Day 9 - Dreaming of Ouray

Jay PaulDec 21 · 5 min read

During the month of December, Buddy will highlight, the Twelve Days of Fearlessness. Whether it is getting up the nerve to lace up your old ice skates with your five-year-old or conquering a halfpipe like your teenage days, fearlessness is not just situational for all- for some, it is a way of life.

Jay before the climb

Working for Buddy has its perks. Being that we work in the indoor industry and that we are all outdoor enthusiasts, we encourage each other to get outside and play in the wilderness as much as possible. In addition, we work with some of the most badass associations in the country. From the Mountain Bike Association of Arizona to The Colorado Mountain Club, we get to travel the country and rub shoulders with our outdoor brothers and sisters all year long. At least until February last year when travel ceased and we began working remotely.

In 2019, I was hopscotching across the country to attend all sorts of exciting events. This year I have not been on a plane since early February and the furthest I’ve traveled from home since is a paltry 300 mile trip to the North Carolina mountains. So as I sit on this cold winter day here in my Richmond, Virginia home office the week before Christmas, I find myself dreaming of Ouray, Colorado and the last time I went on a real adventure.

For those of you not familiar with Ouray, it is the ice climbing mecca of America. Situated in a box canyon in South Western Colorado, it is a relatively short drive from Telluride. The town itself is only about 8 blocks long and the population hovers around a 1,000.

The town has an Old West feel to it, but one quickly discerns from the clothes and boots folks are wearing, the town is populated by hardcore climbers, back country skiers, mountain bikers and other wilderness addicts. I’ve never seen so many people carrying a rope when just walking the streets. It reminded me of Chamonix. As winter sets in, the town becomes inundated with ice climbers of every level of skill. From the best in the world, to hacks like myself who love the sound of an axe in ice, but wouldn’t trust a self-placed ice screw for anything in the world.

In early February, one of my longtime climbing partners, Brad Cann, and I got the itch for adventure and decided Ouray was the place to be. The super cool thing about winter in Ouray is that it has a man-made ice park with literally hundreds of routes for climbers of every level and they are all of a five minute walk from town. Just a few miles out of town and into the backcountry, there are dozens of natural ice features— basically frozen waterfalls— that offer climbers the real thing. As there is no walk up access to the top of these features, they all have to be lead climbed.

Leading ice is a completely different game then rock as the basic protection are ice screws. They need to be tapped into the ice and then screwed by hand about 4 inches deep. If set right in good ice, they are completely bombproof. If set in manky ice, all bets are off. We were lucky to be climbing on deep, hard blue ice. It couldn’t have been much better.

Even though Brad and I have both been ice climbing numerous times, for guys like us, the best way to protect ourselves and save an awful lot of time in route finding, we hired a guide for the three days we were in Ouray. We used the renowned guide service, International Mountain Guides (IMG). These guys take clients all over the world for big mountain expeditions. Brad had employed IMG on his summit attempt on Everest a few years prior. He made it to within 400 feet of the summit before he had to abandon his efforts due to a frozen oxygen tank, but that is another story for later. On this trip, our guide was Eric Remiza.

On day one we went to the giant ice park which is basically a huge natural gorge with thick white ice that was created by human ingenuity in that at the top of the gorge there is a water pipe that every evening releases water onto the gorge walls and freezes into some of the best and safest ice in the world for climbing. There are literally hundreds of routes spanning every degree of difficulty. It was great to sow our oats at the park before heading into the backcountry for some frozen waterfall ascents.

Our day at the park was spent top-roping routes, which is the safest way to climb bringing little hazard of injury other than falling ice or a poor belay. We worked on our ice tool (axe) skills and front-pointing with crampons. It’s an amazing feeling when an ice tool sinks into good ice. That thunk sound and the sudden dead weight you feel the tool is incredibly gratifying. We climbed from easy to harder single pitch routes and by day’s end we were comfortable on the ice and comfortable keeping at least three points attached at all times.

Jay climbing Chappo's Chimney
Climbing Chappo's Chimney

After a great day of climbing at the park we headed back to town for a drink and dinner by a fire at a crowded restaurant (sidenote: Remember crowded restaurants? It’s been a while). The next morning we met up with Eric early and drove up the snow covered back roads into the mountains. We parked and hiked about a mile further up the road, which was now closed to traffic, until we came to one of the most spectacular frozen waterfalls I’ve ever seen. It was very cold, and despite being layered up with all the right gear the chill still sunk in. Like all climbing, sorting gear, setting up anchors and starting a pitch takes time. It is especially time-consuming when you have on thick winter clothes, crampons, and carrying ice tools. It’s a pretty complicated process when you compare it to sport climbing on a local crag.

We did two routes that day, and the first one, Chappo’s Chimney, was my favorite. It was a two-pitch climb that ended with a narrow band of ice between two rock walls. I belayed Eric up the route as he set anchors and placed screws. It was super impressive to watch a skilled alpinist methodically protect the route. I learned a lot that day. Most importantly, I learned just how much I didn’t know. It had been a long time since I’d been on backcountry ice, and to be frank, I was a little nervous. A good nervous that allows one to truly focus.

After Eric topped out and set up a complex anchor system, I seconded the route with Brad following behind me on a second rope. The whole climb took about 3 hours and it was one of the most fun climbing experiences I had in my life.

By the end of our second route, we were exhilarated and exhausted from the day’s efforts. By the third day, we had honed our skills considerably and felt comfortable on routes that two days before seemed beyond us. Eric, our guide, was patient, instructive and told great stories about his mountain adventures across the world. While Brad and I had a few of our own, they did not top Eric’s who has seen a thing or two.

As far as mountain adventures go, it doesn’t get much better than ice climbing in Ouray, where even a beginner can jump in and have a blast. As I sit here at my desk I am pining a return to days when we can again move about the country freely and experience all the wonders the outdoor world has to offer.

jay and brad
Brad and I before an ascent

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