Winter: It’s not just for the skiers.
For many, summer is the best season of the year — and winter merely a period to bide your time before the warm sun returns. For others though, winter ice climbing provides an end in itself and a raison d’être.
Written Sean McNally
Winter can be a hard time for the rock climbers among us. The tight shoes and chalk bag get pushed to the back of the closet. The rack of cams and quickdraws hang lonely and untouched, waiting for spring to bring drier rock and warmer temperatures. Sure, we can always resort to cheap thrills like skiing. But it’s often not much more than something to pass the time as we count the days until we can start going up instead of down.
Luckily for us climbers, when the temps really start to drop and the water begins to freeze tight to the cliffsides, we get to once again venture vertically and enjoy the wild and wonderous sport of ice climbing. Armed with ice screws, crampons, and aggressively curved tools, we can scratch that itch for ascent on frozen waterfalls, glistening drips, and pillars of ice.
Ice climbing can also be a great way to maintain your technical skills during the dark winter months. Not only do you get to keep your ropework polished, but climbing vertical ice is incredibly technique intensive, which means you’ll spend lots of time focusing on footwork and pacing to manage the mounting pump in your forearms.
For those of us in Washington state, winter ice climbing is not as reliable as the tried-and-true summer alpine classics, like the North Ridge of Mount Baker. In winter, it’s often a game of hide and seek as we pay close attention to the conditions throughout the region. With the right combination of temperature and precipitation, the state can offer all kinds of ice climbing opportunities — from relaxed cragging a short drive outside Seattle, to full on multi-pitch classics on the eastern side of the state. But if you’ve only got a specific window to go climb and you want reliable ice conditions, you can’t beat making your way out to Ouray, CO.
Ouray is home to a legendary ice park where ice farmers manage water spigots atop a cold canyon just above town. They spray the cliffs with water all night and then open the park up to eager climbers throughout the day. There is no better place to learn or hone the skills required for ice climbing than the Ouray Ice Park. In between time on the ice with friends, I enjoy guiding Mountain Madness courses, for both beginner and advanced climbers and guided tours of the area classics outside of the park.
Once you’ve gotten your fill in the park, the surrounding areas offer a whole host of naturally occurring ice as well. The sunny days and cold nights in the Rockies create the perfect melt-freeze cycles required to accumulate the deep blue ice that climbers seek out. For me personally, no winter is complete without a pilgrimage to the snowy playground that surrounds Ouray.
So to all my rock climbing friends out there: if the short days and wet rock this winter is getting you down. If you find yourself longing to retrace a figure eight knot. If you’re tired of looking down instead of up. If you just want to feel some air beneath your feet. Then put on some Gore-text, grab some ice tools and give ice climbing a go this winter. You might just find that winter isn’t only for skiers after all.