Stairway to Heaven, Silverton, Colorado

December 16, 2003

Dave Svilar, Jared Vilhauer

 

STAIRWAY  Dave looks for a place to belay at the bottom of the third pitch.  The route continues up and out of the picture.
 

There's a feeling I get when I look to the west and my spirit is crying for leaving

In my thoughts I have seen rings of smoke through the trees and the voices of those who stand looking

... Oh it makes me wonder

It makes me wonder too.  I'm not sure what the lyrics in this Led Zeppelin song, Stairway to Heaven, is attempting to convey.  However, I do know that Jared and I planned to climb the classic ice route, that shares the same name as rock and roll's greatest song.  We set out early on Tuesday morning from Telluride towards Silverton winding through the splendid scenery of southwest Colorado's ice and snow clad mountain country.  As a crow would fly, Telluride is only a few miles from Silverton, but the way is blocked by 13,000 and 14,000 foot peaks forcing the winter-time traveler to negotiate three hours of treacherous mountain highway.

The entire drive is a pleasure as long as you're not the one doing the driving.  A particularly precarious stretch of Highway 550 between Ouray and Red Mountain Pass carves its way through a rugged box canyon clinging to the side of the steep hillsides.  There isn't a guard rail in site, but frozen waterfalls abound.  If there's someone who becomes excited over the prospect of frozen water it's Jared.  To me he seemed dangerously distracted as he negotiated the harrowing turns pointing wildly at ice climbs dotting the canyon walls out both sides of the car windows.  Jared's enthusiasm was contagious, and by the time we passed the sleepy mountain town of Silverton I too was ready to slam a pick into the ice.

The road ended several miles outside of Silverton, where our two objectives, Stairway and Whorehouse Hoses, were in plain view.  Our plan called for us to climb Stairway first, then camp that night and climb Whorehouse on Wednesday.  As we made tracks down the snow-covered road towards the climb I found it hard to take my eyes off the impressive feature frozen to the side of the mountain that I was supposedly going to be climbing.  I own ice tools and crampons and even spent several days in the Ouray Ice Park last winter, but I wouldn't go as far as to call myself an 'ice climber.'  Sure, with my Gore-Tex, carabiners and ropes one might think I look like an ice climber, but one look at me actually climbing ice would certainly disprove that thought.  More than one casual, non-climbing observer to the ice park last winter pointed in the direction of the ice I was climbing and muttered, "Oh my god!.  Look at that guy, he sucks."  Besides a couple of minor climbs off Ouray's Camp Bird Mine Road, this would be the first 'real' ice I would climb, and I felt relieved as I looked around the deserted valley that there would be no filthy tourists to point out my hapless climbing abilities.  

It's easy to see how the classic climb received its name, as it ascends over 1,500 vertical feet in steps broken by comfortable flat benches that give the climber a physical and psychological rest.  Most importantly to us, this was one of the few climbs in Colorado that was in 'fat.'  In addition, our early season attempt meant the snow cover was still thin, making ice climbing's greatest danger, avalanches, almost negligible.

LACES TIGHT  Jared tightens his crampons as he prepares for our objective in the background.

 

LONG LEGS  Setting off on the first pitch Jared appears to be all legs.

Belaying Jared on the first pitch I made sure to keep my hood on tight over my helmet to keep the spindrift from blowing down the back of my neck.  Between blasts of spindrift I looked above to see Jared pulling over the first step and into the sunlight and out of view.  The wind made it difficult to hear, but it was obvious when I was on belay, so the normal commands weren't necessary.

Dear lady can you hear the wind blow and did you know your stairway lies on the whispering wind

 

WHISPERING WIND  Jared disappears over the first step into the sunshine and spindrift.

Climbing this waterfall it was apparent that the ice was indeed 'fat', however, it became obvious that winter still hadn't had time to completely freeze the falls.  One pitch in particular featured more running water than frozen ice.  Standing underneath was like standing in a shower of ice water.  The drenching was so thorough that despite my fear I was cognizant of a stream of ice water running across my chest, over my crotch, down my legs and into my boots.  Shrinkage was complete.  Thoughts of camping that night receded at almost the same rate as my favorite appendage.  In addition, any intentions I had of climbing in style went out the window.  Modern ice climbing is less about brute force and more about finesse.  An expert ice climber studies the medium for delicate tool placements and energy saving footholds using the precision of a diamond jeweler and the cunning of a sly fox.  As the icy water cascaded down on my head I reverted to the ice climbing techniques in which I was most familiar.  Savagely beating the ice with my out-dated tools I sent large chunks of the waterfall crashing down towards the valley below.  As unsightly as my tactics may have appeared I quickly pulled myself out of the shower of ice water and to the relative comfort of the belay.

The climb consisted of six pitches: four real pitches and two that just covered relatively flat ground (I lead those).  We didn't encounter anymore ice water showers, but nearly every screw that was removed resulted in 'leaks' in the ice as water squirted up like small geysers.  Our sunshine disappeared behind neighboring hills almost the instant we topped out.  I was more than a little worried about the condition of my camera that had been clipped to my harness while climbing through the ice water.  Relieved to see that it had survived I snapped a couple of pictures back down the valley and attempted to coil the rope.  Now my dad's old saying, 'like a frozen rope' made sense - the rope wouldn't bend making attempts to coil it with my frozen fingers difficult.

EUREKA  Looking down from the top of the climb into the valley which holds a plethora of long water ice climbs.

We managed to descend to the bottom of the climb, back to the road and finally back to the Jimmy before dark completely overtook us.  Walking down the road at dusk it was special to feel so alone in such a spectacular place.  Peaks towered above us on both sides quietly watching Jared and I crunch through the snow towards the car.  Walking behind Jared I could practically see the grin all the way on the back of his head.  We were too wet and cold to camp, but it still felt gratifying to get out for a winter adventure in such a beautiful and secluded place. 

If there's a bristle in your hedgerow don't be alarmed now it's just a spring clean for the May queen

Yes there are two paths you can go by but in the long run there's still time to change the road you're on

-written December 2003

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