FRISCO — In Summit County’s iconic mountains, avalanche danger doesn’t only affect backcountry skiing and snowboarding. The sport of ice climbing and its adventurous practitioners also read each year’s snowfall trends and weather conditions to gauge if and when they can attempt their favorite frozen formations.
As amazing as the winter of 2018-19 was for backcountry skiers, the nature and bounty of the snowfall proved too treacherous for many ice climbers hoping to hack and screw into the virgin ice of Tenmile Canyon. One of them was Summit County local Reid Kalmus, an avid climber, backcountry skier and snowboarder and winter mountaineer. Kalmus didn’t climb at all in the canyon last winter due to the avalanche danger.
“I kind of go with the punches,” he said. “When you have a crappy snow year, it’s not a good ice year, typically. If the snow is good, I’ll just go ski or snowboard. And if everybody is griping about the snow, I’ll go ice climbing. So I’ll just take what I can get.”
After a fall snowstorm dropped a layer of snow on Summit County, Kalmus was hopeful the ensuing forecast for oscillating temperatures would manifest climatic conditions ideal for the freeze-thaw cycles that usher in a new, good ice climbing season.
One of a dozen to two dozen ice climbers who hope to scale icicle-like towers in Tenmile Canyon each season, Kalmus has no shortage of options to scratch his winter adventure itch each season. But what ice climbing provides Kalmus is two things.
One: the challenges of scaling Tenmile Canyon’s precarious steep formations prepares him for any winter climbing challenges he may face on a glacial mountaineering expedition — such as his summiting and snowboarding of the highest point on the continent, the 20,310-foot Denali, last year with Summit County friend and fellow ice climber Pat Gephart.
Two: There is an energy and connection to climbing ice in the deep nooks and crannies of an iconic mountain range in your own backyard — one that, in many ways, feels like your own.
“A lot of climbs don’t come in every year in Tenmile Canyon,” Kalmus said. “So there is a romance to that, to hike 5 miles to see if it’s in this year. Some of the pursuit of the ice in itself kind of adds to the allure of hiking a little further than most people. And Tenmile Canyon is a little more adventurous. A lot of the stuff in Tenmile Canyon just doesn’t get climbed as often. You just definitely get a little more of an adventure feel, I suppose, even though Interstate 70 is right there. Usually you are going to find more virgin ice. It’s just perfect. There’s no evidence of anyone climbing it.”
As alluring as the ice climbing is in the canyon, it’s even more tricky when it comes to avalanche danger. The majority of the routes and formations Kalmus, Gephart and fellow ice climbers scale in the canyon are located in the basin under the sketchy ridgeline between Peaks 3 and 4.
In here, to the east by Officers Gulch, The Shroud is a popular, more moderate route. Between it and the moderate Triple Tier to the west, more advanced formations such as Upper and Lower Tony’s Nightmare, Around the Corner and the Upper Pillar present truly wild tests. And these locations deep in dark, hidden crevices of the canyon are within the maze-like web of avalanche paths that frequently slide. With that, Kalmus said proper avalanche mitigation knowledge and skills as well as daily monitoring of conditions — both in person and reading the Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s website — are musts before scouting out routes.
“It’s probably more dangerous in Tenmile Canyon avy-wise than 95% of ice climbs in the state,” Kalmus said. “It’s just so much volume of snow above all of those climbs. It’s just ridiculous. And all of those criss-crossing avy paths, it’s a complicated house of cards.”
The reality that is ice typically forms where avalanches go. Whether it’s an avalanche or water, Kalmus said, it’s going to flow down the same path of least resistance.
Which makes some of the more moderate climbs in the canyon, namely Triple Tier, dangerous for those more novice climbers learning skills on its more gradual slopes. The flatter pitch means snow often hangs on the slope’s blue ice, adding a variable of difficulty to the climb. When climbing a pitch like this, Kalmus said climbers must also have knowledge of any snow on terrain above and nearby the route. It’s also important to know the nature of terrain surrounding a route, such as if longstanding trees and flora are ingrained or if it has slid in recent history.
Avalanche dangers persist in the more advanced gullies and chutes accessed via the deep bowl beyond a choke point west of Peak 3. These routes are all 85 degrees or steeper. Climbing something almost dead vertical, especially in cold conditions, Kalmus said the ice gets more “chandeliery,” as a lot of the individual icicles kind of conglomerate with air pockets on sprawling frozen flows which, essentially, grow in differently each year depending on the weather.
As for this year, Kalmus is hopeful to re-create ice climbing memories like his favorite thus far in the canyon: a headlamp-lit April climb of The Shroud with a couple of friends a few years back, the first time he’d ever climbed at night. After scrambling up the side, Kalmus rappelled down The Shroud from the longstanding, weathered master point anchor — comprised of a bolt, root and tree tied into “one big knot” — above the route.
“It was pretty warm. Real easy climbing. The ice was soft,” Kalmus said. “It was just a hoot.”