Ice Climbing in Rocky Mountain National Park

Are you itching to check something off your adventure bucket list this winter? Six outdoor adventure guiding companies—located in Colorado, Washington and Wyoming—hold permits to lead climbing outings in Rocky Mountain National Park, and contacting one of these concessionaires is a good place to start if you’re a beginner.

A visit to the Facebook group Colorado Ice Conditions or Mountain Project will provide you with visuals of ice conditions—not just in Rocky, but all over the state.

man ice climbing frozen falls in Colorado
Ice climbing is a fantastic winter bucket list activity. Photo © frontpoint/iStock.

Before you head out, here are a few bits of information for your back pocket:

  1. Ice climbing is more about balance and finesse than “muscling” your way up a frozen waterfall. If you have a background in gymnastics or dance, your ice climbing skills could develop quicker than you might think. People who play racquet sports also often do well with ice climbing—particularly the axe swinging part—as they are used to fine tuning motion in their wrists.
  2. There’s a sweet spot for great ice climbing. Ice is finicky and ever-changing. If at all possible, try to get out when the outside temperature registers between 20-30°F. Without going into the physics of it all, ice is more difficult to climb when the mercury dips below 20 degrees. Your personal resolve might also be tested while pressing up against ice in very cold weather (but hey, that’s all part of the adventure, right?).
  3. Ice climbing can be great fun for families, and there’s gear out there to outfit little ones. However, most guides will tell you that youth ages 12 and older will likely have a more enjoyable experience than elementary school aged children. Brisk temperatures can quickly take their toll on kiddos. Also know that in Rocky, hiking at least one mile is required to access even the most beginner level ice features.
  4. The RMNP ice climbing experience is special for many reasons, but particularly because of the outstanding views afforded at many of the park’s climbing spots. The most popular location for beginner, top-rope ice climbing is Hidden Falls, an approximately 75-foot column of ice located in Wild Basin. If you become hooked on the sport, your bucket list could eventually expand to include routes on Loch Vale Ice, Jewel Lake Ice, All Mixed Up, or Dreamweaver.
  5. You might just fall in love with the sport. People typically feel a great sense of accomplishment after ascending and descending ice. The experience is often described as “otherworldly” and induces something akin to a natural high.
person attempting ice climbing in Rocky Mountain National Park
Ice climbing Jaws Falls in Rocky Mountain National Park. Photo courtesy of Colorado Wilderness Rides and Guides.

Ready to give ice climbing a try? The next step is picking up the phone and establishing rapport with a guide. Estes Park-based Colorado Mountain School has the longest history of running climbing programs in the park and is a great place to start. Otherwise, your choices include: Kent Mountain Adventure Center (CO), American Alpine Institute, Ltd. (WA), Colorado Wilderness Rides and Guides (CO), Jackson Hole Mountain Guides (WY), or San Juan Mountain Guides (CO).

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