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Zero-star All-Stars Round 2: The Narrows Ice

This series aims to highlight climbs in the area that may not be the first to mind when thinking of where to go climbing on your Saturday afternoon.  They may be routes of high quality that are not featured or favored in the local guide book, on the web, or by word of mouth.  

People associate the Poudre Canyon with a variety of leisure pursuits.  As a climber, I typically associate the canyon with great rock climbing, but not ice climbing…until now.  This winter has produced ice in the canyon that has exceeded all prior years in my experience and has me excited to share one particular climb with you. 

Narrows Ice in late 2013.  Photo: Michael Engelstad

This route has been known over the years as several names, including “Dracula” “Group Therapy” and “Wrangler Dangler”.  I will refer to the climb as the “Narrows Ice” to avoid confusion: )  Driving down the canyon this winter, you have likely narrowly avoided crashing into the river when coming upon the Narrows Ice formation.  It is visible in a tight, windy section of the canyon, and impressive given the context. 

The route has a long yet inconsistent history.  As lifelong Poudre Canyon climber Rodney Ley (human climbing database) recalled, the route had been given top rope attention in the late 80’s by Ian Rich and/or Malcom Daly.  In the later 90’s it was again top roped by DJ Nechrony and Adam Babcock. 

Narrows Ice in 1998.  Photo: Dave Sheldon

In 1998 the climb formed exceptionally well and again drew the attention of the area’s ice aficionados.  Dave Sheldon upped the ante and climbed two separate lines (left of center, right of center) onsight, on lead, and claimed what was likely the first lead ascent.  He called the route “Group Therapy” and suggested the rating in its state to be WI6, M5.

Dave Sheldon on the sharp end (1998).  Photo: Shane Wayker

Sheldon eyeing the crux transition (1998).  Photo: Dan Bailey

Sheldon established on the final curtain (1998).  Photo: Dan Bailey

Rob Cordery Cotter also climbed the route that same year using leashed tools, plastic boots and a GORE-TEX onesie.  He protected the route with pegs, nuts and screws.  The route also became known as “Wrangler Dangler” around this time. 

Fast forward to 2012, the route has seen little attention for (although it picked up yet another name, "Dracula") nearly 15 years due to the lack of moisture.  A seemingly more common trend according to Ley, who indicated the route regularly developed in the 70’s and 80’s.   I suspect the influential difference this year to be the damage done to the top soil done by the High Park Fire.  On the slopes above and around the route, nearly all organic matter was incinerated by the extreme heat of the fire, which penetrated deep into the earth.  The remnants were gravel hillsides supported by ash and fried trees. 

Devastation from the High Park Fire (2012). Photo: Michael Engelstad

I believe that because of this affected ecosystem, snow melted and was not absorbed by the millions of plants and other forms of life that in called this hill home in the years prior.  The result was a new distribution of running water and an increase in ice formation.  Local climber Ryan Bogus and company attempted the route but were thwarted by poor conditions. I too became interested in the route this year, seeing its development and subsequent all-too-sudden disappearance. 

2013- The flooding saturated the ground water table and above average precipitation followed producing ice routes all over the state that had not formed in years.  We saw ground breaking first ascents and classically bold routes climbed in fatter than ever conditions.  The Poudre Canyon was not spared from the epic saturation producing several lines in fantastic form.  All too obvious was the Narrows Ice formation.

Narrows Ice in prime condition (December, 2013). Photo: Michael Engelstad

I found myself regularly monitoring the conditions of the canyon, and around Christmas a boiling point was reached.  Action was required!  Of course, I was not alone.   I went to scope the climb, and found Ryan Bogus and his partner Nick had just arrived as well.  I offered to shoot photos from above while they tried the route. 

Ryan Bogus eyeing the crux mixed section (December, 2013).  Photo: Michael Engelstad

What I observed caused a deep infatuation with the route, resulting in an effort the following day which fell (literally) short on the same left-of-center line the guys attempted the day prior.  Additionally, it resulted in the desire to learn everything I could about the history of the route.

Michael Engelstad approaching the business (December, 2013). Photo: Jesse Levine, Reel Motion Media,

Around this time, Mark Wilford successfully climbed the route right-of-center, spending roughly 1 ½ hours on route.  This was his first ascent of the route.  He described it as the finest ice climb he had done in the Poudre and in a condition that he had not seen in over a decade.  Mark told me that the line he chose contained difficulties in the M7 range, requiring bare handed rock climbing through the mixed crux and the pulling of the final ice curtain sans-gloves with reasonable rock pro nearby.  Mad props, Mark!

Mark Wilford tackling the route, tools holstered (December, 2013). Photo: Ken Duncan

Unfortunately the route’s incredible condition was short lived.  The following weeks saw temperatures in the 60’s and the route became unfit to climb.  It now exists as two ice tiers separated by a rock band.   We have a lot of winter left, and the precipitation seems to be consistent thus far, so let’s all hope for some cold temps and the reforming of this amazing climb! 

Current condition of the route (2/18/2014). Photo: Michael Engelstad

Disclaimer: The formation of this route, even in its fattest shape requires careful attention from climbers and belayers, as the ice forms in independent curtains and pillars with little support.  It is my suggestion that this route is not climbed on top rope when hanging ice is present because of the terrain trap that exists below.  Falling ice could really be an issue on this one for the belayer, who is forced to stand in the debris funnel below the route.  This problem is exacerbated in the TR scenario having the ropes overhead, applying force to the delicate curtains and hanging pillars.   Be safe out there and have fun!

Additionally, there may be more history to this route that what I’ve uncovered!  If you have additional information about the route, I’d love to hear about it! 
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