Colorado Ice

Second Gully, Eureka

Rock, paper, scissors, shoot. I win the first lead.

   Screws clank on my harness as I plunge step in deep snow up the base of my first multi-pitch ice route. Second Gully is one of the easy classics in the backcountry ice epicenter of Eureka, CO. A fat gully choked with blobs and sheets up ice rolls upwards for four rope lengths and terminates into some trees at the top of Peak 12,896.

Leading on Second Gully
Leading on Second Gully

   It’s cold and the ice plates and I love it. I bring Marcus up with a grin and set off on another pitch before Marcus finishes the route off. We’re stomping through the warming snow on the descent just as it starts to get hot. Our belay transitions are fast and we feel dialed. It’s 50 degrees and I’m stripping down to base layers and I just climbed four pitches of ice. What?

Stairway to Heaven, Eureka

Eureka, CO

   The odometer rolls past 290,000 as the Subaru wheezes over the last switchback on Red Mountain Pass. It is 5:27 AM and we are coasting down, down towards Silverton, Colorado. Avalanche debris on US 550 crunches under the car tires; I put it in neutral and ride the brakes down.

   The alarm bared an hour earlier and we slammed eggs and avocado, coffee and hot Tang. We counted ice screws and quick draws and left Ridgway with high-school punk music drowning the exhaust noise of the car. Excitement. It’s gonna be a good day.

 We glide through a sleepy Silverton and roll to the end of the plowed road. The bumper scrapes on snow and the lights turn off and it’s dark, still. Stars in a clear sky hint at the shapes above and the cold night crust crunches underfoot.

   It’s light enough to see before we get to the base, and the name of the route, Stairway to Heaven, feels especially apt in the gaining light. Twelve hundred feet of ice rambles up the stepped side of Peak 13, 419. “Whoa,” I said when I saw it a week earlier. “It would be cool to get strong enough to climb that before we leave,” Marcus replied. “Let’s just climb it. Tomorrow,” he said the next day. We did.

Stairway to Heaven
Riley leading pitch one of Stairway to Heaven
Riley leading pitch one of Stairway to Heaven

We plan to lead the route in two lead blocks. I win the rock-paper-scissors for the first lead block and I stare at the steep first pitch as I rack up, pee, and chug water. Between the vertical sections are low-angle chunks of rambling bulges and short snow fields.

   After three pitches and a short section of simuling I hand over the lead and Marcus takes us home. The low angle romping ends with a sweet, steep spray. The sun is shining, the sticks are plastic, and we are happy as Marcus brings me up on the last pitch. We frolic on steep snow slopes as the rare, stable avvy conditions allow an easy walk off descent. A slow party of three starts the second pitch as we plunge step back to the road. We gloat. It’s 11:16. Four hours from racking up at the base.

We eat a large pizza from the gas station in Silverton, drowsy and happy. What’s next?

Marcus leading last pitch of Stairway to Heaven
Marcus leading last pitch of Stairway to Heaven

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