Aspen Snow & Ouray Ice

Our winter sucks so my wife gave me a choice: Hawaii or Colorado. To me that isn’t much of a choice – I’ve been to the beach once in 25 years and that was to Thailand where you can step off the sand and clip bolts. Thus after about 2 seconds of debate we bought tickets, packed the ski and ice gear and caught the red eye to Colorado in search of winter.

Yvonne scoping the Maroon Bells from the top of Aspen Highlands.

Aspen Resorts & Sidecountry

The first stop was Aspen where we spent our days skiing with Yvonne’s family. We had two wonderful days of laps in Highland Bowl, a day of skiing icy rocky chutes at Snowmass and a couple half days of bombing the 3,200′ groomed gondola runs at Aspen. We spent our nights eating and drinking over-priced food and beer in fancy restaurants. I’ve spent maybe 25 days total skiing at resorts ever so it was the resort vacation I’ve always read about and quite fun for five days.

North and South Maroon as viewed from Aspen Highlands. The ridge on climbers right is the normal route up North Maroon and where Robert Spurr died in 1995.

Yvonne happy to be away from the Anchorage wind and rain.

On the 6th day I met up local Aspen area CAIC forecaster, Blase Reardon. Blase has been working in the avalanche industry for years and is friends with many of the local Alaskan forecasters and instructors and I was introduced to him through mutual friends. You should never turn down an opportunity to ski Colorado depth hoar with a forecaster so I jumped the opportunity to head out into the backcountry when he invited me to tag along.

The CAIC on the lookout for instablities.

Our group of volunteers gathered early morning and then took to the lifts to the top of Snowmass to avoid 2000′ of wallowing in no and low snow. After topping out on the pommel we then toured down the ridge for about a mile to Baldy, the peak at mid point of the ridge that is just over 13,000.

You know it’s good when the forecaster reverts to the boot stomp during the ECT.

Capital Peak. Hard climbing – harder skiing.

It was a beautiful day in the 20s with low winds and good stability. Blase dug a couple pits and appeared to be bored with the low avalanche danger. The rest of us were happy to hike and ski in the sun. We toured down the ridge and then skied a run off Baldy and down into the beautiful forested valley below before taking a cut-off that deposited us back at the resort.

By the weeks end my legs were jello and my ski bases destroyed – signs of a successful ski vacation. Yvonne and family had to head back to Alaska but I had negotiated an extended stay so I caught the bus out of town and headed south to Ouray to meet up with friends.


A few hours after leaving Aspen I was dangling from an anchor with former climbing partners Dan Herrmann and Austin Thayer. Dan had taken a job in Denver, CO back in the fall and Austin had moved to Farmington, NM about 5 years ago. I had climbed with Dan not too long ago – but Austin and I hadn’t climbed together since 2011. Austin rents a place in Ouray every winter and knows the area like the back of his hand. He can lead WI6 and waltzes up mixed routes with ease. He offered us a place to stay he also spent the week with us playing rope gun and brewery guide.

Sendero Luminoso follows the obvious ridge.

Austin sending warm rock in Feburary.

Ouray ice park.

Years can go by in a wink but when you tie in with old climbing partners and dangle from an anchor it seems as if no time has passed at all. And so we spent the first day together climbing Sendero Luminoso (5.9, 9 pitches), a route that climbs the prominent rock buttress that towers above the west side of town. We wandered up 7 pitches of varying quality rock quality in t-shirts and bright sunshine while looking down at the ice park below.

The sunny side of Ouray.

As the sun set behind the ridge we turned and rapped down eager to sample the local brew pub and scour the guidebook for the ice routes we had come to do.

The Ouray ice park is famous for ease of access and hundreds of routes – but the big routes lie just outside of town. So the next morning we were up early and driving up Camp Bird Road. We stepped out of the car to find no queue at the base of The Ribbon (WI4 200m) and quickly tromped down and over to the base of the route to find beautiful blue ice.

The Ribbon.

Austin getting pumped up for the thin first pitch.

Dan following pitch one.

The Ribbon ascends a beautiful gully for 650′. Numerous climbers had beat the climb to pieces so we quickly ascended the route and rapped off to go climb mixed routes in the sun on the other side of the road.

Dan up pitch two.

Austin up pitch three.

Headed down. Ropes are a mess.

The next day we made the drive up and over the pass to Silverton where we found Whorehouse Hoses (WI4 265m) to be free of climbers. The route ascends a beautiful WI4/5 pillar for a full 70m to a good stance followed by an easy pitch. You then wind up a gully for a bit until you’re presented with 3 choices for the finish.

Whorehouse Hoses.

Me up pitch two. Photo by Austin Thayer.

Austin up pitch three.

We debated climbing multiple finishes but during our ascent snow had picked up and was falling steadily. We topped out on the route and quickly descended before the avalanche danger increased.

Three ice climbers happy to find winter conditions.

Me rapping down. Photo by Austin Thayer.

Day three of ice found us driving to Telluride to attempt the Ames Ice Hose (WI5 200m). First climbed in 1976 by Lou Dawson, Steve Shea, and Michael Kennedy the route is one of the classic ice climbs of North America. Once again we lucked out to find the route free of climbers – and also lucked out to find the normally scary run-out start to be fat and easy climbing.

Ames Ice Hose.

The ice was fat but temps were cold and we battled cold hands and brittle ice for most of the day. A stuck rope on the rappel forced us to climb an extra pitch but we were down and sampling the milk stout in a Telluride brewery by 4pm and soaking in the hot springs by 7.

A very fat and picked out first pitch. Normally this pitch is mixed with no gear until the crack just above and right of Austin.

Austin up pitch 2. Again super fat conditions; normally you have to stem off rock on this pitch.

Me following pitch 2. Dan at the exposed belay below.

Dan approaching pitch 3 belay. It was cold and windy and Dan climbed in his puffy all day.

Austin up pitch 3. This pitch was total dinner plates.

Dan and Austin pumped up. Their hype was short lived after the ropes got stuck minutes later.

Day four found us moving slowly so we opted to climb the shorter routes up at Camp Bird Road. With minimal approaches we were able to ascend Choppo’s Chimney (WI4/5 90m), Skylight (WI5 100). Both climbs featured beautiful and interesting climbing in chimney systems with hard moves followed by no-hands rests where you could brace your back against rock walls. Unfortunately Skylight started dropping giant ice daggers on us so we crawled into a cave just shy of the top and rapped off a v-thread to escape the melting ice.

Me heading up to Choppo’s Chimney belay cave. Photo by Austin Thayer.

Austin up Choppo’s Chimney

Austin dangled off the anchors and snapped this photo of me following Choppo’s Chimmney. The top was steep and thin! Photo by Austin Thayer.

Dan up the first pitch of Skylight.

Austin the second pitch of Skylight

Dan in the Skylight ice chimney. Photo by Austin Thayer.

We followed up the ice routes with a couple scratchy mixed lines that utterly and completely destroyed me.

Austin on Going Retro.

Portrait of Dan looking dapper.

Why you should avoid big routes after fresh snow.

We spent the morning of day five exploring and climbing mellow ice in the ice park. After six days of skiing and 6 days of climbing my arms and legs were completely trashed and I practically limped my way up the routes on toprope. And then we were in the car and driving back to Denver where I caught the plane back to Anchorage where winter is but a distant memory.

Typical Ouray ice park scene: 3 ropes, 6 people, 12 ice tools and 60 crampon points. What could go wrong?

Ouray Brewing Company

Dan getting out of the park.

A wonderful sunny winter vacation. Thanks to Mike Jahn for playing Aspen area tour guide, Blase Reardon for Snowmass side-country touring, Austin Thayer for hosting and putting the rope up the hard routes and Dan Herrmann for hauling me and my gear all over Colorado. There’s a reason everyone wants to live in Colorado. I’ll be back.

I picked up a stuffed tarantula for my daughter from the awesome shop next to the Ouray ice cream shop.
After I told her she couldn’t cook it she hung it above her bed.