THOUGH spring is upon us and mindsets are shifting to summertime sports, skiing and snowboarding are still by far popular spring sports in the San Luis Valley. But this downhill thrill is not the only attraction. Another magnificent draw are frozen waterfalls. A chilly hike, on snowshoes or booting in, to places like Zapata Falls and Treasure Falls gives vistas that are beautiful to look at, with “oohs” and “ahhs” for the serine opacity of the multi-shades of blue – how could you not love it?
But what about climbing them?
Ice climbing in the San Luis Valley is a little off the radar, but it’s a sport that draws locals and visitors alike. There is a sense of wonder that elevates the excitement of going into the backcountry to find ice to climb.
Rock climbing and Ice climbing are similar in many ways, but the terrain and tools needed are vastly different. Rock is a super solid medium to climb (for the most part); ice changes throughout the day, even the hour, and it is very weather dependent.
Three years ago I signed up for one of Adam State University’s ice climbing trips with my (now) climbing partner, AVSAR teammate, and friend, Stephen Cline. I invited Stephen to share some of his thoughts and growing love for the sport. Also in this article, Curt Howell, Adams State assistant professor and program coordinator for Outdoor Education and Stewardship (OES) will share some of his experiences as a climber, a teacher, and a guide.
Alamosa Citizen: Stephen, we participated in an ice climbing trip at Zapata Falls with ASAP about 3 years ago. What was that experience like for you?
POPULAR ICE ROUTES
- Zapata Falls, South of Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve on HWY 150
- Wolf Creek “Chain Station,” West of South Fork on HWY 160
- Treasure Falls, East of Pagosa on HWY 160
- Clear Creek Falls, North of Creede on HWY 149
Stephen Cline: I think it was three years ago. It was a cool trip. It was at night so it had an air of “awe and wonder” since the lights were torches and headlamps. You would head up the ice and not be able to see the top of the climbs or anchors. You just went up, it was fun. And having the chance to climb with friends in a chill (pun intended) atmosphere made it that much better.
Stephen and Destiny Comstock | Picture by Madeleine Ahlborn
AC: How do you feel like you’ve grown as an ice climber since then?
SC: As our friend Logan said, “I look like an ice climber now!” I’ve grown a ton. My first time on ice was basically me doing pull ups. No clue how to use my feet, how to set tools one high one low. Just me clawing my way up. Nothing remotely graceful about it. And painful! White knuckle grips on the tools, gloves with way too much insulation and not shaking out my hands at all adds up to the “screaming barfies.” So painful. Maybe that’s what hooked me? Now I understand the movement necessary to be efficient while climbing, set a tool high, hang from it, get two good feet, stand and pull on the high tool at the same time, swing what was your low tool into a new high position, and try to maintain a triangle stance. Etc etc. There is a lot more to it, but I’ll let better climbers dive deeper into the nuances of feet and tool placement.
AC: What is it about ice climbing that keeps you coming back each season?
SC: Main reason is I’m outside! Plain and simple. Just getting to be out in such beautiful places is amazing. Another reason is the way you are forced to shut the world out when lead climbing ice. So much can go wrong, you have to be all in mentally. It’s over 100% as far as your mental game goes. Also, the ice is always changing, sometimes for the good, sometimes for the bad. A few hours here or there might make the route climbable or WAY too dangerous to climb. And that’s on the same day! Then there is the day-to-day, week-to-week and year-to-year differences in the climbs. With ice, the variables that create the ice are many, and with that you never get the same climb on any route. They might be close, but never exactly the same.
Stephen Cline leads ice climbs at High Tea, left, and Zapata Falls. | Photos by Owen Woods and Crystal Wilson
AC: What are some of your favorite places to climb locally?
SC: I love the stuff up around Wolf Creek Pass. Originally, I thought there was just one band of rock that had ice you could climb, then when you and I looked across the valley at the “chain station” from “High Tea” (another close by route that is difficult to access due to a river crossing) I was shocked. Two more cliff bands that had all sorts of smaller but technical ice routes. It’s a true alpine feel and you are only a quarter-mile from 160. (Ice climb approaches can be brutal!)
Instead of snowshoes, we use trekking skis to access the High Tea route.
| Photo by Owen Woods
AC: Where do you dream of going?
SC: The list is growing! I really want to get out to the Chama Basin and get out on some of the flows down there. It’s a big trip but it’s gonna happen! Not that you ever “conquer” an ice climb, but having to swallow my pride on Treasure Falls makes me work harder to get better. (On our last Treasure Falls trip) a poor line choice got me stuck in a corner and I could not get around the brittle chandelier ice so I had to make a bail anchor and lower down. Also, Stairway to Heaven is kinda local, big long day so that is on the list. Non-local, Wyoming has some amazing stuff, and the Canadian Rockies would be on a list of dream stuff too. I would also love to get down to southern Patagonia. Make a year or two of permanent winter you know?
AC: What is some advice you have for someone who wants to try the sport? It seems like a tough sport to “get into.”
SC: Don’t start leading with WI5! (Ice climbing routes are rated with a “WI” Water Ice, instead of a “V” used for sport rock climbing/bouldering scale.) Don’t try to become the Will Gadds, Sarah Huenikenands or Jon Walsh’s (professional athletes in the sport of climbing). These cats have been doing it for years and have learned heaps. Spend lots of time top roping ice and work on your technique. Once you have the movement down, understand building anchors and placing ice screws, do “mock leads” while on top rope. (Bring a second rope and while on top rope, place half a dozen screws on a route and clip your second rope to them). Then when you can successfully stop, get solid and relaxed, calmly place a screw, clip it and then continue, then start leading on easier ice.
If you do start leading ice, remember, this is not the time to half-ass it or try new stuff. It’s the time to focus 100% and stick to what you know you are capable of doing. Personally, I can lead ice, but I really like seconding ice and top roping because I can work on being fluid and push my limits (safely). I totally don’t mind falling when on a top rope or seconding. But falling while leading ice is breaking the number-one rule of ice climbing! (don’t fall)
As far as getting into the sport, we are really lucky here in the Valley to have ASAP. When you go on one of their ice climbing trips, you need zero gear. They can set you up with everything (boots, crampons, rope, tools, and most of all, guidance). If you did all of their ice trips in a winter (most years it’s around 4) you will have spent less than $100 and would get four solid days on ice. More than enough time to know if you want to get into it. Once you’re hooked, try to find a group or individual that is willing to mentor you. Lots of nuances in this sport that can be hard to pick up, so a patient and smart mentor is necessary.
STEPHEN has become an incredible mentor for me as an Ice climber and mountaineer. We both learn something new every time we go exploring; whether that’s practicing mixed routes at Chain Station, figuring out V-threads at High Tea, lead climbing for the first time at Zapata, or rappelling into Clear Creek Falls. There are so many awesome ways to get outside to explore and the opportunities in our region are endless.
CURT Howell, OES Program coordinator, owner of Narrow Ridge Outdoors, and AVSAR teammate, speaks to his experience as a climber, teacher and guide within the sport of climbing.
Alamosa Citizen: As the program coordinator for Outdoor Education and Stewardship, what does the ice climbing section entail? Are there a lot of students that show interest in this sport?
Curt Howell: OES students have the opportunity to develop technical skills in avariety of adventure sports such as kayaking, canoeing, mountain biking, rock climbing, and ice climbing. There are introductory and intermediate-level courses that aim to expose students to the sport and develop their proficiencies. Students get at least two outings in the intro class and then three or four in the intermediate. Some of these outings are more 1:1 so that students can have individualized experiences and instruction. By the end of the intermediate course it is a goal that students are capable of going out to top-rope ice climbs on their own. Adventure Programs (ASAP) has usually been quite successful in offering at least two ice trips each season for the past 15 years or so. These trips are led by one professional and two or three student leaders from ASAP. I’ve always been impressed how interested people are in giving ice climbing a try. These trips usually fill up quickly with about half students and half faculty, staff, or community members. I’m glad we offer these trips and give students and others the chance to try something they may never have thought they’d try before.
AC: What is your background in climbing? How did you get into Ice Climbing?
CH: I started climbing in 2001 during college and was immediately hooked. After a lot of climbing, getting certifications, and other work in the recreation field I eventually took a job as an outdoor program director at Texas Tech. Interestingly, I got to know Mick Daniel at a professional conference and he was running ASAP at the time. We talked about me bringing up students to the SLV to climb ice, so in February of 2008 I hired ASAP to take a group of TTU students out to climb up at the Chain Station. That was just my second experience climbing ice. I loved it. I’ve climbed every season since then.
AC: With climate change all around us and shrinking snowpack each year, what does this mean for a sport that depends on water and cold temperatures?
CH: I think we can make some tentative inferences on how climate change will impact the ice season. In the lower 48, the length of the winter season may shrink and the snowpack will likely swing between dry and wet years. Looking at data for the snowpack here in the Rio Grande Basin and across the state we know the average is less consistent with increasing swings in intense weather. This erratic weather activity will impact natural ice formation. A recent study on waterfall ice over in France moved the needle on our understanding of ice behavior due to changes in temperature. For example, a sudden cold snap can cause horizontal fracturing due to tension in the shrinking ice. This fracturing can lead to the collapse of freestanding columns or stalactites. I think it’s this vacillation between cold and warm, which can be week to week, that will likely have impacts that are just now beginning to be observed and thought about. I think it will take some time before we better understand and can predict these impacts.
AC: What are some of your favorite local climbs? Where do you dream of going?
CH: I’m partial to the Chain Station area. Fat Cicle, High Tea, Sometimes a Great Notion are excellent. There are a good variety of climbs there if you know where to go. Plus, with ice, it is ever-changing and every time you climb the same route it presents some different challenges. There are a number of quality climbs on the Pagosa side of Wolf Creek Pass too that are rarely climbed and quite fun. I’ve explored some alpine ice in the Sangres too. One of my partners, Logan Hjelmstald, and I have put up a couple new moderate routes over there in recent years. I haven’t yet made it to BC (British Columbia). That’s on the bucket list.
A huge thanks to Stephen and Curt for participating and sharing some knowledge around climbing winter routes. Be sure to check out the Adams State Adventure Programs spring trips, open to students and community members.
Want to learn more about the science behind frozen waterfalls? Start HERE.
Check out what Petzl has to offer. Be sure to always conduct your research from credible and reliable sources when exploring a new sport. And, like Stephen said, develop a connection with a mentor to learn the ropes (pun intended).