First Strike

Get a jump on ice season with classic autumn climbs

Ice climbers, like alpinists, have short memories. Come fall, the wet ropes, overburdened packs, and screaming barfies of the previous winter are long forgotten. As the Internet lights up with rumors of fresh ice, climbers start yearning for those first swings—or perhaps delicate taps—into glassy smears and dripping pillars. Early season ice climbing has its issues, though. The few routes in condition are often crowded, and the ice is usually thin or poorly bonded; protection possibilities can be scant compared with the thick blue and yellow ice of midwinter. And there’s another problem. As the Colorado-based guide Vince Anderson has written, “Ice climbing season often happens in reverse: You get your toughest, most rewarding moments early on, and then things progressively get less challenging through the season.” In other words, you’ll face the thinnest ice of the year when both your tools and skills are still rusty.

But autumn ice has distinct advantages, too. Approaches that would require long slogs on skis or snowshoes in midseason can be simple strolls before deep snow piles up. Avalanche danger is at a minimum, and stoke is at its max. Although climate change may have pushed back opening day of the season by a few weeks in most parts, the seven cliffs and peaks featured here reliably hold the year’s first climbable ice. You’ve enjoyed enough warm, dry rock this year. It’s time to get frosty.

Ranger Creek, Kananaskis Country, Alberta

Kai Hirvonen works out the early session kinks on R&D in Alberta's Kananaskis Country. Photo by Rich Wheater

You’d expect to find early ice in the Canadian Rockies, where winter temperatures often drop below –30°F. For their first strikes, Alberta climbers usually head to Kananaskis area. “‘K’ Country is the usual season opener around here,” says Will Gadd, who lives in nearby Canmore. “If you look at the ice conditions archives, it’s surprising how often October 14, or a few days either way, mark the start of the season.” Located along the Smith-Dorien/Spray Trail, a gravel road linking Canmore with Kananaskis Country, the Ranger Creek area, south of Burstall Pass, has high avalanche danger in midwinter, but is usually safe and easy to approach in late fall. R&D (WI4+) is the classic, with a long, steep WI4 column on the first pitch, followed by rambling easy ice to the top, about 45 minutes from the car. Farther up the same drainage, Lone Ranger (WI3) and The Chalice and the Blade (WI5) offer additional steep challenges.

  • Nearby: Gadd says, “The Trophy Wall on Mt. Rundle [home to testpieces like The Terminator and Sea of Vapours] is often good to go by November 1 or so, and the local ice season is in full swing by November 15.”
  • Guidebook: Waterfall Ice, by Joe Josephson (out of print; new edition due in 2013)
  • Opening Date: October 14
  • Conditions: gravsports-ice.com; acmg.ca/mcr

 

Kevin Cooper in balance on pitch two of Longs Peak's Smear of Fear in mid-October. Photo by Topher Donahue

Longs Peak, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Locals in nearby Estes Park are often secretive about the routes that are in shape on Longs Peak—and you would be too if your ice season was so short and so fickle. Climbable ice sometimes forms on this 14,259-foot beast as early as late September, but it’s usually gone by Thanksgiving. Such is ice climbing on the Rockies’ northernmost Fourteener, where wind and deep cold erase the early season lines. Of the two most famous climbs on Longs’ east face, one is a perennial favorite and one is a rare prize.

The prize is the Smear of Fear (WI5 M6), a ribbon of steep ice that stretches more than 250 feet down the lower east face and seldom touches the ground; usually, you have to negotiate a 5.10 mixed traverse to reach the ice. Because this climb is so tough at the start—and comes into condition before most other ice in the state—it can be a rude start to the season. If you find the Smear touching the ground, you may have the same experience the author and his partner did: After tapping tools into the half-inch-thick ice, neither had the cojones to climb the 40 feet to thicker ice.

Fortunately, the perennial favorite, a much easier option, is just up the hill to the left: Alexander’s Chimney (WI4 M4), a three- or four-pitch line of thin runnels and moderately difficult mixed climbing, with a fun crux that passes under a huge chockstone and exits with well-protected dry-tooling.

  • Nearby: Classic routes such as Necrophelia (WI4+ M6) and Deep Freeze (WI5 M5), above The Loch in Rocky Mountain National Park, often come into shape as early as October. On Pikes Peak, just west of Colorado Springs, you can drive within a 45-minute walk of two classic three-pitch climbs above 13,000 feet when the toll road is open.
  • Guidebook: Rocky Mountain National Park: High Peaks, by Bernard Gillett (earthboundsports.com)
  • Opening Date: October 15
  • Conditions: mountainproject.com; look for “2012-2013 Colorado Ice Conditions” thread

 

Stephen Koch snags the first ascent of pitch two on Aaron's Gift on Carter Mountain in late October. Photo by Aaron Mulkey

Carter Mountain, Cody, Wyoming

The river-carved, high-desert hill country around Cody holds pockets of world-class ice routes. Most, like the coveted walls above the South Fork of the Shoshone River, southwest of town, don’t come in until November. But don’t worry: You can warm up on good ice by Halloween on 11,301-foot East Carter Mountain, about 45 minutes from town.

“The first pieces of ice to form are Skirmish (WI3) and Coldwar (WI3/4), about an hour and a half hike from the car,” says local climber Aaron Mulkey. “But Curtains is probably the most well-known because it has only about a 15-minute approach through the woods.” Curtains is a three-pitch WI3, with short pillars broken up by broad ledges. To find it, follow the South Fork Road out of Cody for 15 or so miles, and then turn left on the Carter Mountain Access Road. After 10 miles, you’ll enter a clearing where you should be able to see Curtains and the five or six other routes on Carter Mountain. Continue to a parking spot on the right, and hike up to the climbs. The road often closes in mid-December, but by then the South Fork routes are usually prime.

  • Nearby: The long season in Hyalite Canyon, outside Bozeman, Montana, just a few hours northeast, often begins exceptionally early. Says guidebook author Joe Josephson: “Twin Falls (WI3) is the classic early season climb in Hyalite. I’ve done it as early as mid- October, and it’s almost always a go by Halloween.” Another early season classic is Funeral for a Friend, a 250-foot WI4+ at over 11,000 feet in the Beartooth Mountains, southwest of Red Lodge, Montana.
  • Guidebook: Winter Dance, by Joe Josephson (montanaice.com)
  • Opening Date: October 20
  • Conditions: coldfear.commontanaice.com

Orient Bay, Nipigon, Ontario

By midwinter, the north shore of Lake Superior is like a secret ice climber’s paradise: If you didn’t know better, you’d swear these steep pillars belonged in the Canadian Rockies, and not along a lakefront at 600 feet above sea level. You can find great climbs on both sides of the U.S.-Canada frontier on Superior’s North Shore, but the most reliable early season ice lies north of the border.

“I’ve been ice climbing around the Midwest for 20-plus years, and it’s fickle in the Lower 48,” says James Loveridge, a Black Diamond sales rep from Duluth, Minnesota. “But if you head up to Thunder Bay or Nipigon, Ontario, you’ll get more consistent early ice.” The safest bet is Orient Bay, about six hours’ drive from Duluth, because this gorge is higher and farther from Lake Superior’s relative warmth than the other north-shore areas. “Lately, in a ‘normal’ year, it seems like we're into it by mid-November,” says Nick Buda, a climber based in Thunder Bay. Reliable Orient Bay routes include Mellow Yellow, a long pitch of WI3+, and Hully Gully, a short WI2+—both are just a short hike from Hwy. 11 and are great spots to tune up for the harder routes forming just a few weeks later.

If you're into mixed climbing, certain bolted routes in Orient Bay need little or no ice to be climbable. Standouts include Parsec (M7), Tatooine (M8), and Arrakis (M8+). Buda also recommends the gear-protected Off the Couch (M5–M7).

  • Nearby: Closer to home for Minnesota climbers, Ice Stud (WI2+) is popular two-pitch line at Thunder Bay. Nightfall (WI4), above the Devil Track River near Grand Marais, is perhaps Minnesota’s most famous winter climb, and its two pitches of ice are far enough inland that they may be ready to climb in November.
  • Guidebook: Ice Climbs of the Lake Superior Region; climbingcentral.com
  • Opening Date: November 15
  • Conditions: acctbay.ca/show_ice.php

 

David Cooper on a steep step of the Direct North Face of Peak 12,579', a route that can form up to 1,500 feet long. Photo by Doug Shepherd

South Mineral Creek, Silverton, Colorado

Ice climbing is practically a way of life in southwest Colorado, where the Ouray Ice Park, Camp Bird Road above Ouray, and Telluride’s Bridal Veil Falls spoil locals with easy-access ice for much of the season. But none of these areas come in until winter. Solution? Stop wringing your hands, ditch the waiting game, and head deep into the San Juan Mountains.

The climbs above South Mineral Creek, just west of Silverton, can be too dangerous around mid-December because of high avalanche threat, but in early season, if you’re lucky, you can drive nearly to the base of your route. (Once the road is closed by snow, you have to ski or snowshoe about four miles to the best climbs.) Clint Estes, a climber and member of the board of directors of the Ouray Ice Park, picks the Direct North Face (WI4) of Peak 12,579’ and Campground Couloir (WI3/4) as his early season favorites. The former is an area classic, with up to 1,500 feet of rolling ice and pillars.

  • Nearby: The old mining settlement of Eureka, northeast of Silverton, is another easy-in-autumn/dangerous-in-winter destination with several classic routes. Estes’ early season picks are First Gully and Second Gully, both WI4 routes with four or five pitches. In good years, the classic Stairway to Heaven (WI4, five or six pitches) may be in good shape by early December.
  • Guidebook: Colorado Ice, Vol. 1, by Jack Roberts (amazon.com)
  • Opening Date: November 15
  • Conditions: ourayiceclimbing.blogspot.com; mountainproject.com

Coleman Glacier, Mt. Baker, Washington

Pacific Northwest water-ice conditions are fickle, especially in early season, but the Cascades offer something that most states lack: big glaciers. And glaciers have crevasses and seracs that can be great places to practice ice climbing—even in August or September. Many guide services teach ice techniques in the crevasses on Mt. Rainier, but the most popular and accessible DIY glacier-cragging venue may be the Coleman Glacier on 10,781-foot Mt. Baker.

After hiking a good trail up Heliotrope Ridge for about an hour and a half, climbers drop onto the snout of the massive glacier. In late summer or fall, once Baker’s heavy mantle of snow has melted off, the lower Coleman is a maze of crevasses and corridors. Climbers simply walk up the glacier until they locate a fun wall of blue glacial ice to lead or toprope. You'll find climbs of every angle, up to about 50 feet high, and bulges, fins, and tunnels add unusual interest.

  • Nearby: This area is home to a popular testpiece: the Cosley-Houston Route on Colfax Peak, a sub-peak of Baker. The route rises above the upper Coleman Glacier for three or four pitches, up to WI4, and often is in good condition by October.
  • Guidebooks: Washington Ice: A Climbing Guide, by Jason D. Martin and Alex Krawarik (mountaineersbooks.org); Selected Climbs in the Cascades, Vol. 1, 2nd Edition, by Jim Nelson and Peter Potterfield (mountaineersbooks.org)
  • Opening Date: Labor Day
  • Conditions: cascadeclimbers.com (“Washington Ice Conditions” thread), wastateice.net

 

Majka Burhardt on the Black Dike, an alternative for early fall. Finding much pro in such thin conditions is tricky. Photo by Peter Doucette

Tuckerman Ravine, Mt. Washington, New Hampshire

Tuckerman Ravine, a gorgeous glacial bowl on the east side of Mt. Washington, New England’s highest peak, is more famous for spring skiing than for ice climbing, but before the persistent winter storms fill the ravine with snow, its headwall is lined with ice climbs up to three pitches long. The approach is a broad hiking trail, unlike the dangerous mantraps found in the snowy talus below Cannon Cliff or Huntington Ravine, New Hampshire’s other early season venues. Local guide Mark Synnott recalls hiking up to Tuck’s one fall “when there was no ice anywhere in the White Mountains. People we passed on the trail saw our ice gear and told us in no uncertain terms that we were fools. Then we got up there and climbed three solid pitches through the center headwall. It was outstanding.”

The trail to Tuckerman starts at Pinkham Notch and reaches the Hermit Lake shelters, at the foot of the ravine, in about two hours. From there you can pick out a line on the broad headwall. There are few named routes, but about half a dozen independent lines range from low-angled romps to NEI3 or NEI4 pillars. By Christmas, the climbs are usually buried in snow, and avalanche danger is off the charts.

  • Nearby: Huntington Ravine, just north of Tuckerman, is home to Northeast classics like Odell’s Gully (NEI 2/3) and Pinnacle Gully (NEI 3) that often appear by November or December. The famous Black Dike (NEI 4/5 M3) on Cannon Cliff can be climbed as early as Halloween.
  • Guidebook: An Ice Climber’s Guide to Northern New England, 3rd Edition, by S. Peter Lewis and Rick Wilcox (amazon.com)
  • Opening Date: Thanksgiving
  • Conditions: neice.com

 



Comments

Attracted to Fort Collins because of RMNP. We just moved here and now with the flooding and park closures it's impossible to get up there for a day trip. Any advice for people looking for early season ice up in the poudre canyon, cameron pass, or somewhere off of 14??? We're desperate, please help

Kathleen - 10/05/2013 12:49:30

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