Ice Climbing Vail Colorado

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Welcome to ThinkVail – we hope you find this article about ice climbing in Vail, Colorado helpful.

Ice Climbing in Vail, Colorado consists of a combination of pure ice climbing and mixed climbing which means a combination of ice and rock. Luckily, for those who love to hug ice, East Vail has a tremendous amount of challenging single pitch, mixed/ice climbing and it is all easily accessible, and in most cases, visible right from the road.

See Also: Ice Climbing Equipment


Ice Climbing in Vail Colorado


The popular, world-renowned ice and mixed climbing areas of East Vail are magnificent, boasting beautiful amphitheaters with long strings of ice pillars reaching down more than 100 feet. Some of these ice strings, like the notorious Fang, can even touch the ground.

Located less than a two hours from Denver, these natural ice falls and limestone walls call beginner and professional climbers alike. But you must not underestimate these amazing natural wonders. Fluctuating temperatures, ice falls, avalanches, and melting water between ice and rock all lend itself to some very dangerous conditions.

Home to some of the most famous climbs including the Fang (WI 5/6), Octopussy (WI 6 M8) and the hardest route in America today, the 55-meter Saphira (M15-) East Vail needs to be on your ice climbing bucket list.

The best time for Vail Ice Climbing is mid November-March. Its always up to Mother Nature, but there are usually many ice falls that are safe to climb by the end of November and in a typical year you can see more than 15 pure ice climbs and even more mixed climbing routes.

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Tips

  • Be courteous and conscientious when ice climbing in East Vail. Parking in Vail, anywhere in Vail can be tricky. Check out parking at Big Horn Park, Gore Creek Campground and Booth Falls Trailhead. Vail Golf Course pump house area has very limited parking and the Vail Nordic Center has parking. Big Horn Road in East Vail dead ends and here you can park on the right side of the road. But remember, to obey all signs, if it says you can’t park, don’t. Vail prohibits parking along streets unless posted, they will ticket and tow.
  • Both Lyft and Uber now operate (limitedly) in Vail, so it might be worth it to have them deliver you to your destination instead of chancing a parking ticket.
  • Most ice climbing areas in East Vail rarely get sunlight and can be very cold so bring extra layers of warm clothes to insure you stay warm.
  • Bring lunch, snacks and lots of water.
  • Ice climbing is cold, do not underestimate the weather. Definitely, wear wool socks, a winter jacket, snow pants, mittens or gloves, a hat and sunglasses or goggles. You will also need boots, crampons, ice axes and a helmet.
  • Ice climbing is a dangerous, extreme sport requiring proper knowledge, experience and equipment. If you feel at all uncomfortable or unprepared, hire a guide to show you the ropes and the BEST spots to climb.
  • Local guide services are also available and will make your ice climbing adventure easy and carefree. Guides provide technical gear, place anchors, top ropes, protection and offer tips and instruction to make you a better climber.

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Where to Go

Vail offers an amazing amount of challenging routes just off the south side and north side of the Highway. You can see many of the climbing areas from the road.


North side of Highway

Rigid Designator Area is by far one of the most famous ice climbing areas in Colorado. This beautiful amphitheater is home to renowned climbs such as Fang (WI5-6 ), Saphira (M15-) and Octopussy (M8)

Offering a variety of slabby ice sheets, huge 100 foot ice pillars, overhangs, and moderate to advanced mixed climbs. These climbs are single pitch sport-ice climbs with excellent anchors at the tops of the climbs for top roping.


Pencil Eraser/ Belfry Climbing

Lying just above the Spiral StairCase area, the Belfry is a mixed climbers paradise with nice ice lines of short stature combined with rock starts for a variety of terrain and steepness. Enjoy the relative solitude, as this small amphitheater cannot hold big crowds.


Spiral Staircase

Situated just east of the Rigid Designator amphitheater you will find the classic climbing of Spiral Staircase. Climbers will enjoy multiple modern mixed lines and short routes that are no longer than 25m. Watch out for the glissade on the way back down.


Firehouse Area

This popular mixed climb area offers several routes from the same approach trail. Enjoy sustained, steep, sport-ice climbing on fat water, ice or rock as.


Grizzly Grotto Climbing

Grizzly Grotto is nestled between Spiral Staircase and Rigid Designator and is a recently developed sport dry tool area, which means using ice axes to climb rock that is not covered in snow or ice. You will recognize it by the distinctive “cat walk” ledge on its western edge, and the sizable grotto, hence the name. Multiple roofs and difficult starts are some of the characteristics that set this area apart.


Pumphouse Falls &19th; Fairway

Pumphouse Falls & 19th Fairway are located downhill from Rigid Designator. Pumphouse Falls is the shining star here and offers very straight forward access. Watch out for avalanches in this area.


East Vail Falls Area

This small, limestone amphitheater of limestone is known as Pitkin Falls. Usually comes into condition earlier in the season so is a very reliable area. This climb offers lots of challenges for advanced climbers including a notorious “egg shell” top out. Two ropes are recommended if you rappel as it is more than 100 feet down.


South side of Highway

Booth Creek

Since Booth Creek Amphitheater is located on the other side of the Highway, these climbs get a lot of sun, so are not nearly as reliable as the climbs on the South Side. Always expect suspect ice because of these south facing conditions.

Routes consist of several single pitch pillars and smears that form up. There are many un-mapped routes in this area as well. Watch out for avalanches and you will need snowshoes to access much of this area.

Keep in mind, these climbs are all on Wilderness area so you can’t set bolts or fixed anchors with motorized drills here. You can park in the Booth Creek Trail head parking lot.

Piney Lake Pillar

This area includes Piney Lake Pillar and Goat’s Beard and is further west than Booth Creek. This is best during the deepest part of winter as additional ice sets up in the coldest part of winter

Piney Lake Pillar is up Red Sandstone Rd. and Goat’s Beard is situated right on the road and you can’t miss it, if it is in condition.


For more information including maps, photos, detailed descriptions & directions of local climbs check out www.MountainProject.com


Grading System

Two types of grading systems are used to measure Vail winter climbing.  They are: water ice (WI),  and mixed ice (M).

  • Water ice (WI) grades seasonal ice that melts away during warmer months. The scale for water ice ranges from WI1 (not very steep) to WI7 (vertical or overhanging, and very dangerous).
  • Mixed ice (M) refers to routes that contain a combination of ice and rock. The mixed climbing scale ranges from M4 to M13, each grade is described relative to a Yosemite Decimal System rating.

When deciding which climb you are capable of making, you must take into account the grading of each route. When reviewing a route you will likely see something like this next to the name of the route.

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Name of Route          Mixed Ice Rating (M)           Water Ice Rating (WI)             What That Means


West Corner                 (M4)                                            (WI3 )                             Moderate-Mix of Rock & Ice


The Fang                                                                                 (WI5-6)                            Advanced/Difficult Ice Only


Where to Learn

The Vail Valley has two amazing resources for learning how to ice climb and to increase your skills. Both of these local guides will make sure you learn to climb in a safe setting, with tons of instruction, all while having a GREAT time. Remember ice climbing demands knowledge, experience and the right climbing equipment.



See Also: Winter Hiking Checklist


Comments

What is your take on ice climbing in Vail, Colorado? Do you love it or would you leave it? What is YOUR favorite route to climb? Do you like pure ice climbing or mixed climbing and why?

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Related Articles: Best Ice Climbing Gear


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  • You people in Colorado are crazy, you huck yourself off of cliffs when skiing, you wll snowboard through trees in a bizzard, you climb rock with ice picks, you sled behind dogs, you snowmobile on anything and you bike with huge fat tires down snowy trails and you hike up 14,000 ft mountains where there is no oxygen.  What is wrong with you people?  As an armchair adventurer, I really enjoy your articles about life in Colorado and Ice Climbing in Vail, Colorado was no exception.  I loved the videos of the climber he is INCREDIBLE!

    • Thank you Olalekan, it is so nice to have an admirer and I am happy you are enjoying the articles from Vail, Colorado.  Please come and join in the antics anytime, we would love to have you!

  • Ice climbing is one of the best thing I have ever done although I have only done it a few times. What an adrenaline rush! I must confess it was not easy but the feeling was out of this world and I can't wait to go again I know ice climbing in Vail, Colorado will be fun and am hoping to do it soon.  I also love the idea of trying mixed climbing and seeing what a route of ice and rock has to offer. How do I find out more about where routes are located and how to get to them?

    • Hi Linus, great question. There is an outstanding website called the mountain project that has the inside scoop including directions, maps, parking, route difficulty, tips and miscellaneous information about hundreds and hundreds of climbs in the United States.  They have tons of information on Vail,climbs along with a forum to ask questions, climbing news, listings of local classes in your area, expert advice and lots more.  Check it out go to http://www.mountainproject.com

  • Cool post about ice climbing in Vail, Colorado.  I am familiar with rock climbing and ice climbing but I have never heard of mixed climbing or dry tooling.  Is this really something that people do a lot of? Is the equipment that you use for this type of climbing the same or completely different? Where can you find out more information about this type of climbing?

    • Hi Dancinscot, I am so glad you enjoyed the post about ice clibing in Vail, Colorao. Mixed climbing and dry tooling are both gaining popularity but they are both still relatively unheard of outside of ice climbing circles in the United States.  This type of climbing was pioneered in the 1990s in Vail by the amazing climber Jeff Lowe who established the mixed/drytooling route of Octopussy M8.  Ice climbing usually means you climb vertically but mixed climbing and dry tooling means you can climb 180 degrees on overhanging roofs and crazy inverted features.  It really ups your game.  Keep in mind that dry tooling can be a controversial as you are using ice axes to climb up bare rock which can destroy softer rock. You will want thicker picks (like 4mm) ice axes then normal and you will want modular heads that let you change out picks when they break or wear down (which happens quite often with dry tooling)

  • Interesting article about ice climbing in Vail.  I didn't realize there was so many mixed climbing route, I have only heard about the famous FANG., which would be pretty cool to climb.  I have been a rock climber for years and then started going ice climbing with friends, it didn't take long until I was ice climbing AND mixed climbing. By incorporating mixed climbing you can really open up a ton more routes.  I am adding Vail to my climbing destinations. Thanks for the tips.

    • Hi Gracen I am so glad you like the post about Ice Climbing in Vail, Colorado.  Yes adding in mixed climbing does open up a world of new climbing and adds a lot of variety to routes.  Fang is an amazing climb, unfortunately, some winters it never comes into condition, which means the ice pillar never reaches all the way to the ground and attaches so you can't climb it. Remember if you are thinking of climbing Fang you need to be an advanced climber and really know your stuff, it is not for amateurs.

  • It's been one of my bucket list to  take up climbing, however, I would like to learn what I'm getting into first. As I was reading about Ice Climbing just to get knowledge that is when I saw APEX Mountain school.

    OMG. you really laid everything I needed to know about climbing and where I can get assistance in Colorado. I looked at APEX website and their prices are not bad at all along with different ability levels. I'm excited for the info you listed. As for Ice Climbing, it sounds interesting but I think I will start small and see if I like climbing first. Thanks for your wonderful info, Much appreciate it.

    • Hi Evie, thanks for your comments. That is a great plan, start with a small climb with a guide like Apex Mountain School.  They will take you on a fun, safe climb to get your feet wet, so to speak.  You can see how much fun this sport can be while learning a ton!

  • I love ice climbing in East Vail, especially the Rigid Designator amphitheater. It is definitely not for the faint of heart. But it is epic.T try to get up there at least once every year or every other year.  I was wondering if there are any places near Vail where you can buy ice climbing and mixed climbing equipment?

    • Hi Dapoach, so glad you have had the chance to experience the amazing ice climbing in East Vail, it is an incredible place. There are not too many places in the area that sell ice climbing gear but I would suggest Alpine Quest Sports in Edwards, CO.  They have both rock climbing and ice climbing gear available and have lots of experience. Also for ice climbing and mixed climbing gear check out the article The Year's Best Ice Climbing Gear.

  • What a fabulously informative (and scary!) post about ice climbing in Vail. I never knew there was such a thing as mixed climbing ~ a combination of ice and rock. I'm not exactly the adventurous type but I have one specific friend who definitely is, and I will be referring him to this article. He is a dauntless daredevil and will try anything exciting (and dangerous).

    Thank you for sharing all this great information, as well as the helpful tips. I was also glad to see that you included the best places in Vail Valley to learn ice climbing. The videos were awesome! Thanks again.

    • Dear Sue, thanks so much for your nice comments about Ice Climbing in Vail, Colorado and I hope your dare devil friend enjoys the article as much as you did.

  • Great story about ice climbing in Vail, Colorado. I have lived in Arizona for 7 years and have done a ton of rock climbing.  I am being transferred to Glenwood Springs, Colorado just west of Vail and I am thinking of trying ice and mix climbing.  Although I feel very confident rock climbing and feel like I would probably be able to figure out ice climbing I would love some feedback about how to meet other local climbers and how to get some experience.

    • Hi Ablati, welcome to the neighborhood! Yes Glenwood Springs is just 40 minutes west of Vail so you could ice climb in Rifle, Redstone or Vail.  Even as a seasoned rock climber, I still recommend instruction and going with a guide until you gain experience, as ice climbing is like rock climbing on steroids. I would suggest looking into an ice climbing course at Colorado Mountain College (CMC) there is a campus in both Glenwood Springs and Edwards,(vail) Colorado and both offer ice climbing courses in the winter.  This is a 4-day course that will give you a lot of instruction and introduce you to other local climbers in the area.

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