Text and pictures © 2000-2023 Guillaume Dargaud
Last updated on 2021/11/05
"Head for the Mountains." — Anheuser-Busch beer commercial.
Left: Brad ice climbing on Mixed Feelings, Loch Vale, Rocky Mountain National Park.
Right: Trey on an ice overhang, Loch Vale, Rocky Mountain National Park
I arrived in Colorado in November with my bike and my ice tools, a couple weeks before Jenny. Well, almost since the bike got lost on the flight. On my first WE I hooked up with Brad, a local, and he took me ice climbing at Loch Vale, in Rocky Mountain National Park. It had been 2 years since my last ice climbing and I was not too confident in my all new ice gear, but the good dry ice made me feel good right away. Nothing like the wet stuff of the Apennines or the crowded lines of the Alps. Sure there were many parties, but there were even more routes available. The ice was very 'shaped' with holes, hooks and so many natural holds that it was possible to climb some sections without tools ! We finished the day on Mixed Feelings (M5), a route that starts by a long hand traverse on a good crack, then a rock overhang to finish on a steep thin ice climb protected by a lone piton.
Right: Ice climbing in Ouray, last (small) pitch of Horsetail falls (WI4 II), SW Colorado.
We went back to Loch Vale several times and climbed some other waterfalls in the Park, like the very nice All Mixed Up (WI4) with its very thin (but easy) first pitch but its heinous approach in deep snow covered bushes. Well, at least for once it was nice to be the 2nd party up the approach...
As soon as our first vacation time hit (which was only a month after our arrival, for Christmas) we went to the world famous Ouray ice park. Imagine a valley almost right in the city where they put water hose that they let drip at night. A continuous curtain of ice forms on both sides of the valley for hundred of meters. And the longest 'artificial' waterfalls are complemented by several multi-pitch natural lines higher up in the mountains. The town is small and friendly to ice climbers (their main resource during the winter), hotels rather cheap and local beer's good. Those artificial lines are so amazing that I soon gave up leading and instead top roped pillar after overhang, brittle column after thin curtain... After a couple days we were so tired of pulling on our tools that we did some backcountry skiing in the nearby San Juan mountains.
Left: Ice climbing in Ouray, SW Colorado.
Right: Setting up our cold winter camp at night.
December 17 2002, Brad (yeah that same rec.climber Brandewie who always start flame wars when he's drunk too much and sees snakes) sends me an email: "I've got a reservation for camping at Black Lake, you gotta come, it's gonna be fun...". Mmmmh, a quick phone call to Lisa in Estes Park: "It's [censored] cold up here, I froze a couple toes just walking downtown !". The weather page shows something like -30°C. The Internet was supposedly able to withstand a nuclear war, but can it give accurate temperatures when it's that cold ?
So I reply with a half hearted "yes!" hoping that the email will lose itself along the way. Back home I break to news to Jenny who starts pilling up the gear right away... OK, wait a minute, why not take the down suits out of the mothballs ? We bought those for the Cho-Oyu expedition and only ever used them above 7000m. We get them out and try them on: "You think you can climb ice with those ?" "I guess, I only hope no one sees us...". We look like two fat Santas with those huge red Valandre suits.
Left: Jenny warmly dressed in an integral down suit.
Friday evening, we meet Brad and his partner Jason on the parking lot in Loveland and drive to the Rocky Mountain National Park together. He seems less eager and although it's already getting dark he wants to fatten up with fast food in Estes Park before we eat the trail. He's even sick in the car and accuses either the fast food / my driving / his last night binge or his past girlfriend while we all know he's just not too eager to go anymore... Right Brad ? Just kidding...
At the trailhead we finally pass on the suits. And although it's a dark and stormy night out there (err, sounds like the first line of a bad novel) we immediately begin to sweat. Jason carries a gigantic pack (note to self: never let Brad approach my own pack) and each time he trips on his snowshoes he disappears under the snow crushed under the weight. In the meanwhile we have to open the zipper of our suits and raise the arms and the legs in order not to stew too much.
After a couple of hours we settle for camp in the dark of night above Mills lake. Snow, wind, cold, you name it, everything is there. A huge fallen tree with its roots up in the air reminds us that it may not be such a bright idea so setup a tent next to trees that grow on 10cm of soil...
Right: Approaching the west gully from Black lake.
So we are in the tent making water and cooking when Brad goes: "Does your stove work ?" Ahem, a little technical problem. Let's just say that using a tiny screw-on stove on a butane cartridge by -20°C is not the most efficient plan. Particularly if said stove alternates between flaring and shutting off. But anyway they have other things to keep them warm in their tent...
In the bitter cold morning we just transfer from the down sleeping bag to the down suit and carry on. The ascent of the West Gully above Black Lake is uneventful. Neither wind nor snow nor cold nor wind-drift can cool us off inside our 50 ducklings. The ice is fat and hard. A good day. Brad is climbing on the easier Black Lake Ice and tries to impress the girls with his solo prowesses. From up above we see skiers and hikers exposed to the wind in the middle of the lake. Fortunately no one saw us in our fat suits.
We get back to camp later to find Brad in our tent, in a huge cloud of vapor, making pasta, mostly on the ground of the tent. One more night of howling wind, one more day of ice climbing on an unnamed route the day after. T'was a good trip.
Left: Iced up tree, climbable or not ?
How do you get out of the fangs of a too motivated partner ? Well, that's what I wanted to know on friday evening as I got home. My half-time climbing-partner (who's my half-time wife the rest of the time) was waiting for me with a piece of paper and she started explaining that we didn't have much time to do all the climbs she wanted: "You see, the winter is almost over and there are still several waterfalls that we need to do before they melt off, then there are plenty of desert towers that we should climb before it gets too hot (after all it's not called the desert for nuthin'), then when the snow melts off a bit there will be plenty of mixed climbs to do in RMNP, then at least a week in the Wind River range, you agree dear ? Then we also have to do the Tetons and for Yosemite in Autumn I thought that at a minimum the Salathé, something on Half Dome and maybe the Steck-Salathé ? So I made this ticklist and we won't have many free WE for a while..."
Left: Jenny on the Spiral Staircase, Vail.
Right: Vertical panorama of The Fang in fat conditions, Vail.
As she was waving the list at me, I saw that the Fang was on top for this WE. Oh god, and all I could think of was getting drunk with the Irish for Saint Guinness Day. I could hardly argue my case since the gear was already packed up besides the door.
Left: A view of some of the ice available in Vail, The Rigid Designator is on the left and the Fang is on the right behind the tree. Pete Takeda is doing some insane M8 in the middle, under the broken column.
So it's saturday morning as we get to the base of the Fang in Vail, Colorado. Whoa, it's some impressive piece of ice: a 50 meters high column, fat and ripe with ice, something like 8 meter large at the base, a lot more than the pictures we'd seen. It's fairly late in the day and there are plenty of people milling about. Most of them are starting on insane grade 8 'mixed' routes without a gram of ice. With another party we both start on the Rigid Designator as a warm-up. Well, that was some warm-up, 40 meters of almost vertical ice. Beautiful ice too, and it eats up the screws. The other leader is at the same height on the left side and we don't throw ice on each others. I haven't climbed anything that hard for quite a while and instead of being a whimpering shaking hanging piece of meat on every screw, I just zap it. So does Jenny on her hardest ice climb ever. Yeah, right, it's good to think you are doing great, but there's more serious business ahead...
Left: That's me on the dry side of the Fang.
Right: Two climbers on the Rigid Designator.
I walk around the base of the Fang a few times (to conjure up the daemons ?) but it's way too wet for me (I'm all soft and sugary inside and don't want to melt). And since we are the party doing the easiest stuff around anyway, I'll just chicken out and setup a toprope. As I clean up tons of tiny icicles to try to find a good anchor for my tools at each step, I'm glad I didn't try to lead that. Oh sure, I can see a few screw holes, but the water running over them is not particularly confidence inspiring. My glasses are all wet and as the droplets turn to ice I can't see how unstable are the mushrooms on which I place my feet. Well, maybe better this way. Anyway, let's keep this story short since you aren't certainly interested in reading about dubious top-rope achievements but more about the title of this story.
Right: That's me leading thin steep ice on the Thang (WI5 M7, a year later).
Left: Jason on the Thang (a year later).
After we eat our sandwich and look at the guys fending their way though horizontal roofs on their axes I feel the emulation and want to try something like that too. Right behind the Fang there's a nice vertical flow of ice for 25 meters, dubbed The Thang. The lower part is dry overhanging rock but has a bolt. The guidebook says that the "ice may even be thick enough to place a screw or two". By now the damage is done and I'm not listening to this kind of understatement anymore. I have my axes on the first crimpers and I take a big breath... when a guy comes up and says: "be careful on this one, a guy died on it earlier this year ! He was from Fort Collins." [NDA: we live in FC too]. I look at Jenny and she gives me those eyes like Bambi asking his mother not to go ask directions to the hunter... Added to the fact that this is an M7 and I've only ever lead a few fives... And the guy next to us on toprope just fell off and planted his axe in his forehead with blood all over. So, ahem, anything else to do around here ?
Right: Jenny behind curtain of ice at the base of the Spiral Staircase.
Left: That's me leading an unusual dry start of the Spiral Staircase (normally WI3/4), a year later.
Right: Jason doing some desperate dry tooling on Secret Probation (WI5+ M7) while another party fights off the dry start of the usually easy Spiral Staircase.
There's an easier grade 3/4 to finish off the day, a bit to the left. So we pack up and hike the short distance to the Spiral Staircase (WI3/4). The base forms a thin curtain with holes in it. I get some ideas of pictures and slip behind with my camera, asking Jenny to take poses so I can see her face and her axes through the ice. Then I look down and... there's a condom on the ground. The ensuing conversation went something like that:
— hew, disgusting
— guess someone must have screwed here
— who'd want to screw on the ice ?
— look, there's also a screw
— oh yes, and it's a bran new Black Diamond too
— you think they used the condom to protect their screw ?
— I hope you mean like soldiers protecting their guns from the sand in the beach attacks ?
— well, we'd better wash that screw in any case !
— shut up, I don't want to know any more !
By the way, if you had a screw on the Spiral Staircase, I DON'T want to hear about it !
Right: Notchtop from Two-Rivers Lake. Grace falls is behind the trees, right above Jenny.
Left: Jenny on the longest section of Grace falls (about 30m)
Right: Brad on lead in the middle of Grace Falls
Left: That's me on some hard dry-tooling M7 or M8 on the right of Grace Falls. And we found two screws and some gear at the top of that route.
Right: A view of Grace Falls with Notchtop in the background.
Left: That'd be me on lead on a split free-standing column at Lincoln Falls. Great conditions.
Right: Jenny threading on thin ice on this mixed climb up Lincoln Falls.
Left: The classic Stairways to Heaven (WI4) near Silverton, before a 70 minutes solo.