Gearing Up for Colorado Ice Climbing

Photo: courtesy Colorado Mountain School

Photo: courtesy Colorado Mountain School

Where to Ice Climb When Ouray is not an Option 

By Steve Graham

Ouray Ice Park is perhaps the nation’s most famous ice playground, but there are plenty of other places to scale frozen walls in Colorado. 

Jake Gaventa is an instructor at Colorado Mountain School in Boulder and Estes Park, which has more certified guides than any other Colorado outfit. With a little preparation, he said anybody can ice climb. 

“Some of the beauty of it is that you can create handholds and footholds anywhere you want to,” Gaventa said. “Often people who aren’t very good at rock climbing can be very good at ice climbing. It’s all about the feet. Pay attention to your footwork.”

The most important skills for ice climbers are preparation and organization, he said. 

Be prepared with sharp ice axes and crampons, and bring “twice as many warm clothes as you think.” He warned that climbers typically warm up and sweat a lot while climbing, then stand still in the shade to belay their partners, letting their body temperature drop. So, as with many Colorado outdoor activities, layering is life. Staying organized is also important.

“You have sharps and you’re dealing with ropes, so stay organized to make sure you’re not stepping on ropes, and make sure the belayer is well out of the way,” he said. 

Armed with those tips and a great guide, you’re ready for Gaventa’s top three Colorado ice climbing areas.

 

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Rocky Mountain National Park

RMNP is one of the busiest national parks, but in mid-winter it can feel downright secluded compared to warmer months. And the rock faces in your summer hiking snapshots become ice-climbing pitches, with widely varying degrees of difficulty.

“Rocky is having a fantastic ice year this year,” Gaventa said.

He said a weekend in the park is a perfect way to gain experience.
“You can do single-pitch stuff to work on movement, then the next day go back and use those skills on multi-pitch,” Gaventa said.

He suggests starting with Dream Weaver on Mount Meeker, and also trying Martha, which leads to a saddle on Mount Lady Washington. Both are prime routes for building skills and preparing to reach the peak. 

“It’s a good place to have a summit experience,” he said.

 

Vail

“The Vail area has a long history of cutting-edge ice climbs,” Gaventa said. There is plenty of steep and challenging terrain, but also good beginner areas. Many of the climbs also have relatively easy access, assuming you can find parking in Vail, which can be a challenge.

Even with the crowds and after decades of climbing in Vail, it is still possible to mark a first ascent, thanks to seasonal changes in ice flows.

Joan Veilleux of Apex Mountain School in nearby Avon said her school’s primary climb in the area is Firehouse in East Vail, offering moderate to steep pitches. Apex starts beginners on Chalk Creek Falls near Leadville. It’s a 45-minute drive from Vail, but only a 5-minute walk to the climb.

 

Clear Creek Canyon

Finally, Clear Creek Canyon above Golden offers great ice climbing close to Denver, but only when it is cold enough.

“When the ice is in there, it’s great,” Gaventa said. 

While climbs are already reliably icy in the Vail and Estes Park area, you might need to wait for more snow and lower temps for Clear Creek. On the other hand, you don’t need to plan as far ahead to climb multi-pitch walls in Clear Creek.

“It’s a five-minute walk from the car, and 35 minutes from downtown Denver,” Gaventa said.

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