Imagine being suspended a hundred feet off the ground on a cold white slab of ice via thin metal points attached to your boots and gloves.
This may sound like misery to some, but it is the ultimate adventure for many – particularly the women who participate in Ouray’s Chicks With Picks ice climbing clinics.
Headed by lead “Chick” Kim Reynolds, Chicks With Picks has been empowering women through guided ice climbing clinics for 11 years. Held each January at the Ouray Ice Park, Chicks clinics pair women from all walks of life with world-class female ice climbing guides, creating an easygoing, fun atmosphere that promotes self confidence, self-sufficiency, leadership and camaraderie, not to mention a new set of “kick axe” ice climbing skills that will certainly impress your friends.
“Ice climbing is such a unique sport,” says Ridgway resident Cecily Bryson, 31, who climbed ice for the first time at a Chick’s clinic last winter. “Anyone loves to say they’ve climbed ice.”
Madison, Wisc., resident Anne Hughes, 56, took her first Chicks With Picks workshop in 2002 and she’s been coming back every year since.
“I was a rock climber already, and I’d briefly tried ice climbing at a Midwest workshop,” she explains.
Intrigued by the sport, she and her climbing partner then Googled “ice climbing” on the web and found Ouray’s Chicks With Picks; they immediately signed up for a beginners’ clinic.
Of her first day out, Hughes says, “I remember how beautiful it was in Ouray. That box canyon, it’s just like an ice palace. It’s beautiful – blue, white, clear and gorgeous.”
She and her new ice-climbing companions walked from their lodging to the Uncompahgre Gorge, home to the Ouray Ice Park and its impressive man-made and natural ice falls.
“It was a little exciting and a little intimidating. I remember thinking, ‘Oh, can I do this?’ It was just a short little ice-climbing demonstration that I did before. But I was excited because I already had experience moving on vertical walls, from rock climbing.”
From the very first jab into the ice with her crampons, Hughes was thrilled by the freedom of movement – as if she could go anywhere. “Movement on rock is dictated by where the holes are on the walls,” she says, whereas ice climbing allows you to create foot- and hand-holds along a chosen route, and at your own rhythm. “With ice, you can move in the direction of your strength.”
While Hughes’s own comfort level was certainly enhanced by her previous rock-climbing experience, she notes that Chicks guides are skilled at providing a positive introduction to never-ever climbers, too. “They put you on routes that are not completely vertical at first,” she says. Before you know it, you realize “you really can stand with these amazing pointy things on your feet.”
“You feel welcome and instantly part of the group,” says Bryson. “You are all equal. And no matter what level [ice climber] you are, they’re going to accommodate you.”
And what about the cold, wet environment of ice-climbing?
“Boy, did I learn a lot about that,” says Hughes. “At first, I thought, ‘How am I ever going to stay warm?’” But she learned from the guides how to manage her body temperature, and has since realized she can to stay warm climbing in even sub-zero temperatures. Warm and flexible clothing is key, but how you hold your body plays a role as well, along with proper equipment, such as plastic ice boots, and sufficient food and hydration.
Clinics for Every Ability
Chicks workshop levels range from beginner/never-ever to expert lead climbing, and someone may advance through several levels in one clinic. Beginners learn about equipment and tying knots, belay techniques, route selection, crampon techniques and tool placement, and efficient movement skills. From there, students move on to establishing efficient top-rope and belay techniques, how to place ice screws, and about anchor systems and rappelling.
By level three, climbers are refining their ice-climbing techniques on thin ice, pillars and overhangs, removing and racking ice screws while following a lead, setting up top rope anchors, climbing multiple pitches, and learning essential rescue techniques.
Mixed rock and ice climbing is introduced at level four, at which point a student is expected to be an advanced or expert ice climber that is extremely comfortable on vertical ice and in varied conditions. By level five, climbers are learning how to lead on ice using a top rope, from efficient screw placement and proper anchor systems to route selection and reading the ice. Finally, those who are climbing at level six are considered to be expert climbers, with significant climbing and leading experience outside of Chicks. To participate in a level six workshop, Chicks requires a resume listing climbs led, as well as a demonstration of leading ability while on a top rope.
After her 2002 clinic, Hughes found she was officially hooked on ice climbing. She now returns to Ouray every year for Chicks clinics.
“Some years ago, I was the first Chick – student – they allowed to do a lead without a top-rope backup,” she says.
Hughes now focuses on mixed climbing on rock and ice. “It’s so fun. I can now take these cool futuristic-looking sharp implements and move” up any surface. But, home in Wisconsin, good ice climbing is about eight hours away.
“I have a feeling it would be more my sport if I had more access to it,” she says. “I can’t take it up as my main sport, but it’s a blast as an add-on to rock climbing.
Chicks guides include Kathy Cosley, Anna Keeling, Kitty Calhoun, Sarah Hueniken, Carolyn Parker, Angela Hawse, Jen Grimes, Margo Talbot, Anne Skidmore, Kim Csizmazia, Amy Bullard, Caroline George, and Dawn Glanc, and their combined resumes are impressive, to say the least. They are nationally and internationally certified climbing guides, X-Games and Ouray Ice Festival competitors, Patagonia- and Marmot-sponsored athletes, Outward Bound and National Outdoor Leadership School instructors, and climbers of some the world’s most notorious frozen waterfalls and rock faces. They are also women with college degrees, teachers, moms and visionaries.
Hughes gets a constant thrill out of seeing Chicks instructors and alumni on the pages of national sports magazines, such as Climbing and Rock and Ice.
“What other sport could you participate in where the cover girls for the sport are your guides? What a privilege. They are accomplished in their sport, but they’re also really good at teaching.”
Of Chicks’ core group of guides, Hughes says, “I feel lucky that through the years I’ve worked with almost every one of them. I continue to hear their voices in my head as I climb on my own.”
Climbing for a Cause
While the Chicks motto is “women climbing with women, for women,” it is perhaps the “for women” part that is most important to head Chick Kim Reynolds, who co-founded Chicks with fellow Ridgway resident Kellie Day in 1999. A formidable climber in her own right, Reynolds got her start ice climbing in the early 80s, when very few women were involved in the sport. Reynolds climbed both rock and ice alongside men, and her growing love for the sport brought her to extreme parts of the world, including Nepal, where in 1998 she was the expedition leader for a first ascent on 23,442-foot Pumori. Although her group failed to make the summit, the second part of Reynolds’s trip involved delivering a $30,000 check to a Nepali safehouse for girls at risk of being sold into the sex trade.
That experience brought an epiphany that changed Reynolds’s life and altered the direction of her career, leading her to co-found the dZi Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to health, education, culture and welfare of Himalayan mountain communities, as well as Chicks With Picks and Mind Over Mountains, a women’s summer adventure retreat. She is also now a life coach.
Reynolds told Hooked on the Outdoors Magazine in 2004: “Since Pumori, it’s been my personal mission to inspire other climbers to look outside of themselves and give back to those in need, because if we don’t help each other, who will?”
Reynolds formed Chicks with the idea of promoting women’s empowerment while also inspiring community service and giving back. As a result, every clinic and its associated events, including Girly Guide slideshows and gear auctions, benefit local women’s shelters, including Tri County Resource Center in Montrose, which to date has received more $145,000 from Chicks. The Ouray Ice Park also receives a portion of each year’s proceeds.
Being the organizer and the vision of the clinics, Reynolds “pops in to visit, takes a few runs herself, maybe does some informal teaching. She’s really good at organizing these programs,” says Hughes.
“Kim has a way with women and making people feel good. It’s really impressive,” adds Bryson.
Whether it’s a unique life experience you’re looking for, or you’re an experienced ice climber wanting to improve your skills, Chicks makes it easy to push your boundaries. With four workshops (The Sampler, Jan. 14-17, all levels; The Graduate, Jan. 14-17, levels 2-6; The Complete, Jan. 25-29, all levels; and The Quickie, Jan. 30-Feb. 1, all levels), demo gear (everything from crampons and ice axes to backpacks and helmets), lodging, meals and the requisite after-parties, Chicks has something for everyone.
Classes have either a four-one or two-one student-to-guide ratio. Prices range from $690 to $1,600 for full packages, which include lodging, meals, gear, a “mind expanding” workshop, a T-shirt, and more. Non-lodging options are also available, as well as a new Dirt Bag price, which includes only the guided clinics.
Registration for winter 2010 clinics is now open. Visit the Chicks’ website at www.chickswithpicks.net or call 970/626-4424.