Josh Wharton, alpine climbing legend, muses on mixed climbing in his backyard.
A little over a month ago I partially tore the A3 pulley in my ring finger while trying Koyaanisqatsi, a great V11 in Boulder Canyon, just west of Boulder, Colorado. Of course it was disappointing to get injured, especially while enjoying the warm winter bouldering conditions, but after a day of sulking I decided it was time to get after all the ice and mixed climbing I could!
One of the things I love about climbing is the diversity of experience it provides. This transition was a perfect example of challenging myself in the world of climbing. One day I was obsessing over a beta on a 10-foot boulder in the sun, and just a few days later I was placing microscopic gear into a seam with frozen hands.
Although your hands (or rather ice tools) are mostly on the same holds, there is a fair bit of variance within the challenges – and grading mixed climbs can seem harder than calculus. Sometimes climbing M8 in Vail, Colorado feels like climbing easy 5.11 at Maple Canyon, Utah, while climbing traditionally protected M8 in Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) can feel like climbing hard 5.11 in Yosemite. Because of the difficulty in finding holds and keeping my hands warm, routes will feel a full number harder or easier depending upon whether I climb them in a snowstorm or in the sun.
My favorite mixed climbing days are snowy and warm. I’m treated to the challenges of snow-covered rock, which makes onsighting trickier, and is excellent training for larger alpine routes. Plus, the weather isn’t good enough to be rock climbing, but my hands don’t get cold! The best days for these conditions in RMNP seem to be in March and April. However, if you’re really concerned with finding ice in RMNP, the best months are generally October, November, April and May, when there are good melt/freeze cycles.
I generally climb in areas with solid traditions of winter climbing, like RMNP and the San Juan Mountains. There are plenty of obscure rock routes and cliffs that just aren’t as attractive in the summer due to moss and choss.
There is so much room for growth in traditional mixed climbing. Personally, I find traditional mixed climbing much more diverse, inspiring, and applicable to my alpine climbing aspirations – much more than “sport” mixed climbing. For instance, there are a lot of bolt-protected M10 and harder routes in Colorado, but I can’t find one trad route rated M10.
Ready to try your own mixed adventure? Below are links to some of my favorite routes and areas, plus a few insights into the world of winter climbing. Get after it!
Mount Evans, Colorado
Rocky Mountain National Park
San Juan Mountains