Jen's Werner Blog on local Vail Ice Climbing
Self portriat by Jens Werner
March 9, 2008 —
I’m not a skier, but as I read "Boyd's Blog" the other day about the avalanche deaths in East Vail, one thing really stuck out. It was Louie Boyd’s saying about how, “all the real avalanche experts are dead.”
That struck a chord with me. It reminded me of a saying that I’ve tried to stick to in my recent years as an ice climber: “There are old climbers and there are bold climbers, but there are very few old, bold climbers.”
That leads me to a recent trip that I took with my partner Mac. After Cody we wanted more new ice. Not the same routes that we had done year in and year out; a new and hard Colorado route to add to the 2007-2008 climbing resume. We thumbed through Roberts’ Colorado Ice and chose The Drool (WI5) in Redstone. The great thing about The Drool was that if we couldn’t find it we had solid back-up plans intact. Avocado Gully (WI3) and Redstone Pillar (WI4) are Redstone classics and we could fall back on either.
We got to Redstone and right away realized that they had not suffered from the cloudy Seattle-effect we had been enduring in Vail. It was warm, so the ice on the West side of the Crystal River Valley looked pretty manky from obvious exposure to sun. For a moment I wished I could trade my ice tools for a 5 wt fly-rod, but winter is fleeting and there will be plenty of trout fishing in a few months.
We located the The Drool and thought it looked “reasonable” through the binoculars. It was unanimous, we’d hike to it and if at least check it out.
The hike was more of a crawl - no exaggeration. No one had been there in a while and while they had warm weather now, our first few post-holing steps in the trees made it apparent that Redstone had not had a lack of snow this winter. We ended up crawling for more than half the approach, distributing our weight as best we could to keep from plunging into the waist-deep snow.
On first glance, The Drool looked sweet, even a little easier than I had expected, but as we got closer it was obvious that it was honeycombed from the warm weather. The question was, how bad was it?
The first 20 feet revealed that The Drool was merely a ghost of the ice climb that it had been a few weeks before. While climbing it may have been possible, protecting it was out of the question. It had the consistency of a snow-cone. I down climbed and we hiked out towards Avocado Gully. We knew that the mellow approach to its Northeast facing gully would not be rotten and would still allow us to get in a route before we went home.
A few years ago I might have tried to climb The Drool in that condition. I’m sure I could have. I probably could have a few days ago, but a fall would have been catastrophic. Sixty-foot ground falls are not a chance I’m willing to take these days. I imagine Louie’s saying could translate to ice climbing too. “All the experts on climbing rotten ice are dead,” he might say.
I’m looking to be an “old climber” and trading in the thoughts of being a “bold climber”. I’m not afraid to climb hard routes, but climbing them without solid protection is a thing of the past for me.
We hiked down from Avocado Gully and back to the truck, a cold bottle of Budweiser and our swim trunks.
Yes, I said swim trunks.
Another thing that I would have done a few years ago was walked passed the natural hot springs on the Crystal River and mutter something about “dirty hippies”. Not this year. I premeditated bringing my swimsuit and damn was that a great beer as the sun sank low with snow capped Mt. Sopris in clear view and hot water rushing into the bath-water warm pool we sat in.
I’d like to think I’ve matured.
February 20, 2008 — Editor’s Note: Jens Werner writes about ice climbing for realvail.com. He recently returned to Vail from Cody, Wyo., where some of the nation’s best ice climbs form each winter.
The Wyoming wind slammed the car door shut as Mac got back in.
“If my co-worker called me at 11:30 at night to tell me I had to cover his next shift, I sure as s**t would not be listening to James Taylor,” he said with a smirk.
That was the first monumental quote of the trip. It wasn’t to be the last.
As he explained the phone conversation and course of events he just witnessed I did have to marvel at the Zen it took for the teenage girl to turn on a mellow, forgiving James Taylor CD despite knowing she was headed for a 16 hour shift at the “Pump-n-Pack” in Casper, Wyo.
Almost as punishing as her 16 hour shift were the burritos she sold us, but we choked them down with smiles on our faces. After all, we were on the road, half way to Cody and miles from our day-to-day lives. We were road trippin’!
The next morning we pulled into Albertson’s in Cody at 10 a.m. to grab quick snacks before heading out to the South Fork of the Shoshone. The South Fork is about a two beer drive from Cody (at least that’s what someone told me) and is where all of Cody’s ice routes are located. The long, dirt road is lined with mule deer, sage brush and the lower 48’s best ice climbing.
On Day 1 we did a great WI3 warm up called Stringer. It was one great pitch in a constricted rock chimney. Stringer quickly reminded us that WI3 in Cody is not like WI3 in East Vail. The climbs here are sand-bagged, if not on purpose, because they were put up by some of the country’s best old-school climbers. Few of them, with the exception of
Alex Lowe, are known outside Wyoming and Montana. I can’t help but think that they want it that way. Heroic ice climbing tales are best told over cans of beer on a tail-gate or around a fire; not in Climbing Magazine or by a news reporter who continues to refer to the sport as X-treme.
The next day was to be the day that I did Mean Green with may partner Ian, who lives in Truckee now. We did the hour-long hike to the base of it only to find another party heading up the first of its 5 long pitches. Opting not to follow another party and being showered with their ice fall all day we moved on to High On Boulder, located up a nearby drainage. It’s a classic and Ian had never done it. 2 hours of hiking, 4 roped pitches of Cody WI4, 7 rappels and a 1 hour hike out we arrived back at the car and met Brendan and Mac.
I told Brendan – my partner for the next day – that I was pretty smoked and wanted to do a more chill climb the next day. Ian piped up and told me that he had done Cabin Fever to Wyoming Wave the year before and really liked it.
“It’s a casual WI3,” he reassured me. “Totally chill!”
That night we had spaghetti and washed it down with plenty of Carlo & Rossi jug wine. It would be cool; tomorrow’s climb was a cruiser.
It seemed the alarm went off minutes after we went to bed. I rolled out and made coffee while Mac worked on making breakfast, my head still throbbing from the Rossi.
“It’ll be alright,” I told myself. I had an hour drive to the South Fork, probably and hour hike and then a nice rest-day climb.
“Sand-bagging son-of-a-bitch,” I muttered as we turned the corner in the creek bed and Cabin Fever gave me the evil eye. Ian had played the classic trick of sand-bagging your buddy to make him squirm, and I fell for it.
Cabin Fever was no “cruiser”. It looked like the Designator in East Vail but 25 feet longer, with more overhanging ice and water running down much of its 150 feet.
I figured that if we didn’t do it we wouldn’t be climbing that day. I couldn’t ask Brendan to lead it. He had just started leading ice. Pride wouldn’t let me grovel back to Ian and tell him that I couldn’t climb his “WI3” recommendation. I scoped it out, chose my line and racked my screws.
Fifty feet into it I had hacked my way through a funky traverse with ice breaking off in sheets on each swing and was positioned under the 70 feet of vertical ice with the crux 2/3rds of the way up that section. I was feeling good and climbing well, especially given the hurdles that the Carlo & Rossi threw at me.
I climbed to the crux, rifled in a screw and charged the next 15 feet of overhanging, bulgy ice. Once through it, I knew that not only had I lead the hardest route of my last 3 seasons, but probably my hardest route of the trip. I topped out and put Brendan on belay.
In a twisted way I’ve always laughed and taken pride in the sounds of my second struggling up something that I just led. It means that it was hard and that you weren’t being a Nancy when you pondered coming down before the crux. Brendan’s expletives and grunts validated my lead. I laughed to myself like a kid who just put a tack on a substitute teacher’s chair.
The rest of that climb was great, though nothing there is a gimme. Our last day we climbed another Cody classic, Broken Hearts. That night, with an urgency to get home to my family coupled with sadness at leaving the beautiful South Fork, I packed my bags to go home.
After all, that’s the sign of a spectacular road trip; feeling tired and ready to go home, but knowing that you’ll miss where you are. It was a good trip.
February 5, 2008 — It’s that time of year. I’ve had a solid 3 months of ice climbing in Summit and Eagle County and the travelin’ Jones is sneaking up on me. I’m in luck because the urge to roam is infecting my climbing partners too, none of us road trip as much as we used to. Life gets in the way. We have responsibility, wives, children, mortgages and careers (well, at least some of us do). The trips get fewer and farther between and some of my climbing partners have moved to other parts of the country.
You could look at the reduction in road trips as a bummer but not me…responsibility makes these trips even sweeter. They were a dime a dozen 5 years ago. I actually had a summer where I was on a climbing road trip every weekend for 4 months. The secret to grown-up road tripping is quality over quantity. The recipe; make the trips be to the best places, with tried and true friends, for longer durations. Cody, WY has become the road trip destination of choice for my ice climbing partners and me for those reasons.
Cody – located about 9 hours from Vail – is arguably the best ice climbing in the lower 48 states. It’s certainly the best ice climbing destination I’ve been to. It’s the type of place where you do one climb a day because few are less than 3 pitches with very spirited approaches. Alpine starts are a must and lots of times you still finish in the dark. Signs that read “Grizzly Bear Area: Special Rules Apply” add an element of spice to every day too. Yeah, I know they are supposed to hibernate but who says they are? Personally though…I like knowing grizzlies are out there. In today’s world it’s nice to be reminded that we are not #1 on the food chain. Cody is adventure climbing at its best and a great place to see if you have what it takes to climb big routes. You’ve got to be in shape, fast, used to traveling light and able to V-thread and build natural anchors to get off the routes. Being a masochist doesn’t hurt either, after all ice climbing is pain.
Local Climbing Shop: Core Mountain Sports www.coremountainsports.com
Place to stay: Bison Willy’s Base Camp www.bisonwillys.com
SoundTrack for a trip to Cody: Old School Punk and Metal (examples: TOOL & Bad Religion)
Grub and Beer: Can’t remember names but after a day of climbing in Cody anything tastes good. The main street is full of bars and restaurants.
Like so many things in life, the road trip is as much about the journey as the destination. I can’t wait to spend 9 hours in the car with 3 of my best friends. It is how you find out about new music and new books, it’s where you come up with classic one-liners and inside jokes that last decades and most importantly, it’s where you are reminded that among good friends 12 months with little conversation is no hurdle at all. It’s funny how the conversations can pick right back up where they we left off on the last road trip. Especially over the shitty coffee that is in every gas station between here and Casper. Thankfully Starbucks hasn’t caught on in Wyoming yet.
Getting ready to climb 5 days in Cody is no small undertaking. Luckily for those of us living in the Vail Valley there is ample training ground. Although I generally don’t top rope much, I’ve been doing as many laps on the leads we put up as I can get a belay for. I climb until my fore arms scream! You have to in order to be ready for the length of the climbs in Cody. Climbing with a pack doesn’t hurt either. You always have one with you on climbs up there and if you haven’t done it, it takes some getting used to. Firehouse is a great place to do a training day, with its ample lines. You can easily do five different lines up there in an outing and the hike in is no slouch either. Anyway you cut it you want to log some serious time on the ice.
January 31, 2008 —
East Vail is known throughout Colorado and North America as home to some great mixed ice climbing. For those unfamiliar with the term, mixed climbing involves scaling routes that offer both rock and ice climbing moves in crampons and with ice tools. Although it sounds unnatural and takes some getting used to, mixed climbing has become extremely popular in recent years, so much so that some climbers spend more time climbing rock with their tools than ice.
Arriving in East Vail to try a mixed route can be a real smack down on the psyche and physical self without a little guidance. First, there are numerous bolted mixed routes in East Vail, second until a few years ago some of the hardest mixed routes in the United States were located here. Amphibian M9 WI5+/6, Red Bull & Vodka M8+ (2 pitches) and Fatman & Robin M9 are just a few of the routes that would be a crushing first mixed route to try. Like anything, start easy and build from there. Jack Roberts’ book Colorado Ice highlights many of the mixed routes in the area although it’s not all inclusive as new routes go up each year.