Ames Ice Hose (II WI5, M5)

Posted on: November 27, 2006


[Topo] Jeremy Collins

A gossamer cascade flickered up to a narrow chimney, through dark, rotten rock, then brightened into a wide sheet of blue ice before fading once more under the tree shadows above the cliff. Its beauty shocked me into a state of complete wonder—and intimidation. I had only done one short ice climb that winter, and I was ill-prepared for my first view of what we then called Ames Fall. My friend Tom "Cardo" Merrill and I made a half-hearted attempt, getting all of twenty feet before the thin ice and lack of protection on the first pitch frightened us into retreat. Of course I'd be back.

Two weeks later, I shivered at the base of the cascade again, this time with my friends Lou Dawson and Steve Shea. The unlikelihood of such a climb's existence, during the winter of 1975-76—one of the mildest any of us had seen for years in Colorado—made it appear all the more magic. That Christmas the local ski areas had been unable to open (these were the days before snowmaking). Nonetheless in late January, Cardo and I had heard rumors of this potential classic near Telluride; some speculated that it might rival the big ice lines then going up in the Canadian Rockies.

It was an exciting time to be ferreting out new routes: most of the obvious lines hadn't yet been done, and vertical ice was still considered hard. Wool was the soft shell of the day; Gore-Tex hadn't been invented; ice tools and protection were primitive. And we were young, caught up in a feeling that our adventures were unprecedented. We were all living in Aspen, which in that period was still a sort of chic but funky ski town, where it was easy to scrape by and have time to explore. Cardo was an Aspen Mountain ski patrolman; Lou worked as an itinerant carpenter and guide between stints in Yosemite, Alaska and the desert Southwest. He'd been pretty rabid of late, soloing Glenwood Icefall and several other local testpieces. Steve, a ski mechanic with the burly build of an ex-ski-racer, later that year would made the coveted second ascent of Bridalveil Falls with Scotsman Gordon Smith (Lou, Chris Landry and I would make the fifth or sixth ascent a few weeks afterward) and the following summer would climb a new ice route on the Dru with Dick Jackson. I was the weakest of the bunch, but I made up for a lack of experience with boundless ambition.

Although Cardo and I had had a pleasant forty-five-minute ski to the climb, my second approach turned into a four-hour epic; unseasonal rain and sleet rendered the snow conditions terrible, and we crossed several fresh avalanche paths. The first pitch was just as diaphanous as before, but I managed to control my trembling and led it without incident—apart from a headfirst, fifteen-foot plunge into soft snow. Starting out vertical, the climbing seemed to overhang slightly as the thin skin of ice came over a small roof. There was no real protection until the easier-angled ramp above, which took us to the base of the steep, ice-filled, eighteen- to thirty-inch chimney. Steve led this, the crux of the climb, by hacking, bridging, grunting, groaning, cursing and oozing his way up. Following on a tight rope was desperate enough for me. The brief winter day passed quickly, and we rappelled off, sopping wet, leaving our two ropes fixed.

Avalanches closed the road back to Telluride, so we rummaged through the barren cabinets of our friend Bob "Sully" Sullivan's Ophir cabin for sustenance. There wasn't much food or beer to be had, but we did manage to dry our sodden Dachstein sweaters and mitts. The morning was clear and cold, and we soon discovered the joy of jumaring on ice-caked ropes. Getting back to our high point took us almost as much time as leading the two pitches had the day before. Lou headed up the third pitch, which wasn't trivial, but still considerably thicker and less technical than the ground we'd already covered. He finished by traversing left to a belay off a tree that grew out of the rock. Steve followed, unclipping from all the ice screws but leaving them in place. He neglected to clip my rope in, so I had to climb well or make a wild swing into the steep stone. The screws were mine, however, and I had a strong interest in getting them out.

Chris Harmston on the Ames Ice Hose in fat conditions similar to those found during the 1976 first ascent. Conditions vary drastically from year to year; climbers may encounter anything from WI5 to WI6 M6. In early 2006, a climber added a bolt to the start; it was promptly chopped, and the climber roundly chastised. The route is one of the San Juan's classics. [Photo] Kennan Harvey

I led the last pitch as the day faded. It was short, steep and weird; a tied-off branch and one mediocre screw seventy-five feet up were all I could find. At nightfall, we exited onto mixed rock, powder, vegetation and dirt. We had no food or water, no bivouac gear, and we were soaked to the skin. But our earlier struggles with the frozen ropes made us reluctant to rappel in the dark. Lou started a fire, and the next morning, back in Telluride, we wolfed down a massive late breakfast, our last night's misery giving way to elation.

Making the first ascent of the Ames Ice Hose was less a matter of vision than of luck. Subsequent climbers have sometimes found its cobweb-like first pitch even more insubstantial and delicate than we did, choosing instead a mixed variation that Mugs Stumps and Sully may have pioneered soon after our ascent. Lou, Steve, and I have realized how fortunate we were to have climbed the route in such relatively fat conditions, especially in a lean winter. When a Telluride climber added a bolt to the variation in 2006, I was happy to hear that someone promptly chopped it—and to learn how powerfully so many other people felt about preserving a reflection of the original experience, one that had meant so much to us.

A piece of momentarily frozen time whose stasis is only illusory, the cascade has continued to melt and reform in new shapes, never entirely the same. Cardo, Lou, Steve and I have also changed over the years, in ways that, at times, have seemed just as unpredictable. Adventure has been the only constant. If that first view of the Ames Ice Hose has stayed in my memory with unusual radiance, it's because, even then, I must have sensed that it would be more than a climb to us, that it would come to symbolize a winter in all our lives that remains itself a classic.

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