Cold Classic: Philippe Wheelock leads the first pitch of Ames Ice House (W15 R). Photo by Nick Hall.
The transitory medium of mixed climbing brings out the best in ascent freaks who dig the cold. And one particular climb near Telluride epitomizes everything a day on the ice (and rock) should entail.
Moving up. Right pick teeters on a flat, matchbook edge. The right crampon point seats on a tiny nick making little skreeet noises as it scrabbles for purchase. I pull, maintaining even pressure on both feet and one ice tool. The climbing is simultaneously delicate and powerful—a little like free climbing, a little like aid climbing. I stretch up with the left tool running the pick, braille-like, in search of purchase. Back down to the ledge. Up again. And back down. The sequence repeats itself. Thirty minutes pass. mbing.
The hooking edges are okay but not great—considering the 25-foot fall to the ground if a point skates or tool pops. My safety net is the rope, clipped to a tiny brass wedge the size of a pinky nail. It skulks in shallow flare daring me to pull past. I know it wants to pop out the minute I climb past the point of no return. Far above, ice has oozed from a narrow chimney—salvation. It takes a lot of effort just to be cold and scared. Welcome to the cold and lovely world of ice climbing.
When winter arrives, the mountains freeze and the snow flies and most of us go skiing. A select few embrace ascent. Ice, rock, snow. Frozen fingers, cold terror, nature lashing us with her worst—nothing in the climbing experience equals fighting gravity when everything sucks. But, from my home in Boulder, it takes 7 hours and 45 minutes to reach Telluride and Ophir. Throw in bad weather, factor in what’s available for a day trip, start looking at airfare to the Canadian Rockies, and motivation wanes.
But wait. Among the many good ice routes on Colorado’s Western Slope, there are a few great ones, like the historic Bridalveil Falls, or the challenging Bird Brain Boulevard. One climb in particular stands out by virtue of it’s position, beauty, history, and difficulty: The Ames Ice Hose. This 520-foot smear of ice, plumb steep and pasted on vertical wall, lies near the small hamlet of Ophir. The Hose is introduced on mountainproject.com as “…a three-star-classic on a worldwide scale,” and for good reason.
The climb requires three pitches, each presenting a distinct character. The top rope-length comprises climbing that consistently forms into fat, classic ice. The second pitch shoots through and overhangs into a shoulder-width chimney, making it reminiscent of something from Alaska or the Canadian Rockies. The first pitch is most often the crux. This bottom 120 feet, if decked ice, provides an exhilarating outing for the experienced. In very lean conditions it’s experts-only—dangerous, technical climbing on very thin ice or bare rock.
At 4 a.m. it’s really fucking cold. We park, kill the lights and wait to see who gets out of the car first. Girl Talk blares a catchy mash-up of rehabilitated pop mixed over a hip-hop backbeat, lending a surreal note. Somewhere above lurks the Ames Ice Hose. Part of the climb’s allure is its position: the Hose sits in full view of the highway. My partner Katie Dannenberg and I get none of that benefit as it’s still pitch black. After decades of climbing, I’m so crusty that my only m.o. is to embrace the suffering, while Katie has that certain lightness that still finds fun in adversity. She’s early 20’s, infectious grin, red hair, build sculpted from running, yoga, skiing. Katie is a novice in the winter climbing game, but a natural. She mixes stripes and plaids with impunity: something, I muse as we hoist our packs, everyone could learn from.
Hiking, we gain the railroad tracks leading to the climb’s drainage. The light breaks. Even after stashing headlamps we get lost and it’s an hour when we finally plow through the final section of waist deep snow to the base.
The climb is every bit as spectacular as we’d been led to believe. Starting well above the valley floor, the view adds a breathless air to an already heady setting. Bare rock at the start, it looks scary, hard—and will require a style of winter ascent called mixed climbing. This facet of the game employs ice tools to hook and scratch up rock, akin to free climbing with the metal interface of picks and crampon edges. Mixed routes often employ bolts for protection, a la sport climbing. In this state, The Ames Ice Hose is trad mixed—no security from bolts and virtually no solid protection for the first 30 feet.
Ames has seen few ascents this season. I rack up, taking a peek at the thin dribbles of ice to the left of out start. Usually this, the normal path of ascent, would have enough ice to climb. In its current state it’s a non-starter. Back in the 1970s, the first ascent team found a scant more coverage, making their ascent a benchmark in the era.
On a frigid January in 1976, Lou Dawson, Steve Shea, and Michael Kennedy—youngsters on their way to carving out their places in mountain history—picked their way up the final pitch of what, in Kennedy’s words “…would become a classic.” Over three decades later, his words ring true. He described his lead of the first pitch as, “diaphanous” and, “without incident—apart from a headfirst, fifteen-foot plunge into soft snow.”
I’m doing my best to avoid headfirst plunges as the pale dawn yields to the bleached light of early morning. I’m stalled out on the ledge, unwilling to go down and unable to pull the trigger. Katie’s huddled in the snow below—silent and long-suffering. If I don’t go for it soon, we might as well pack up, grab a latte in Telluride and climb in Ouray’s Box Canyon. The thought, appealing in the immediacy, is enough to make me gag.
Ice is frozen water and by nature a brittle and suspect medium. It’s treacherous to the climber, equal parts static and mutable. Some climbers seek pure athletic expression with maximum safety. For climbers like myself and perhaps Katie, ice climbs hone the skill set whose end game lies in the big mountains or long adventure climbs. In that regard, ice provides an edge, a risk — like using live ammo in a war game. Hence the allure.
Up again. I’ve futzed around long enough to get sick of the internal dialogue and gingerly pull until my left ice pick barely snags a small but solid divot. There’s no retreat now. I mince the feet up, now grabbing the rock with gloved hands. A few moves later and I can place some gear. Fifteen minutes later I’m bringing Katie up. She fights through. “That was fun,” she says, “if you like the screaming barfies.” (If you have ever climbed ice, you know about the screaming barfies—nauseating pain that results when blood wells back into frozen fingers.) The tenacity and humor serves her well; even then the nascent seed of alpine ambitions had taken root.
Climbing ice requires a unique set of tools and techniques. It’s a means for some, allowing access to routes on big mountains, and end for others, ice and its hybrid cousin mixed climbing don’t require a summit to be a challenge.
The Ames Ice Hose blends these elements. The next pitch tackles an overhang, protected by a camming unit in the undercut rock. Overlapping blue ice yields to a chimney, the back of the deep slot filled with solid ice. It takes some thought to piece together a sequence through the overhanging drips. Upon entry, the chimney is incredible. There are few sensations as pleasurable in climbing as this—tools in tandem, shoulders and hips wedged between soaring planes of rock.
The final 200 feet is classic water ice. Solid ice screws protect the climbing, which borders on vertical and offers few spots where the terrain kicks back. The pitch goes on forever, tackling a line cascading straight from the skyline. Katie follows, her form giving scale to the setting—a small dark dot poised on a massive blue flow, the cliff and steep forested slope plunging a thousand feet to the valley floor.
Katie tops out, beaming a million-watt smile. We rappel with plenty of time left for that cup of coffee in Telluride. As Kennedy would later write, “The first view of the Ames Ice Hose has stayed in my memory with unusual radiance.” I know it will stay so in our minds. We descend and point the car back toward home, each of us holding tight to what we’ve just been given.
Pete Takeda is a climber and writer who lives in Boulder, Colorado. When this story goes to print, he’ll be in Nepal, seeking out some new ice climbs.
Want to get out and on the ice? Check out Pete Takeda’s primer on gear and grades along with the story online at ElevationOutdoors.com.