I can hear a distant gurgling, like I’m crawling up the frozen skin of a living, breathing thing.
Really, though, I’m clinging to the surface of a frozen waterfall outside of Telluride, Colo., trusting my life to a pair of ice axes, boots with menacing spikes at the toe and a safety harness. The noise comes from a trickle of water somewhere deep inside the icy formation.
I look down. Far below, a half-dozen pea-size people in colorful insulated jackets wave up at me. Two are guides; the rest have come, like me, to try their hand at ice climbing.
First, you should know that I’m afraid of heights. I don’t particularly like to climb rocks, either. But in rock climbing you reach for certain handholds, and if you can’t get them, your career as a gecko quickly ends. In ice climbing, the options spill over a crystallized wall in nearly limitless abundance — you can whack your ax just about anywhere to get a grip.
The Ouray Ice Park, an hour's drive from Telluride, gets all the attention. It features some 200 named climbing routes, but the park is created with the help of manufactured spigots that drip water over a rocky gorge, and it’s often packed with people.
This place, a 10-minute drive from Telluride, was crafted entirely by Mother Nature, and the setting feels sort of like a cathedral, the way it’s nestled into an oval opening in the pines. Some climbers say they prefer the “feel” of natural ice, too, because it’s less brittle.
“You’re climbing a real frozen waterfall, and you don’t get crowds here,” says Josh Butson, owner of San Juan Outdoor Adventures, which provides ice climbing experiences for kids and adults.
Butson handed out climbing boots, crampons and harnesses to our small group at the trailhead, and we geared up before making the 15-minute hike through a national forest to the frozen waterfall. (Note: Walk with a wide stance or you might catch your spiked boots on your pant legs and rip them like I did.)
Snow was falling when we arrived. The waterfall tops out at about 80 feet and spills down the cliff wall in a rippling slide of blue-gray ice, frosted in white.
Telluride is surrounded by easily accessible routes and climbs, from beginner places like this one to more advanced routes. The most famous? Bridal Veil Falls, at 365 feet, Colorado’s tallest free-falling waterfall.
I’m not ready for that one just yet, but I am ready for a second trek up Ames. This time, I feel more comfortable. Butson hollers at me not to “starfish,” or spread-eagle my arms and legs as I inch my way up the wall. Instead, I should get into a rhythmic “ax, kick, kick” motion, keeping my feet at more or less the same level as I go.
I get to the top, stab the toes of my boots solidly into the ice and bend around to watch another climber make her way up the waterfall about 15 feet away. Then it’s time to come down. I lean back in my harness and slowly creep down the wall, like a spider gliding down her silk strand.
San Juan Outdoor Adventures leads half-day and full-day ice climbing trips, along with avalanche training and survival schools. This year, it teamed with the Hotel Telluride to offer a Two Picks and a Prayer package that includes a half-day of ice climbing, plus lodging, breakfast and post-climbing massages. No previous experience is required.
When I reach the bottom, I’m spent. Butson points me toward a thermos of hot cocoa, which warms me to the core.
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