Winter has come to a close here in Colorado. That doesn’t mean we’re hanging up the tools – I’ve been ice climbing in RMNP as late as mid-June – but it does signify a change, a time to slow down and look back. We had a cold winter this year, and I put together a quality ice season.
This is not usually this type of blog, but since I didn’t write about a great many of these climbs, we’re just gonna wrap them all up here.
- Days Out (so far): 41
- Number of unique partners: 12
- Number of unique regions visited: 8
- Favorite venue: Rocky Mountain National Park (12 days)
Top Partners (by # of days out together):
- Meg K.
- Aaron G.
- Lacee A.
- Enrico C.
- The Fang, WI5, Vail
- All Mixed Up, WI4, 4 pitches, Rocky Mountain National Park
- Brain Freeze, M5+, 8 pitches, Rocky Mountain National Park
- Enter the Dragon, M4, 6 pitches, Rocky Mountain National Park
- Stairway to Heaven, 7 pitches, WI4, Silverton
- Skylight, 2 pitches, WI4+, Ouray
A very colorful crew in Hyalite Canyon, Montana. We spent a week up here.
There is no huge narrative to this winter; not an easy story to tell. We climbed a lot; some of us more than others, but most folks I know had strong seasons, embracing the cold and bitter January in which we did not see the sun — very unusual winter weather for Colorado, where normally even in the cold, you see the blue skies and feel the solar radiation.
Advancing confidence and experience this year gave me the ability to lead some more intimidating climbs, including The Fang, an iconic freestanding pillar in Vail which formed this year for the first time in my ice climbing career (it’s been a short career, by many people’s standards).
Me leading the Fang (foreground). As you can see in this photo, I even had the privilege of having a professional photographer shooting down at me (coincidence, not planned). He’s hoping to sell the photos – and I think he’ll have some luck doing so – so I won’t share ’em here. With luck, you’ll see me show up in a guidebook, climbing mag, or somewhere cooler!
Ironically, I had backed off leading this climb the day before because I didn’t want to do it with an audience. However, an audience is hard to avoid in the Vail amphitheater, a place I’d define as is the center of the Front Range ice climbing and drytool scene. And the Fang sits smack in the middle of the amphitheater. So you’re pretty much gonna have eyes on you, regardless.
Speaking of drytooling, more time was spent doing that this year than ever before. Drytooling = climbing rock with ice tools and crampons, for those not in the know.
This happened both outdoors, at places like the Vail amphitheater and in Hyalite Canyon, Montana, as well as at the place pictured above: The Ice Coop. The Ice Coop is Boulder’s indoor drytooling gym, one of only a couple commercial gyms which exist in the USA. Drytooling is such a niche sport that training spaces are usually cobbled together in someone’s backyard.
Nonetheless, here in Boulder we have a commercial gym – and that is a nice option. Several Team USA climbers train here, but you also get an interesting mix of college kids, old-timers, hard-core alpinists and general chuffers coming through.
Ice Coop enthusiast Aaron G, pictured stuck in I-70 traffic.
I started learning a bit more about drytooling this year because I wanted to do more alpine mixed climbs – mountain routes which involve both technical ice climbing and sections of vertical rock. This is the real-deal stuff, in my opinion. Big girl climbing. If you can snow, ice and rock climb, you can deal with anything you encounter on a mountain.
Rocky Mountain National Park offers a ton of this scrappy, mixed rock-and-ice climbing, making it my favorite venue for local adventure. Any day out in Rocky is likely to be a serious affair, involving long hikes, nasty wind, and deep snow. You will get spanked here almost as often as you’re successful, if you are being ambitious.
Some days are simply spent scouting.
While on others, you have to commit to the climb even if the conditions are less than favorable — partners that want to do stuff like this aren’t too readily available, and the day of the climb is set in advance.
Approaching on skis makes your life a lot easier in Rocky – and your descent much quicker. Enrico and I have a habit of skiing out in the dark though, which is less than ideal. Here, he selects his weapons in the Bear Lake parking lot.
Overall, the adventure factor is insanely high in Rocky. High commitment, high altitude, and long scrappy routes offer a true mountaineering playground, for those who are willing to walk, and look, off the beaten path. Here, I am puzzling out the crux roof on Brain Freeze (M5+). The protection is a #11 hex slotted in the icy roof crack.
Rocky offers some pure ice climbs too, although not as many as you might expect. Pictured here, Jaws (WI4). This climb lies at a low elevation and faces south, so Colorado’s strong winter sun usually fries it. The sustained cold weather kept this climb formed for six weeks this winter – I climbed it twice, about a month apart. You can see the growth from one photo to the next — although surprisingly, it was safer in the left configuration. By the time we returned for a second go-round, sun had aerated the ice and essentially detached it from the wall – the whole thing boomed like a drum if you swung in the wrong spots.
Ouray, Lake City, & Silverton
Besides RMNP, Southwestern Colorado is the other great ice climbing spot in CO. There you can find the Ouray Ice Park, the Lake City Ice Park, and the badass backcountry zone of Eureka (Silverton). Here you can get high mileage on vertical and varied ice.
I wrote a trip report about some of the climbing I did down here on Medium, you can find it here: Ouray and Silverton Ice Climbing.
$10 if you can guess Katie’s favorite color.
I also took a second trip to Lake City, later in the season with Katie M. from Portland. Katie’s a crazy character; we had a good time although heavy snow and high avalanche conditions kept us mostly limited to the Lake City Ice Park.
There are worse places to be stuck, certainly.
A really excellent, successful winter in ice climbing terms. My only regrets are catching the flu in November and catching Covid in March, both of which resulted in missing pretty significant chunks of time from the climbing season. The flu, honestly, was far more severe than the covid. Don’t catch the flu.
I’m pleased not only with my season but with the progress made by my partners as well — several partners took big steps towards their own personal goals.
While many friends were complaining about the weather and the gloomy winter, we made use of it. We aren’t done yet, not totally. But it felt like time to wrap it up and look back – otherwise I would never write this post!
Photos are mostly mine, with exception:
*Me leading Fang, photo by Sylwia H.
*Me drytooling on King Cobra, photo by Meg K.
*Me leading Brain Freeze, photo by Enrico C.
*Lake City, photos by Katie M.
*Me leading Skylight, photo Meg K.
And although this post focuses mainly on the big, remarkable climbs, it’s important to remember: even the small days are fun!
(And margs are mandatory).
Until the next one!
4 thoughts on “Ice Season 2022-2023”
Well Dan, you almost made we want to join you in your crazy coldness…
You don’t want no part of this shit!
Great post for a great season (we’ll still get some more in before the dreaded summer)! It’s been awesome to watch you progress so much so quickly, and you’ve done so with humility and safety. Thanks for sharing a rope with me, and for being there to push me and give me confidence when I needed it 🙂
on the other end of the spectrum of climbing skills, I enjoy your posts, and this one in particular, as for me, your description of what is special, gives meaning reaches the level of philosophising, naturally; and this post, for me does so, more than others, or maybe I am just more open to the meaning of/beyond your descriptions than before.Thanks for writing. Keep writing, and climbing, of course. Narrative may not b what matters when all is said and done but, as my favourite philosopher says, the intensity of the experience.