Welcome to ThinkVail – we hope you find this article about ice climbing 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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
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.
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
Two types of grading systems are used to measure Vail winter climbing. They are: water ice (WI), and mixed ice (M).
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.
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
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.
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?