Trip Report
Henson Creek Ice
Tuesday October 10, 2017 8:10am
Back in the early 1970’s ice climbing was undergoing a revolution. It started with rigid crampons and new ice tools configured for steeper ice, as well as the game-changing ascent of Bridal Veil Falls by Jeff Lowe and Mike Weis. At that time the ice climbing community was still quite small and we few, we happy few ice climbers in Gunnison heard about new ice climbs mostly by word-of-mouth. When word came in of some newly discovered frozen snot-cicle somewhere we typically would pile into Jimmy Newberry’s truck and strike out for another frigid adventure. One such rumor concerned a multi-pitch gem plastered to the side of some peak in the San Juan Mountains west of Lake City. We (Jimmy Newberry, Jim Nigro, Tom Polaski, and I) found our joy way up Henson Creek in the form of the bluest ice I have ever seen.
Several pitches of frozen joy up Henson Creek, San Juan Mtns, Colorado...
Several pitches of frozen joy up Henson Creek, San Juan Mtns, Colorado.
Credit: Nick Danger
This particular climb featured numerous short steep sections separated by longer lower angle ramps. The highest steep section was also the longest at 70 to 80 ft of vertical ice and comprised the crux of the climb. At this point in our budding ice careers we felt pretty confident soloing the lower angle stuff near the bottom of the climb, but roped up for the steeper steps as well as the intervening ramps. This and climbing as two parties of two allowed us to make progress quickly. The entire climb was probably +800 ft high in total elevation gain and climbing quickly was definitely an asset. I was roped up with my friend Jim Nigro, who was pretty new to the ice game at this point in his career relative to the extremely talented and strong climber he would become. I selfishly used his inexperience to claim title on all of the leads that we roped up for and Jim seemed OK with that.
Jim Nigro soloing a small step near the bottom of the climb.
Jim Nigro soloing a small step near the bottom of the climb.
Credit: Nick Danger
Nick soloing the bluest ice ever encountered by any of us.
Nick soloing the bluest ice ever encountered by any of us.
Credit: Nick Danger
Either Jimmy Newberry or Tom Pulaski soloing up to where we roped up f...
Either Jimmy Newberry or Tom Pulaski soloing up to where we roped up for the rest of the climb.
Credit: Nick Danger
A note about this particular climb is appropriate here, in that it was rather unique in our experience in several ways. First, it was the bluest ice any of us had ever encountered, or would encounter in four decades of climbing ice. Also, it was the smoothest steep ice I have ever seen. In my experience as ice approaches verticality it looks more like the drippings of candle wax, full of hollows and rugosities that lend themselves to hooking, single swing placements, and potentially dodgy ice screw placements. This ice just was not like that. Even the steep parts were relatively smooth, and the ice was so cold that it tended to “dinner plate” off, requiring multiple swings to get to trustworthy ice. The ice screw placements on the other hand were just bombproof. I often found myself just pausing to run my gloved hand over the surface of the ice and marveling at its color and smoothness.

The higher we went the more conscientiously we set up solid belays and placed screws along the way, although I still tended to run it out a bit on the steep sections in order to make quick progress. The crux pitch was everything we had hoped it would be, just a solid piece of steep ice climbing with no drama and solid pro. A couple of screws at the top for the belay and Bob’s yer uncle.
Nick swinging that ol’ Lowe Big Bird like he means it on the sharp end...
Nick swinging that ol’ Lowe Big Bird like he means it on the sharp end of the rope.
Credit: Nick Danger
Jim Nigro following up to a pillar.  Not a lot of pro placed on that p...
Jim Nigro following up to a pillar. Not a lot of pro placed on that pillar.
Credit: Nick Danger
Jim climbing the pillar.
Jim climbing the pillar.
Credit: Nick Danger
Although it is hard to see, there is a smile on that face, and many hu...
Although it is hard to see, there is a smile on that face, and many hundreds of feet of ice below that smile.
Credit: Nick Danger
Above that crux pitch there was still a couple of hundred feet of lower angle ramps, short, steep steps, and abundant “ice hiking” before we got to a place where we could traverse off the climb and on to a slope that led us back down the mountain. Although it is possible that we were not the first folks to climb this particular bit of ice, we never heard rumors or tales of others beating us to it and it was certainly virginal when we were on it. The entire climb had been nothing but good wholesome fun, although a bit of a long afternoon. Our descent should have been a cruise, since it was all downhill and the deep snow was not that much of an impediment to downward progress. However, there exists a certain kind of person who can make an epic out of the most ordinary of situations. When my colleagues decided to take a meandering detour around a particular cliff band, I thought I could steal a march on them by proceeding along a small series of ledges to a little couloir for a more direct descent. My small ledges almost crossed this 70 degree sloping rock face that ended up being wider than the ledges were long. Thinking I could use a small aspen sapling growing out of a crack to help me bridge the gap, I ended up discovering just what a “more direct descent” could actually entail. The sapling it gave up and I was off like a shot, sliding down the rock for 20 ft and over a cliff for another 20 ft. I was fortunate that the sloping rock face had repeatedly avalanched all previous snow fall off it because the 6 ft of snow I landed in totally cushioned my landing. None-the-worse for wear, I elected to stay with my partners’ more rational route finding from that point forward. Back in Lake City some beers were applied judiciously for first aid purposes only.

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Nick Danger
About the Author
Nick Danger is a ice climber from Arvada, CO.

Comments
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originalpmac

Mountain climber
Timbers of Fennario
  Oct 10, 2017 - 10:11am PT
Nice. Getting to be that time of year again. To approach that line did you leave from Lake City?
donini

Trad climber
Ouray, Colorado
  Oct 10, 2017 - 12:04pm PT
Great TR! I know the area but have never been there in winter. I see Nigro occasionally, he lives in Ridgway eight miles away.
Nick Danger

Ice climber
Arvada, CO
Author's Reply  Oct 10, 2017 - 12:09pm PT
O-pmac, We drove west out of Lake City up the Henson Creek Road, over 5 miles, maybe as much as ten miles. It was a long time ago so I am nut exactly sure of the distance. If it is formed up later this autumn/early winter, you will be able to see it on the south side of the road facing north. Drive far enough and you can not miss it.
cheers
Nick Danger

Ice climber
Arvada, CO
Author's Reply  Oct 10, 2017 - 12:13pm PT
Jim D, I hope Nigro is doing well, as it has been about a year and a half since I last saw him. Jim Nigro is one of the good guys, to be sure.
ydpl8s

Trad climber
Santa Monica, California
  Oct 10, 2017 - 01:50pm PT
Nice, a TR with some of my favorite people. Would be nice to see a few faces though..... Bob! lol

moss
Bald Eagle

Trad climber
  Oct 11, 2017 - 12:37am PT
Great TR and images Nick! Looks like a great route to have a twang and thwack on! :-) Cheers Dave
mike m

Trad climber
black hills
  Oct 11, 2017 - 05:39am PT
Great tr Nick.
Nick Danger

Ice climber
Arvada, CO
Author's Reply  Oct 11, 2017 - 09:41am PT
Scott,
I will get back with you when I scan some more photos of people you know and not just faceless climbers you know.
cheers
Tarbuster

climber
right here, right now
  Oct 11, 2017 - 06:27pm PT
Nice pictures, featuring a first-generation Big Bird, just like a bigger version of the original Hummingbird hand tool.

Lee Vining ice in California forms up smooth like that, and can dinner plate as you described, Nick. I wonder if the smoothness has to do with sun exposure? I think dinner plating is low temp related conditioning? Donini?

Mountain Project talks about a few one pitch lines, and an ice park in Henson Creek, but I found no reportage of anything like the item in your TR. Best I can make out is you went further up the road than the stuff covered in MP.

https://www.mountainproject.com/v/henson-creek-road/106171548
johntp

Trad climber
socal
  Oct 11, 2017 - 11:26am PT
Ice is nice. Amazing that you took so many photos back in the 70s. TFPU.
ydpl8s

Trad climber
Santa Monica, California
  Oct 11, 2017 - 03:50pm PT
If you look at the picture of Sherman Climb under Cottonwood Creek, the beta picture of the whole climb matches Nick's pic of the whole climb (although Nick's is zoomed out more).
Tarbuster

climber
right here, right now
  Oct 11, 2017 - 06:21pm PT
YD:
Got it, so South of Lake City in Cottonwood Creek, rather than to the West, in Henson Creek.

The picture is a perfect match:





Photo from Mountain Project:
https://www.mountainproject.com/v/cottonwood-creek-sherman-to-cuba-gulch/106178140
https://www.mountainproject.com/v/sherman-climb/106178148
Tarbuster

climber
right here, right now
  Oct 11, 2017 - 06:28pm PT
So, ice aficionados:

Chandelier ice versus a smooth flow. What are the causes or separating influences?
Mungeclimber

Trad climber
Nothing creative to say
  Oct 11, 2017 - 06:31pm PT
LOL, that's the stuff!
Nick Danger

Ice climber
Arvada, CO
Author's Reply  Oct 12, 2017 - 07:25am PT
Tarbuster, Scot, thanks for the location update. Also thanks for the Mountain Project site for this climb. Very enlightening.

With regards to the question of smooth vs chandelier, I think vertical ice with surface water seeping over it, either due to daytime melting or spring seepage that leaks out onto the surface tends to drip down and freeze just like candle wax melting and resolidifying as it flows down the side of the candle. For smoother stuff like this climb, the water flows entirely beneath it, therefore the surface never gets wet. I recall climbing Horsetail Falls BITD in Ouray where the water fall was raging beneath the ice, which itself stood out a foot or so away from the ranging waterfall. As I got near the top and swung a tool a hole the size of my head broke through. I gingerly hooked the bottom edge of the hole and pulled up. When I looked into the hole and down into the water I could see the tips of my front points poking through on the inside of the ice. I had no idea it was that thin. In retrospect, I think the only reason it didn't collapse under my weight was because the concave shape of the ice gave it additional strength (kind of like those curved dams that hold back the water). I was really happy to get off that climb without falling in.
donini

Trad climber
Ouray, Colorado
  Oct 12, 2017 - 07:33am PT
Nick, remember the tools we used.....when ice climbing was real.

Michael Kennedy on Latok 1978
Michael Kennedy on Latok 1978
Credit: donini
Nick Danger

Ice climber
Arvada, CO
Author's Reply  Oct 12, 2017 - 07:58am PT
Jim, Those tools were something. I broke so many tips off various alpine hammers and early ice axes, that's why I ALWAYS climbed with a spare in a hammer holster on my harness. Today's tools are light years ahead of those things, it's not even the same sport.

And talk of real ice! Every time you swung a tool you were making your own placement - every single time.
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