“Dude, I’m pumped and can’t grip my ice tools!” I yell as I’m shooting for my first WI5 lead and twenty feet from the top with my last screw twenty feet below me and only four screws total below me. I had cheated myself into thinking that I could easily progress from leading WI3/WI4 to leading WI5 easily. I had called Michael and Jeff beforehand saying,” Let’s go do the Rigid Designator Saturday guys!” This piece of ice in Vail is a mega classic.
We got there early and I stared at it in awe. I was intimidated and I admit I was looking for an excuse just too top rope it but the weather was fine, the ice was good, so I had no excuse. I kept telling myself that I could do this and to not let my mind have the best of me. I rack up with my mountaineering Sabertooth crampons and Scarpa Inverno’s along with leashed ice tools and crappy gloves and a couple express ice screws. I ran it out 40 feet until the top of the cauliflower (Weird funky ice “flakes”) to place my first screw as that’s when you get to the true ice. I then traversed left until I got to the center and started up the crux of 60 feet of pure vertical ice with no rests. I started placing all my screws and kind of freaking out. I was getting extremely pumped out. My forearms felt like they were going to explode. Falling was not an option. I had the screws there but would they hold? That’s never a positive thing to think about. I then focused at the task at hand and nothing else. That’s what I love about ice climbing. Nothing in the world matters at the moment when you lead except the next move. You’re so focused, more then you’ll ever be. Ice/Mixed climbing for me is the gateway for the future climbing I want to do.
I made it out fine of that situation and it was a stupid thing to do, I agree. That same time in Vail, I met two others that were telling me about Bridalveil Falls in Telluride. It’s always been a huge dream of mine and goal in ice climbing before I even ice climbed. They told me you better not struggle at all on The Rigid Designator because Bridalveil Falls is way harder. From the time I started ice climbing, I have spent countless hours and days by myself, with partners, getting as strong as possible. To be honest, my goal at the beginning of the season was to be a super solid WI5 leader, not Bridalveil Falls. The word Bridalveil used to make me shiver. The thought of overhanging ice while placing ice screws seemed brutal.
In 1973, Jeff Lowe and Mike Weiss put up the hardest ice route in the world with pound in ice screws, and old bamboo shafted Chouinard ice axes. They did it all free and it still is so amazing to look back at the first ascent. Bridalveil Falls took vision from the start. At the time it was rated WI6+. In 1996, Jeff Lowe wrote,” …..There are still very few climbs of greater difficulty; the top end of the scale is now only WI7.” Now with modern gear, it comes easier, but not by much, and is still a very serious undertaking. It is still a major test piece. When it comes in fat, it usually is WI5+, and when it’s lean, it’s solid WI6 overhanging ice. Even in fat conditions, it’s still overhanging at parts. Bridalveil Falls is also on private property so it’s gone through a history of opening and closing. It just recently opened in 2008. I have wanted to get on it just in case it closes again. It sports two pitches of hard, difficult, ice with the last one being the glory WI4 pitch. Three pitches all together. The other problem is people come from all over the world to test themselves on Bridalveil so it can be a hassle to get on it.
Four hundred feet of narrow ice pillars, shrouds, and huge mushrooms hanging with daggers off of them, along with many car sized icicles hanging down like a sword. It all is at the back of the valley hanging straight off a cliff. In the summer, Bridalveil is a huge waterfall that gushes from the top. You might say it’s a tad bit intimidating.
Those that are not familiar with the ice grades, I’ll try to describe them as best as possible so I’m not rambling on by myself. WI1 is flat and a fall can only happen if you get shot. WI2 is at an angle of 60 degrees or so and calf pumping. WI3 is sustained 75 degrees or a short 4 meter step. WI4 is sustained 80 to 85 degree ice or 10 meter steps. WI5 is sustained 85 to 90 degrees with a rest generally or 20 meters of vertical ice and sometimes not good ice. WI6 is at the high end with vertical ice the whole pitch and sometimes overhanging with horrible protection, don’t fall. WI7 is just about overhanging with no rest with horrible and strenuous protection.
Joe Simpson from “Touching the Void” has been one of my major heroes. Ever since I started climbing, what he has done and been through simply amazes me. He talks about traveling to Telluride in 1999 and climbing Bridalveil Falls. Below is quoted from his book “The Beckoning Silence.”
I sent two partners a message. One could not commit while the other could. I was getting really excited. Is it really going to happen? I picked him up at 9 P.M. and on we go. We got to Montrose at about 4 A.M. and my partner was driving while I was sleeping. I soon woke up to him saying,”Umm dude, I think I put diesel in your car.” I woke up fast and said,” You did what?” I was mad and said,” How did you do that man?” We were stuck. He called AAA and no mechanics were open until Monday and it was Saturday. They recommended we get a hotel until then. Crap, I leave for Mexico Sunday night. I can’t do this. I pondered this to myself. We eventually got out that morning when we found out it was okay to drive since we only put a gallon or two in it. We still had the option of maybe still getting on the climb but I said no. I was not confident then that we would get on it. So I guess it was both our faults.
Round two we go. When I got back from Mexico, I went just about straight to Ouray for the 14ers.com Ice Gathering. Saturday was spent with the group having an amazing time and joking around. I will say I’m looking forward to the next gathering. The plan was for the same buddy to pick me up from the hotel as he was also in Ouray with some friends, and we would jump on it. He picked me up at 5:15 and we travel the hour or so drive to Telluride. We got there at 6:35 and stared at the climb that is only an hour walk away. There was a problem, someone from Boulder, signed in at 6:30. The climb cannot sport two parties at once. One party in the morning and one in the afternoon. We were late and we had to leave at 3 P.M. We had to bail as we had no other choice. I was REALLY mad. Second time, I could see and practically taste climbing it, great weather, and it’s a no go. We went back to the Ice Park not saying one word to each other except he said to me,” Dude I think we’re bad luck climbing together.” I disagreed as we have had some good climbs. He dropped me off at the park and I head back with the 14ers.com group to hang out for the rest of the day which ended up cheering me up much more with the great group.
For many days on end, I was thinking about it. I was becoming obsessed. I had to do it but I didn’t know if I could afford another trip to Telluride. I was depressed and constantly thinking about the goal ahead. It also didn’t help all my mountaineering goals were failing as well. I took a weekend off from trips to work and save up. I looked at pictures and visioned myself leading it and climbing it. I told my buddy that we should plan another date. I quoted of one that I could do but he was going to be in New York. He could not go. So I sent messages to everyone that I thought would be a good partner for it.
And then my friend, Jay, states that he is in. I met Jay in Ouray this December while climbing in the backcountry and had talked to him through email about doing something but had never climbed with him. I knew his leading ability was pretty solid but still I had never climbed with him, so I didn’t know if he would bale at the last minute, or his personality. He had the same thoughts as well and when I showed up he stated,” Are you skipping school? I didn’t know you were so young! How old are you?” I stated,”19.” I thought it was funny but can’t imagine what he was thinking. Maybe that he would have to drag a kid up it. Maybe I should grow a beard, someday. He then said,” Do you smoke pot?” I stated that I definitely don’t but I was afraid he was going to light something up while belaying me or something. But he did not as well so it worked well. We clicked well and both have a humorous non serious side to us. We traveled to Ouray on Friday. I mentioned nothing about us being successful on Bridalveil because I didn’t know if it would be a success and I didn’t want to get my hopes up.
I will mention that I really appreciated what Jay did on this trip from driving to cooking our food to our descent problems we had to letting me sleep in the big bed to letting me lead the best pitch. I owe him. We got to the Riverside cabins and went to bed at 9 P.M. I visioned all the pitches and was a bit nervous on how things would go. I told Jay I wanted the first and third pitch. The second was a bit run out I had heard. The first looked better. Maybe I was selfish but I ended by saying I didn’t care as long as I lead something. He said he didn’t care.
I woke up at 3 A.M. and got ready. We left right when we ate breakfast and got to the climb at 4:45 A.M. We made sure we would be the first on the climb. We pulled up with someone else parked, only to find out they were not in the car and not climbers. We signed in first and took our slow pace to the base. I was walking in the abyss and intimidated. By the time we got to the climb, we could see it. I stopped and stared at it for what felt like forever. How on earth am I going to climb this? We got to the base and Jay said he wanted the first pitch. I tried to persuade him but then he mentioned what all he has done for me on this trip. I agreed happily.
We racked up and I stared at it thinking,” My pitch looks overhanging, but maybe it’s not and just looks like it from the ground.” We climbed the approach pitch to get to the top of the cone which was fractured towards the top or so it looked. I stood at the stance, a little cold with already some exposure. On top of that, the cone I was standing on was making cracking sounds like it was going to break off but I was glad to be anchored into the main pillar. Jay started off. The climb looked harder then what I saw pictures of. The ice started off horrible but Jay did a GREAT job on the lead with vertical ice on the start to mushroom blob city that were awkward as crap.
I had to ice dyno with my left foot on one part of it. When I followed, trouble followed with my head mentally. I was thinking if I’m struggling with this pitch, how on earth am I going to lead the next? That’s the beauty of top rope. I call it top rope syndrome. The pitch was only WI4+ or an easy WI5 but I was getting out of it but still enjoying the exposed position.
I got to the belay and Jay was all excited and so was I! This was awesome. I snapped back out of it and knew I had the next pitch even though the start worried me. It had good feet but was almost slightly overhanging traverse before you could place a screw.
Jay encouraged me. He said he could lead it but I heavily disagreed right when he said that. I wanted the lead. I told myself not to be a whimp. I knew it was within my capability so I started off after getting the screws. Was I glad I took the lead! It was terribly intricate and technical. After getting my first screw in after the awkward start I had to upward traverse right around these hanging icicles that proved to be insecure and technical. It was super exposed as well.
I then got to a point in the traverse where I could traverse left but I did not know what was around the corner. The route appeared to go further right then straight up to a pretty overhanging end. I asked Jay but it did not help. I stated that this is Bridalveil. Go big or go home! I have never climbed such overhanging ice before.
Around the corner seamed to be bad rope drag so I chose to go right and up. I clipped the V thread and went up twenty feet placing two screws with two screamers on them. I continued up and it turned slightly overhanging to overhanging. While shaking out, I took my position and looked down straight down to the bottom. Wow! Let’s keep moving. Placing your tools in overhanging ice does not seem solid. It seems like there easy to pull out. A few more moves on the overhang bring me to the crux mantel.
I swing up and nothing is solid on top. I hook a cauliflower with both tools, the most solid thing there. I think about heal hooking as how else shall I do it? I find a tiny blob to the right but nothing for my left foot. I pull up with my left arm and swing at the ice above with my right. Thunk! The thank god placement! I pull up and my right foot slips off. I go into shock thinking come on man, you got this!! My tools are holding all my weight while my feet slipped off. I pull up and finally mantel. That was a little scary.
Holy Crap! I think to myself. I need to put in a screw as my last two were pretty far below. I place one screw that would have just held a wet cigarette. Mentally, it helped. My forearms were really pumped. I give them a break for a couple minutes and look at the next bit of ice ahead. It still looks sustained and challenging but not overhanging. I went 5 feet above the screw and place probably the most bomber screw I have ever placed. I placed a screamer on it. Now I actually kind of trust it! I went up this beautiful clear blue ice until I got to the ice cave belay. I build an anchor real fast and anchor in and think, WOW just wow. That was awesome! Indeed it was probably one of the best leads I have done. I brought Jay up and he congratulated me on the lead and was mad he did not take the lead and let me lead the first one.
We originally were going to flip a coin on who lead the last pitch but I was feeling generous as I just lead a pitch that satisfied me for the whole winter. So he went to the top. I followed on hallow ice to the top. Ah! The top feels so good! I take in everything and stand in place thinking about this journey in life. Were not down yet so let’s get down and then I’ll let it soak in!
Jay rappelled first and the first mistake happened. There was a directional anchor. We both thought we could clip the bolt by it and continue to the next anchor, which I don’t recommend. I followed after waiting for a long time wondering what he was doing. I rappelled and unclipped the “fixed” directional, reclipping it ahead of my ATC so I would not swing on the far left side causing ice fall. I got down to Jay and the rope was 10 feet short of the V thread. I clipped into the anchor he made. We both freaked out on what we had done. Now we could not pull the rope, because the knot could not pass through the karabiner. I freak out saying I should have known. We both calmed down and I tied the rope to the anchor and down climber on self belay from the anchor to the V thread.
Jay went up and started to prusik the rope. I will add that there was a “WI8” roof right above us. He actually went fast and climbed to the right while sliding up the prusik. I waited on the ledge thinking of a hot tub and why I did not take up golf. Soon the rope came down and he rappeled to me in a great mood. We had climbed Bridalveil Falls. We made the last free hanging rappel to the ground and put our stuff away amazed that we climbed it. Back we go while Jay snowboarded down, I chose the snowshoes.
I looked back, perfectly happy, I had finally climbed it and conquered one other of my dreams. Finally. Life is good. Living life to the fullest is what it all should be about as life is to short for us not to enjoy the great things in it.
“Dream as if you’ll live forever, live as if you’ll die today.”
*I do not know where the quotes are from but have simply heard them. Let me know if you do so I can put an author by them. Otherwise, know they are not from me.