Fun-hogging a classic and reflecting on humble beginnings - Ouray, CO.
Nearly eight years ago, I begged a guide I was casually acquainted with to take me under his wing and teach me how to ice climb. That guide turned out to be the certified hard man, Dave Black. I flew out from the sunny beaches of SoCal to the blistery cold of Grand Junction with shiny new ice tools and crampons thrown haphazardly into my checked bag. Dave grabbed me from the airport and introduced me to places like Joe’s Valley and Provo where he showed me the ropes, literally. Neither of us could afford ice screws at the time, which essentially resulted in him free-soloing every line and then setting up a top rope to haul up my dairy aire. I didn’t have the years of experience as a climber to appreciate what he was doing at the time, but years later and with some bigger “hard man” lines under my belt, I get it and am eternally grateful for the gifts he bestowed on me. We’ve kept in contact over the years and are always talking about doing a big mountain together, and now that we are located geographically closer to each other, I would love to see that through.
It’s fair to say that ice and mixed climbing for me started in the four corners area. Ouray, Colorado was a place where I grew as an “ice climber”. Annually, I would meet up with a mutual friend of Dave and mine, and we would practice our moves within the safety of the Ouray Ice Park. That WI5 line that barely touched the ground? We top rope heroed that like champs. Ooh and WI4+ without hanging? Sending! It was a period of my life that I look fondly back upon. I was so new to climbing that every day with tools in my hands was a success! Imagine that?! So when I moved to Colorado it seemed fitting to return and measure my growth as a climber. Packed and ready, with a good avalanche forecast, we set out on a leisurely six hour drive across Colorado to arrive just shy of midnight at the Riverside Inn.
BEEP! SCREECH! GET THE F UP! As these things usually go, I awoke feeling exhausted, but ready to seize the day. Gear was packed and we were out the door just in time to grab free coffee at the front desk before heading up Camp Bird Road, a dirtbag requisite. The day’s goal was a route which had at one point been the mythical ‘Bird Brain Boulevard’ – 1,200 feet of WI5 M6 classic; or just BBB to those whom have had the pleasure of jaunting up it.
We arrived to a very full parking lot, but it appeared we were in luck. There were two groups on the ‘Ribbon’ at 0830 with a few others
queued up to see how things panned out. We sprinted out of the car, crossed the river, and were at the base of the route in no more than 15 minutes to stake our claim. As we started to gear up we noticed snow pouring down the chimney system of Bird Brain Boulevard,ut oh.
Some more aspiring alpinists, which doesn’t say much with our leisurely 8am hotel departure, were already on pitch 2 and had somehow missed the watchful eye of the parking lot binoculars. A brief partner check and we decided to follow behind the group. The assumption being that it was unlikely they would throw that much on us, and our topo suggested that we could bail after the first pitch if this was not the case.
Bird Brain Boulevard (WI5, M6, 1200′, IV)
PITCH 1 (70m to 80m): Forgive the route for this first pitch. Steepening snow is near impossible to protect before eventually yielding a rock outcrop to the left and a bit of rotten ice further up. I succeeded in finding two reasonable rock placements and one screw over the course of the pitch. My faith in the screw placement probably only confirmed I, myself, have a few screws loose. We set the belay past the obvious chockstone overhead right where the wall becomes vertical. This section, I was told, usually has great ice but currently is completely dry. There were cam placements in the walls or in the crack at the back of the Chimney. A #3 would have been useful, but we managed without, as our borrowed rack stopped at a #2 thanks to our rock gear still being in transit somewhere between Germany and Colorado. The amount of spindrift coming down (or “baby avalanches”, as I like to call them) had us questioning if this was from our early bird group digging holes to toss snowballs or heavy winds violently shifting snow down the vulnerable chimney system. We debated bailing but on scouring for options realized up was it. Lessons learned- it’s a crap shoot climbing behind a party on BBB and descent is impossible without leaving a yard sale on route.
PITCH 2 (55m): Up the steep rock chimney with great pro, a good flavor of what is to come. Coming out, the angle eases with a respite on an easy snow/ice ramp. This takes you to another steepening where the ice stops, just in time to force you to pull a roof with some great gear at your feet. The angle then backs off again before a final vertical ice wall gets you to a piton belay on the left in an alcove. A menacing ice pillar that starts the next pitch taunts you from the belay. We hung out here in the relative safety for a good while, letting our friends clear pitch 3 and hopefully make the next pitch less a game of dodgeball.
PITCH 3 (60m): Extending a bomber cam behind the pillar prevents a factor fall on the anchor as you swing up the narrow column. Short but intense, you then head up the narrow chimney which feels strikingly secure due to the close proximity of the walls. This pitch is a blast with easy stretches being broken up by three chockstone roofs. You can belay beneath the last chockstone roof, or pull over it (great gear in it and to the right) to the overhanging headwall in front. There was one piton here at the time of our climbing from which to belay with supplemental gear placements in the cracks to the right. You could easily place a second pin as well if you are carrying that sort of thing.
PITCH 4 (45m): Possibly my favorite pitch. The route starts hard for 20 feet, going up the left facing slightly overhung corner which was almost completely dry. Surmounted, the angle backed off before slowly steepening again. A steep vertical ice section protects well before backing off just a little. As you approach the next vertical section, step right into the major source of the ice flow for a gorgeous ice screw belay on a ledge protected by a reasonable wall.
PTICH 5 (25m): Finally a short one, but it’s not going to be easy. The vertical section you were debating linking into the last pitch packs a solid punch with some squeeze chimney grappling, ending with some narrow vertical ice. You pull out to a steep snow field that takes you into a cave. Great gear on the left or ice screws on the right, pick your poison.
PITCH 6 (40m): Up the steep ice. The mantle on the turf makes you reflect on your time spent in Scotland climbing and why you love Scotch. Promise yourself a glass later, because the pitch is just getting good. Cross the ledge and look up the corner. The mixed crux faces you. The gear is good, the climbing fantastic! The crack has just enough ice and turf to make it the most memorable bit of the day so far. At the end of the corner you can either traverse back left to return to the Chimney or head up 10 feet to the pin/hex/nut established belay. On doing the traverse and finding no suitable traditional gear belay options we opted for the latter. We had heard there was a piton belay just before the return into the Chimney, it was either hidden from us or more likely removed.
PITCH 7 (40m): Get some air under your heels and traverse the sloping, hopefully snow covered ledge, back into the chimney. The overhung
chimney, for us, held no ice but plenty of fun. This eventually backed off and we belayed below the next chockstone roof where there was a hook in place and some good gear. If you manage your rope drag from the belay better than us, this can be linked with the next pitch.
PITCH 8 (30m): Step left around the corner and past the chockstone roof, stemming your way upwards. The route does not give up. Once back in the chimney, it squeezes down on you until, at last, you escape. A pin in the left wall protects the final few moves before the “summit” snow slope and a dash for a thick tree up and to the left from which to make the final belay.
DESCENT: A slung tree is just down the ridge from where you topped out (climber’s left). From here, initially go left as you look down for the first couple rappels. Most of the trees you encounter will be outfitted for rappels with rope around them and rappel links. We opted to use each one we encountered, as the sun dipped while we rigged the first rappel. 8 rappels later we were happily back at our bags and, shortly thereafter, smiling from ear to ear in front of a nice hot meal back in town; happy to have grown as a climber and happy to have been able to climb Bird Brain Boulevard, such an amazing route.
Avalanche and wind hazards should be checked prior to setting off on any of the routes in the Ribbon area. Visit the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) for information on the North San Juan area here.
Riverside Inn & Cabins
1804 N Main St
Ouray, CO 81427
(970) 325 – 4061 / ourayriversideinn.com
- technical ice axes
- warm mountaineering boots, waterproof
- gaiters or tie downs, optional
- ice screws, 6-13cm were nice, there were no possibilities for our conditions where we could v-thread anchors necessitating larger.
- small gear for rock belays and protection, very useful
- cams, full rack with nuts, doubles of small through #2 and one #3. For the fast and light bunch willing to spread the gear more, instead of full doubles I would only double on the .5, .75 and 1.
- ice axe bungees (to harness is preferred), optional
- pants relatively warm and windproof (Gore-Tex)
- warm baselayer pants
- fleece midlayer, Patagonia R1 hoody!
- synthetic or down puffy
- windproof jacket with hood (Gore-Tex)
- midweight gloves
Equipment by rope