Outdoors: The hard route | AspenTimes.com

Outdoors: The hard route

Max Vadnais
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Jerod MendoliaGlenwood's Jim Cowley works his way up Lincoln Falls, outside Breckenridge, as Max Vadnais belays on a recent trip.

ALMA, Colo. – Two weeks ago, my phone rang while I was sitting at my desk at the Times. I looked down to see my friend Jimmy calling.

We joked last winter that we had two different groups of friends for climbing – one in the summer and one in the winter. Jimmy was a winter climbing team member. I thought to myself, “Why would he be calling?” There was no snow on the mountain, and there was no way there could be ice anywhere.

Or so I thought.

“Want to climb some ice?” he asked.

“Where could we possibly climb ice?” I replied.

“Lincoln falls is in,” he calmly responded.

My mind began swirling with anticipation. It seemed way too early in the season for any ice to be set up, but if anyone knew, it was Jim. He told me that he and others had taken a trip up there during the first week of November 2011, and the ice had been good. We decided to go check it out.

After I hung up the phone, I was instantly a bit more nervous than I had been just five minutes before. Ice season is one of commitment that sharpens concentration and reminds us how dangerous winter can be in the great state of Colorado. With heated streets in Snowmass Village and heated sidewalks in Aspen, along with high-end restaurants and clothing stores, it is too easy to feel coddled and safe. Sometimes you have to break out and get scared.

As I packed my gear the night before departure, it all seemed surreal. Weren’t we just playing volleyball last weekend at Koch Park? With all my stuff packed and the winter kit assembled, I brought my bag to work and was ready to bust out and get to high camp as early as possible that afternoon. As I walked through town on a balmy afternoon in which temperatures hovered in the 60s, I received many stares from people who no doubt were thinking I was crazy for having this huge pack with ice axes strapped to the back. At that moment, I thought I might be a bit crazy, too.

I met my friend in Glenwood, and we drove up I-70 really not knowing what to expect or if we would even be able to do any climbing. As we passed Vail, we were hoping to see the classics such as the Fang, the Spiral Staircase and the Dragon’s Tongue with blue ice, but instead we were greeted with absolutely nothing. There wasn’t even any water soaking the rock. We were discouraged but not defeated, and we decided to keep rolling toward Mt. Lincoln, still having faith that there would be something to bury an ice ax in.

We stopped off in Frisco to get the remaining supplies for camp, and then hit the road through Breckenridge, over Hoosier Pass and toward Alma, where we camped. At the top of the pass, with Mt. Lincoln to our right, we were able to see the ice fall.

It looked to be in.

We instantly got excited and drove down to Montgomery Reservoir to get a better look. Once down low, the ice looked even better, and we were convinced that the next day we would be climbing ice. We drove past Alma to camp for the night, and then waited for our third member of the climbing team, Jerod, to arrive from Colorado Springs.

We woke up slightly hung over from the camp whiskey that helped keep us warm the night before and drove through Alma. We stopped and grabbed coffee, some food and headed back over to the reservoir hoping that temperatures would remain cold enough for us to get in as many laps as possible. After gearing up, we hiked through fields of scree and reached the base of Lincoln Falls.

We set up an anchor, and Jimmy began the first lead of the year. I was a little concerned that the ice was going to be soft and not really hold, but as he climbed higher, Jimmy kept relaying down how solid it was. My angst turned to pure joy.

It was officially ice season again.

Jimmy set up an anchor up top, and we lapped the various routes until the early afternoon. It felt so good to be swinging an ice ax again, and as we climbed, we joked about all the people in Aspen enjoying the last remnants of warm weather before the winter comes around again.

Around 3 p.m., the ice definitely showed signs of deterioration, and we decided that it was not worth it to continue. By this point, water was sheeting down the middle under the ice, and there were a few spots that we were able to punch through. We packed the gear and headed back to the car content in knowing that we had just climbed perhaps the only vertical ice in the state.

We cracked a beer at the car and looked up at the falls while smiling and laughing. We changed into shorts and T-shirts and began the drive back to the Roaring Fork Valley.

What a great way to kick off ice season.


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