The 5280 Mountain Guide

November 2011

Freeze Frame

How I conquered a wall of ice—by trusting it.

I’m clinging to a slick ledge partway up a giant frozen waterfall, triceps on fire, knees throbbing, wrists aching. I’d spent all morning under the tutelage of Colorado Mountain School ice-climbing guide Joey Thompson. We’d hiked a couple of snowy miles from Rocky Mountain National Park’s Wild Basin entrance to the majestic-looking Hidden Falls, where I’d stepped into a climbing harness. After a prep session to cover the basics—maneuvering with crampons, tying knots for belaying, swinging the ice tools—I’d battled up my first little pitch, learning to chisel out the tiniest of holds despite my pitiful upper body strength.

So here I am, on the mother of ice walls, paralyzed with exhaustion. I have to make a move, but I’m nervous that dislodging a tool will be my demise—likely in some sort of ungraceful drop-bounce-dangle combo. My arms, stretched to staggered points above my head where my tools are hooked in the ice, are losing feeling as the blood drains away. I can taste the panic.

That’s when my guide interjects. “Just shake it out,” he shouts up to me from the base of the falls where he’s working the rope attached to my harness. I risk a glance down over my shoulder. “One at a time—let go of the tool, it won’t go anywhere—and relax your arm. Trust your feet. Trust the ice. Take your time and reposition.”

It’s reassuring to know I can ease up on the white-knuckle grip, and I put my weight on my crampons while I let the pins and needles in my arms subside. A few moves later, the top is within reach. I can feel Thompson pulling me up for the last 15 feet or so—but I’m OK with that. Physically, I might have hit a wall. But mentally, I’d just hurdled it. —Julie Dugdale

Try It

Where: Colorado Mountain School, Estes Park, totalclimbing.com

When: November through April when the ice is solid enough for safe climbing

Cost: Full day (plus $25 gear rental): $170 (group); $150 (custom 4-6) to $295 (private)

Quick Tip: Wearing knee pads under your climbing pants will help prevent bruising.

Also Try: Jack Roberts Climbing Adventures, Boulder, $150 (group) to $275 (private), gear rental included, jackrobertsclimbing.com; Apex Mountain School, Vail, $179 (group) to $350 (private), gear rental included, apexmountainschool.com