and as you cross wind-loaded slabs on the de­scent. Du­rango has the clas­sic 100-foot Haflin Creek Pil­lar (WI4–5), hang­ing from vi­brantly red sand­stone, and the quaint Cas­cade Creek, which spawned mixed climb­ing in the mid-1990s. It was in this quiet box canyon that the then-un­known young climbers Bill Gam­ble, Travis Spitzer, and Jared Og­den trained and were then able to dom­i­nate early ice com­pe­ti­tions like the X Games in Vail. In 2004, Og­den and Ryan Nel­son es­tab­lished the cut­ting-edge Jedi Mind Tricks (M13) in a re­mote cave above Lake City. More re­cently, caves such as the Hall of Jus­tice above Ou­ray pro­vide dry tool­ing, or D-rated, routes with long over­hangs, ac­ro­batic fig­ure-4 moves, and no ice at all. Lo­cated in a cirque 4,000 feet be­low the sur­round­ing moun­tain­scape, the toen of Sil­ver­ton

DANIKA GIL­BERT AND STEVE SU ON PITCH 2 OF AMES ICE HOSE ( WI5), UNCOMPAHGRE NA­TIONAL FOR­EST. FA: Lou Daw­son, Steve Shea, and Michael Kennedy, 1976 The park­ing for Ames Ice Hose is next to the Ames Power Sta­tion, built in 1891 and the first hy­dro­elec­tric sta­tion to pro­duce com­mer­cial AC power. If you’re se­ri­ous about Ames, get there in the dark, as climb­ing be­hind another party is a bad idea on this nar­row chute. We were lucky enough in Jan­uary 2017 to find no one. The ice was thick enough for screws on the first pitch, so we avoided the M6 start. The main en­ter­tain­ment oc­curred right af­ter I took this im­age of Danika. Danika is self-ef­fac­ing to a fault: You’d be hard-pressed to learn she’s led most of the hard, clas­sic ice routes in the San Juans and guided a group of Afghan girls up a re­mote 16,500-foot peak, which they named Lion Daugh­ters’ Peak, in a war-torn land that does not ac­cept in­de­pen­dent women. She is super solid. That day, I tried to ju­mar my icy static line. Ten feet up, 10 feet down. Even­tu­ally, I just an­chored to a mid-pitch be­lay and waited for Steve and Danika to re­trieve me on the way down.

JOSH SMITH CLIMB­ING CAS­CADE FALLS ( WI4), OU­RAY. FA: Un­known Josh and I met when we were just five years old, run­ning through a corn­field play­ing hide- and- seek at a com­mu­nity potluck in our home­town of Celo, North Carolina. He now lives in Los Alamos, New Mex­ico, and we are still each other’s first pick for ad­ven­tures. He climbs ice like the Ter­mi­na­tor, me­thod­i­cal and un­de­terrable. Fac­ing south, Cas­cade Falls rarely forms— so start early. For­tu­nately, the scenic am­phithe­ater that houses the climb is only min­utes from town— a quick two pitches and back to re­al­ity! Josh’s as­cent was note­wor­thy for the sev­eral spicy patches of barely bonded, lower- an­gled ice that re­quired him to place pro­tec­tion on the steep sec­tions rather than at the more cus­tom­ary mel­low stances.

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