Exploring for Ice - and Fun

by JAKE NORTON

January 2024
Everyone told me it was a fool’s errand. “There’s no ice in Evergreen,” they’d say with certainty. “Nothing. Nada. I’ve looked, and it isn’t here.” For a while, I simply took their word for it, acquiescing to the apparent reality that I’d have to drive to Silverplume or down into Clear Creek Canyon to climb […]

Everyone told me it was a fool’s errand.

Off the trail looking for nothing, and everything, in Evergreen, CO.
Off the trail looking for nothing, and everything, in Evergreen, CO.

“There’s no ice in Evergreen,” they’d say with certainty. “Nothing. Nada. I’ve looked, and it isn’t here.”

For a while, I simply took their word for it, acquiescing to the apparent reality that I’d have to drive to Silverplume or down into Clear Creek Canyon to climb marginal, crowded, picked out ice, or venture further afield to Vail, Lincoln Falls, Ouray to get my ice climbing fix.

Still, I just couldn’t shake the feeling, the nagging voice in the back of my head, the voice that kept insisting: Look at all these mountains, all these valleys and ravines, all the water flowing through the foothills. Some of it, somewhere, I was certain, must intersect with a cliff face, a steep bit, creating a waterfall in summer and an elusive pitch of ice to climb in winter.

So, I started looking. And searching. And hunting. And just exploring.

Our old girl, Pema, on one of hundreds of ventures down a random valley in Arapaho & Roosevelt National Forest lands.
Our old girl, Pema, on one of hundreds of ventures down a random valley in Arapaho & Roosevelt National Forest lands.

Exploring - it’s a word we hear bandied about almost constantly, often in platitudinous ways. The Lakers are exploring trades for Dejounte Murray; Denver is exploring hiring migrant workers; MSNBC is exploring Trump’s election chances. The word admittedly has a broad definition, but the one I prefer is "to go to a country or place in quest of discoveries" and apparently dates to about 1610.

Whatever the definition, exploration seems to be human nature, or at least in the nature of some of us humans. I’m definitely one of them. I try my best to be content with trails, with the places and spaces everyone uses and enjoys to the fullest. But, down deep, there’s always a pull, a tugging, a nagging, a primordial wondering about what may lie down that gully, over that hill, through that trailless wood and far into a landscape untrodden.

I’m not forging great new pathways, mind you, discovering new species or uncontacted tribes or sending desperate and innovative new climbs. I’m just ambling, rambling, often bumbling and fumbling, my way into unknown turf; unknown not perhaps to all, but certainly to some, likely to most, and definitely to me.

I believe it is in our nature to explore, to reach out into the unknown.
The only true failure would be not to explore at all.

- Ernest Shackleton

Like Shackleton - and like so many who’ve succumbed to the nag, to the subtle-yet-insistent, primal urge to go a bit beyond, a tad further, a skosh off the path and into the bush - I’m quite convinced that exploration - close to home or far away - is tonic for the soul. It’s not about risk (although there’s inevitably a degree of it in any exploration), but rather curiosity.

What lies beyond that ridge?

Where does this spring flow? What brook does it form, flowing into what creek and river?

This elk path here, how long have they followed it, and where does it go?

From the top of that hill, what glories will be revealed?

We can all read a map, read a sign, follow the path, and see the sights. There is nothing wrong with this by any means, but it does tend to render our experience of nature, our interpretation of landscape and our place within it, somewhat flat.

For me, scratching the proverbial itch, answering the question of what lays beyond, is too tempting, too alluring, the siren song too sweet. Resistance is futile.

A partial map of my romps around Evergreen, marked with points of interest and various finds. Lots covered, much more yet to explore!
A partial map of my romps around Evergreen, marked with points of interest and various finds. Lots covered, much more yet to explore!

And, more often than not, so is my exploring. The trail goes right, and I go left, bushwhacking through the scrub. I slip on leaves and trip on trees, cartwheel from an errant boot in a squish of moss; I get scraped and bruised and tired and sore. And usually have nothing to show for it, no great discoveries, aside from an answer to the nag, a fleeting and futile knowledge of what, indeed, was beyond that ridge.

And then, sometimes I get lucky. Sometimes I find things, things that are new to me, vistas spectacular in their solitude, towering crags untouched, forgotten villages being reabsorbed by the forest, and hidden canyons full of trout pools and sluices.

And sometimes ice.

Ice in Evergreen. Ice you can climb.

I probably followed a hundred drainages, long and short, deep and shallow, in search of the elusive ice I knew had to exist somewhere. I traversed Beaver Brook and Cub Creek, Bear Creek and Maxwell, Indian, Corral, Dry, Vance, and Ruby, and most of the unnamed trickles that feed them. I tromped the back sides of mountains, from Pence and Santa Fe to Porcupine and Meridian Hills, and pretty much everywhere in between. I came across old townsites and soaring cliffs, bear and lion dens and nests of falcon and eagle. I followed tracks of elk and moose, lynx and lion, and had more than one time when the latter followed mine, its telltale prints punched in fresh snow. And, I found ice galore during these deadfall postholing sessions, but most of it flat, and none of it worth climbing.

Tracks of a hare, and tracks of a masochist.
Tracks of a hare, and tracks of a masochist.

Five years of this. Five years of torn jackets and bruised butt cheeks and skinned elbows and ponderosa-scratched arms. Five years of utter, senseless suffering in pure joy, the joy of seeing things new (to me) and answering the ever present, ever persistent questions.

Then, one day suddenly, surprisingly (in that way of surprise that is not a surprise at all, but an eventual certainty tinged with jubilation), there it was. I had followed a draw that morphed to a dry drainage which in turn grew damp from spring water. Down a mile or so and a couple thousand vertical, the trickle of one spring was joined by another, and another, and another, until the magic of water in a landscape turned a dry draw into a vertitable gusher. Ground steepened, cliffs emerged, and eventually the water found a couple of them, molecules turning to ice and clinging to fractured granite. Short cliffs, but promising. I continued down, for far below it looked like there was an opening, a breach in the forest - directly in the water’s path - that indicated a drop, a step too steep for trees. A cliff.

I scrambled down, and intuition proved right. Below me was sixty or eighty feet (I never bothered to measure) of near-vertical granite caked in ice. Climbable ice. Grade 3-4, with options for harder on the periphery. Thick ice, well formed and adhered to a sweeping granite face.

Elusive ice in Evergreen, Colorado.
Elusive ice in Evergreen, Colorado. Well hidden, but there for the climbing.

Bliss.

I’ve been back to my little ice world only a few times in six years, bashing my way down and climbing my little climb, frolicking in this private little wonderland. Why only a few times in six years? Well, it’s a royal pain in the ass to get there. There’s no trail, just a couple thousand feet of bushwhacking through deadfall, usually in snow. And, of course, I now know where to go, how to get to it, and what lies around each bend in the creek and slope in topography. There’s no exploring in that.

So, ice was found, fun was had, questions were answered. The game - the nag - continues.

Climbing my private (for how long?) ice somewhere in the hills of Evergreen, CO.
Climbing my private (for how long?) ice somewhere in the hills of Evergreen, CO.

Note: I’ve had several people ask me where this ice is. Most have completely lost interest when I describe in generality the approach. Understandable. But, some have persisted, some may still wonder. But, ice - especially private ice, hidden ice, untrammeled, unpicked-out, unshattered and unabused ice - is a closely guarded thing, and I’d hate to deny the thrill of exploration to any would be Evergreen (or simply masochistic) ice climber. So, instead of an X marks the spot, I’ll offer a Fenn-eqsue set of hints for those willing to look. There’s no box of gold and gems to be found, but riches far superior in exploration and solitude:

Under the immense great blue sky
From a place where clouds whisk by
Before the fighter and after the babe
Where nary a trail has yet been laid
Follow a draw long and steep
Eventually becoming a timid seep
A skosh of ice will at times appear
With sweeping cliffs towering near
Northeast and southwest the bosses sit idle
Keep aiming down to where the land has title
A fool’s errand this journey sure will seem
As short tiers of ice will but be seen
Yet stay the course for soon you’ll meet
Ice that by any other name would climb as sweet

~ A Map to Hidden Ice ~

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