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Checking in from the Condor's Nest on Illimani, Bolivia. MM Collection
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February 3, 2010

Ice Climbing in Ouray, Mountain Madness Style!

Special thanks to MM client Andres Cardona, who wrote this guest post for us!

Sometimes in our lives we all catch a break and call it good timing, but sometimes its brilliant timing. 

That would be the case in my recent trip to Colorado, where not only did I get to enjoy the 15th annual Ouray Ice Climbing festival, but also learn firsthand the techniques of the trade from Mountain Madness guide David Ahrens, in a 3 day Ice climbing school, follow by a weekend of skiing and snowboarding with friends from Tampa. So yeah, the timing, it was more than good.

The famous Ouray Ice Climbing Festival, a small gathering of elite climbers and fans from all over the globe, come together to compete, hold seminars , gear expo, and dress up in funny superhero costumes to party it up, in an area of the San Juan mountains known as “Little Switzerland” . Here you can rub shoulders with some of the most elite climbers in the world such as Steve House, Will Gadd and the always comical Timmy O’Neil. Don’t believe me when I say his comical? Check out his presentation from the festival:

After a weekend full of shenanigans, beer, and watching professional ice climbers do their thing, it was my turn to drop down the canyon and hit the ice…literally. Ouray has the largest ice park in the US; The Box Canyon was practically built for this stuff, if god could puke ice, this is what it would look like, and with almost 200 routes, it’s a climber’s nonstop playground. 

My adventures with David started early Monday morning following the festival, after picking me up from the hotel it was one quick stop to the outfitters to pick up the rental gear, and we were soon making our way to the farthest area of the park known as South Park, where all the routes have been named after South Park episodes (Kenny Dies, Cartman’s Anal Probe, Towelie).

Here, beginners can focus on their footing and ice tools placement techniques, gradually moving to more intermediate routes. With a day full of sunshine, and the crowds from the festival all gone, it was time to follow David and start climbing.

The first route was fairly easy and enjoyable, so much so it was a confidence booster, that had me guessing what was the big deal of the festival to begin with?(ok, maybe not that much, but you get the point).

Either way the Colorado native David had something up his sleeve for this Floridian. The next route started out with a WI4+ almost vertical 10m wall, yeah reality check.

"Floridian?"

"Here."

While slowly making my way up this wall of ice, nearing the top, and very clearly remembering David mention something about never lose your tools, bang! I lose footing and slip, leaving both of my tools firmly set on ice, a meter above me. Did I mention it’s almost impossible to hold on to water ice with your bare hands? Believe me I tried. 

The best thing was to be lowered down, borrow David’s ice tools and go back up after my rental ones, cause as the saying goes … “no tools no game, no game no fun”. After rescuing my rental tools, I was beat, the wall had won, but I would come back for revenge. Wall: 1, Floridian: 0.

The rest of the day was going over placing protection, proper climbing techniques, swinging of the ice tools and climbing multiple routes along South Park. After a full first day it was time to head back into town for some beers and snacks with David at the local Irish pub. 

Muscle memory likes to sleep, and it showed. The next day, it was back to the park for more beginner/ intermediate routes along the New Funtier area, where the training from the previous day really started to show. The swings and the kicks were becoming more efficient, making for steadier enjoyable climbing. During lunch David and I started talking of what would be the graduation route for the next day; it had to be something in the backcountry, preferably long, and preferably hard.

It was set the WI4/WI5 horsetail would be. It was a bit worrisome not knowing what I was getting myself into, but exciting none the less. Plus with a name like horsetail how bad could it be? I mean, if it was called, I will eat your babies for breakfast, then I might have said something, but in this case I think I’ll just go along for the ride. Actually I think I’ll name my first route I get to lead, I will eat your babies for breakfast, and it’ll be a WI2. Now I just got to find a frozen waterfall that looks like a cereal bowl. It’s out there, I’m sure. 

After lunch it was time to head out to a beautiful area of the park named The Scottish Gullies. Not for the claustrophobic, the gullies turn as they taper at the top, for some great chimney climbing, right as you top out. Here David and I got to practice multi-pitch transitioning, required for longer routes such as horsetail. The gullies were fun; actually the gullies were a lot of fun, and not too technical to be exact. Another route that David suggested was The Boat Ramp, right alongside the lower bridge. It’s a bit of a technical route for me, I thought, but the lure of the challenge and of its ice chandeliers drove me in. 

Oh, there’s one thing about this route though said David. “You cannot drop your tools here!

“You see, there’s an expose unfrozen creek running right below this route, if you drop your tools, you’ll be fishing for them …” this comment made me second guest the notion of climbing this route at all. Minutes later after topping out on the gullies again, we come across a friend of David, and he is looking for the magical and majestically Magnet on a stick. David’s friend was just climbing the Boat Ramp, and dropped one of his tools onto the creek, and it’s such a common problem that the local outfitter has attached a large magnet to a broom stick, to help climbers fish for their tools.

After hearing about this incident we decided to avoid the creek expose Boat Ramp and finish the day in the Scottish Gullies. It was another great day of climbing in Ouray.

Last day of climbing in Ouray; I was excited knowing that it was going to be a long day.

Pulling up to the curb, nearing the Horsetail trail, we notice a jeep already parked by the trailhead, “shuu, theirs climbers on the route already” I mention to Dave, “let’s go check it out”.

The climbers were just setting up belay for their first pitch, so we had to give them some time before following them up the route. “Let’s go back to the park, and do some warm up climbs” said David in a nonchalant way. I agreed, as I had my eyes set on that WI4+ wall, and getting my revenge.

After two days of training, the wall was fairly easy and straight forward. Just comprehending key climbing points such as, steady small steps up, minimizing the number of swings and climbing as high as you can on your set tools, really maximizing efficiency is the name of the game; makes things a lot easier and enjoyable. Wall: 1, Floridian: 2.

Now back at the Horsetail trailhead again, and we could not believe that after almost 2 hours the other climbers were only 1/3 of the way up the route! “That’s slower that malaises” exclaimed Dave, “let’s go somewhere else”. A short drive away and I found myself walking up a dirt road, where it was nothing but ice climbing routes after ice climbing routes. Dave could not help himself, and was pointing out all the popular routes. “That over there is The Ribbon”; “this is Skylight, a very wet Skylight to be exact.”

Some of the routes we already being climbed, some even had professional photo shoot going on, nice 

Place for a studio, I thought. Eventually we walk into other guides and friends of Dave, they had just finished doing a route, and after chatting for a bit, we naturally pick that same route. 

Slippery When Wet. Having some fat ice, and an easy first pitch, we quickly gear up, and start climbing. After belaying for Dave on the second pitch and avoiding falling ice the size of small TVs, it was my turn to climb. The second pitch was a lot trickier, slippery when wet indeed; as cold blue water drips down the ice, onto your ice tools, soaking your gloves and hands, and with the temperature in the teens; it could be numbing at times. 

Above the second pitch, it’s an open area with lots of sun exposure, making the ice thin, very thin in this case, and wet. Climbing and slowly gaining weight, as I’m cleaning all the protection left by Dave, all the ice screws, biners and runners eventually become a noticeable weight on my right hip. 2 short but hard WI4/WI5 climbs, some broken icicles, chandeliers and I find myself at the top of the route. Wow. Needed that rest badly. Now it’s just a matter of setting up for a repel (the fun part), and within matter of minutes we were both down by the curb side again, cleaning up the gear, and chatting up with the other climbers. Soon we were back in the pub again, beer and wings this time, sharing stories and climbing pointers. Ouray, what a climbing experience! A gemstone of a town, with ice routes for Jewels.