Everything was still, and quiet save for the clinking of ice screws against one another, the grind of crampons and tools scraping on rocks, and a few birds chirping in the early morning light. Then there was a “whooooosh” and then my head was in my hands, and I was cursing, and I still wasn’t sure why. At the time, the seconds that ticked away felt like long drawn out minutes. I went through a mental checklist as I reconstructed the events. Alert and oriented? Check. Breathing? Check. No bleeding out of gaping head wounds? Check. Partner wide-eyed and concerned, asking if you are alright between expletives? Check.
Okay, so I was fine. I took a baseball sized rock to the head, but I was wearing this badass helmet (this is not an ad for the Petzl Sirocco - but that is an awesome helmet), and the my head and helmet escaped unscathed. A diligent EMT may have had me pegged for irritable and combative - standard signs of a head wound. But in this case, I was just still in the process of adjusting to one of the harsh realities (apparently) of ice and mixed climbing. You get hit in the head a lot. Eventually, the rope pulled tight, and our rope gun belayed Joey and I up. It was my third day of ice climbing, my first day of mixed climbing, and I was climbing Bird Brain Boulevard, the classic Ouray mixed climb first done by climbing heroes Charlie Fowler, Jeff Lowe, and Mark Wilford.
I’ve been rock climbing for round about 15 years - which doesn’t sound like that much to a lot of the older heads out there, but it’s half the time I’ve been alive, so it feels like a lot. I’m pretty comfortable on a nice sunny wall of granite, cruxing out above totally bomber protection, clinging desperately to holds that aren’t going to break any time in the next 25,000 years or so. I trust my risk assessment, know how to avoid dangerous objectives, and of late have begun to shake a bit of a reputation for rather ball-dropping runouts and free-solos in lieu of a reputation for headpointing and telling people to check their knots. You get away with enough close-calls, and I think this is often inevitable.
So it was with a mix of skepticism and caution that I originally decided to approach ice climbing. Following the OR show in SLC, I caught a ride down to Ouray and Ridgway where I had a few friends malingering around town as ice-climbing bums. Philippe Wheelock (badass ice-climber mountaineer best friend kinda dude), and Drew Smith (BFF, nickname: Dreamy Drew, superstrong Montana boy kinda dude), would be my rope guns for the next three days.
First up was the ice park. Drew ropegunned a toprope up from the summit of the icepark for me, handed me a couple tools, and told me to leanback (I was tied in). I said “Wait, isn’t there like something I should know?” “No, he told me. It’s just like rock climbing except really easy.” And away I went. About thirty seconds later I was standing on a frozen creek, and about two minutes later I was back at the top. Turns out, it was really easy - whatever it was - but it sure as hell wasn’t anything I’d feel comfortable leading! Yikes! The entire time I was showered by ice crystals, and it felt like if I kicked hard enough I’d knock down the whole chosspile (I mean waterfall)! This was crazy. Drew assured me, however, that it gets a lot better. The Ice park is really aerated, and would, indeed, make a harrowing lead.
Day two Drew and I got out early to climb the world class Ames Ice Hose. It’s kind of weird getting ropegunned up a world class route on your second day climbing. People wanted to know was it like the coolest thing I ever climbed, and I thought it certainly was not, but I didn’t have much previous ice to compare it to… It was really pretty, very nice shades of blue and white, and it was great to catch the surreal sunrise over the San Juans. The most notable thing about the climbing was that instead of getting showered in little chandelier crystals, I was continually showered in grapefruit sized chunks of ice. They hurt when they hit, but didn’t cause any serious injury. Still, Ice climbing was not starting to feel less sketchy. If you lead, you risk falling with a ton of little sharp pointy things on you. But if you follow, your angry leader will knock ice daggers on you all day long. Sketchy.
Day three I rested with some awesome weather, and Ouray choss climbing with my good friend Jeff Morris who was passing through. We climbed with our shirts off, drank beers, and ate burgers shortly after climbing. This was an awesome day, and certainly par for the rock climbing course. My friends sent some gnarly ice mixed climbs the same day… into the same evening… They put up some FA apparently, but by the sounds of it, they almost died on the descent. Maybe not. Hard to say. Anyway, they didn’t die. And that’s awesome.
Day four, we got the super shralpine start for Bird Brain Boulevard. This would be my first ever mixed climb, and my first time getting ropegunned by mountain climbing ace Philippe Wheelock. You already caught the story with the rock: that was pitch 2. The rest of the day went pretty much without incident with the exception of Philippe reminding me over and over again that it probably wasn’t wise to weight the anchors… Awesome news after you just got belayed up on them. I guess Philippe really trusted my 5.7 chimneying in crampon skills, because that’s about all I did all day long. Again, not terribly challenging technically, but mentally draining.
At the top, I hugged Philippe and my new buddy Joey, and thanked them for a rad day. I guess Bird Brain Boulevard was my favorite ice/mixed climbing. I still don’t know what all these damned numbers and letters mean, but they say that one is WI5/M5. In my mind, that means 5.7X with some C1 moves on A4 placements. I can’t help but feel like iced/mixed climbing is far more akin to aid climbing than rock climbing - at least when you’re not clipping bolts. When I told Philippe that I had enjoyed myself in spite of almost getting decapitated by the deathrock he trundled, he was typically stoic: “Yeah, if you’re going to be an alpinist, you have to have a pretty short memory” he grumbled, as he disappeared out of sight down the first rappel.
I lingered there for a moment taking in the view, and the first real sunshine we’d felt all day. I don’t know if I would call myself a converted ice climber, but there is definitely something compelling about being able to bag summits in the winter. And oh yeah, I definitely liked looking at the ice crystals and formations. The whole sport is very very shimmery.