Despite scaling a number of alpine peaks and owning plenty of ice axes and crampons, I’ve never had the chance to to climb a frozen waterfall or any serious vertical ice for that matter. So, when a friend from last year’s Canada adventure invited me along on her Southwestern USA road trip this winter with plans to stop at Colorado’s world famous Ouray ice park, I was immediately in.
Setting out from Denver towards the mountains to the west, we didn’t have much of a plan other than to explore alpine towns, take in epic views and find a way to play on the ice. This turned out to be a bit of a naive approach however. You see while there are many guiding companies who take advantage of Ouray Ice Park’s famed terrain, their offerings are more courses than than casual play (this changes during the Ouray ice festival when guides offer shorter programs to the large crowds.)
Planned out in advance I’m sure we would have enjoyed the experience but as a couple of absolute beginners, all we really wanted was a couple hours on the ice, hopefully without spending a fortune for it.
After searching through an exhaustive list of Ouray Guides including all of the companies I’ve climbed with in the Pacific Northwest (RMI, IMG and Mountain Madness), I stumbled across an ad from San Juan Outdoor Adventures in the nearby town of Telluride. As luck as it, they offered exactly what we wanted: half a day on the ice for $155 each. It certainly wasn’t free but with technical gear included and a guide all to ourselves to go at our own skill level, we were sold.
Making the hour or so drive over from Ouray was an amazing start to the adventure as we passed by mountain views and around snow covered cliffs in a true winter wonderland on the way to Telluride. Arriving in the city outskirts, it is immediately clear why Telluride is so famous as ski slopes dot the landscape all around but with everything from heli-skiing to sledding, horseback rides, snowmobiling and skating, there’s so much to the town.
The downtown area is made up of a long, “main street” of shops and restaurants where you can find all sorts of modern amenities from the free bin to luxury offerings but the place still retains the much of that mountain feel from its nearly 150 year old, mining town roots.
With a couple hours to kill before our start, we found a tasty lunch at The Butcher & Baker Cafe, explored shops for trinkets to take home and I drooled at the sight of new gear from outside the many sports stores. Had we known about the city before booking our trip plan I’m sure we would spent at least one night here (though it is an expensive down) before moving on but even just driving through was for the day was fun.
Usually San Juan Outdoor Adventures picks up clients right from their hotel but staying an hour away, we opted to just meet up with our guide on the outskirts of Telluride. Transferring bags into his 4×4, we tried on the boots and other gear he had brought over and transitioned in for the short ride over to our afternoon climbing destination.
Arriving at the trail head by the Ames Power Station (the world’s first A/C generating station) and dawning our crampons, harnesses, packs and with an ice tool in hand, we set off on a short hike over to the frozen Lower Ames Falls we would be climbing for the afternoon. While Ouray quite literally farms the terrain to support the demand for the ice park, our destination was completely natural and, thanks to a little luck, completely ours for the day.
Booking just a half day adventure and telling the guide that we were rookies, I expected we would spend a few hours just going up and down the ice as best we could, almost like a free climb session at the local rock gym. Instead, our guide suggested a far more educational approach and after securing our buy in (along with a top-rope anchor), he launched into an abbreviated training session. We started by learning placement, angles and movement climbing up a completely starter WI2 pitch with just crampons and our hands to learn how to kick, balance and move.
Next we added a single ice tool working on swinging, pick placement and hold strength to understand how the axe moved. Finally we stepped up to two tools, putting it all together while practicing movement order and trying to nail down effective climbing. The day ended with a couple more laps up and down as we played around on the “tougher” WI3 / WI4 part of the waterfall before enjoying some hot chocolate and the short trek back to the car and into town.
Swinging a ice tools and kicking up a waterfall time and time again was thrilling on its own but actually learning some technique was what totally made the day for me. Even though we only had a few hours out to play, we both walked away feeling like we had done more than we expected, more than any open climbing session for sure and I’m ready to apply some of the skills to my more aggressive mountaineering routes this winter but really, I can’t wait to get back on some vertical ice soon!
As for our guiding company, I can’t thank San Juan Outdoor Adventures enough for squeezing us in at the last minute and providing a complete experience with a seriously bad ass guide. Five stars to the adventure and five stars to them for delivering to make it possible.