In January 2005 Gordon Laurens and I spent a few days climbing near Ouray, a small Victorian-era mining town nestled amongst the San Juan mountains in south-western Colorado.  Ouray is not very far from Denver as the crow flies (less than 200 miles) but it takes a long time to get there – at least six hours’ driving – because there are several mountain ranges in between.  In our case the drive was even longer because the Interstate 70 was closed on account of an accident and we had to make a lengthy detour.

Here I am in front of our luxurious accommodation, the Ouray “Victorian” Inn (very late Victorian, actually; it was built in the 1980’s).  As you can probably tell from the lack of snow on the ground the weather was unseasonably warm.  Fortunately there was still lots of ice to climb, and the warm weather had the additional advantage of stabilizing the snowpack higher up in the mountains – normally at this time of year the slopes of the San Juans are notoriously avalanche-prone.

Ouray is famous among climbers for its ice-climbing park, the first such installation in the world.  A group of enterprising locals have laid down a mile-long network of pipes and sprinklers along the edges of the Uncompaghre Gorge, just on the outskirts of town.  During winter they turn on the taps at night and spray water down the sheer walls of the gorge.  The result is lots of steep, fat, blue ice.  See how many climbers you can spot in this photograph.

Here’s Gordon rappelling down at the northern end of the gorge.

After a day playing around in the ice park we headed up into the mountains for some real climbing.  Gordon was particularly keen on trying “The Ribbon”, a steep and narrow WI4 a few miles south of town.

Unfortunately “The Ribbon” is a very popular climb and although we started at the crack of dawn another party was already ahead of us.  Undeterred, Gordon started leading up the first pitch.  However, he was not prepared for the showers of spindrift being triggered by the climbers above, not to mention the occasional fusillade of falling ice.  He was only wearing a fleece jacket (he’d been expecting dry conditions) and by the time he reached the top of the pitch his jacket was saturated with melting spindrift.

At the top of the first pitch we decided to call it quits and spend the rest of the day at the ice park.  Here’s Gordon back at the base of the climb in his spindrift-encrusted jacket.

The next day we came back better-prepared.  We brought waterproof jackets and we arrived an hour before sunrise.  Just as well – two other parties arrived a short while later but they turned around once they saw us ahead of them.  In this picture Gordon is following pitch 2, which wasn’t as steep as the first pitch.

Gordon contemplating the start of pitch 3 of “The Ribbon”.

Gordon nearing the top of pitch 3 (we broke this into two separate pitches).   Gordon is the only climber I know who puts in ice-screws with his bare hands.

Gordon rappelling down to the base of the climb.

Gordon back at the base of “The Ribbon”.

The following day we made an even earlier start and drove about an hour south of Ouray through the town of Silverton to try a climb called “Stairway to Heaven”.  Like “The Ribbon” this is rated WI4, but we thought it was slightly easier.  This is the view from the base of the climb, just as the sun was coming up.  The approach hike crosses about half-a-dozen avalanche paths – not a good place to be when snow conditions are unstable.

Here I am leading the first pitch of “Stairway to Heaven”.  The climb had been in the sun the previous afternoon and as a result the ice was wonderfully soft and plastic. Gordon leading the second pitch.  In this picture it doesn’t look too steep, but as all ice-climbers know there’s a curious but immutable law of ice-climbing – “it’s always steeper than it looks”. Gordon as the top of the climb.  Actually we could have done one more pitch, but it was now early afternoon and we still had the long drive back to Denver ahead of us, so we decided to declare victory and head down.

Gordon and the glove that almost got away.  Gordon was unlucky with gloves on this trip.  The day before he managed lose two left-hand gloves when he put them on the roof of his parked car to dry in the sunshine, then drove off forgetting they were still there.  Of course they immediately blew away, and though we searched for an hour we never found them.  Luckily I had a spare glove to lend him the next day – only to have it tumble over the edge of a cliff when he dropped it at the top of the climb.  We it up for lost and rappelled back to the base of the climb, 400 feet lower down, and there in the snow not ten feet away from our packs was the missing glove. The second pitch of “Stairway to Heaven” seen from the descent.  The two black dots at the base of the steep section are another pair of climbers.

A panoramic view of "Stairway to Heaven"
Looking back at “Stairway to Heaven”.  The red arrow is pointing to a climber.
Gordon back in his faithful Subaru, and the end of our trip.