American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Rocky Mountain Octopussy

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1995

Rocky Mountain Octopussy

Jeff Lowe

THE FROZEN WATERFALLS on the limestone cliff bands east of Vail, Colorado have, over the years, provided ice climbers with a playground and laboratory on which to improve old skills and, occasionally, to develop new ones. The Rigid Designator area is particularly good in this regard. Easily approached and in a normally avalanche-free location, the Designator streaks upward like a comet trail, the crystal centerpiece of a 100-foot-high arc of inky rock. When it was first climbed in 1974 by Bob Culp, it was, at WI 5, one of Colorado’s hardest ice climbs, surpassed in difficulty only by Telluride’s Bridalveil Falls (WI 6), which Mike Weis and I climbed the same winter. Just to the right of the Rigid Designator is the Fang (WI 6+), a free-hanging 130-foot pencil of ice even more difficult than Bridalveil in the conditions of its first ascent, which was made by Alex Lowe in 1981.

I spent the winter of 1993-4 in Colorado, concentrating my efforts in the Vail area. In January, I made the first ascent of the Teriebel Traverse (M 7-), which traverses 35 feet across rotten rock from part way up the left side of the Rigid Designator to ascend a short pillar with a complex move out onto a fragile free-hanging curtain of ice that cascades over the lip of the roof above. Toward the end of the winter, I did the first ascent of the Seventh Tentacle (M 7+), pushing the possibilities of dry-tooling and leading up to a smear of ice that licks down to within 20 rocky feet of the ground behind the Fang. This 80-foot climb turned out to be the first pitch of the most interesting effort of the season, Octopussy.

On April 13, I went up to Vail, determined to end a good winter ice season on a strong note. After I had climbed the Seventh Tentacle, my belayer Teri Ebel jümared up. I set out on a 30-foot rock traverse left until I was directly behind Octopussy’s frozen tentacles, which were dangling from the edge of a 10-foot horizontal roof I’d been passing beneath. With great effort, by stretching almost horizontally sideways, I managed to place two good pitons in the roof. Clipping into them proved to be incredibly strenuous and this was only the beginning of the wildest set of mixed climbing moves I’ve ever done. Hanging from a tiny hook placement in the limestone roof, I cut both feet free and simultaneously turned my body in mid-air, swinging like Tarzan to stick my other pick into the nearest tentacle—which I managed to do after two tries! This left me dangling between my outstretched arms, wondering what to do next. Another ape swing was all I could come up with, but I missed the first stick and had to exert great effort on several subsequent attempts before I finally got it. Absolutely pumped, I pulled into a front lever with my frontpoints barely contacting a more substantial icicle five feet away. I started walking my feet horizontally upward, making a few more vertical progressions with my tools before my feet slipped. Unable to tip back up into position, with no strength or feeling left in my forearms, I shrugged my picks from their meager placements and dropped free into a swinging fall.

After a two-day rest, we returned to Vail, entirely unconvinced I would be able to get further on the climb, but with a new idea. On my first attempt, I had discovered a tiny, shallow vertical slot for my pick in a corner just under the higher of the two pitons in the roof. I turned upside down and threaded my left leg over my right elbow, wedging the toe of my boot under the rock roof, performing a figure-four in ice-climbing gear. I was then able to lever myself into a high, stable position and take a good swing at the ice at the lip of the roof with my left tool. Unfortunately, just as I swung, the right tool placement popped and I plummeted into space. Shit … and EUREKA! This was going to work! On my next attempt, I got a solid ice placement with my left tool, but once I unhooked myself from the figure-four, I was left dangling from one rapidly weakening arm, trying to do a one-arm pull-up to make a diagonal placement up and left into the ice above the lip of the overhang. I couldn’t do it, and fell off again!

The third time, however, was magic. This time I did a second figure-four immediately following the first one, which allowed me to get a good stick higher up with my right tool. I knew that if I untangled from the figure-four and dropped my feet, I would still be hanging well below the lip of the roof, faced with another series of impossible (for me) one-arm pull-ups and swings before I could get my crampon points into the ice. But as I gazed up into the maw of Octopussy, I was inspired by a new possibility.

I disentangled from the second figure-four, then immediately inverted again and stuck my feet directly up into a space between the tentacles of ice and the gently overhanging rock wall above the roof. I could get heel-toe jams this way, which allowed me to take most of the weight off my arms. Since I was upside-down and facing backward from the wall, I was able to do a series of inverted sit-ups, alternating pick placements until I was five feet above the lip of the roof. At this point, I dropped my feet from the slot and kicked into an upright position. Ten feet more of grade 5+ ice brought me to a good screw placement and the end of the difficulties. I yelled to Teri that I’d made it. She gave a whoop of joy that I’m sure was heard down in Vail. I had wrestled with the eight tentacles of difficulties and, just like James Bond, had come out on top of Octopussy at grade M 8, technically the hardest mixed climb I had ever done!

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