A Thrill to climb
What’s the difference between ice and rock?
Ice: Same hold every move
Same muscles for the duration of a route
Variable conditions can totally change a day’s plans
Because the climb involves striking an axe to move along the ice, you must use specific skills to advance. “It always demands the most of you,” Hankins said.
Rock: Climbing natural features of the rock
Different muscles work depending on the grip necessary for each route
Outside factors rarely alter a plan
Some people are more adept at climbing rock face, whereas others are better at using cracks in the rock to advance their climb. This means you can prioritize your strength.
--Source: Joda Hankins, Rifle Climbing Guides
Joda Hankins examined the rocks around him as he drove through Glenwood Canyon. It was early morning — he planned to meet with a friend at 5 a.m. — and it’s hard to see some of the canyon’s climbing routes in the best of conditions. But what he could see suggested the conditions of Mystery Falls were apt for climbing.
Hankins pitched an idea when he met up with his college pal Bryan Etkie, who drove west from his Frisco home. The pair set out that morning to climb Glenwood Falls and Hidden Falls. Why not add Mystery and go for the trifecta?
It’s a rarely accomplished task, said Hankins, who owns Rifle Climbing Guides.
Glenwood Canyon’s climbing routes are mostly high up on the south wall. That means they rarely get sun, which adds to the already-intense cold that accompanies any ice climbing. The approaches are also lengthy, with multiple miles to cover and significant elevation change.
But Glenwood Falls is an exception. Because of its position in the canyon, sun can change the conditions quickly.
“We started pretty early, so I was confident the first approach wouldn’t be that difficult,” Etkie said. “But Glenwood Falls killed us.”
Glenwood Falls has seen five or six ascents this season, Hankins estimates — in other words, not very many. The condition of ice has been touch and go. After Hankins and Etkie completed that route, Hankins was able to relax.
“In my mind, the hardest, most dangerous part of the day is behind us,” Hankins recalled.
As for the ice they’d just traversed?
“The next day it was gone.”
Etkie is confident in Hankins’ abilities. The pair has climbed together since they were students at Colorado Christian University. Hankins needed a climbing buddy, and Etkie needed someone with gear and the ability to lead.
Etkie’s abilities have increased through the years, as he advanced to 14ers and, ultimately, ice climbing. Despites his growing skills, though, Etkie relies on Hankins’ expertise.
“I wait for Joda’s call. It’s more of a trust issue for me — you can’t just go with anyone,” he said. “He’s very responsible, so if there’s any question, if the weather’s not good, we [would do] something else.”
During the Glenwood Canyon climb, the duo was able to reset, to a degree, in between each of the routes. They would rappel down after a climb and rest, taking time to refuel before moving on to the next location.
That was daunting, though, as the pair moved toward Mystery Falls. It took two hours to approach the climb. Etkie kept thinking he should call it quits. But his friend’s belief that he could do it pulled him forward.
“That’s pretty much our climbing experience in a nutshell,” he said. “Joda is someone that I trust, and even though I might think I can’t do it, it’s Joda at the end that really encourages me and lets me know, hey, you’ve still got a little left in your tank.”
The pair encouraged each other: “Some of my fuel for the day came about in his initial excitement,” Hankins said.
The climbs were part of the pair’s training for a larger summer expedition to Alpha Mayo in Peru. The canyon’s variable ice conditions are similar to alpine climbing conditions, and allowed them to mimic the routes they’re preparing for.
The Western Slope’s ice is at relatively low altitudes, Hankins said, so the local climbing season is ending. However, there are other places in the Rockies where ice climbing is possible through April and, in some cases, into May. The pair will also work on cardio and strength training as July’s trip nears.
“A lot of it is mental preparation,” Etkie said. “It’s not just physical. If you’re not mentally prepared, you’re not going to make it.”
The pair returned to their cars at 5:40 p.m., more than 12 hours after their initial meeting. Their energy may have been lacking, but they had proven to themselves they had the fortitude to keep climbing.