What happens when an ice-climbing newbie attempts to scale a 70-foot frozen waterfall? Great things.
Of the many songs about waterfalls — Jimi Hendrix's "May This Be Love," Beyoncé's "Rocket," My Morning Jacket's "In Its Infancy" — none of them suggest you should actually climb said waterfalls.
I'm barreling toward my first ice-climbing adventure, feeling more than a little nervous. My mind crawls toward more musical references: TLC's clear warning against chasing waterfalls; Coldplay equating nature's spouts with crying because "Every Teardrop is a Waterfall." Neither message fills me with confidence.
The goal today is to summit Lower Ames Falls — a roughly 70-foot sheet of ice in the San Juan Mountains, about twelve miles outside Telluride, Colorado. This area is an ice-climber's haven, with beginner routes, like the one I'm about to tackle, as well as the legendary Bridal Veil Falls — at 365 feet, Colorado's tallest frozen cascade. The climb had been closed for decades, as the area was part of private property owned by the Idarado Mining Company. However, after the Trust for Public Land stepped in and helped transfer a strip of terrain, including the base of the waterfall, to the city of Telluride, Bridal Veil opened to climbers in late 2008. For my own, equally exciting (but far less treacherous) climb, I'll be using ice tools (similar to pickaxes, but with curved shafts), crampons (clawed foot pieces strapped to boots), a harness, and rope (for backup if I fall — gulp).
Not only is this my first ice experience, it's my first time climbing, period. I don't even have a rocky scramble under my belt. But finding myself in something of an adrenaline rut, I've decided to employ a new approach: Say yes to everything, even adventures that terrify me. So when a local tour guide in Telluride suggested ice climbing, I didn't counter that I preferred my usual vacation activities (hot tubbing and hot toddy sipping). I said yes.
Which is how I find myself in an SUV heading towards Ames Valley with two fellow climbers, both men, and our guide, Stephen Burns of Mountain Trip. We met an hour ago in Mountain Trip's downtown Telluride headquarters for gear fitting — where I realize I've already made a critical error. Rather than hydrating and resting up, I spent last night sampling flatliners, Telluride's signature espresso-martini-esque cocktail, all over town. (Psst… they're delicious at the New Sheridan Hotel and The Liberty Bar & Lounge.) That, coupled with the fact that I have the upper-body strength of a jellyfish, have me worried. But Stephen assures me I won't have a problem. "If you can climb a ladder, you can do this," he says.
I feel better as we pull into the climb site's parking lot. Until I spy a sign with a small plaque in the corner. Fearful that it's the gravesite of a first-time climber — her epitaph reading, "Here lies an amateur climber who tumbled to her demise as TLC lyrics flashed through her head" — I run over to investigate. Thankfully, this is no gravesite, just a sign marking an "Electrical Engineering Milestone." We're standing in front of the historic Ames Station, the site of the world's first long-distance transmission of alternating current (AC) in 1891. It's the place that proved Nikola Tesla's idea of electricity a success.
After taking a moment to appreciate the engineering shrine, we slip into our harnesses, gather our gear, and hike fifteen minutes through snowy woods to the base of Lower Ames. Once there, we get to see ice climbing in action, watching Stephen make his way up the waterfall first to set up the ropes that we will use to climb. But because he's a pro, the lesson is quick, and in no time he's back at the bottom asking, "Who's up first?"
"YES!" I shout, raising a hand and a crampon-ed foot.
"When you use the ice tools," Stephen coaches, "think of flicking the wrist, rather than swinging your whole arm. And keep your legs wide for a greater base of support. You're almost making a triangle — your legs wider than your upper body."
With those final words, I'm off. I flick each ice tool, then kick each foot into the ice, steadily climbing to the top. Flick, flick, kick, kick. Flick, flick, kick, kick… After I've been at it for what feels like ages, I turn to peek at everyone below, sure that they'll resemble ants by now. To my chagrin, everyone is the same size because I'm only eight feet off the ground.
I pick up the pace and soon things are looking up, both literally and figuratively, until I reach a mound of protruding ice, a frozen bubble. "If you want a challenge, go right over it," Stephen shouts. "Otherwise, head to your left for an easier route." Two roads diverged in a frozen fall, and I — well, I take the easier one, obviously.
Not that the "easier" route is effortless either. In my quest to go left, I kick my foot and it doesn't catch. Instead, both feet slide out from under me, and I'm hanging from only the ice tools. I regain my footing, but my confidence is gone. I'm now stuck between a bubble and a hard place and I don't know what to do. I spy an inlet, almost a cave, carved into the sleek terrain and consider crawling in there and staying forever. Please forward my mail and send breakfast burritos! I want to yell to my pals below. To make matters worse, another group of climbers have arrived and are patiently waiting for their turn on Ames. Now I have survival anxiety and stage fright.
Summoning the spirit of Tesla, I remind myself what feats of humanity have been accomplished on these same grounds. If 19th-century engineers could shoot currents of electricity across miles of harrowing topography, surely I can shimmy up an ice cube.
Ice Cube! That's it! I think to myself. You can do it, put your back into it, I sing as I rest my rear on the side of the cave, giving me the mobility to hook my ice tools and hoist my feet without fear of slipping.
Undoubtedly, this has to be the ugliest climb the sport has seen — no mountaineering service worth their weight in Colorado ore would recommend my "booty bounce" technique. For a moment I even consider asking everyone to look away (not the brightest idea if someone is belaying you). But in the end, my method gets the job done. Once I clear the bubble, it's just a few more flicks and kicks and I make it to the top.
Coming down is easy. "Just sit back into the harness and walk your feet along the ice," Stephen yells, as he safely guides me to the bottom. From there it's all high-fives and congratulations, once I peel the tools from my weary hands. I apologize to the group behind us for taking so long, but they graciously insist that no apology is necessary.
What felt like an eternity was probably only 30 minutes. As the other two men in my group each take a turn, I marvel at what I've accomplished. I've proved myself a match for Mother Nature, outwitted the laws of physics, harnessed the power of throwback tunes… all because I said yes.
As the last climber finishes, Stephen asks if I'd like to go again. "Well… ummm…" I stall, still feeling the fatigue in my forearms.
"Or we could head to Tacos del Gnar for lunch," suggests one of my fellow climbers.
"YES!" I cheer, practically jumping out of my crampons, my body already primed for a queso-based adventure. "Yes, yes, yes."
See Ice Climbing in Action
To see what ice climbing looks like at elite levels (spoiler: you won't see much of the booty-bounce technique), check out footage from the 2021 Ouray Ice Festival and Competition. The annual event takes place at the Ouray Ice Park, about an hour from Telluride. Every winter "ice farmers" spray water down the canyon walls of the Uncompahgre Gorge to create the park's 100-plus climbs. While the festival normally draws hundreds of climbers and spectators, organizers kept crowds to a minimum this year due to Covid-19 by reimagining the event as a virtual extravaganza. Lucky for us, this means they captured plenty of ice-filled footage.