Spring Break Ouray Style

We must have gotten lost on our way to the beach for the spring break party and instead, Sarah and I found ourselves in a cold snowy canyon behind my house in Ouray during a blizzard. The snow was knee deep and accumulating rapidly.  The river wasn’t frozen – it never is – that would make travel too easy.

What were we doing in the canyon in the first place?  Well, we were crunched for time, many ice climbs are in crummy shape since it’s the end of the season, and well, it seemed like an interesting adventure.  I like to call it “winter canyoneering”, but that only partially describes it. Travel through the canyon involves a fair amount of snow slogging, climbing ice, mixed climbing, jumping, falling, crawling, scratching, and sometimes swimming.  Hopefully, you’re just swimming through the snow and not the water.  The climbing bits involve digging or swimming through snow, ice only forms on the vertical sections and so topping out any bit of climbing gets entertaining, or maybe “degrading” better describes it.  There is of course the climbing half formed rotten ice alongside waterfalls that keeps things from getting too boring.  Maybe you’ll fall and land in the snow if the ice breaks, but more than likely, you’ll just land in the “not so soft” shallow creek.  Every now and again you randomly punch through the snow into a hole.  Sometimes the creek is in this hole, and you’ve got to move fast before the water finds it’s way in.  You have to make sure to stay “loose” so as not to break your legs in such events.  Crawling out of these holes is exhausting, but you just have to remember to laugh.  Besides, what you’re doing is totally ridiculous.

Sometimes you get fed up with the post-holing and just walk right through the creek.  Crampons give you a couple needed inches of height, but freeze the snow to them as soon as you get out of the water.  Remember, all of this builds character so you’re doing yourself a favor.  Maybe tomorrow you’ll be a better person!

Eventually, an unfrozen waterfall blocked progress.  “Awe shucks”, I forgot the snorkels, “we’ll have to turn back here”. At least the trail was already broken for the return trip.
Being back inside the house by a warm stove felt a lot better than before we left. Funny how that works.

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Gravity takes over

Rest Day – Gravity’s Rainbow

Gravity takes over

So what should we caption this one with?  Here are a few suggestions:

  1. What happens when you put snow shoes on a Floridian…
  2. Someone gave Alan decaf this morning.
  3. Alan succumbs to gravity on the approach to Gravity’s Rainbow.
  4. Too much CrossFit yesterday, Alan?
  5. The reason it took us all day to climb Gravity’s Rainbow.
  6. The sympathy approach for trying to get out of having to break trail.

For those wondering… yes Gravity’s Rainbow is climbable, but it is very thin, there’s lots of crappy ice, and lots of crust covered rock.  Protection is occasional, and you’re forced to put ice screws in the places they tell you not to in the “How to Ice Climb” book.   My ice tool picks are now flattened stubs, and I’ll probably have to get most of my ice screws resharpened too.  It does however make for an adventure.

Montage of Gravity\'s Rainbow


Skyrocket Creek – right fork




Tormentor (Alan Cook), Faith, and Cruise Director (Jason Nelson) attempted to ascend the right fork of the skyrocket creek drainage.  Cruise Director had previously ascended the left fork of the canyon, which turned out to be a good (read successful) San Juan adventure.  Today our progress was stopped by overhanging wet rock (read waterfall) and we attempted a traverse to bypass the waterfall.  The detour looked tame enough, but quickly became a game of house of cards loose rock with dire consequences.  This wasn’t just any loose rock either, it was right up there with the best (read most hideous) of what the San Juan’s have to offer.  Out came some pitons and a rope but they only led to more choss and potential dead(ly) ends.  

That’s how first ascents go.  In other words, sometimes they don’t.  Perhaps we’ll try again another day. Faith got to experience some special CrossFit training.  We’ll have to come up for a name for it still but it goes something like this… find a steep very loose hill and ascend.  Fifteen steps and five feet later Faith summited!  You do the math on that one.  How big were those steps?  Just like the riddle about the snail in the well.

Amphitheater Ascent

The Amphitheatre is a large cirque just south of Ouray. It makes for a large steep fortress of spires, cliffs and canyons that rise for about 3,000 ft. This is not a place for rock climbing, but mountaineering adventures. The rock (some type of welded tuff / volcanic ash) is terrible and gets worse the higher you go. The rock offers little in the way of cracks or protection. The wall is a geographic maze perched at a steep angle. There are likely hundreds of variations and hundreds of dead ends ascending the wall. I made a few phone calls to get information about this area, but not many people have actually completed successful ascents. Both winter and summer conditions provide their own sets of obstacles. There is a way up through the amphitheatre that apparently requires only a little scrambling. I don’t have information as of writing, but perhaps in a later version of this guidebook. Below is a description of a route I completed with Alan Cook that took us about 9 hrs. with a shuttle on either side. Be prepared for lots of scrambling on loose rock, more loose rock, dirt, forest, snow, waterfalls, and mud on 4th and easy 5th class terrain. Sounds good doesn’t it? Notice I didn’t mention solid rock?

Directions: Head south out of Ouray on Hwy 550. Go left at the sign for the Amphitheatre. Turn right at the first dirt road. You’ll want a reasonable amount of clearance to get up this road. Stay on the primary track until it ends at the base of the Amphitheatre wall. There are not many turn offs so there’s not much opportunity to get lost. You adventure begins in the river/stream below the end of the road. Suggested Gear: This is a pretty grey area due to changing conditions, but here some ideas. 60m 7mm or 8mm rope, half a dozen slings or quickdraws, cordelette or two, a small set of stoppers, tri-cams work well (not TCU’s), pitons work great, rain jacket, helmet, and a cell phone for a pick up at Bear Creek Trailhead.

Note: The amphitheatre would be a very difficult area to get rescued from. Maybe consider some sort of

helicopter insurance coverage if this is something that might concern you.


Extended Crossfit Workout Route #666 (7, 1,000m)

See the photo for reference.

1. Ascend the riverbed through piles of jumbled boulders and small waterfalls. Mostly 4th class with

the occasional boulder problem—get it? Hee hee!

2. A giant chockstone and waterfall blocks progress. A crack and fixed ropes on the left side of the canyon lead to a ledge. Bolts and a fix rope lead across the ledge, over an exposed step And to the top of the waterfall.

3. You’re now in a slot canyon and another waterfall blocks progress. Climb the right wall past a couple pins and bolts to the top of the waterfall. This section is loose ,steep and a little spicy. An experienced climber should be able to climb this in approach shoes. It maybe feels like 5.7 or 5.8 in approach shoes. Tri-cams work well for additional protection here (brown and red).

4. A small snowfield is the next marker. We were able to exit the snowfield via a snow bridge. The snowfield was about 60 ft. thick in mid-summer conditions during our ascent. If there is no snow bridge, either climb the waterfall, or it looks possible to traverse exposed slabs on the left.

5. A waterfall forces you to go right, cut back left to the top of the waterfall. Another waterfall blocks further progress. Ascend the wall to the right. The top bit is steep and loose. We cut back right some below the headwall and set up a belay on a small tree to overcome this section (5.4 R/X). Above is steep forest.

6. Ascend the ridgeline in the forest eventually working left back into the main drainage. It seems as there would be several options here as the drainage splits in several directions. We chose a 1,000 ft. snow couloir heading up and right.

7. Kick steps up the snow couloir.  Do your best to breath in the thinning air.

8. Once the snow ends, claw your way up dirt and mud to a false summit. There was about 3 options above this section. We chose the leftmost up an easy but terribly loose gully.

9. The ridgeline! Steep choss prohibits going any direction but down the other side. Down climb loose gully, with some snow, following the stream. You’ll need to wander around various and constant obstacles.

Descent out Bear Creek: Once down the hillside, follow the river downstream moving left onto game trails just before the river joins the drainage for Bear Creek. The river goes over a big waterfall before joining Bear Creek. Go left over the ridgeline into a big grassy slope. Continue downhill to the Bear Creek Trail. Follow this back to Hwy 550 which is a couple miles away.