World-class ice adds to Vail’s cool factor
Vail, CO Colorado
VAIL VALLEY, Colorado – Colorado’s Vail Valley a popular destination for ice climbers from nearby and faraway. Many of the area’s ice features are found in the most ideal locations – places that never see the sun and benefit from a regular melt-freeze cycle.
With both beginner and cutting-edge terrain, world-class climbers have honed their skills in the area for decades. Pillars of ice 130 feet tall drip down from overhanging rock, where new challenges continue to be found. There also are easy and moderate ice climbs in the area.
There is something else that makes the place popular for people wearing sharp, metal points – the ice forms relatively early and sticks around, sometimes into April.
Scott Smith, a guide for Apex Mountain School, has been ice climbing East Vail for 15 years. Tony Angelis, 48, has been stabbing ice there at least 12 years. The two men seem to have a pretty good idea which climbs form first and stay longest.
“The mixed routes are in as soon as it gets cold,” said Smith. A mixed route is when rock must be climbed to reach the ice. Such routes are climbable in early season because they don’t depend as much on the ice being fat.
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• Racquet Club: Our experts say this site usually provides an opportunity to get your feet back under you around mid- to late November. It is short steps of ice, about 12-feet tall, so most experienced ice climbers don’t rope up for that. Smith described the climbing there as “ice bouldering” – a chance to get out and swing tools.
• Slabutt and Spiral Staircase: comes in by early November
• Sections of Pumphouse and Firehouse: The less-than-vertical rock those climbs form on gives the ice more stability. “Anything with low-angle cliffs, where the water tends to run sooner, is where the ice forms first,” Smith said.
• Pitkin Falls is usually next to come into condition.
• Rigid Designator has formed as early as December. The 130-foot ice pillar is somewhat famous, as it was one of the hardest ice climbs of its day when it was first conquered in 1974.
• The Fang is the big daddy of the Vail area and always the last to form. In the same amphitheater as the Designator, The Fang was also a significant feat when it was done in 1981. Sometimes it doesn’t even come in. Unlike the “Des,” The Fang stands almost entirely free from the rock, a 130-foot drip from the lip of a massive overhang. That means it often falls down under its own weight before it can connect to the ground.
When The Fang does form, ice climbers are psyched.
Smith remembers seeing The Fang collapse as he drove by on Interstate 70 one day.
“This huge ice curtain peeled off and floated down – it was so quiet and slow motion – and then there was this massive explosion when it hit the ground,” he said.
This week, a 34-year-old climber from Alma, Colo., was seriously while the Fang broke while he was ascending.
Angelis recalls past years when someone has hung a rope or cable where The Fang forms in hopes of helping the process. Sometimes that isn’t even enough, however. The ice is so heavy it falls down anyway and takes the rope with it, Angelis said.
A lot of ice starts falling down around March, or when temperatures get warmer.
“Whatever fills in thickest will hang around longest,” Smith said.
The Fang is, of course, the first to go, but other climbs might not be as obvious as to whether they are still climbable.
“There’s no guarantee that just because a route was in longer that it was safe,” Smith said.
He cited the case of Pitkin Falls, where the ice can stick around and not be safe to climb on because of water running between it and the rock. Everything is a judgment call, he said.
There have been some stellar years where ice climbing was had as late as mid-April, when Angelis said he has been able to go up Rigid Designator. Sometimes a phenomenal melt-freeze cycle late in the season results in a freak showing of The Fang as well, Angelis said.
Angelis also stressed that there is a higher threat of avalanches as snow begins to melt out of gullies above the climbs, especially around March.
“Gotta be careful then, even on the approach trails,” he said.
“My suggestion is to err well on the side of safety, of conservative choices,” he said. “Live long, play long.”