Taking climbing to new heights – on ice.
For many rock climbing Coloradans, ice climbing is a way to extend the rock climbing season and experience climbing outdoors with a different set of challenges. There are a wide variety of ice climbing spots in Colorado, from beginner routes in man-made Ouray Ice Park to much more remote and committing climbs in Rocky Mountain National Park. For this feature, we researched different locations throughout Colorado and talked with Lee Pruitt, employee at Fjallraven’s Boulder location and ice climbing enthusiast, to get some advice on how to begin ice climbing.
Where to Start
There are a lot of ways to try ice climbing for the first time, while easing the intimidation of venturing into this novel and extreme sport, more than anything, having a background in basic rock climbing skills is essential. Many of the techniques used in regular rock climbing are also used in ice climbing, and feeling comfortable with things like tying in, belaying, lead climbing and abseiling (or rappelling) can go a long way in making one’s first time ice climbing enjoyably challenging instead of frustrating. Pruitt recommends going with someone who has a decent amount of ice climbing experience for your first time, so they can provide guidance in getting started with the sport.
When we talked to Pruitt, he also emphasized how influential smart layering can be on one’s first ice climbing experience. “I always recommend wearing multiple layers of synthetic or wool clothing,” Pruitt explains. “Having multiple layers of clothing allows you to adapt to the temperature, weather and level of physical exertion.” Staying warm while climbing can mean the difference between a great day outdoors or a miserable experience.
Where to Go
For those not already inducted in the ice climbing world, it may seem like it would be difficult to find a good location. Though there is a history in the sport of keeping local spots a secret, the culture has been changing recently, especially with websites like Mountain Project, which provide climbers with an index of routes. The site has an entire database dedicated to ice and mixed climbing (climbs including rock, snow and ice) in Colorado and is helping to foster an attitude of prioritizing getting more people out climbing over keeping spots on the down-low. Here’s a list of some of the best places for ice climbing in Colorado, compiled with the help of Mountain Project and Lee Pruitt.
OURAY ICE PARK
While a decent drive from Denver, Ouray Ice Park is a worthwhile place to venture for those just entering the sport. Man-made through the process of “ice farming,” Pruitt describes the park as “essentially an outdoor climbing gym.” The park has been in operation for twenty years and, in that time, has become a world-renowned ice climbing location. The park is completely open to public use throughout the season, free of cost, and is incredibly accessible with almost all of the 200 climbs the park offers within a 15-minute walk from its entrance. Ouray Ice Park is maintained by a small staff and a number of dedicated local volunteers who commit to transforming the Uncompahgre Gorge into a winter wonderland every year.
LAKE CITY ICE PARK
A smaller, man-made, outdoor ice park, Lake City is yet another great option for beginner climbers. While this park is a lot less showy than Ouray, with only 10–15 climbs, it’s humility is also its strength. Easy parking without the crowds and completely free, this park is loved by many. Lake City is about the same driving distance from Denver as Ouray, but again, the park is worth the drive.
CLEAR CREEK CANYON
Only a half-hour to an hour from Denver, Clear Creek Canyon is frequented by Denverites looking for ice. The area has a few different climbs, some of which form consistently every year in the upper canyon, and some of which form more intermittently lower down. The area is unique in that all of the climbs except for those near the aqueduct are formed by the natural drainage patterns that feed Clear Creek.
ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK
While the park offers a few easier climbs, Rocky Mountain National Park is known for its difficult routes. For those preparing for long, remote climbs in other parts of the world, this is an excellent spot to practice. The park’s long and challenging routes combined with long approaches, mixed climbing (snow, rock and ice), somewhat harsh weather, altitude and areas of little protection make the area a great place to improve not just as an ice climber, but as an all-around mountaineer.
So go out there this winter and have as much fun as possible. A last word of advice from Pruitt:
“Maybe most of all, climbing is a way to explore beautiful places, exercise outside and share challenging endeavors with friends.”
Happy winter, everyone!