Ice Climbing in Vail, CO
Justin and I kept telling each other over and over on the phone we weren't kidding, all the while just waiting for the other person to give in and come up with an excuse why it couldn't happen. Cool part is... the excuse never came. So here we were, hopping off the plane in Denver with packs full of gear getting ready for something we'd been fantasizing over for months. ICE!!!
Rewind a little bit and I'll fill in the "why". You see, we knew where our climbing was headed. We wanted to start tagging some alpine routes that would put us in a spot where we'd eventually be over our head when it came to dealing with ice. That, is not a good place to find yourself either. Knowing that, we set out to find some sort of instruction for dealing with ice in an alpine environment. Now unfortunately our "ice season" (chuckles) in WA is less than predictable. Since we knew we'd have to fly somewhere to find it then we set out to find one of the best spots to ice climb. That's how we ended up in the tiny town of Vail, CO.
Picking a guiding company is a tough one. We knew what we wanted. We wanted punishment. We didn't want our hands held. We didn't want someone to be forcing us to sit through hours of classroom time going over how to get geared up in rental gear that reeked of fear and sweat. Nope! We wanted to show up geared up and ready to climb then have someone push us constantly for two days straight. We wanted to learn every last little detail about ice climbing we could from building anchors, leading, ice quality, tool choice, rope choice, and so forth. Surprisingly, it's not that easy to find a company to do this. Most give the attitude of they'd rather you just sign up for their cookie-cutter ice climbing day where everyone sits around and the guides do everything for you. Nope! Well, lucky for us here's where Apex Mountain School came in. The stoke was high talking with these guys on the phone, and in very short order they had us dialed in with someone they thought would give us exactly what we were looking for. Insert bad-ass guide Jesse Ramos.
We flew into Denver, rented a car, and headed up to Vail on Friday night. Vail sits at 8,000ft or so this was quite obvious to us sea-level boys. Scratchy dry throats, a little headache, but all in all we felt pretty decent. At 8am we meet Jesse at the Apex office, and to our surprise I think we were back on the road in about 10min. This guy was serious about getting us some pick time! Day one we made a very casual approach up to an area called Pumphouse (WI3 and WI4 routes) right above a golf course. Yes, I just said right above a golf course, lol. You could see the highway from there! This was our first experience with, "Holy shit that's a lot of ice!". Jesse wasted no time leading the route and setting a top rope for us to climb on. For the first 1/2 of the day we had the entire place to ourselves, and ran lap after lap up the different routes. Jesse struck a killer balance of pushing us, teaching us, and letting us dial in some ourselves. Everything was falling into place perfectly! As you know Justin and I are a bit (ok maybe a lot) of gear dorks so for us to show up with untested, but highly researched, gear and have it be perfect was such a wonderful relief. All we had to do was just climb! When 4pm rolled around our arms were pretty tired, our smiles permanent, and I don't think anything could beat that high.
Day one went so good (pat on our own backs here for stepping up and focusing) Jesse upped the game for day two with a little multi-pitch action. We got an earlier start that day to make sure we were the first ones out there, and hiked up and around the amphitheater to a route called Staircase. We ran a couple laps on that practicing cleaning gear, and then continued on up a steep gully to an area called the Belfry. Our jaws hit the floor as we were greeted by an absolutely stunning cave that was overhung by numerous little frozen falls. In this area we focused on two routes; Pencil and Eraser (WI4). Man, this was just awesome. We did more ice screw placement, mock leading, and cleaning. We just kept just muttering how this couldn't get any better. The ice was in great shape, it was beautiful, our guide was like the coolest guy ever, and the weather was great. Huge win all around!
After getting all geared up with rappelled back down the gully off the V-thread I built (super cool!), and then did one final rappel back down the Staircase to the trail. We descended from there via a much steeper, but shorter, route back down to the golf course area and in no time we were back at the car.
We had plenty of time to look back over the weekend on the drive back to Denver since we got caught in a snowstorm and it almost doubled the travel time. I really don't think it could have gone any better. Jesse far beyond exceeded our expectations. He read us right, gave us room at the right times, and spoke up when we needed to listen and learn. He never once felt like a "guide". More of just a very experienced friend that were out climbing with. Our tool choice with the Camp X-All Mountains was perfect. I can't think of a better set of ice tools for the thin ice in the cascades. Our climbing ability was right where we had hoped it would be too, and I'd even venture to say we surprised ourselves a couple times. We sent about 95% of the routes we did, and it was a big confidence booster knowing our training is really paying off. About the only lesson we came across that was a real big eye opener was endurance. Yeah, we went out there and threw up 7-8 pitches a day or something like that, but if we want to step up our game to get some more difficult routes marked off the list we need to be able to do double that, do them back-to-back, and all that after a massive approach. So we headed back happy, but also focused even more than ever on training and endurance.
Thanks again to Apex Mountain School, and Jesse Ramos for such a killer ice climbing experience. Can't recommend these guys enough!