This October, I got out and experienced early season ice climbing at Lincoln Falls on Hoosier Pass with IFMGA-certified mountain guide Andrew Councell. I’m used to waiting for ice to form below tree line, which usually happens around late November and sticks around until March, but he opened my eyes to areas that can be visited earler (and even later). Furthermore, this time window is the only shot you may get at some climbs since in mid-winter, avalanche conditions can pose a major danger.
It was 45 degrees in the shade the day we climbed and conditions were the thinnest that Councell had ever seen this time of year. The typical pillars and flows were non existent, replaced with bare, wet rock. As we meandered through the talus during the approach, boulders shifted and moved under my weight. Several precarious boulder fields stretched above and to either side of the ice.
We climbed a ramp coated in a sheet of ice, crossed a talus slope, and then got in a pitch of tiered vertical ice. We rapped to the base and walked to the next gully. Then, we heard a grumble. A table-top-sized rock tumbled down from above. After a few thuds, it landed at the base of our raps. It was a grim reminder that rockfall replaces avalanche danger during the off-season. Climbing on a warm day is especially dangerous. But it was all part of the thrill.
Here are five ice climbing areas that can be visited as early as September and as late as May, thus extending the ice season by several months. As Councell tells me, if a climber visits the following areas in early season with a rock rack and ice screws, “chances are you’re almost guaranteed to climb something.” Councell warns that it’s best to avoid well known areas like Hidden Falls and Loch Vale in Rocky Mountain National Park. Picking at the flow as it’s still forming interrupts the natural process and delays the time it takes to set up.
Located at 11,500 feet, near Breckenridge, this northeast-facing wall contains four main ice flows, a lower and upper cliff and features lines ranging from WI3 up to WI5 M6. The short approach, up a steep talus field, takes twenty minutes. Due to the easy access, this wall gets crowded.
Longs Peak Cirque
At 12,500 feet, the Longs Peak Cirque forms ice consistently early and keeps it for nine months of the year. By October, there is, as Councell says, “always something to climb there.” Routes include Alexander’s Chimney, Smear of Fear, Wrecking Ball, Loft Ice, Flying Dutchman and more
The first two pitches, of five, of Alexander’s Chimney (WI4 M4) form consistently and are worth the long hike in. The crux is negotiating a chockstone on the top of pitch 3. Smear of Fear (WI5 M5), which Councell has climbed in September, is scary and hard.
Northeast Face of Notchtop
Climbing in this Rocky Mountain National Park gorge consists of moderate multi-pitch ice with ratings up to WI4 depending on the line. You will most likely have to negotiate mixed climbing at the start of most routes.
Black Lake Area
After a six-mile hike into Glacier Gorge to the backside of Longs Peak, you reach climbs in a north-facing gully. Routes here include Yellow Tears (WI5) and West Gully (WI4). The Black Lake slabs have many routes rated WI3.
Eureka / Silverton
Classics in the Eureka area include Stairway to Heaven (WI4) and Whorehouse Hose (WI5). Mid-season is a risky time to visit either of these Colorado classics because they are positioned below a loaded slope. Fall and early winter, however, can be ideal times to climb these multipitch routes, as there is just ice and rock.
This northwest-facing, cool canyon is located at a lower elevation than both Lincoln Falls (though it doesn’t form up as quickly) and the Longs Peak Cirque. Routes here are characterized by long gully systems with steep steps. The steps can be WI3 to WI5. It’s an avalanche trap in winter.
Great early season ice forms here, which is especially convenient to hike to when the road (which costs $12 per person) is still open for the season. Routes here are located at 13,000+ feet. You park at 13,500, descend then traverse. After 15 minutes you’re at the base of the wall.
—Elevation Outdoors contributing editor Chris Van Leuven is digital editor for Alpinist and Backcountry magazines.