North Face of Notchtop.
North Face of Notchtop.
c/o Mountainproject.com

Top 5 Rocky Mountain National Park ice climbs that will test you but (probably) won't kill you

Many ice climbs in Colorado are close to the road and have short approaches that take no more than a half hour. In Ouray, for instance, you pretty much belay out of your car, which is why it's so popular with ice climbers who moved into it from sport climbing, where approaches are anathema. Ice climbing has, it seems, forgotten its alpine mountaineering roots somewhere.

For those, however, who believe that no ice climb is complete without multiple shots of Single Malt and the chance to have an epic by getting caught in a storm miles from your car, there is a solution: Rocky Mountain National Park.

Ice climbing in Rocky Mountain National Park is defined by long approaches and often brutal conditions. Even the routes that have short approaches take an hour or more to get to. Combine that with winds that would make Boreas green with envy, and frigid temperatures that seem to have their own zip code, and you get an ice climbing area that is not for people who want their climbing day to be defined by getting down in time for Happy Hour and shots of Jager.

RMNP has a wide variety of climbs, from (almost) easy walk-ups to technically demanding mixed desperates. For those seeking moderate routes, here is a top five ticklist of moderate routes (WI3-WI4).

1. Hidden Falls (WI3+/WI4-)
This climb, accessed from the Wild Basin trailhead, has probably the shortest approach in Rocky Mountain National Park. It takes about 40 minutes to get to the climb. Park at the Wild Basin trailhead on CO 7, hike for about a mile past the sign for Upper and Lower Copeland Falls, then look off to the left for the climb. Cross the stream and follow a climber's trail, or bushwack, to the base of the route. The climb is about 75 feet high, and ends at a convenient tree anchor. It's possible to set up a top rope by going off to the left and groveling up a slope, then cutting back to the top of the route. This climb is popular on weekends, and some stupid climbers have tried to put two parties on the route, a recipe for disaster.

2. All Mixed Up (WI4)
Long, grueling approach? Check. Often thin, difficult to protect ice? Check! Avalanche danger on the descent? Check!! Welcome to All Mixed Up, a route that can form thick and plastic, but which is often thin and difficult to protect. The approach alone is so brutal it can make you long for sunny rock climbing. From the Glacier Gorge trailhead, hike to Mills Lake and continue to the end of the lake. In early season, this is on trail, but by mid-winter, you can ski this portion. From the far end of the lake, grovel up through the trees to the base of the climb. Allow two hours, possibly three, depending on snow conditions. The climb itself can be done in two long 60 meter pitches, but most parties take three or four shorter pitches. Depending on conditions, the crux can be the second pitch or the last one. Descend off to climber's left, although it the snow is avalanche prone, it is better to rappel the route. Watch out for climbers below you on this popular route; though the lower pitches are a football field wide and offer many possibilities, they all funnel to the final pitch.

3. Grace Falls (WI4)
A super classic route below the north face of Notchtop, Grace Falls forms wildly differently every year. In good ice years, the climb can be wide and offer a lot of possibilities. In bad years, it can be thin and exceedingly difficult. The route is 100-120 feet high, depending on snow depth at the base. Park your car at Bear Lake and hike/ski the trail towards Notchtop, heading off the trail to the left before it heads down into Odessa Gorge. Stay right of Lake Helene and find the base of the climb. In a storm, if you haven't been there before, it can be difficult to find (I got lost on this approach once). Allow 2-3 hours for the approach.

4. North Face Notchtop (WI3, 5.7)
Probably the classic moderate mixed testpiece, the North Face of Notchtop is also, unfortunately, prone to avalanches, so pay careful attention to the snow conditions before venturing up, unless you are looking for column fodder! Park at the Bear Lake trailhead and hike/ski the trail towards Notchtop. Continue past Grace Falls to a gully below the huge North Face and follow it up past a snowfield to the base of the route. The climb itself is four pitches long, and consists mainly of ice steps with snow in between. It can have some rock sections. From the ridgeline at the top, head west along the ridge to the descent gully.

5. Alexander's Chimney (WI4, 5.5/M4)
Located on the Lower East Face of Long's Peak below the jaw-dropping Diamond Face, Alexander's Chimney is a must do route. First climbed as a rock route, the Chimney is an unpleasant outing in the summer; wait till the fall and do it as an ice climb. Park at the Long's Peak Ranger Station and follow the trail to Chasm Lake, then take the Chasm-Cut Off to the base of the East Face. Start up Lamb's Slide, the obvious snow gully, to the base of the Chimney. Allow about four hours for the approach. The crux is on the third pitch, going under a chockstone and thin, mixed terrain above it. Either rap the route or hike left on the Broadway ledge to the top of Lamb's Slide and descend it to Chasm Lake. Bring rock gear.

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