Breaking the Ice On Octopussy

* Video footage coming soon. Check back in a couple weeks.

“There is a fine line between dumb ass and bad ass” Jim Bridwell

Jeff Lowe on the first attempt of Octopussy (WI6 M8) Photo by Brad Johnson


“I’m surprised your still in Colorado, when are you going to the Himalayas?,” Trevor stated to me a couple days ago.

This got me thinking in depth about my life in general and where I need to be heading.

Leading the Seventh Tentacle

Sometime I wonder why I push myself in climbing, why I’m so ambitious, and where I’m heading. I really do want to pioneer routes on the biggest alpine faces out there, I just don’t have the funds to do that much international traveling to train for that goal. I’ve had to support my climbing life all by myself with no help from the parents while many around my age have there parents paying for most stuff. It’s taught me many things and I am by no means mad about it. I guess that’s why I take training so seriously, getting out and pushing my ability farther and farther to get me ready for the ultimate goals I have in life. Climbing is not just something I do, it’s my life. With only one life, I want to be the best my body will possibly allow. In a way, I feel I have “out climbed” Colorado if you could say. I’m not saying this in a egotistic way as there will always be challenging things to do here. I just want something bigger more often. Even though I’ve made several international trips in the last 2 years, it just doesn’t seem like enough. I need to work on my bigger goals. Maybe that will mean Patagonia next winter for a few months or Peru or Alaska this summer. Though Octopussy is just under 150 feet long, I think it fit the “big” category.

About to commit to the horizontal roof

About to commit to the horizontal roof

So what did I want for my 20th birthday?

On the strenous ice of Octopussy

Breaking the Ice

Full of expressions behind the curtain

Octopussy has striked fear whenever I have heard of it in the past years. Back when it was first ascended in 1994 by Jeff Lowe; it was the ultimate test piece in the world. It brought the rush of modern mixed climbing. Though there are routes these days that are harder (most on bolts), Octopussy has still remained a big, serious, and feared challenge. No bolts and kind of all balls. It was the first climb at a grade of M8 and it ends with a WI6 curtain. The pictures of Jeff Lowe on it have made me amazed. Maybe someday I’ll be at the level to have a go at it. At that point, a dream had been made. I think that’s been my life. It’s been full of dreams and adventure I await to have the skill to embark on. This climb seems to be avoided these days but still remains in every ice climber’s knowledge of the climb that started the rush of modern mixed climbing.

Christian Mason leading the Seventh Tentacle with Octopussy in the upper left corner.

Sometimes a certain route or mountain just calls to your heart as a climber and all that’s left for you to do is act on it. Octopussy was originally on the dream list (ain’t every climb on it?) but after climbing the Seventh Tentacle several times this year (basically the route you use to start Octopussy) I was seriously inspired! I’m sure climbing friends got tired of me talking about wanting to do it.  I was excited and I just felt like telling people about it. I guess you have to be a bit obsessed to climb something like this. Late this winter, I have felt ready to have a go at this legendary classic. I have felt it was my place to get on it. An ascent of Octopussy just boggled my mind and I was dreaming of it but this line is just down right intimidating. I thought it would be sort of cool as well if I got up it at an age of 19, as a teenager. I wanted to at least look at it closely and see what it was all about.

The belay setting. Amazing!

So what does an ascent include? Seventh Tentacle is a smear of ice behind the Fang in Vail, CO. M6+ dry tooling for 3 bolts brings you to the ice where usually WI5 ice brings you 100 feet to the bolt anchor below the huge roof. From here you part off and do a 40 or so foot traverse at M4 ish that is very exposed and while the climbing is not difficult, the pro is questionable in spots and pendulums falls could be big. Though if you fall, you should re think about what your doing. From a spot behind the curtain, a 15 to 20 foot M8 chossy horizontal roof must be climbed to get the WI6 hanging curtain which must be turned on the front side. Once situated, WI5+ ice takes you to the top of the difficulties. Hanging curtains bring there own problems and dangers. Swinging to hard will bring the risk of bringing the whole thing down. No ice screws can be placed in them as if it failed it would bring you down even with a rope to probably your death. Then there is the fear of your rope getting cut on them. These are the things that run through your head when you’re considering climbing such things. It’s why extreme caution and patience needs to be had for such lines.

How do I go about this?

A couple weeks ago, Chris Mason and I climbed Seventh Tentacle. Chris belayed me up as I wanted to at least take a look at the moves and the curtain, perhaps giving it a go. The traverse was surprisingly not a “ledge” I had read about and was very exposed as I stated above. As I stood behind the curtain, I talked myself out of it, stating it was “out” of condition but really I was just scared. The quick draw on the fixed pin at the roof was filled with spider webs and everything looked like it had not been touched in years. The fixed protection at the roof worried me. Was it still solid in this horrible rock? The right side of the curtain where you transfer onto was not hanging down far meaning there would be almost no feet and all on the arms. The left side was formed well but you don’t climb on that side. I stated I would come back in a month and hopefully it would form far enough that I could skip the climbing on the overhang.

As the next couple days came, I realized I just had to open my eyes to the possibility. I was limiting my views. I realized I needed to have a go at it. It was “in” and as long as the protection was there, there was no reason to not try the dry tooling part. There were no signs of fractures on the actual hanging curtain. I stared at pictures of it along with the ones I took behind it. I spent a lot of time just trying to figure out how to go about it. How in the world do you get on the front side??? It had what seemed tentacles blocking access to the front. Back to Jeff Lowe’s pictures I went to when he did it. It came to a point where I knew it was time to have an honest go at it, to at least try the moves at the roof if anything.

Micah following The Seventh Tentacle

I talked to a couple partners but they either didn’t want to or just couldn’t get up there. I sent Micah Salazar a message and he replied about simply going to Vail the next day. Micah is a strong partner that I have enjoyed climbing with anytime I have. He asked me what I wanted to do.

“Octopussy” I stated.

I don’t know if he was shocked or more scared about the idea. I think he knew I was serious about it though with past climbs we have done. He had been busy the last few days and was tired so I was happy to lead. Barely anyone was there and it started off not really cold so we rushed to get roped up. I set off and belayed him up in the middle of the traverse for Octopussy. He came up and did not like this traverse but soon joined me. I procrastinated it seemed as much as possible.


This has to be one of the more intimidating lines in Colorado. Soon I had no choice and set off. Behind the curtain, I clipped about 5 pieces including my number 1 cam, equalized it all, extended it like crazy, and didn’t want to fall on it as the fall would be crappy on the ledge. After a bit of breathing, I set off for one wild route. Dry tooling the roof, I just couldn’t clip those pins! I down climbed to rest and back up I went only again to come down when a hold broke and a whole bunch of dirt went in my eyes making my vision not so well. This wasn’t starting to well. The 3rd time was a charm. After another move, I had to almost swing my body at a full horizontal extension to barely touch the quick draw. I grabbed the rope and after some hassle, clipped it. After another move I yelled to Micah to take. I wanted to make sure it held my body weight before being confident it would hold a fall, after all, they are some old pins in some horrible rock. Testing….1…2…

It held as I bounce tested it. I swung to the ice and took an actual fall. They held again. After gaining my trust I was ready to try to figure out how in the world to get on the front. Fear struck as I was hanging there. What a position! I had another go just to find out the moves out to the front. I swung to the ice with a big awkward sideways reach. After two swings it was in. I Tarzan swung my legs over. I matched my hands on the ice tool, put my left foot on the backside of the curtain along with my right foot on the front side in a strenuous almost horizontal front lever position. I swung higher on the front side with my right tool locking off with my left arm. The ice was overhanging with hanging daggers making finding a place to swing quite hard. I swung and fractured the ice. I started falling as a huge 4+ foot chunk sheered off on my elbow and then leg as I was left in mid air. It didn’t feel well.

The hard climbing and transfer to the front

“This is insane man!”  I stated to Micah. I had figured out how to get to the front though! I was ready for a serious go now.

I pulled back up and rested. Mentally, this was kind of taxing. I told Micah that I’d give it one more go and that’s all it took. After some rest, I had to swing higher in the ice from a high hook with my left ice tool on a small edge in the rock. I got it and did the same procedure but this time really barely swung with my ice tools and feet. I was in the front lever position again and had to swing right wards on the front side so I could be above my feet almost in the sit up manner. Very strenuous but soon I was above my right foot and soon both feet. After 10 more feet of running it out I was face to face with the fracture line for the curtain. You couldn’t see this what so ever from the back. I placed a 10 cm stubby ice screw above it. You never want to place one below as if the curtain falls, you’re in trouble. I went up to the top of the difficulties. I placed my tools on level ground while in the tripod stance and started making the anchor. The ice was not accepting a screw very well and layers were breaking while placing it. I tried again. It was a minute then all of sudden my left foot just popped right off out of no where and out of balance I was sent without my ice tools down. My left foot was in a groove when it did pop off. Why it took a minute for it to pop off, beats me. It seemed solid.


I couldn’t breath while falling. I was seriously scared.


All I remember thinking is “I’m falling leading ice.” The number 1 rule in leading ice is don’t fall. I have never taken a whip on ice until then and never want to again. I had talked to other professional climbers that have and just feared it!

I fell 15 to 20 feet and the screw held while the screamer deployed the whole way on the smallest ice screw out there. I was stuck staring at Micah in complete surprise and shock. I couldn’t believe what just happened.  I was building an anchor after putting away the difficulties, and all of sudden gone! I felt solid and all of sudden gone.

I can only imagine the face I made while looking at Micah.

He lowered me about 45 to 50 meters to the ground. I kept the weight on the rope as Micah aided and cleaned the gear at the start of the roof. He soon rappelled and joined me. We walked around to the top and rappelled and grabbed my ice tools along with the screw that held me.

A guy nearby stated that if I was going to fall on a route, then Octopussy was one heck of a route to do it on. Micah simply stated it was a victory whip. What happened on this day will remain in my memory for quite some time. I feel this route is a part of me now. It will always remain a test piece and a legendary route. It was definitely one of the more wild routes I have got on. I want to thank Micah for the amazing belay and cooperation with what happened. I wish I could have belayed him up on it. Next time, I’ll hang off the tools directly while making the anchor, or clip a quick draw to the ice tool and run the rope through it. It just didn’t come to mind at the time.

I’m still shocked of how fast it happened. It’s just a reminder how a couple little details can add up to one bad situation. Mixed climbing is a serious game.

Red Bull and Vodka P1

It was my last day of being 19 and it was one crazy way to end my teenage years. Here is quite a few more photo’s below of my past few weeks. It’s been a while since my last post.

Visit Octopussy’s route page on Mountain project. (

Ouray Ice Park

The challenging Super Dave (M7+ trad Ouray Ice Park)

One move from the ice and a hook pulled. No onsight 😦 Seamstress (M8)

Leading P1 of Ames Ice Hose. Protection was imaginary.

Onsight of Salsa Lisa (M7)

Ice Park

On top of the Fang

A remarkable P2 of Ames Ice Hose

Overnight ice climbing. Long Exposure shot

Jason leading the Dez

Jason leading the Dez

Vail is awesome!

Seventh Tentacle

About Noah McKelvin

Never skip a day of living life
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One Response to Breaking the Ice On Octopussy

  1. keithnoback says:

    Great story, and great climbing on your part!

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