Colorado Winter Trip

It was bitterly cold early Friday morning, January 25th , as I pulled out of Champaign and onto the interstate and aimed the old Subaru south. I don’t mind this simple, reliable car, but, like me, she’s showing her years. I was thankful the cargo area and roof-top box held a full load of survival gear and a large bag of tools. Both would prove useful. Ten minutes into that day’s 15-hour drive to my sister Erin’s home in Denver the car’s temperature gauge needle started to dive toward C. The frigid temps made even lower by wind-chill across the radiator, and the heater siphoning off BTU’s, were too much for the little engine. Some variable had to change or this trip was stopping before it started. I turned the heater blower off and slowed the car to 70 mph. The needle climbed toward H as my feet became C. I stayed bundled up in my puffy, gloves, and beanie while I repeatedly adjusted the speed of the car and the heater blower, until, near St. Louis, the outside temps rose above 10 degrees. From then until I reached Denver that night I luxuriated in adequate warmth and a thin cotton t-shirt.

Staying at my sister’s house in the south suburbs of Denver is always nice. Erin is an attentive host who has a large comfy basement. It’s easy for me to get sucked in to the ease of it all. During my two-day stay I did a couple tapering hikes on the hill behind Erin’s house. I was pleased with how strong I felt at 5,600 feet. All the stair running and rowing erg sessions paid off. I also spent a happy three hours at the flagship REI store in Denver gearing up. It is a visually interesting store with almost every item on my long list. Late Monday morning I managed to extricate myself from the Front Range vortex that is slowly sucking in the entire country. I headed southwest toward Ouray. I should have left on Sunday as originally planned. What is normally a straightforward and pleasant 5 ½-hours scenic tour from the Front Range to the Western Slope turned into a 7-hour trip with long periods of white-knuckle driving. There were 5-6 inches of snow on the roads around Denver and it was blowing like mad in the flat open areas. I witnessed numerous cars off the road and one near miss in front of me that would have ended badly but for the quick evasive action taken by other drivers. Worst of all was the 30 minutes in the whiteout being tailgated by an impatient fearless local. As I progressed conditions slowly improved. When I reached Ouray around 5pm it was clear and still.

Ouray is a quaint mountain town (they call themselves a city) of about 1,000 residents in southwestern Colorado. The city is located on U.S. Route 550, aka the Million Dollar Highway. This area is the stuff of climbers’ dreams where the countless turns and rises reveal attention grabbing mountain vistas. Ouray sits at an airy 7,792 feet cradled in a steep-walled valley and ringed by jagged, snowy peaks. The entire Main Street, with it’s interesting buildings from the 1800s, is listed as a National Historic District. I saw no Starbuck’s, no Mickey D’s, no cannabis dispensaries, and no Chipotle or Jamba Juice in this home rule city (i.e. they retain a lot of local control and limit state intervention). The only national chain businesses I saw were a True Value Hardware and couple budget hotels of some sort. There were a few low-key bars, a liquor store, and several naturally fed hot springs and spas, soaking being a popular evening activity. The local gear shop was fully stocked and rental gear and guide services were available in town and widely used. The town seemed to go quiet around 10pm. My hotel was on Main Street and traffic noise was never a problem, mostly because there was so little of it. The local PD kept enough of a profile to make sure drivers adhered to the slow speed limits. The whole vibe was slow paced but still energetic. While it is a town that attracts tourists and the businesses that cater to them, this was not a significant distraction or hindrance to the peaceful experience I sought (bear in mind the widely popular annual Ouray Ice Fest had ended the day before I arrived). It’s an old community that is committed to maintaining considerable control over local development. I saw mostly locals and outdoorsy types, these oftentimes being one and the same person. There was a mix of generations, mostly middle to upper income level, and it was almost all White. I checked in to my economy room ($77) at the more than one-hundred-year-old Hotel Ouray. The room and hotel were small, clean, comfortable, and unusually quiet. The hotel has a basic kitchenette that allowed me to prepare simple meals and good coffee. I was feeling behind schedule already so, though it was dark, I took a recon drive around and out of town trying to get the lay of the land. Specifically I wanted to figure out the approaches or locations of my two potential objectives: Mt. Sneffels and the Ouray Ice Park.

Mt. Sneffels (14,150ft.), in the San Juan Range, is always beautiful and sometimes fearsome, depending on season and aspect. Climbing it in winter was my original motivation for this trip. While I’ve climbed some peaks in winter-like conditions, I’ve never done a fourteener during the calendar winter. Several years ago during my quest to do all four of Colorado’s great traverses (one fourteener to another) I did a link-up of the three fourteeners in the nearby Wilson group. Somehow Mt. Sneffels, despite its striking appearance and numerous quality routes, was not on my radar. The mountain first came to my attention while reading super-alpinist Steve House’s training manual (House & Johnston, 2014). At the time the authors wrote the book Steve lived just north of Ouray in Ridgway and apparently liked to run up a couple Sneffels north face routes for training. For more information I went to Dawson’s Guide to the Colorado Fourteeners and that author listed Mt. Sneffels as his favorite fourteener. Dawson noted that the approach to Mt. Sneffels, Camp Bird Mine Rd., is plowed higher than many during winter. That sealed it. I had to go check it out. When I presented the idea to super-psyched, all-around badass climber Mihail Krumov, he jumped on board as he always does. Then Mihail remembered he needs to eat which requires money which requires showing up at work. Unlike last Fall’s Long’s Peak/Casual Route blitz that we completed from Champaign and back over a long weekend, Mt. Sneffels in winter would require more time. It was not feasible for him to leave Champaign for that long, especially with his upcoming Chamonix trip. Could I handle a winter ascent of a fourteener alone? I doubted it. Still, I’ve learned over time not to make judgements about routes from too far away. It’s best to get up close, preferably on the route, before deciding if it can or can’t be done. I would at least go and see. Besides, if Mt. Sneffels was not feasible, I had an exciting Plan B, the Ouray Ice Park.

The Ouray Ice Park is located in a box canyon less than a mile from the center of town. A bridge on Camp Bird Mine Rd. spans the ice park so you pass over it on the approach to Mt. Sneffels. I overheard a local say something about 200 ice and mixed routes in the park (visible from the roads around town are many more huge backcountry ice and mixed routes in the mountains). Apparently nothing in the park is taller than half a 70m rope and the entire place has been developed for easy top roping with canyon-top walkways and bolted or tree anchors. Running along the rim of the canyon is a large water main pipe serving the city of Ouray. Before the park was formally developed climbers would take advantage of naturally occurring ice in the canyon as well as ice that formed from leaks in the water main, leaks they sometimes enhanced or caused. Now the water main is legally tapped by a system of pipes, valves, and spray nozzles to create the ice park. The ice park is maintained and used extensively by the local guide services, though the city owns it. And it’s free! Climbers are encouraged to support the park through a membership. Though I drove over it twice the night I arrived, I did not locate the park. I also drove the four miles up Camp Bird Mine Rd. to the gate barring further car approach to Mt. Sneffels. On the way I stopped to chat with a hardy young couple as they set up their tent in a plowed-in Forest Service campground high on Camp Bird Mine Rd. I was impressed. It was frigid.

Tuesday I awoke early, nervous and excited. After many years and experiences in the woods I’m fairly comfortable as a rock climber and general mountaineer. While I’ve done nothing special in climbing, I’ve tried to consistently challenge myself while climbing in the best style I can. Ice not so much. I’ve only climbed ice a half-dozen times and only in our lovely little Starved Rock State Park on the same four modest formations. I have been reading, hearing, and thinking about Ouray ice climbing for nearly 25 years. These were experienced ice climbers on substantial ice and mixed routes. I felt unsure, and sort of like an awkward beginner again. I also felt an urgency to get climbing but I wasn’t sure exactly what or how. Again, I drove around the town and south toward where the park was located. I drove up Camp Bird Mine Rd. and did not see the ice park. I did not yet realize that it was too early and the climbers had not started arriving in the parking lots for the 8am opening. I went back to my hotel and prepped my ice gear. I adjusted my crampons to my gorgeous new yellow boots, sharpened my tools, made a thermos of coffee, and packed plenty of ice screws and even some rock gear. I hoped to find a partner and lead climb. This time through I located the park and began to explore. My usual strategy for enticing a stranger to partner with me is to locate someone at the base looking bored and offer to lead a route if they will belay and second. It’s generally been effective. However, I did not account for the fact that most people here were either top roping or being guided so putting up a rope had no particular value. I was SOL. Determined not to have another day go by without touching tool to ice I soloed briefly on the kid’s practice wall. I was feeling a little dejected after so much training and effort to get here. I needed a new strategy.

On my way into the ice park that day two guys, upon seeing I was alone, asked if I was planning to rope solo. Though my hope of scoring climbing partners right out of the car was not realized, their comment stuck with me. I had not planned on soloing as a primary strategy but I reconsidered after I realized partner scrounging was going to be difficult. Soloing would insure I climbed, even if it was not the preferred swapping leads with a partner. Paradoxically, I also hoped soloing might help me break the ice with other climbers. Whether out of pity or curiosity, a solo climber is approachable. I’ve rope soloed a few times on rock and ice but the Silent Partner device I own is not made for wet or frozen ropes so I was off to the gear shop. They had many self-belay options and it was somewhat overwhelming given the potential consequences of getting it wrong, not to mention the cost. I avoided the impulse to buy, even though it would delay my arrival at the ice park the next day. I also needed to decide if I would try to summit Mt. Sneffels or abandon that plan. The weather was clear and holding, but it was forecast to deteriorate later in the week. It was now, or not this trip. I needed to commit to either rope soloing the ice park or a Mt. Sneffels summit bid. The gate across Camp Bird Mine Rd. left several miles of walking to get to the mountain and the start of a route. I didn’t much doubt my lungs or legs, but after three knee surgeries involving both knees, and decades of wear and tear, I no longer take those particular body parts for granted. What if I couldn’t walk out on my own? Trapped on a fourteener alone in winter is no joke. A former UIUC Climbing Club member paid with body parts when he and a group of buddies got trapped overnight in similar circumstances. They were Navy Seals. The avalanche risk was also a major concern. No partner, no one to dig me out. On the other hand I hate to back off any goal I set. Yet here I was in ice climbing heaven. I’ve climbed a bunch of fourteener routes, but relatively little ice. Maybe I should take full advantage. I did a lot of psychological tossing and turning that night as I wrestled with the two options. The ice park won and, in retrospect, I’m glad.

I was outside the gear shop when it opened at 9am on Wednesday. With luck I got a different, but equally knowledgeable, salesperson. A second opinion was important to me since I have little of my own experience or knowledge with this climbing medium or these devices and techniques. The young man walked me through the options and helped me understand how to rig and dial-in the two-part system: Petzl Micro Traxion and CAMP Lift. He showed me how to tie a safe chest harness from a sling. We had a funny and poignant interaction when I busted myself for repeatedly and reflexively reaching to help him do his job. He had one arm. Solo trips encourage interactions with strangers and fond memories may be the result.

With my new top-rope solo system in my pack, and a vague and fading idea of how to use it in my head, I raced off to the ice park. I hustled to the beginner’s area known as the School Room. I was so excited I didn’t care how goofy I looked. I was greeting strangers and giving them verbal high-fives. It took nearly an hour of fumbling and checking and rechecking my system before I was confident enough to climb up any ice. But as I dialed it in and gained that confidence, even taking one small unexpected fall on the system, it was on. I did nine laps on three routes, each about 80 feet tall and slightly slabby to near vertical in places. Time was short so I set a goal of stepping up the difficulty with each successive route. Six hours passed quickly and blissfully, in that state the behavioral scientists call “flow”, where skill and challenge are perfectly matched. A five-minute walk to the car and a three-minute drive got me back to my hotel. After coffee and a small meal I crashed. As I was settling into sleep I jerked awake from a dream of falling unroped.

On Thursday I was on my usual game. Up early and beat the crowds to the ice. I passed through the still empty School Room on my way into the harder Mixed Alcove area. The Mixed Alcove area, though close to the School Room, is somewhat hidden from view and it has a rope and warning sign stretched across it’s entrance. It is also taller, steeper, and offers fewer rests. I was sticking to my commitment to up the challenge with each new route. The creek rushed by noisily underfoot, mostly invisible, appearing occasionally through melt holes in the ice; holes you didn’t want to fall in. I had glanced into this area the day before but retreated a little intimidated. Today I got right to work and spent an amazing seven hours climbing numerous laps on variations off two rope lines. I was alone in my private frozen grotto most of the morning. A couple climbers needing to pee ventured in and then quickly departed. I could hear people next door in the School Room and we could see each other when on-route. But when off the rope I was hidden. It was a cool spot. From time to time I would venture out to visit with the climbers nearby. Their interest in my climbing and my increasing confidence helped me push past my reserved nature. I inquired about their knowledge of solo systems generally and my set-up specifically. We chatted briefly about ice climbing gear, routes, and “where ya from”. In the afternoon a few guys joined me in the Mixed Alcove area. Two were friendly novices who were almost as excited as me. The other, a local guy, was a fit-looking, well-equipped, alpha dog type who was planning to rope solo as well. Initially he seemed like a prime candidate to ask about my system as he had a solo device too. Err, no. Alpha Dog took my questions as an opportunity to throw a couple condescending and crappy verbal jabs at me. I took a deep breath and let it slide, barely. This minor negative interaction aside, it was another amazing day of climbing.

Back at the hotel I crashed as soon as I hit the bed around 5pm (the ice park is open 8-4). When I awoke at 7pm my left knee was on fire. I had been doing more gymnastic moves that day but I had no specific recollection of injuring my knee. In their current depleted condition it does not take much. I was bummed. I had hoped to get another half-day in on the ice and even had a long, challenging route selected. But this really hurt. I was limping noticeably and there was only me to notice. To ease the pain I propped up my leg with a pillow while I slept. Friday morning was a challenge. I was physically drained and the time alone was wearing on my motivation. The pull of home and family was growing stronger even though it would take me several more days to get there. My knee hurt to the point that I cried out when the weight of my climbing boot caused the leg to twist slightly. I invoked the “Don’t decide about climbing a route from a distance” rule and went back to the park. I’m so glad I did. It was the best day.

If you Google the ice park you will see images of a tall ice-covered canyon wall with a small house on the rim. This is the Pic O’ the Vic wall and the Lead Only area and the photos are taken from an adjacent bridge spanning the canyon. The routes here are among the tallest (120-130 feet) and steepest (WI 4-5) of the ice climbs in the park, though more difficult mixed routes exist in other areas. I had walked past this area each day, stopping on the bridge along with the rest to watch mostly top ropers and the occasional leader tackle these sustained and intimidating routes. I had watched one guy lead a particularly dark, broken, and thin route downstream near the bridge foundation. It looked scary as hell on lead. To survive the frozen bombs the leader unleashed, the belayer hid in the mouth of a cave fronted by huge fangs of ice descending from the overhanging wall. Even with the top rope, that route would be pushing my commitment level and fear factor. On day one it seemed far too hard; on day three I wanted to climb it.

As I rigged an anchor I focused on maintaining a slow pace. It was nice not to hurry this last morning. I would be climbing routes that had no crowds rushing to them. As I threw my fixed rope toward the dim canyon floor I was politely informed that I was in a lead only area (hence it’s name Lead Only Area) so unless I wanted to ditch the rope and free solo, I had to move. Though initially irked, this turned out to be a good thing as I then moved to two superb routes at the upstream end of the Pic O’ the Vic wall. Both routes were vertical to slightly overhanging through most of their length. They were each over 120’ tall. The routes were somewhat hidden between two arêtes and in a particularly narrow section of the canyon. Huge sheets of ice, ice pillars, ice daggers of every size, and large rounded hummocks of ice were suspended everywhere. The rushing water drowned out most other sounds, resulting in a place that felt enclosed, isolated, and just a bit menacing. On both routes only the first few meters were visible from the top. I didn’t know if the routes touched the ground or if they would require transferring from rappel to soloing on the rope. I had not practiced this. Were they solid routes or chandeliered choss piles? What were the rests like? Fairly confident I would work it out I tossed my rope into space and watched it disappear.

The first route was steep, long, challenging, and fun. So fun I ran two laps on it, nearly forgetting about my lame knee by the second burn. The final route was the icing on the whole damn cake. As I peered over the edge of the canyon I could see 25 ft. of slabby rock with a thin veneer of clear ice smeared across it. Below that was a hummock of ice, the overhanging head of a large tapering ice pillar. My view of more than 2/3 of the lower route was obscured. I was giddy. Technical mixed climbing, (i.e. climbing rock, snow, and ice on the same steep route) has long been a goal. While the top rope was a minor buzzkill, having no leashes, no partner, no backup tool, and no knot connecting me to the rope kept me focused. I was stoked to drop in and see what lay below the glassy rock. As I cleared the ice hump and the lower route became clear I was not disappointed. The canyon was less than 20 feet across near the bottom and the creek bed was a mix of frozen waves and open swirling holes of latte colored ice water. The area acted as a giant funnel for ice debris from the walls around it. The bottom of the route was a long icicle that tapered as it neared, but did not reach, the ground. Six feet above the canyon floor my rope bag swung free in space. It overhung! I lowered as far down the slender ice shaft as I dare, clumsily switched from rappel to rope solo, and began climbing out of the narrow, cold slot. It was good. Long, steep, consistent, and less beaten out than earlier routes. The bottom and middle sections were delicate, gymnastic, and vertical to slightly overhung icicle climbing. Then, after pulling through nearly a hundred feet of steep ice, I reached that glorious rock section. It was good that it required slow and precise climbing. I wanted this moment to last. I pecked at thin ice, I hooked some crimps, I cammed a pick, and I stood on front points gently placed on thin rock edges. I laughed out loud as I teetered just in balance. What a blast! I pulled onto the canyon rim breathing hard but feeling full of calm power. Perfect time to head for home.

The trip back to Denver from Ouray was relaxed. I had a good post-climbing high going. I spent Friday night at Erin’s and began the 15-hour grind back to Champaign about 4:30am on Saturday. Animal sightings are always an important part of any road-trip. This time I saw a bald eagle in flight, a herd of 15 elk calmly walking near town, and a small herd of Whitetails including a couple multipoint bucks. By far the best sighting was in western Kansas on the drive home. Out on the Great Plains they roll hay and stack the bales into long tall prism shaped piles. At the crest of one particularly massive pile, basking in the morning sun was a gorgeous large red fox. It sat upright and still with its bushy tail wrapped around its haunches. Its burnt red coat was a small flame atop the straw colored peak. The mouse hunting must have been good in and around the hay mountain. My reverie was soon broken however.

While in Ouray I had noticed a loud squealing noise coming from the front of the Subaru and the ABS light came on. It seemed to correct itself after pumping the brakes and I thought it might be related to all the ice building up around the wheels. About four hours into my drive back to Champaign I began to notice some looseness in the steering and a faint squealing noise. At first I was not sure if it was the combined effect of wind, cheap tires, the roof-top box, and rain grooves in the pavement. But as time and miles passed I became certain something serious was wrong. I was in the middle of nowhere eager to get home, or at least close to human habitation and an auto parts store or mechanic. I pulled in to a truck stop when I became concerned I would be pulled over for DUI with the car lurching around so much. I inquired about local mechanics but none were to be found on a Saturday at 3pm out on the Kansas plain. I crawled under and around the car looking for the problem. I pried off one axle nut cover, all good. A loose axle nut seemed like a far-fetched idea anyway. I should have removed the other three covers. Getting somewhat desperate now I jumped back in the car and pulled out onto the interstate. Less than two miles down the road the loud grinding and severe wobbling started. Luckily I was approaching an exit and I quickly got the car slowed and off the roadway before it ground to a stop. She was done. A quick inspection revealed a cockeyed front wheel. When I popped the axle nut cover the nut dropped into my palm. The front wheel was disconnected from the car. This was a sobering moment when I imagined losing a wheel on the treacherous roads around Ouray, or worse, injuring someone else. With a major assist from Kim and Will in Champaign, Bill and his flatbed tow truck were there in less than 30 minutes. For $120 Bill towed me ¼ mile to a nearby auto repair shop along a rural highway on the edge of Topeka. I appreciated the extra care he took to not further injure my wounded car. A real pro. In our short drive to the repair shop we shared our dream of someday leaving the big flat for the mountains of Colorado. Unfortunately, the shop Bill towed me to was closed until Monday. It was Saturday around 3:30pm. Kindly, Bill loaned me a large block so I was able to jack, level, and stabilize the car. I dumped the bag of tools on the pavement and tore down the damaged front end. Wheel, hub, steering knuckle, CV shaft, ball joint, steering linkage, ABS lead, and brake caliper; everything but pressing out the failed wheel bearing. By 5pm I was degreasing myself the best I could with Bronner’s and my limited water. Rees, a friendly local, was driving by, saw my gear spread around the parking lot, and checked in on me. Though he offered a lot of assistance, I didn’t need much, and I was unwilling to leave the car and its contents. Rees came back later with a large jug of water that was clutch for making coffee and muesli. Understandably my scruffy, rough, and slightly desperate appearance did not make a great first impression on the family members Rees had in his car. I was touched by their generosity and concern.

Around 9pm that night I crawled in to the back of the Subaru. By positioning myself cattycorner I was barely able to fit my 6’ 2” frame. I blocked the windows with gear bags to diminish the bright light shining in, arranged my pillows and pads, and passed out. I was so spent I slept better than I usually do at home. I crawled out around 7:30am Sunday, late for me. With Rees’ water I washed up and enjoyed a hot breakfast and a couple strong cups of coffee as I packed my gear. A rental car was coming at 11am. After transferring a small mountain of gear into my little rental, I bolted for Champaign, finally arriving home at 8:30pm Sunday. On Tuesday, with my sore butt only partially recovered, I drove 16 hours round trip to Topeka to drop the rental car and retrieve my repaired Subaru from the shop. Is $586 for installing one wheel bearing set highway robbery? The parts were worth about $50, I had already done most of the disassembly, and the shop was right next to a highway. None-the-less, I departed Topeka for Champaign grateful for the relatively small price paid for my serious DIY screw-up. I was the last one to have installed the axle nut before it spun itself off. That was on me. To make sure I didn’t get off too lightly I drove through a heinous ice storm between KC and Columbia, with many smashed-up and spun-out cars and semis littering the interstate. It’s good to be home.

Trip Report by Rich Weston