By Margaret Hedderman
Not so long ago, places like Cascade Canyon, north of Durango, were a frozen Narnia to any who dared trespass in winter – a beautiful but bitter land of frozen waterfalls and sharp, icy pinnacles.
The now familiar crunch and crack of titanium axes and biting crampons echo through the narrow walls. Ice climbers rhythmically hammer and step their way up the slick ice in a methodical dance.
Durangoans enjoy a wealth of easily accessible frozen waterfalls – from Haflin Creek and Freed Canyon to routes along U.S. Highway 550. And depending on the temperature, many are in good condition from December through March. Year after year, however, the best ice is found at Cascade Canyon.
The all-natural ice park, just a few miles up the road from Durango Mountain Resort in the San Juan National Forest, awaits winter adventures. At an elevation just under 8,600 feet, Cascade Canyon offers both frozen falls and mixed rock and ice climbing, with routes ranging from 60-degree slopes to sustained technical climbs with long cruxes.
“What’s cool about Cascade Canyon is that it’s completely natural and changes from year to year,” says local competitive climber Marcus Garcia.
Josh Kling, owner of Durango’s Kling Mountain Guides, describes Cascade Creek as a “classroom.”
“People often feel they have to go somewhere big and gnarly to get introduced to ice climbing,” Kling says. “But if it’s their first time, the stuff at Cascade is really conducive to learning.”
In the movies, ice climbers leap across crevasses or miraculously sink their axes into the snow before plummeting over a cliff. But for most people, ice climbing is the rhythmic ascent of a frozen waterfall – kicking into the ice with crampons and swinging ice tools into the wall. Ice screws are placed deep into the ice to guide the rope for protection. Just like with rock climbing, one person belays while the other one climbs, although free solo ice climbing is not unheard of.
Both Kling Mountain Guides and another local outfitter, San Juan Mountain Guides, lead guided instructional tours into Cascade Canyon for beginners through advanced climbers who are looking to learn new skills. Providing ice tools and safety equipment, the guides break the sport down into a series of repetitive moves that can make the task at hand doable, if not easy.
“Sometimes you just have to go for it,” says professional local climber Dawn Glanc. “It’s not [predominantly] an upper-body activity. It’s not as hard as it might seem.”
Before the advent of crampons, mountaineers would dig steps into the ice, tediously building staircases up the mountainsides. With the help of Patagonia’s founder Yvon Chouinard in the late 1960s, ice climbing went vertical when the American climber invented a new style of ice axe. In the last 20 years, the sport has seen a surge of popularity with the advent of new equipment, clothing and specialized competitions, like the Ouray Ice Festival.
The man-made Ouray Ice Park, some 70 miles north of Durango, attracts climbers from all over the world. With more than 200 climbing routes, it is one of the premier ice-climbing destinations in North America. It even has its own Visa card.
Each year the park hosts the Ouray Ice Festival – the Coachella of the ice-climbing world. All the big names show up for the annual competition, climbing to extreme overhangs, twisting their bodies in convulted moves called “figure fours” or “stein pulls.” San Juan Mountain Guides gives several clinics and seminars during the four-day extravaganza. Both Garcia and Glanc will compete in this year’s contest. Last year, Glanc was one of only three female competitors – she is actively recruiting opponents for this year’s competition.
Many ice climbers, like Josh Kling, got into the sport because the rock-climbing season just wasn’t long enough. Others seek it out to improve their mountaineering skills for more difficult climbs on peaks like Rainier or Hood. For any adventurer, ice climbing opens up the winter backcountry in a whole new way.
“Learning to become a proficient ice climber is a good investment,” says Nate Disser, the director of San Juan Moutain Guides. “It allows you to achieve steeper climbs in the mountains.”
If you’re interested in trying it out, both local guiding companies are certified by the American Mountain Guides Association and have an educational focus. San Juan Mountain Guides runs two-day beginner and intermediate courses in Cascade Canyon and Ouray. Kling Mountain Guides offers half-day to multi-day tours in Cascade Canyon and the surrounding area.
With great climbs as close as five miles from town, climbers can crank it all day on the ice, and still get back to Durango in time for dinner and a beer.