Learning to Ice Climb in the Switzerland of America

My first-time ice climbing was in Ouray, Colorado and the fear of heights was real

TRIP OBJECTIVE: Learn to ice climb
LOCATION: Ouray Ice Park, Colorado
TRIP DATES: Jan 15-19, 2021

In January 2021, my friend and I drove out to Colorado from LA to try ice climbing for our first time at Ouray Ice Park, which we perceive to be the mecca of ice climbing. We didn’t have a guide, but an experienced friend from Instagram offered to take us and teach us. When an opportunity knocks, you answer. I was so excited to try something new that I didn’t even think about the fact that I’d be high up off the ground and anxiety would settle in…

We arrived in Ouray on Sat 1/16/20 just before noon. Ouray, aka the Switzerland of America, is an adorable small town tucked away in the Rocky Mountains which I’ve always wanted to visit and it’s the perfect mini escape in the winter.

*Chocolate Lovers Tip* stop by the chocolate shop in Ouray for some yummy dark hot cocoa and scrap cookie! I may be biased as a have a huge sweet tooth but it’s the best hot chocolate I’ve had in years.

followtiffsjourney ice climbing in ouray
I feel like a pro πŸ˜› Thanks for the shot Chris Brinlee Jr!

Day 1: Learning the Beginner Basics of Ice Climbing in Ouray

Ouray Ice Park is only a ten-minute walk from the edge of town where we stayed. We stayed at Abram Inn which was very clean and convenient for ice climbing.

After meeting up with Chris, we walked over to the man-made park and he gave us a quick lesson on the basic techniques of ice climbing including proper posture, how to swing the ice tools, how to kick your feet into the ice with the crampons, how to dress to not be a human popsicle, etc. My key takeaway is to stand in a triangle form and swing directly centered in front of you.

ice climbing in ouray

I’m really slow at ice climbing – I’m sure it’s partially because I’m a beginner, and partially because of my fear of heights. After our crash course, we got in two climbs. I didn’t make it up either climb because I got in my own head – I made it up halfway and decided it was a good time to come down.

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Day 2: Getting Over the Mental Hurdle of Heights/ Falling when Ice Climbing

To start, day 2 of ice climbing in Ouray went a lot better – sort of. I mean, I ended strong and that’s what counts, right?

We spent all day at the park and took turns climbing since there were three of us. I did three climbs this day and didn’t fully finish any of them (although I count the last one as the top since I was basically almost there).

Mind over Matter: Ice climbing is physically demanding, but for me, it’s much more mentally challenging than anything else. Sometimes I question why I do this to myself- why do I put myself in situations where I am high off the ground and start to panic? It doesn’t even have to be that high… 10-20 feet already makes my heart race. I always come back to this: I want to experience new things, I know it’s all in my head, and don’t look down. I used to be that person that wants to look down regardless, but I’ve learned it’ll just add to my anxiety.

When your technique is right, the body is certainly less tired, but when you’re tired, all technique goes out the door. On every climb, my issue was going up halfway and then being too scared that I was so high up, too afraid I would fall, and too afraid to let go and take a break when I needed it. This sucks a lot of energy out of you. It was a constant struggle of I want to keep going, I know I can physically do this, but man, I’m exerting so much energy just hanging out up on the ice waiting to overcome my fears and push through. Is it worth it to keep going? Should I just stop and go down now? Don’t look down. Hang on for dear life. That was the conversation I had with myself every step of every climb. I feel for my belayer – Chris and Kinga stood out there for anywhere from 30-60 mins just for me to not make it to the top. A good support system is the single most important thing when doing things out of your element – patience is key, and I am forever grateful to all of my patient adventure partners.

ice climbing in ouray ice park

First Ice Climb: The first wall seemed much more vertical on the bottom half to start which is a lot more exhausting. After failing to reach the top of any climb the previous day (which honestly looked so close from the ground, but so high once you’re up there), I was determined this day to make it to the top. In my mind, I was already there – it was going to happen.

…it did not happen.

I started strong from the ground, I felt confident and determined, but that quickly faded. The very vertical wall was a struggle, then the fear and anxiety kicked in, then the soreness from hanging on settled in… and I got off.

ouray ice climb

Second Ice Climb – the most mentally challenging one: This climb started off great too. I felt confident… but that quickly passed when I reached an obstacle I struggled to overcome – I exerted a lot of energy from the fear of hanging on. I struggled to move from the wall in front of me to the one literally right next to me because as I turned sideways, the entire view down was unavoidable within my peripheral view (the photo doesn’t look as bad as it felt but I also didn’t trust my crampons as I struggle to kick it in the ice, I didn’t trust letting go of the ax in one hand. I trusted my belayer. I trusted I was tied in correctly. I trusted that the rope should catch me if I slip so I’m really not going anywhere. But it was all just the mental hurdle for me to believe that trust and do as I’m guided. I turned around after getting above that section cause I felt defeated. I could see the top… I should have kept going. I was so scared sh*tless out of my mind and frustrated because it seemed so easy yet so mentally difficult… I cried a little during the struggle of it all. I spent 50 mins on this climb (30 mins just to move up 3 ft) and made it just over halfway up before heading down.

tiff ice climber ouray

Third Ice Climb: My final climb went fairly well. It was slightly less vertical and Kinga belayed me this time (her first time belaying me but I trust her) so Chris could climb up next to me to get some epic shots. I felt more comfortable this time because it was the last climb of the weekend and I was determined to make it up to the top (I stopped maybe 5-10 ft short because the last part sketched me out). It really helped to have someone from my group on the wall so close to me up high. The idea of being alone up there freaks me out… but I know that’s not something I can normally count on.

Overall Thoughts on my First Ice Climbing Experience: I often forget I’m scared of heights until I’m already up. Mind over matter – it’s about an 80% mental challenge / 20% physical challenge for me. It’s true what they say… when you do it right (strike the ice right, correct form, etc), it exerts a lot less energy. When I’m just hanging on, scared out of my mind to move and try the next step, it exerts a lot more energy. Stating the obvious but go with someone experienced that you’re comfortable with, whether it’s a guide or a trusted friend. I don’t let just anyone take me out on a new adventure and although it was my first time meeting Chris, I do my due diligence and trusted I’d be in good hands.

ouray in winter, switzerland of america

Lessons I learned from ice climbing: I’m not built for the outdoors but I’m not willing to give it up either. Don’t overthink – just keep moving. Fake it till you make it. Mind over matter. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. *insert any other overused motivational quote here*
Have a separate/ warmer set of clothes for when you’re standing around waiting for your turn on the rope – your ice climbing gloves should not be the same as your waiting-around thicker mittens. Also finally had a reason to wear my down skirt πŸ˜›

Book your ice climbing experience now.

We ended the night at Orvis Hot Spring which was an amazing surprise of the trip. We got to soak in our birthday suits (it’s dark and spacious) and star gaze – not pictured. Definitely recommend doing this if you’re in the area. Then started the next morning at an undisclosed natural hot spring which turned out to be lukewarm at best, before starting our long journey home.

Travel Itinerary/ Logistics: LA to Ouray and back in Winter with a stop in Moab in 5 days

Jan 15/ Fri: Picked up can rental in SoCal – drive 11.5 hr to Grand Junction
Jan 16/ Sat: Drove 2 hr to Ouray, Ice Climb in the afternoon, settled in at Abram Inn
Jan 17/ Sun: Ice Climbing all day, Orvis Hot Spring in the evening
Jan 18/ Mon: Soaked in an unmarked, wild, natural hot springs in the morn, drove 3:40 hr to Moab, visited a bucket list viewpoint just before sunset, crashed at a motel for the night
Jan 19/ Tues: Hike Delicate Arch in snowy Moab then drive 10:40 hr home

Photos from Moab detour:

Gear I used:

Thanks for reading!

I’d love to hear your comments, questions, or suggestions in the comment box below πŸ™‚ & please don’t forget to practice LNT outdoors

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9 thoughts on “Learning to Ice Climb in the Switzerland of America”

  1. You’re amazing Tiff! Love how you make this endeavor more accessible to others who may share similar fears or challenges with your writing here. Keep up the great work πŸ‘ŠπŸΌπŸ™ŒπŸΌ

    1. Thanks, Chris! This blog was partially for me to have to reflect back on hopefully after I make more progress, and partially to help others realize it’s totally possible to try new adventures with a fear of heights if you adopt the right mindset.

      Appreciate all of your patience and guidance! Can’t wait to come back this weekend πŸ™‚

  2. Your words, “I’m not built for the outdoors” is definitely a misnomer. You have the perfect physique for any outdoor activity. As far as an additional motivational quote, “I can, I shall and I will; not I can’t, I don’t and I won’t” “Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall” ” Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right” “The difference between try and triumph is just a little umph!”

    Yet another great write-up of a wonderful experience you had climbing ice walls—-it’s good that you still listen carefully to your body and mind and understand to sometimes hold back on doing something you are not quite not comfortable doing; many people don’t do that and then things end up in needless tragedy…..don’t take chances without really feeling you can do it safely.

    1. Thanks for sharing those motivational quotes πŸ™‚
      Being in good physical condition is just one-half of the equation for me… activities like any form of climbing is much more of a mental challenge than anything. I applaud those who are fearless in the pursuit of their adventures and sometimes wish I could be like that, but I feel like that can also be a dangerous feeling. I definitely adventure on the more cautious side… better safe than sorry.

  3. I know the feeling to well about heights. Ever since doing angels landing im a bit better. I still prefer my 2 feet on terra firma. I’d definitely do the hot springs.
    Great pictures.

    1. Haha I’m the same way, Harv! I feel most comfortable/ confident when my feet are firmly on solid ground. Angels Landing can be a little nerve-racking your first time but it’s such a fun hike! Glad to hear you’re doing better after knocking that one out!
      & thanks, I had a great photographer.

    1. Hi Angus, I just prefer road trips due to the flexibility and the fact that I can see more along the way. I did go back for a second trip and flew to save on time though.

  4. Pingback: Matterhorn Peak: First Time Winter Mountaineering and Snow Camping | Follow Tiff's Journey

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