The author leading the Rigid Designator.
The author leading the Rigid Designator.
Candace Horgan

Classic Climb: The Rigid Designator

As you drive west toward Vail and come upon the East Vail exit, several ice climbs can be seen in the north-facing drainages. Just past the East Vail exit, at that point where the frontage road curves back under I-70, the amphitheater comes into view. The amphitheater is home to several classic Front Range ice climbing testpieces, including the Rigid Designator, a 100 foot vertical pillar of ice.

The Designator, as most climbers refer to it, never forms the same way twice, and its difficulty can vary depending on the year. Many climbers find the cauliflower like formation at the bottom of the climb the crux, rather than the steep vertical ice above it.


The Designator was first climbed in 1974 by Bob Culp, who founded the Boulder Mountaineer climbing shop. Culp named the climb after a term Saul Kripke, a mathematical logician at Harvard, came up with.

In Glenn Randall's book "Vertigo Games," which covers the Colorado climbing scene of the 1970s and early 1980s, Culp explained that "Kripke had coined the term 'rigid designator' to describe a name that would refer to the same thing in all possible worlds. 'I thought ice climbing was madness, too,' Culp said."

Parking for the climb can be problematic, as the laws in Vail governing on-street parking are confusing. Before ice climbing got popular, climbers often parked on the street, but it's probably better to park in one of the lots nearby and walk a little farther. Part of the approach is on a cross-country ski track, so walk on the flat part instead of in the track -- and watch out for skiers. Right below the climb, slog uphill for 20 minutes to the base of the route.

Because the Designator is so popular, it sees a lot of traffic. In late season, you can sometimes hook your way up existing pick placements. It is so wide that I've seen multiple parties climbing on either side of the ice, which, to echo Culp, seems like madness.

It's often easier to climb the initial cauliflower section without your tools, using your hands and rock climbing technique instead. For those using modern leashless tools, that might be difficult.

Most climbers rappel from the top, but it is possible to walk off to climber's left to a short downclimb through a rock band.

Most climbers put the difficult of the Designator at WI5-, with 1 being the easiest and 7 the hardest; the WI refers to water ice. Depending on how it forms, it can be a little easier, at WI4+, or harder, at solid WI5.

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