The Fear And Thrill Of A Ouray First Ascent: Almost Somewhere (M8, WI6)
"Almost Somewhere" climbs the ice in the center of the photo.
Winter had seemingly all but vanished for the year. Half of the ice park was closed and there was almost no snow on the lower elevation mountainsides. Most people’s focus was turning toward rock climbing, and even I had fallen into that category. A brief stop through Ouray, however, reminded me that melt-freeze cycles late in the season can make for special ice forming conditions. So we went for it.
A large storm front moved in depositing two feet of fresh on the day our adventure began.
“So, do you want this lead?” I asked Beth.
“Uh, I don’t know, do you think I should lead it?”
I hesitate. This is the moment that you must carefully balance encouragement with sending a friend into a dangerous situation. I think Beth could likely succeed at this pitch, but things could just as easily go horribly wrong. The ice is thin and steep. For the past couple years I’ve been a mentor of sorts to Beth and I know what I say here will weigh heavily on her decision.
“I think you should, but only if you think you should.”
“OK, I’ll do it,” she says. I can see she’s both excited and nervous.
We are already about 70 meters up a steep cliff towering above the Camp Bird Mine outside Ouray. It’s snowing hard and visibility is so bad we can no longer see across the canyon to the other side. A sidewalk-like ledge splits the otherwise overhanging cliff and has given us this moment of decision before things get really interesting. A 12-foot-wide smear of yellow ice, only about two inches thick, covers a black wall of San Juan Tuff—a fancy name for hardened volcanic ash and slurry. We already determined that the entire left side had delaminated from the rock, by the hole I easily ripped apart with my ice axe. The right side still holds promise as it has received less sun, shaded by adjacent rock features.
Beth does her best to avoid the void while her ski poles get hung up under an overhang.
Beth is nearing the end of the pitch, but the crux still awaits, a steep traverse to reach a belay ledge. She places a stubby ice screw, but then comments that it is in delaminated ice and is not to be trusted. She continues climbing beyond the ice screw, but I can see she is traversing too low. The ice at her foot level is about to disappear into an overhanging void. Her body position begins to look like it’s too far stretched out to one side, and she lets out an, “Oh f%$#.”
She’s more than a body length out from the screw that she said was shit. If it holds, things will likely be OK, but she still runs the risk of a pendulum into a corner. If she falls and the screw pulls, there will likely be injuries.
Beth leads steep thin yellow ice.
“Relax, and downclimb back to the screw, you can do it,” I shout and begin weighing my options. Is running to take rope in going to help? Which direction can I move without falling off the ledge?
Beth reverses a few moves, but before even returning to the ice screw, she begins a slightly higher traverse. This is the key to the puzzle for her and she quickly finishes the difficulties and scampers onto the belay ledge. I am relieved.
I follow the pitch quickly on toprope, free of the dangers of the thin ice. Upon reaching the belay, I can see that she’s psyched. It was a difficult and dangerous lead for her, and she pulled through in good style. I grabbed the rack and looked up. Several blobs of ice lead to an ever-steepening off-width crack.
“This is going to be interesting,” I say.
“Yeah, have fun,” Beth encourages, happy that it’s my turn to lead.
The first half of the pitch requires a simultaneous set of skills: thin ice climbing, face climbing on pockets and off-width technique. I slowly inch my way up the beast, walking a number five and number six cam with me. Many of the placements are tipped out so the security they offer is marginal. A snowy mantle onto a rock tower ends the initial difficulties.
Looking up, I see a Bird-Brain-Boulevard-esque corner above me: thin ice plastering a crack and snow-covered rock features. I won’t be able to get much gear, but fatigue will no longer be an issue as the overhanging portion has passed.
Beth follows Jason’s lead.
Carefully wiping the snow from critical holds, the climbing is otherwise uneventful, and as I get higher, I’m rewarded with thicker plastic ice. I pull onto the summit and belay Beth up. We are both elated about our accomplishment. Finding such a steep and dramatic line that had not been previously climbed is a treat. The climbing had the perfect amount of challenge, danger and fear.
Jason Nelson and Beth Goralski happy on the summit.
Beth prepares a rappel.