WI4, WI5…whatever…


I spent the better part of last week back down in Ouray trying to squeeze the last few crystals of climbable ice out of this winter season. That and I wanted to go back for a little more interaction with The Lost People (see my so-titled February post for the full story on that).

This was actually kind of a last minute trip cobbled together with Andrew and Erin. They’ve recently been accumulating some high altitude, cold-weather mountaineering gear as they prepare to climb Denali this June and this seemed like a good opportunity to “test” things out beforehand without the larger commitment. Unfortunately, and fortunately for us, the weather in Ouray was almost perfect for ice climbing and the opportunity to fully test the gear in extreme conditions never really materialized. That’s not to say it wasn’t pretty darn cold while we were standing around belaying or setting up anchors, but getting battered with wind, cold and snow to really stress the gear simply didn’t happen. As I suggested, it was a good and bad scenario.

One of the nice things about climbing late in the ice season is that many of the people who are amped to climb during prime season start thinking of summer and warm weather endeavours and are nowhere to be found. That leaves a few folks like the three of us who are left to milk out the last dribbles of frozen goodness.

Funny thing about this ice season in particular is that I’ve sort of felt like an ultra-marathoner running a 5k race. And being an ultrarunner, there is more than just a little bit of irony in that statement. Just when I was able to wake up, get into rhythmic breathing groove and feel like I was hitting my stride for the long haul, the race was over. I was hitting my stride on the ice and it was melting way too fast! Maybe I should explain that a little bit so let me back up.

My first ice climbing experience came years ago, probably about 10-12 years back. At the time it was very interesting, but back then I was totally focused on rock so I took the experience for what it was, something to pass a winter day until the snow melted and I could resume my rock projects. I continued to hit the ice, maybe for an afternoon every season, but really never pursued it too much. Eventually, the climbing partner I had at the time drifted off to other interests and ice became something that I simply didn’t pursue. Besides, I had ultra distance running events and some serious snowboarding to occupy my time during the winter months.

For some reason when this year rolled around, I all of a sudden had a surprising interest in revisiting the sport in earnest. Maybe it was the fact that I’d had the opportunity to climb some high altitude alpine routes over the past couple of years and the winter mountaineering/alpinism bug was no longer dormant. Or maybe I just needed a change of scenery. Either way, I entered this season pretty stoked to strap on the crampons, grab the ice tools and find some ice. And combine that with the fact that the vibe of rock climbing, although still extremely satisfying, is starting to change complexion and I’ve had this burning need to get back to the “fringe” thinking and away from the typical lemming mentality…hence my previous post about the Lost People.

So toward the end of January we went down to Ouray and I was once again back on vertical ice after a pretty long absence from the sport. It wasn’t all that daunting really, but more so it was generally just a good time and relaxed atmosphere to swing the tools, revisit some of the techniques I’d previously learned, maybe pick up a few new tips and try to knock the cobwebs off my ice climbing psyche. With no expectations going into the week, all those things were accomplished. What I didn’t expect whatsoever was that a leviathan of enthusiasm for the discipline that would suddenly be unleashed.

As the days after that first trip passed, the time in Ouray got further and further under my skin and before I knew it, I started to fully realize that maybe my outdoor pursuits were about to make a large, wholesale shift. I dismissed it at first thinking that it was just the initial adrenaline shot of the experience, but once I considered the people, the vibe, the beauty, the uniqueness and how it really got me more amped than I’d been in years, I realized knew that I was on to something special.

As February rolled on and I finished up another marathon-ish distance trail race in the deserts of Utah, I still couldn’t shake the desire to go back to Ouray for more ice. I hate to admit it, but my training for the trail race was not as focused because all I could think about was how much fun I’d had ice climbing. Don’t get me wrong, I still put in some significant training time on the trails and took the event very, very seriously, but the lure of the frozen stuff just wouldn’t stop tapping me on the shoulder…no, slapping me in the face is more like it.

Then one evening over margaritas, beers, wine or whatever, we were talking to Andrew and Erin about their trip to Denali and the topic of ice climbing in Ouray came up. Blah, blah, blah, ice, mountains, climbing, gear, hot tubs, microbrews and voila!, we suddenly had our room booked at the Vic (The Victorian Inn), the gear packed and we were on the road back to the San Juans. For me, it was kind of like that famous line in some movie that went something like “You had me at hello”. Well, I was totally “had” early in the conversation.

I can say with all honesty that it’s been quite some time since I woke up on the morning of any event or outing where I was almost giddy with excitement, but that’s what happened. This despite recovering from some extremely nasty food poisoning from an eatery here on the Front Range, a place we’ll refer to as the Baker Street Pub (since that’s the name of it). Man alive, I was wretching all night and all morning, right up until I loaded my gear into the Green’s car. Fortunately I was able to rally and not let it spoil the long weekend. Short of losing a leg, an eye or having some major heart surgery, this weekend was going off.

The next morning as we stopped at the entrance into the canyon to put on our harnesses and crampons, my entire body and mind entirely relaxed. I know it sounds corny as hell, but all the anxiousness and excitement ebbed and I seemed at total peace…like I was once again with my people and things were balanced. Weird. That’s exactly the way I used to feel when I woke up thinking about rock climbing. It was a place of solace and peace, a place not crowded by the masses, a subject of which I’ve pontificated about until I’m nauseous at times.

Normally I like to start off with some easy climbing to “warm up” and gradually work my way into the day. This day was totally and diametrically opposite of that standard theory. Our first route was something in the moderate WI3 range but from there we immediately moved right into the more vertical/technical terrain tackling nothing but WI4 the rest of the day.

The next day was similar except that we went straight into the WI4 stuff from the start and stayed at that level and above for the balance of our seven hour climbing day. As I mentioned, I can’t remember the last time I maintained that level of enthusiasm! And when I managed to cleanly climb my very first WI5 route on a sinister looking column of tricky ice, I was completely out of my mind with confidence and eagerness for more! WI4, WI5, whatever, just bring on more and more!

As fun as it was, reality unfortunately always has a way of coming full circle. For the majority of our last day there my mental game outpaced the looming fatigue, but by late in the afternoon I finally started to feel the lead weight building in my arms, legs and entire body. I actually picked up my ice tools at one point and realized I could barely hold them. I absolutely love that feeling of using up every drop of energy I possess before I’ve realized it happened. To me, that’s the ultimate confirmation of a good day in the mountains. And that was indeed a good day.

The Ouray Ice Park is conveniently located only about a quarter of a mile from The Vic. Convenient in that we were sitting in the hot tub within minutes of leaving. And talk about feeling better that awesome. After pounding and kicking ice all day, there is nothing like soaking in some steaming hot water and feeling all those used and abused muscles relax. It also doesn’t hurt that Ouray is situated in one of the most picturesque places on the planet. They certainly don’t call it the Switzerland of America for nothing. Simply stunning scenery from anywhere in town.

It’d probably be prudent here to mention that if you’re in Ouray you’ll probably want to eat at least one meal at O’Brien’s Irish Pub. I know a lot of people think Buen Tiempo is the shiz, and it is to some degree, but O’Brien’s has great food, super friendly service, a nice beer selection and prices you can deal with. You’ll also be amongst the many climbers and locals who make it a staple eatery. I’m just sayin….

Still lots of fun and challenging mountain/river/running projects to tackle between now and next December when the ice comes back round, but I have to say that I already miss this season of ice climbing although it’s not quite done…but it’s closing fast.


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