Ice Climbing Lesson in Telluride

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Ice climbing has long intrigued us, so while on vacation we took an ice climbing class through the San Juan Outdoor School. It was just our guide and the two of us. We got lucky and had the owner as our instructor and in addition to everything he knows and was able to show us he was just a fun guy to hang out with. We didn’t have to drive far from the town of Telluride to get to a nice valley, in which there were several shaded waterfalls. We put on double plastic boots and ice climbing crampons at the car and hiked a little ways in to the bottom of some of the falls. There we put on the rest of the gear, helmets and harnesses, and began our lesson. First we got a run down on all of the gear. Being rock climbers and me having climbed Mt. Rainier, we already knew a bit, but the crampons and ice axes are made and shaped specifically for ice climbing and it was neat to learn the differences. First our guide explained and demonstrated the techniques and then let us loose at the base of the ice to start getting a feel for swinging the axes ourselves.

Then our guide climbed to the top of the falls and set up anchors for a top rope so that we could give it a try. It is a bit awkward for the first few times, but at the same time we felt like it was more intuitive than we would have expected. You’re totally secure on the rope so once you get going get a few swings and steps in you become much more comfortable with it. It was tiring and definitely challenging but oh so fun! The movement basically goes like this: swing one arm to hit ice axe into the ice above your head, swing other arm to do the same with the other ice axe, kick one leg to plant front of crampon into ice (aiming slightly up with your toe so as to get the spikes in horizontally and not angling downward), standing up on leg, then doing the same with the other leg, and so on all the way up the falls. It was pretty impressive how little of the axe or crampon spikes you actually had to get into the ice for it to have a solid hold.

We did two routes on that area a few times each before exiting at the top of the frozen falls and then walking over to the top of another more challenging waterfall. This one was longer and more steep. Instead of climbing up from the bottom, we were lowered as far as we wanted and then climbed back up from there. We both found that we enjoyed the steeper grade better. K went further down than I did, even placing an ice screw to redirect the rope near the bottom so if he did come of the ice the rope wouldn’t swing him into the rock off to the side. We were thoroughly happy and exhausted by the end, just as it should be!

The Basics

Who: If you have an interest, find an outfitter and give it a try! We liked it so much that this is something we’d recommend taking a class on to anyone who feels up to it.

What: Ice climbing comes in a few different flavors. There’s alpine ice climbing (difficulty is rated on the AI scale) and water ice climbing (difficulty is rated on the WI scale). Alpine ice is typically at higher elevation as on mountains or glaciers, caused by precipitation. Water ice comes and goes seasonally like frozen waterfalls. Additionally, there is mixed climbing which is a combination of climbing on ice and rock (difficulty is rated on the M scale).
Where: Just doing quick internet searches there were lots of areas mentioned as being great for ice climbing – no-brainers like the northeast, Colorado, Alaska, Yosemite National Park, and so on. The possibilities seem endless of locations where the altitude or weather conditions would make this possible. As mentioned above, we took our half day guided climb through San Juan Outfitters in Telluride, CO and had a really good experience. Although guided climbs are typically more expensive, we felt it was a worthwhile investment to be able to not only have the experience, but get to pick the brain of our extremely knowledgeable guide with tons of questions. Our guide was great, and even though we had a little mix up about the class / day & time, we were given a few extra hours to make up for it – sweet!
When: As long as the weather conditions provide for enough solid ice to make it possible! 
Why: Whether you’re adventurous like this all the time or if ice climbing challenges you to step outside your comfort zone, it is a fun and unique experience.
How: Find a class that you can take that will teach you the basics and let you give ice climbing a try in a safe and controlled environment after which you can continue with classes and/or buy gear as is appropriate for your interest level.
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