Ice climbing was never something I thought I’d get the chance to try, at least not until recently. I grew up in Indiana and imagined that this sport was reserved for those on expeditions to the highest of Himalayan peaks. I associated this sport with the extreme, with danger, and as something that only the most reckless would attempt.

Flash forward to a few weeks ago (Note: Originally published Jan. 2017), I found out that the OutThere Colorado team would be headed to Ouray Ice Park in Ouray, Colorado during their annual Ice Climbing Festival to film professional climber Dawn Glanc as part of our #GirlsThatShred series. As the person in charge of operating our Instagram account (@outtherecolorado), I knew a shot from the ice wall would make the perfect live update for our fans. I started to wonder if it was possible for me to test out some gear.

Dawn Glanc - Ouray, Colorado - OutThere Colorado
Dawn Glanc climbing a WI 5 pillar in the Ouray Ice Park in Ouray, Colorado.

I soon found out that the Ice Festival encourages all of their curious attendees to do so, offering gear passes for $10 ($5 if you purchase ahead online). I was sold. As the trip grew near, I started to get excited about being able to try something completely new.

Then the day finally came. After a couple of days shooting at Copper Mountain, our team headed to Ouray for the next stop on our week-long trip. We spent our first day in town filming mixed climbing with Dawn Glanc in the mountains, saving our trip to the Ice Park for Day 2 (check out the full video below).

We picked up our media and gear passes at sunrise the next morning. Even those not climbing needed the crampon-helmet-harness set in case something happened while on site. We were filming deep in a canyon so a harness would be necessary to hoist anyone that happened to get injured by things like falling ice back to ground level.

Gear set-up went smoothly, as I quickly donned thousands of dollars worth of demo equipment from companies like Black Diamond, Petzl, and La Sportiva with the help of their friendly employees. I then made my way to the first-timer’s wall.

Roughly 60-feet high and covered in pre-fastened belay ropes, I hopped in line and waited my turn. My crampons dug deep into the snow, fastened tightly around my brand new boots. I couldn’t help but flip one of my pick axes in a hand, catching it each time it spun around, admittedly feeling like quite a cool dude.

The line got shorter and finally, it was my turn.

“You’ve climbed before, right?”

The belayer’s question caught me off guard. I’d only climbed on real rock once before at Garden of the Gods, but that was years ago. Since then, I’d done nothing of the sort.

“You really just need to be comfortable jumping backwards off the wall once you’re finished,” the belayer elaborated.

Whew, that I could do, I sighed.

My belayer tied one of the ropes to my harness and gave me a few quick tips about how to move up the ice effectively without getting hurt.

Lesson - OutThere Colorado
OutThere Colorado’s social media coordinator, Spencer McKee, gets a few quick tips.

“Any questions?” the man asked as he finished giving me a few instructions.

Still relatively clueless about the whole thing, the only thing I could think to ask was if I could go up the middle route. Knowing someone would be capturing my experience for this article, I pointed at a line mixed with ice and rock—it would give the pictures the most contrast, after all. He informed me that no one had climbed the route yet that day, so the ice might be a bit looser. That being said, I could climb it if I wanted to.

Ready to give it a try, I approached the wall.

Arching my right arm in the air, I slammed the pickaxe against the ice as hard as I could. Incredibly, it stuck. Next I took my left foot kicked it into the ice with all my might. Just like the axe, it stuck. I pushed off, lifting my body a foot or so off the ground, suspended by only my foot and my axe.

I repeated this several times, quickly putting a bit of distance between myself and the ground below. With each “whack” that punched into the wall, I got higher and higher.

Spencer on an Ice Wall - OutThere Colorado
OutThere Colorado’s social media coordinator, Spencer McKee, on an ice wall at Ouray Ice Park.

With more height came more difficult sections of the line. More times than not, it would take me multiple swings of an axe or kicks of a boot to find a plant I felt like I could trust. Some axe swings would send entire slabs of ice sliding down at my face. Most of the time, I was able to tuck my helmet so that it hit a protected part of my head, though I immediately regretted not zipping up my jacket all the way…soon filled up like a giant ice tray.

But kick by kick and swing by swing, I progressed up the wall, finally reaching a point where I could take a respectable selfie (if this even exists?) for our live feed on Instagram. I yelled down to the man holding the rope, “I’m going to do a quick thing for Instagram!”

He looked at me like I was an idiot, but gave me the go-ahead. I took a picture and posted one quick video before tucking my phone away.

Selfie - OutThere Colorado
Spencer snaps a selfie 40 feet up an ice wall.

I kicked again to make the final push towards the top of the wall. There was a snap. I looked down with dismay: the crampon on my right boot had popped off completely, now dangling from where it was wrapped around my ankle. I had no way to put it back on while on the wall, so my experience was over. I belayed back to solid ground—slightly bruised and with malfunctioning equipment, but smiling.

*******

Overall, ice climbing was a blast.

I found that I had more freedom when it came to ice climbing than I do in rock climbing. With axes and boots that you can stick anywhere, you’re not as limited by specific handholds. That being said, ice climbing was less predictable. When you’re on a rock face, generally the rock you grab will stay where it is. On an ice wall, your holds can crumble away at the drop of a dime. I’m assuming the more experienced climber would have a better understanding of what ice is the most reliable, but I did not.

Would I try it again? Most definitely, it was an awesome experience. Ice climbing really lets you be creative when it comes to picking a route and I liked that a lot. Would I trust myself with ice climbing outside of the Ouray Ice Park? Probably not. The unpredictable nature of the ice that I experienced would make me wary of applying this on a high altitude climb where there’s less room for error. I would need a lot more training and experience first.

Group shot - OutThere Colorado
Part of the OutThere Team (Spencer McKee, Sophie Goodman, and Alyssa Wendt) dons ice climbing gear at the Ouray Ice Festival.

Final take: If you get the chance to ice climb, do it! The Ouray Ice Climbing Festival is definitely one of the best ways to try it out if you can manage to get to the relatively remote location. Paying a few bucks to test gear at the fest that would normally cost thousands of dollars to purchase is obviously a great deal. If you aren’t scared of heights and want to try something new, get out there and try ice climbing this winter.

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