icons/avalancheicons/bootscompassfacebookicons/gloveshandsicons/hearticons/helmeticons/ice axeinstagramminusmountainicons/pathsMap Pinplusicons/questionicons/guideicons/ropeicons/gogglesicons/stafftenttwitteryoutube
Steep ice climbing in Ouray Colorado instruction and guided climbs shutterstock 1281448048 f1605909197

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.