Before this season in Ouray, Colorado; I had gone from climbing ice on just a handful of occasions (maybe around 15 days total), to climbing ice five or six times a week over the course of six or seven weeks. I was typically climbing about 3 days on, one day off, or some variation of that rotation.
I was able to climb every single day that I wanted to climb, there were always partners to be had and people to climb with in Ouray, Colorado. No problems there. I most definitely improved my technique over that period (one should hope, right?), and started getting into leading easier grades (WI3).
So overall I thought my time there was a resounding success. Tons of climbing, seeing improvements in technique, new friends, fun times, and no injuries!
Following the Ice Leader’s Seminar my days were numbered in town. Folks had begun to pack up their bags, and some had already taken off, the ‘end of the season’ social events and parties had come and gone. Guess it was about time for me to head south for drier weather.
On one of my last potential climbing days I partnered up with Jack, who actually lived just downstairs, we’d hung out on a social level but had never climbed together–he climbs much, much harder than me, and was primarily focused on mix.
But he was looking to do a little more ice before the end of the season and we were both looking for a partner the following day, so it all worked out. He wanted to show me some more of the backcountry ice, as well, since I’d only done Dexter Creek Slabs.
Camp Bird Road
We were just coming off from days upon days of snow dumping and there was still a fait bit on the roadway, so we took my 4WD truck up Camp Bird Road, a close to town backcountry ice climbing area.
Camp Bird’s got a number of super classic ice routes, some pumpy, sporty mixed climbs, and is just a pretty sweet area to climb. We headed straight for Skylight, the classic WI4/M4 route, about 15 minutes from the parking lot. Jack had tried it earlier in the season but backed off because it was so thin.
Interestingly, at the Camp Bird parking area there was a new sign up from the county that said something to the effect of no climbing within X feet of the roadway, which would basically eliminate a number of the backcountry routes on Camp Bird where you belay from the shoulder of the road.
The roadway sees active mining related traffic, but is otherwise gated to prevent thru traffic. We weren’t sure what instigated the new signage (nor did I ever hear), but had heard there was to be a council meeting on the topic that week.
Back to Skylight, Jack was going to take the tough pitch(es), so I was going to lead the first pitch, which was a WI3, maybe 3+ at the time. It was certainly a little more vertical than anything I’d done before that and would be the most ‘real’ ice lead I’d have done.
On top of that, Jack used half ropes, so I’d also need to deal with that somewhat unfamiliar element… I was happy that I’d done a couple of mock leads with the half ropes during that Ice Leader’s Seminar though!
It’s not a super long pitch, and I kind of zipped it up–placing lots of screws–but whatever, they made me feel better. The ice was fairly good, the sticks were great, but some of the screws seemed marginal with the ice as it was.
I fumbled with placing some and had difficulty getting some of the starting drives into the ice which was irritating, but I didn’t have any problems with the half ropes, which was a relief. You top out onto this nice ledge, and there are bolts on the rock to the left, supposedly.
Jack was trying to describe where they were, but with all the snow we’d had–we’re talking thigh deep wallowing at this point–I just wasn’t able to find them.
I dug around for quite awhile, brushing snow off the rock over like 10 feet, before finally giving up and continuing further back on the snow ledge to use the ice at the base of the second pitch as my belay anchor. I knew this would put me in the line of fire though for the subsequent pitch, but figured I could lengthen my clove hitch.
I belayed Jack up and once he was able to take a look at the snow levels up here, he realized the bolted anchors were actually buried underneath the snow, below us, that’s how deep it was.
Massive sloughs of snow were also coming down periodically on top of us–they almost seemed like avalanches that were going to bury us in this narrow little chasm. It felt like some remote and wild ascent, like something you’d see in Alpinist! 🙂
With my belay station where it was, Jack decided to break up the second pitch into two pitches, lest he bombard me from the upper reaches with ice chunks. We could see a nice, if ackward, cave about halfway up the chimney.
The climbing was pretty amazing throughout this entire upper section. A little bit of mixed climbing, some hooking, lots of thin ice, interesting features, chockstones to maneuver around. Just really, really fun climbing!
Jack used a cam or two on occasion, and there was even a fixed nut just before the top out. To me, the ice didn’t seem the greatest from a protection stand point though! Before long we topped out and made the two rappels back down to our packs. Definitely one of the coolest ice climbs I’ve ever been on.
We chatted with another party racking up at the base of Skylight for a bit, then they just free-soloed the first part that I’d led, hah! We hiked up the road a little farther to hop on another route.
I was potentially going to lead Slip Sliding Away (WI4-), but another party was gearing up for it. But right beside is Tourist Trap, a WI4-5, M5 route that Jack had been eyeing. He’d followed it in previous seasons, but not yet led it. Jack decided he wanted to give it a go, and then afterward, when the other party cleared, I could do Slip Sliding Away.
To me, Tourist Trap just looked ominous. It’s these thin series of ice curtains and icicles dangling off this face that leads up into a giant rock roof. You then traverse out and right to get around the roof and reach the belay anchors.
We had to slog our way up this steep, waist deep snow to reach the base. The other party broke trail, but the snow was so deep it just filled back in as you stepped out. For some reason they also brought their dog with…
Who brings a dog to the base of an ice climb? It was just running around crazily–brushing past you and jumping all around in the snow. He scolded the dog and told it to go back down to the road, which it did, but then you’ve got mining trucks and plows driving by, seriously confused as to why there is a dog running around out here, no leash.
Anyways, Jack gets on the climb. After a little bit of skittish start where his crampons were skating around and I thought he was going to pop off, he masterfully led through the various ice curtains and then across the rock traverse. A few big ice bombs did come down during his lead, but thankfully I was well protected, virtually underneath the route.
I guess I’m up, huh? “Climbing!” The ice was steep, and pretty thin, and climbs up the rock/ice dihedral, so it was also awkward for me–stemming one foot out onto the rock, that loose, chossy rock breaking off under my crampon points at times.
I definitely hung on the rope, but had somehow gotten up to the top of the ice curtain.
That was tough.
Removed the last screw.
Now I just have to get onto the rock for a bit of fun mixed climbing.
I swung up and over what appeared to be a fractured bulge.
Bounced on the tool. All seems well. Bulge is holding.
At some point as I was moving up on the tool, the bulge cut loose.
A large chunk of ice glanced my helmet, brushed my sunglasses halfway off my face, and smacked me in the thigh before continuing with a big *THUD* to the ground.
“Woah, that was a big one. Glad I didn’t lose my sunglasses.”
Then I felt the warmth. It started pouring into my left eye, filling it so I couldn’t see. I reached my hand up and felt with my glove. My fingers now covered in red wetness.
“Jack! I think you should lower me down! I took one to the forehead and am bleeding quite a bit!”
“You sure? You’re about to get to the fun part!”
“Yeah, I think I should go down!”
I kept wiping away the blood from my eye, but it would just fill up again.
With some quick rope work Jack was able to reconfigure for the lower. I kept my weight on my tools and the ice, and off the rope to facilitate the transition. Even with that big block coming off, I don’t think either of my tools cut loose, which is weird. Could have though, since I was more focused on the bleeding.
Back on the ground I used the snow to wipe away the blood from my eye and forehead. It was starting to look like the site of some ritual animal sacrifice or something. Those head wounds sure do bleed a lot.
Self portrait at the base just so I could see the damage: what was left of the dried blood, bleeding had mostly stopped.
One member of the other party had just rappelled down… He checked out my wound and assured me that it wasn’t too bad, a little jagged and gnarly, but just a couple stitches.
I was finally able to get most of the bleeding to subside. And then was able to lower Jack off the route in some strange manner that he had directed me to do… I was letting out slack with one of the halves and taking in slack on the other side.
He was traversing back across the rock band to clean the draws. I’m still not sure exactly what manner he was descending in (I was slightly preoccupied), but we got him down safe as well. Almost had one of the ropes get stuck on the pull as well, but thankfully we were able to wiggle it free.
We decided to call it a day at that point and hike back to the car. I headed back home and cleaned up my wounds a little bit, washing away the dried blood and trying to figure out what was actually what. I discovered that a Buff also works well for holding gauze/toilet paper onto head wounds!
I thought I’d have to drive all the way down to Montrose to get a doctor to take a look, but I stopped into Ouray Mountain Sports, since I figured they should know better than anyone. They directed me to a little doctor’s clinic right in town, just a block down the street.
Though they apparently are only open a couple days per week–it’s an extension clinic. They were kind of booked, but they doctor popped out real quick to take a look, said it’d be a couple stitches, and that she could sew me up in a couple hours.
It ended up being three stitches and $245. Ouch. I could have perhaps just used steri-strips, but it was probably best to see a doctor and get actual stitches to ensure the wound is closed, minimize the risk of infection, and minimize the effects of scarring.
So yeah, that actually ended up being my last day of climbing in Ouray, Colorado! Went out with a bang! I took a rest day the following day–which was fine since it was lousy weather. Then I needed to start packing up my belongings to hit the road.
I actually had to stick around in town a little longer than planned so the doctor could take a look and then remove my stitches (needed at least three days).
I almost made it out of Ouray, Colorado unscathed! I saw broken noses, split lips, and other small injuries during my time there. Now I could join the ice climbing crowd. Ice climbing is a pretty, uhh, unique activity…
You’ve got sharp instruments on your hands and feet, you’re out there in the cold and wet, scaling what is obviously an ephemeral and not always trustworthy medium, as you send large chunks raining down below you… Yeah, it might be a little more dangerous than rock climbing. But it sure is awesome!
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