By Dan Escalante and Dougald MacDonald
If Ouray and its ice park are starting to feel like Boulder West, consider a trip to Lake City and its low-key ice park and superb backcountry climbs. It’s no closer to Front Range cities than Ouray, and there aren’t as many climbs to choose from, but Lake City is uncrowded and the vibe is more Cicely than Sayulita.
The fun climbing in the Lake City Ice Park is just southwest of downtown along Henson Creek. (Follow Bluff Street or 1st Street to Engineer Pass Road, aka County Road 20.) The park has up to 15 routes, with 60- to 100-foot pitches, from WI3 to WI5, plus some mixed routes. The base area is unbeatable—it’s flat and in the sun much of the afternoon (assuming it’s not snowing), making for pleasant belays.
For top-roping, it helps to have several long pieces of webbing or a few cordelettes (each in the 12- to 20-foot range). Anchor pipes are embedded in the ice, and these can easily be backed up with a couple of screws. Trees are farther back from the rim, and if you plan to use them you should bring an extra rope (ideally a static line) to help rig the anchors. Many of the top ropes can give a climber several route options, especially if you’re willing to go up every now and again and place an ice screw for a directional.
About 3.5 miles farther up the road is the upper park, near the Hard Tack Mine, where more steep climbs often can be found. In the nearby backcountry are several excellent climbs, including the Sherman Climb and Open Casket and Closed Casket, up County Roads 30 and 35 toward Sherman and then along Cottonwood Creek. These climbs are reminiscent of the long routes found near Cody, Wyoming, again without anyone else around. Or, if you’re into extreme mixed routes, ski up the Engineer Pass Road to God’s Crag for Jedi Mind Tricks (M13), one of the hardest dry-tooling routes in the world. Jack Roberts’ Climbing Ice will get you started on the hunt for backcountry routes.
In town you’ll find a number of restaurants, coffeeshops, motels, cabins, and B&Bs. But call ahead—you never know for sure who is going to be open and for how long. Mean Jeans Coffee (205 Gunnison Ave.) is very central, very friendly, and a comfortable place to hang out, get Internet access, and sip on something hot. Mocha Moose (308 N. Silver St.) is another good coffee option. Check out LakeCity.com for lodging and food options. If you’d like to see a few other climbers, the Lake City ice climbing festival is February 27 this year.
Dan Escalante is a guide for Crested Butte Mountain Guides, which often teaches ice climbing and guides routes in and around Lake City.