The ice felt slick below my Scarpa mountaineering boots. Just a few miles into Rocky Mountain National Park, we were past the “weekend warriors:” snow shoers and urbanites clad in the latest REI, Target and WalMart gear money can buy. We however, moved fast and light with just ice tools, a rope, ice and rock pro and some filled thermoses and snacks. Joey Thomson, an AMGA guide with the Colorado Mountain School and I were making great time. We were headed for some classic alpine ice up on Thatchtop Peak’s Northwest Face.
The spine of a long-gone mountain goat lay across the top of the snow covered talus slope. The slick nature of rock hopping had my heart fluttering. “Shit,” I thought to myself. “If it’s this sketchy here…then I can’t imagine what’s up ahead.” But in fifteen minutes, we had entered into the start of Thatchtop’s Northwest Face: a slender notch with towering rock on both sides and an ultimate ice fall to our right. This was the real base of the route.
Pouring some hot chicken bouillon out of my thermos, I sipped pensively, studying the ice fall. “Looks a little thin up there, but should be fun man,” Joey said. There’s a feeling I get and have described before that’s unique to alpine climbing where 33% of you wants to start shredding the route, 33% wants to pee your pants, and 33% wants to warm up and go home. I’d say most of the time this ratio gets tipped in favor of the extremely stoked first category, but the delicate balance of thirds is that moment when I find myself wondering “what am I doing here again?”
After a brief nourishing session and rest, we were clinking hardwear. Ice screws, slings, carabiners. This sound always amps up the stoke factor, and before I knew it, Joey was on lead and slowly tooling up the first pitch. Belaying out of the way of the golfball and softball sized ice chunks that were flying down the frozen waterfall, I watched him eventually top out into the tiny notch. A few minutes passed as he built his anchor. I couldn’t hear him at all and he was out of sight, but then I felt a tug on my harness. “That’s me!” I shouted just about as loudly as I could.
Feeling a little uneasy as the wind began to rip harder through the narrow chute, I let my hands and my tools dangle by my sides, rolled my shoulders around and looked up the route. I had to crane my neck to see just where the hell I was headed, and Joey and the top anchor were way out of sight above the frozen cascade. The ice itself looked like the kind that forms in crappy refrigerator freezers if you don’t take care of them. With my first swings however, I felt really good, A-Framed my feet under me and prepared to repeat.
We flashed up the next three pitches. Utilizing some rock pro and minimal screws, we had quick transitions at anchors. One of the beautiful things about climbing alpine is that both climbers are tied together so you can swap leads and transition quickly without fumbling around. The name of the game is speed and efficiency. Heading up the next few pitches, I imagined Ueli Steck, known as the “Swiss Machine.” One of the fastest alpinists in the world, he has one speed in his repertoire: face-meltingly quick. With him in mind, I sought to keep swinging as quickly-and safely-as I could manage.
On the final pitch, the wind was ripping. Joey and I hadn’t talked much–we were both kind of in the zone. At the anchor before this last section, I whipped out my GoPro, got a few pictures and then crushed out. At the top, the wind was ripping and we had climbed into a tiny shrub. Looking down across the park, you could get the feeling that we had gained a lot of elevation really fast. It was gorgeous, but pretty inhospitable. After all, it was the middle of winter in Colorado. Setting our first repel was really awkward, but it wasn’t long before we were zipping down pitches, downclimbing, and then repelling down the super steep first pitch and back on the ground.
Climbing alpine ice really gives you the feeling of being in the mountains. Rather than just around them, you are clinging to them by the tips of your ice tools and the frontpoints of your crampons.I’ve always loved winter, but now I’m addicted. Full blown. People, even climbing friends, ask me “what’s the appeal of climbing ice?” Until you swing that tool, it’s difficult to understand.
As a native Californian and surfer, the only way I can describe it is through a surfing analogy. Bare with me. Swinging ice tools is like getting barreled. Once you start up a route, you’re attached to nature. It’s a unique experience. Just like when in a barrel surfing, it’s a completely ephemeral part of nature. While everything–including rock and us–will one day wear down to dust, there’s something about water and ice that seems even less permanent. Just as the wave will crash and disappear, the ice fall will melt and refreeze, changing throughout the season, eventually melting all together. In these brief moments, simply attaching oneself to something so impermanent for a series of moments brings a feeling of total bliss. That feeling is the feeling that junkies like myself and others seek to perpetuate as much as possible. You know who you are.
Route description for Thatchtop’s Northwest Face:
Check out Joey’s tip for building ice anchors: