Well, it happened. My biggest fear since committing to ice climbing full time this winter. I got hosed by a particularly nasty ice fall on a climb and one of the footbal-size chunks flying by landed on my shoulder. The ominous “woosh” and I felt a sharp pain on my right shoulder. I let a scream out but managed to keep my hand on a belay. Moved my arm – the shoulder felt fine, “Shit, this will take forever to finish the pitch”, I thought. As I fed out the slack of the rope, I felt some familiar sharp pain. “You have to clean on a rappel”, I yelled out to my partner. I would have loved to have had heroically followed the 60M WI4+ pitch despite the smashed shoulder, but it was getting late, we just finished the two most magnificent pitches of ice I’ve done in the SW Colorado and the prospect of messing up my one good shoulder for the rest of the winter and most of the spring, cooled down my adrenaline-fueled impulses – there was no summit to attain or pitches to lead – I was content going down without finishing the climb
It happened on Ames Ice Hose, a gorgeous 3-pitch five-star classic outside of Telluride. My partner Grant and I had been planning to do it for a long time, but had found other objectives close to Ouray. We left Ouray at 6.30am and got to an old mining camp of Ames an hour and half later. As we pulled in closer to town, the striking line of the Ice Hose came into a view from the Highway 145. You could barely see the skinny first two pitches from the road, but the third pitch loomed over in a huge and fat flow eventually choking into the barely visible chimney of the Pitch 2. The last pitch looked somewhat steeper than the WI4 grade the guidebook gives it.
We got to the parking lot and found to our relief that we were the first party of the day – we ended up having the climb to ourselves for the rest of the day. As soon as we got on the trail we found out why – the snowdrifts even on leveled portions of the approach were at least a foot deep. The approach that usually takes about an hour, took us over good two hours fighting snowdrifts sometimes waist deep.
After over two hours of what Grant calls “character-building” snow slog, we finally got to the base of the Ice Hose:
Pitch 1 in normal years is usually a poorly protected mixed climb. Reportedly people climb it in rock shoes and switch to the boots and crampons once they reach the ice. This day it was a thick smear of steep overhanging ice that even took normal size ice screws. Grant styled it in a fast manner, pausing just a couple of times to shake out “screaming barfies”.
Soon as I followed the pitch, I knew what he meant – the pump set in and I felt that familiar nauseating feeling once you drop your hands below your waist to shake out. My first screaming barfies on an ice climb since I arrived in Colorado this winter! I had had a somewhat similar feeling on a mixed climb and on a wide hand crack (seems like sinking hands up to your wrists cuts your blood circulation akin to overgripping ice tools above your head), but not on an ice climb up to this point (the weather has been pretty mild in SW Colorado compared to New England). The climb was all picked out and I moved up on bomber hooks, but it was so overhanging, a couple of times I was pumped to the point I thought I was about to drop my tools (with around six feet of snow at the base – I might as well kissed my Nomics good-bye if I dropped them).
After pulling the final overhang, I arrive to the semi-hanging belay, happy to having hold on to both of my tools. Grant offers me to lead the second pitch. From the belay, it looks like the crux is the first 10 feet and then the angle eases out, plus it’s a chimney – how hard could that be, right? I rack up and pull the first overhang – stout! Nervous, I sink a screw into an existing hole and move another body length. “You are the queen of hooks, it should be easy!”, my partner encourages me. After I clear what appeared like the steepest section of the pitch, I find no place to sink my tools into. All I see is a patch of snow that could be covering ice or rock, as my feet are resting on tiny holds, and I am not sure if I could muscle my way through to get to the next set of sinker hooks. Plus, what appeared like a lower angle ice from the belay is an overhanging bulging string of ice! Fear takes over me and I don’t feel like I have it in me to pass through this patch of snow to get to the safe patch of ice. I sink in a screw and down climb back to the belay. “You pulled a hard part, placed a screw and down climbed it – might as well punched through”, Grant resonated my thoughts. For some reason, I didn’t have a good feeling about this climb from the start, so relinquishing my lead was not a very tough decision. Turns out the pitch was in a way stiffer condition than we’d thought. The ice was steep and not as picked out as the Pitch 1, and the rock on the sides is not as featured for good stemming rests. It was probably in a full value at least WI5- shape – what I was thinking? Just a couple of weeks ago, I was nervous on taking a sharp end on easy WI3s. Following, I find the climb steep and pretty technical – one of the most interesting pitches I’ve done since arriving in Colorado.
When I get to the top of the Pitch 2, Grant asks if I want to take the last pitch – 60M of WI4 ice. Since it’s getting pretty late, I let him lead it so we could get out the climb before dark. We move the belay to the far right side so it’s out of the line of fire. As I climb out of the chimney of the Pitch 2 to move the belay, I get a better view of the Pitch 3 and regret my earlier decision giving up the lead.
My partner starts out the pitch what looks like a casual hike. Turns out it is covered in an unstable eggshell of thin ice that keeps dinnerplating with every tool or crampon placement. One of particularly nasty ones landed on my shoulder. “Great”, I thought – “now I have two bad shoulders” (in addition to my left shoulder that has a SLAP cartilage tear in it) and who knows for how long I can’t climb in the upcoming weeks, ugh! Grant cleaned the pitch on rappel and we quickly got off the climb. The pain in the shoulder has worsened as I could barely undo my locking biners and taking a glove off and on to warm up frozen screwgates on my lockers sends up a shooting pain. “I really hope it’s not broken!” Getting back to the car was not as easy as we’d thought it would be – our tracks were windswept and covered in a foot of fresh snow. At some point, we had to break through a waist deep windswept slab – totally unexpected. We got back to the car as the darkness enveloped the town. The usual apres-climb beer was not celebratory, but rather pain-dulling slash consolatory drink, but still it was a good day!
UPDATE: 4 days later with a help of some icing, hot springs soaks and NSAIDs, I can lift my arm with not much pain. I’m staying put, away from swinging tools or climbing rock. I’m hoping to get out soon!