A History of Ice Climbing in the Vail Valley

Ice Climbing Vail

Today's guest post is from Michael Mote, instructor and guide with Apex Mountain School in Vail, CO. Apex Mountain School offers ice climbing and mixed climbing outings for climbers of all ability levels in this historic region. You can check out their website to learn more. 

Ice climbing comes from humble beginnings. In the 16th century, shepherds crafted shoes with iron spikes to make travel on icy slopes feasible while tending flocks. Throughout the late 1800s, the “Golden Age” of climbing was characterized by the first ascents throughout the Alps, and was followed by the invention of the 10-point crampon by Oscar Eckenstean in 1908. Crampons were made available commercially by Henry Grivel, whose son, Lauret Grivel, later introduced the twelve-point crampon.

Between the 1920s and 1960s, many north faces of the great Alps were climbed and the limits of the sport were pushed by Scottish climbers like Tom Patey and Jimmy Marshall. The invention of the curved ice tool revolutionized ice climbing; Yvon Chouinard created a tool that greatly improved placement security and hooking ability. Thus, mixed climbing techniques that were explored in Scotland during the 20th century became more widespread among climbers. Until the 1970s, North American climbers had been second to Europeans in innovation and route-setting; however, a menagerie of first ascents by climbing greats such as Jeff Lowe and Mike Weiss catapulted North American ice climbing into the limelight.

As ice climbing became a sport in and of itself, rather than a necessary part of ascending difficult alpine routes, Vail emerged as the epicenter of ice enthusiasm. Waterfall ice climbing in the 1970s and 80s was marked by first ascents of Rigid Designator by Bob Culp and The Fang by Alex Lowe, which defined Vail as the proving grounds for the sport’s greatest climbers. Throughout the 90s, local sites such as Rigid Designator Amphitheatre and The Pumphouse became the focus for the rapidly growing sport of mixed climbing.

Jeff Lowe’s first ascent of Octopussy (M8) marked the unofficial beginning of modern mixed climbing, which combine sport climbing technique with traditional ice climbing. Climbers like Will Gadd put up routes like Fatman and Robin (M9) and Amphibian (M9)), which applied dry-tooling technique to free previously unreachable daggers and ice flows. Gadd and others like Stevie Haston breathed new life into “climbed out” areas of Vail in the late 90s – Gadd’s groundbreaking 1998 ascent of Reptile (M10) in Vail proved another notable stage in the progression of modern ice climbing.

Ice climbing and mixed climbing continue to evolve as athletes push the boundaries of difficulty in unprecedented ways. In 2001, Will Gadd and Tim Emmett’s first ascent of Spray On, a route on precarious spray ice that winds through the mouth of a 250-ft cave in British Columbia, was given a grade of WI10 -, two grades higher than the world’s previous hardest ice climb.

As ice climbers achieve new heights, and as the sport continues to evolve, Vail remains one of the world’s premier destinations for ice climbers and mixed climbers of varied ability levels. Routes range from legends such as The Fang, and Fatman and Robin, to gentler waterfalls perfect for the new ice enthusiast. Regardless of one’s level of climbing ability, few can argue with the bliss that follows from grasping an ice tool and sinking it into a frozen water formation for the first time, or hooking on stone and carefully moving upwards towards more ice.

Editor's Note: I have yet to climb in the Vail area, but it looks like I need to add The Fang to my list for next winter. Who here has climbed in and around Vail?

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