I’d heard bits of Ouray lore ever since I’d begun reading ice climbing and mountaineering adventure stories a year and a half prior.
It was, apparently, the place to go ice climbing in Colorado. Its maze of man-made frozen waterfalls between 50 and 150 feet high (formed by pumping water off the canyon tops via faucet-looking contraptions on their ridges) provide the backdrop for the world-renowned Ouray Ice Festival, which attracts aspiring and accomplished ice climbers from around the world with its clinics and competitions for a few days every January. In short, it’s a winter-lover’s paradise. And luckily for our group of thirteen city-inundated twenty-something outdoor aficionados, the snow-draped spires and craggy faces of Ouray, Colorado was precisely where our capable navy blue van was headed.
Well, capable enough except for our prior legendary foray into the wilds of the lands west of Denver. Our outdoor adventure club, based at the university I attend in Denver, had been headed to Utah for some pleasant hanging off canyon cliffs. The trip felt legendary, anyway, until we spun out descending a blustery mountain pass going five miles an hour on the way there. After a second unintentional spin I resolved that icy roads were not my thing. Come to think of it, icy ski slopes I’m not so fond of, either, as my petite snowboard doesn’t fare so well on them, and I’ve experienced numerous calamitous mishaps merely trying to shuffle across ice-strewn ground outside my residence. In fact, I got to thinking, ice really isn’t something that’s desirable at all—as far as I was concerned, an unfortunate byproduct of the melted variety of the best thing in the world, which is snow.
But our pursuits on this particular trip would be different in that ice would be our friend—something that would actually help us to succeed in the seemingly outlandish activity we would be partaking in, which was, of course, ice climbing.
Poring over mountaineering and ice climbing disaster stories over the previous year and a half had left me not so much afraid, but intrigued. I’ve always considered the unpredictable, the formidable, especially concerning scenic vistas, fascinating. These things were on my mind our first morning, as I stood assembled among the other members of our group outside of our lodge surrounded by towering rock faces and freshly snow-draped mountain crests, awaiting a demonstration on how to fit crampons (spiked footwear frames that allow for remarkable traction on ice) to our footwear.
I confess I deem these spike-studded apparatuses rather cool. Once I got used to them—how they fused each step to the snowy earth like glue—the going was smooth and effortless. This fickle thing called ice, I thought to myself, I could finally handle. I loved how these contraptions bestowed the magical ability to walk on snow and ice without eating it, while simultaneously looking exceptionally badass. No matter if I knew what I was doing so long as I looked like I knew what I was doing.
Our destination for our first day out was the “Kids Wall,” a 40 foot-high WI 2-grade rising sheet of water ice above the ice park proper, a fusion of alternating short vertical bubbly-looking ice portions and snow-sprinkled ledges. The water ice (abbreviated WI) grading system (differentiated from alpine ice and mixed ice grading systems) extends from WI 1, essentially a casual walk on ice, to WI 7, defined as vertical or overhanging climbing, and very strenuous. In some of the more challenging spots on the Kids Wall, WI 2+ or 3 probably would have been an apt rating, but despite its looming presence to us first-timers, it was not a technically difficult climb as far as ice goes (hence the name). Given my competitive side, I was discouraged by my first go at it as I fell several times, and had a lot of trouble even getting my ice axe picks to stick into the ice (not the most pleasant feeling, losing both your pick placements unexpectedly).
A short tutorial by one of our guides on how to properly swing an ice axe helped. The trick is, in addition to bringing your arm forward, to flick your wrist at the last moment as to give the axe enough momentum to drive the pick point in. Once I could actually acquire good pick placements it all seemed to make more sense—the swing of the axes, bringing the knees up, kicking into the ice or stepping on a modest ice ledge, then do it again. I began to see the process as a methodical sequence of movements. Reach as high as possible, flick the picks in, bring your feet up, repeat, repeat. Every time an ice axe stuck, each deliberate placement of crampon points brought a quiet satisfaction, like a pleasing sentence written to a writer, or a photographer choosing just the right moment to press the shutter. Each attempt up the wall I tried a new route, and at the risk of sounding dramatic my third and final lap went so well that after getting to the top I couldn’t recall a moment of the climb up, as if it were a dream.
Our second day, we took on the challenge of rappelling, defined as dropping off of something steep from the top while having full control of your descent by managing the rope yourself. As I’d discovered from rappelling in the rock climbing I’d recently taken up, the initial step over the edge can be rather frightening as it’s the moment between the safety of being on solid ground and committing to leaving it. Stepping off the edge is an act that goes against everything your instincts are telling you, as well as their very purpose. And the only thing stopping you from what every bit of your psyche is telling you will happen is a long piece of nylon slenderer than your finger.
If we gave into fear the way that our instincts scream at us to, we wouldn’t drive, or even leave our houses. So the trick, at least for me, is to move one’s attention away from fear and onto the activity at hand, climbing and you and the ice. Pulling off this fear managing business is easier once you’ve completely committed—after having stepped off the edge in my crampons, the ground beckoning 40 feet below, fear morphs into exhilaration, and you come to realize and respect the fine line between fear and awe. Poised alongside the ice wall, my gaze following it to its base fifty feet below my crampon spikes, I got the sense that this was about as unusual an experience as they come, and perhaps it’s its rare uniqueness that makes it so extraordinary.
I’d already established that I liked ice climbing more than rock climbing. Maybe it was the cold part, as I’ve always loved the snow and ice. Or maybe the variable aspects of the climb, instead of the (relative) dependable stability of rock. Whatever it was, I’d determined that I liked it.
Our last day we were set to take on the big guns, the scenic ice falls plunging down the sides of the long gorge that stretched from one end of the ice park to the other. This was the real deal, as I saw it, the real ice climbs. Ranging from 80 to 150 feet in height, they streak up the icy gorge walls, from the relatively easy beginner climbs in areas like the “Schoolroom,” “Graduate School,” and the “Cafeteria” near the uppermost end of the canyon, to the positively sinister routes far off in the depths of the winding chasm (with appropriate corresponding appellations, of course, my favorite being “Sunscream”). My two roommates and I were set on the “looking good” whether-or-not-we-actually-knew-what-we-were-doing approach when considering our options of locations for our first canyon route, intent on climbing somewhere with optimum photographic prospects. We were lucky enough that the guide who had decided to come with us, Dani, brought us to a formidable and quite beautiful 120-foot WI 3+ route in optimal viewing (and picture-snapping) proximity to one of the main bridges of the park seventy-or-so feet away.
I volunteered to go first, and was made aware by Dani, who would be belaying me from the top, that I needn’t go all of the way to the canyon floor, and could stop any time I wanted. The important thing was that I didn’t go down further than I believed I could climb up, because while there was an exit out a quarter of a mile up the winding canyon floor, the going could be rough. Besides, it would be difficult to communicate with Dani, who couldn’t see me and who’s only real means of gathering information on what was going on down there was the feel of the rope. The idea was that when I wanted to stop dropping down the ice cliff I would swing my ice picks in. A loose rope on Dani’s end would mean I’d secured myself to the ice and begun climbing. A sudden tautness would indicate I’d fallen.
Which was, of course, not exactly what I’d had in mind for my first jaunt up a gargantuan, epic ice cliff (with a few spectators from our group, including my trusty roommates with cameras at the ready, perched on the bridge). I also resolved that I would avoid leaning back on the rope to rest at all costs, as that’s not cool, either. For better or for worse, expectations of my abilities soaring as they were, I envisioned myself sending the thing in one fell swoop.
As I sat back and pushed off swells of dimple-pitted ice with my crampons while Dani lowered me, adjusting for the occasional ledge or chandelier of icicles, I couldn’t help but marvel at my surroundings. The silence, the cold, the vast empty space around me, and of course, the waves and waves of azure ice. I was so taken by it all, in fact, that for a time I forgot that I would have to climb up everything that I was passing on my way down. A sudden vision of my dreadfully-out-of-shape self gasping and exhausted beyond comprehension with 70 feet to go snapped me back to reality, and suddenly 120 feet, three times the height of the Kids Wall and with a route at higher difficulty, registered as the extraordinarily dubious undertaking that it was. 30 feet from the bottom, 90 from the top, I swung in my ice picks.
The first thing I noticed once I had the chance to get sorted on the wall was a profound feeling of isolation about the place. And it wasn’t so much my distance from the others (90 feet from Dani and even further from my audience on the bridge) that prompted it—rather, for the first time in my life, I knew with certainty that there was almost nothing anyone else could do to help me if I found trouble. I had to climb up this thing. I was committed.
The first forty feet, despite the steeper angle than I was used to (almost vertical in spots), went fairly smoothly. But the climbing after that was trying on my tired lungs unaccustomed to regular exercise of late, and aching hands that grew almost too sore to bear after maintaining a zealous grip on the axe handles for twenty minutes. My goggle lenses began to exist in a state of unremitting foggy, severely obscuring my vision, and before long I was losing my pick and crampon point placements with alarming reliability.
Fortunately for me, now 80 feet above the canyon floor as I was, the rope is also quite dependable, and I knew this. So, my guard a touch town, the frustration coursing through me whilst trying for ten minutes to no avail to climb over a dead-vertical stretch next to an ice chandelier drove out any fear that was there before.
Our group’s film of choice the night before our first day on the ice, Vertical Limit, had been gripping enough when I’d last seen it as an adventure-starved thirteen year-old. But while the outlandishness and remarkable bad luck of the characters permeating every scene had somehow evaded my whimsical thirteen year-old psyche, it was ever so apparent now, ten years later. So-much-so, in fact, that the film actually calmed the apprehension that had begun to take shape over the days leading up to the trip. I dozed off during the key climactic scene, and would have been utterly bewildered having missed the crucial part of the film had I not seen it before.
So it was, whilst inching my aggrieved way up the technically demanding vertical ice to the left of the chandelier with five-foot icicles hanging down, that the precarious position of the rope reaching from over the feature seven feet to my right didn’t quite make it to the consideration stage of my thoughts. And with a blurry white jumble for a view and dreadful vertical water ice placements for my feet, I lost both axe points and fell backwards, swinging back and to the right in a neat arc. With neck craned over my shoulder, I watched in irritated relinquishment as I hurtled with frightening speed towards the very feature I’d been dotingly photographing from the ledge underneath just ten minutes prior.
So much for looking cool.
As I dangled there, now unintentionally one with the very chandelier I’d at one time admired, watching with passive interest as chunks of the icicles I’d just slammed into plunged to the canyon floor 80 feet below and shattered like porcelain teacups, I didn’t much think at all. As the tinkling flurry of echoes filled my ears, my world, I just felt. Profoundly frustrated, but even more so, awed. Awed at where I was at that very moment, what I’d been trying to accomplish on this wall and on this trip, the excellent recap material I was now in possession of (No joke, swung into an ice chandelier!).
But most of all, I was amazed at how hanging there, eons above the ground and ages away from everything that is predictable and safe in this world, I didn’t feel turned off from all this.
But hooked – absolutely.