Via Outdoor Research Verticulture 

By story by Mark Allen and video edited by Mike Bromberg
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Mark with the RMU team at the OPUS hut in the San Juans CO. This is apparently called "claiming it." Photo Nate Disser

Ski cultures are territorial, especially the old ones. The local’s band up like gorillas claiming large swaths of alpine territory. The troops get protective when others invade. Guarding the stash can become a way of life. The local chiefs are elusive and operate in the shadows. These full-timers are the real silverbacks. The local tribe knows more than god about the terrain and roams in the less obvious. Their timing always seems perfect as you gaze upon their tracks from a distant ridge and wonder. They lurk in the areas that we all want. They arrive there while we are drinking coffee. They have spent a lifetime looking for these places and have discovered them. The lines are not documented but recorded in the minds and verbal histories of the privileged. This is their land, their terrain, and you are a visitor. You might see their tracks, but sightings are rare. Tracking them can be dangerous prospect. They might feel hunted and reactions are unpredictable. You should stick to what you can ski from the road.
This tribal phenomenon is rich in the Southwestern Colorado San Juan Mountains. This area is home to one of the oldest ski cultures in the country and is also one of the least developed. For example, there is no formal written documentation or publication of first descents and features are often unnamed; most significant information has transcended the generations through verbal history. At 13,000ft plus, alpine ridge crests develop distinctly segregated circles that separate the populations. This cultural division has always reminded me of the evolutionary history of minority groups in Southwestern China. Large groups of people separated by terrain that after thousands of years have distinctly diverged languages and traditions. Silverton, Ophir, Ouray, Ridway, Durango, Telluride all have separate castes of usual suspects operating in their respective terrain. They even have different names for the same futures seen from opposite sides. The explanation for this is simple. The terrain is constructed in such a way that discourages travel. One could ski tour from Silverton to Telluride faster than one can drive there. The biodiversity is limited. So is information sharing.
Mark in deep. Who said CO had a bad 2012 season?Must have been the FrontRangers 
               Photo: Nate Disser

The snow pack is technical. More, it is intriguing. To complicate matters there are six to seven micro climates in the San Juans that manipulate the weather. This is dependant on how the storm tracks into the range and how the mountains alter the air masses relative to the complex terrain. Telluride will get 15” and Silverton will accumulate 2” yet the towns are 12 miles apart as the crows fly. Truthfully, the opposite trend is typically the case, but Silverton wants Telluride to believe just what it needs to.  The local wind effect here makes it difficult to find the stashes at first. The wind here is the most powerful factor. Large wind events will strip windward faces to the ground. The snowpack will be transported in its entirety to the leeward aspect. This all making perfect avalanche country.

The usual suspect Eagle slide path crossing highway 550 in two places. This path is such a regular customer the DOT gave it its own weather station. Photo: Jerry Roberts 

Asking around the verbal history of the area is vague. I have picked up scraps of information in coffee shops, taverns, and road cuts. My casual research tells me the early ski explorers in this avalanche stricken terrain were some of the nations first avalanche forecasters hired by the state of Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) and National Forest Service. Their job was to keep Highway 550 open for commerce. This effort was not in vein since during the winter of 2006 – 2007, the CDOT triggered 464 avalanches with explosives for mitigation purposes. 159 of the controlled slides impacted Colorado highways. Veteran CDOT forecaster Jerry Roberts is a local living legend and was part of the first the group responsible for most of original exploration and naming of the back country zones in the Silverton area in the mid 60’s-mid 70’s. Compared to the big ski descents in the Elk Mountains by Colorado ski legend Chris Landry and company, the history in the San Juans would play out in the shadows and go unnoticed. Do to the correlation with avalanche mitigation several of the ski runs here were named after slide paths that hit the highway. The only ski beta sold for years was the Colorado Department of Transportation slide path map. This is the most intact record of the San Juan ski history. The passes are still today mitigated by CDOT with artillery from a vintage Korean War howitzer. One of the culprit paths is named “The Battleship” in its honor. Outside of these documented paths the consistency of names drift. Which name you use will indicate just how long you have been here. Roberts’s crew skied most of the main drainages for better understanding of the continental snow pack.  Roberts stated ”We were not special skiers in any way, we were just the only ones exploring.”
Kendal mountain North Face. One of the many tours that you start by walking across the street.

Contemporary bands of elusive locals from Silverton are the contributors to recent King Lines. Not naming names to protect the innocent, they can be found all living on one of the most unassuming back alleys on the other side of the tracks in the town of Silverton. They are a group of unsung heroes without team name or sponsor. They are tackling the never skied bold lines San Juans 13K peaks and taking the secret home with them. A few of them are responsible for a descent of Hunter in the Alaska Range. Mount Hunter is a entry test piece of American mountaineering to climb let alone ski. They sneak into the deep corners of the San Juans, redefine the standard, and slip back into town to saddle up to the Miners Tavern. That’s the way its been done here for decades and that’s the way the trend seems to remain.

Brian Rougeux getting his split-board on deep in Lakes Basin 

The most common trend in the terrain accessed from the Highway 550 these days is the presence of more people. The rapid pulses of public interest in back country skiing due to the advances in gear, media, and its availability are making places like the San Juans more accessible.  Silverton Mountain, Helitrax, San Juan Ski Co, San Juan Mountain Guides are all services bringing the public into the snow. Andrew Klotz is the author of new guidebook “Cold Smoke” writes about San Juan backcountry and showcases 25 classic tours of the area. This book has had little effect on the true secrets of the area covering only few of roadside classics. Recently the town of Silverton has transformed from a mining boom town and has seen a resurgence as a ski advocates epicenter. The Elementary School even has PE classes on skis for local kids. The town’s main ski hill, Silverton Mountain, is a brutally rugged, experts only, sidecountry ski area. More, the sleepy town hosts collections of boutique manufactures like Venture Snowboards and Skis, Scotty Bobs Skiworks, Mountainboy Sleds, Montanya rum distillery, and the Silverton Brewing Co. The town’s exports have become cold powder, skis, split boards, local brews, and kicksleds
All of these factors are encouraging new activity to what is easily seen from the road and the ski are, bringing a new resident culture to the range with it. Yet, the core tribes of the range are still skiing the lines that have never seen second descents by outsiders. The silverbacks’ wish to keep it that way.  Approach at your own risk.

Somewhere in the San Jauns

Written story by OR Brand Ambassador Mark Allen. An IFMGA guide, he spends winters in the San Juan Mountains of Silverton guiding ski, ice, and Level 1-2 AIARE hut based avalanche courses as a lead guide for San Juan Mountain Guides of Colorado. Check out his program list at The video was filmed and edited by OR athlete Mike Bromberg, also IFMGA certified as a guide. Mike splits his time between Crested Butte, Colorado,Chamonix, France and now is resident guide in Revelstoke BC with his company Mountain Pro.


Dispatch one -First Contact, Lacuna Glacier

Graham Zimmerman high on day one of the Lunar Spur~Mark Allen

We wanted to give you a call real quick and give you our one week update on our expedition 2011 on the Kahiltna Glacier. First of all when we first got here we dug in our camp at the Kahiltna landing strip and immediately set out on a six day trip to the rarely or never visited West Fork of the Lacuna Glacier. This entailed over twenty miles of glacier travel and it took us four days to recon the route out from the base of the peak which we intended to climb.
Graham Zimmerman transitions to booting while navigating one of the many ice falls of the Lacuna Glacier system. One of several reasons it would take 4 of our 7 days of supplies to recon a route through the gauntlet to our desired Advanced Base Camp. ~Mark Allen

 We put ourselves below the unclimbed South face of a unnamed numbered peak on the Lacuna Glacier system and made it up 2,500 feet of a new route and were turned around due to bad snow conditions and an impending storm.

Graham Zimmerman Looks down 1000ft of newly discovered terrain on out bivi perch above the Northwest fork of the Lacuna Glacier. ~Mark Allen
So we ended up descending after one and a half days on route and ended up returning to our camp. We used the remaining time for the 20 mile of glacier travel back to base camp. It was pretty much an odyssey into a more remote area Alaska Range terrain into a zone that neither of us had ever seen with the naked eye and possibly hadn't been visited by another  human being. It was a pretty wild adventure. Everything is going well, right now we're focusing on acclimatization. We're going to spend the next four days climbing the West ridge of Mt. Hunter, with the intent of climbing most of the route tomorrow, and bivying as high as we can to spend as much time as can above 10,000ft to start acclimatizing for bigger objects. Hope all is going well at home and wish you guys luck, and wish us luck on our next adventure up the West ridge of Hunter.......READ MORE @.. 


by Mark Allen
Climbing in Chamonix

Pounte Natillon in the Chanonix area as two climbers top out alpine rock classic "Amazonia" one of the standard IV 5.10 trad routes 15 minute walk from the Envers Hut. 

Every time I drive into the North Cascades National Park I read a park sign that says “The North Cascades-The Alps of America.” This has always struck a spiteful chord in my dark side and I have dreamt of vandalizing this sign to read “The Cascades of America”. The Cascades are my home, and to me there is no comparison. But this year, to see what all the pother was about, I set off for two months taking advantage of new work opportunities in the French Alps.

IMG guide Sheldon Kerr mid swing on summer alpine ice route positoned on the Contamine- Mazeaud route of the North Face of Triangle du Tacul. One of the many examples of stellar alpine ice objectives just minutes from the Midi tram.

As an avid traveler, the basic nuances of wandering the western world are not novel. So trying to arrange a ride from the Geneva airport to Chamonix, France with a two-word French vocabulary was entertaining. But what had my attention most was standing in the back of the line for the tram that would take me to the summit of the Aiguille de Midi. Culture shock sunk in. Taking mental notes of my observations; small petite alpine packs, climbers in harnesses, ice axes in hand with neatly coiled rope ready for the instant access to the 3000m alpine zone. It only took a few minutes to quickly learn the European etiquette with regards to your pack, crampons, and axe in the crowded tram-line. The French tram operators had no problem suggesting the correct drill. It was as if we were all in line for an amusement ride for adults. The sharp reality: this “ride” was real and would poise you at a turnstile gate leading to the alpine 10,000ft higher than you were 30 minutes prior.

   Somewhere on the East face of the Mount Blanc Tacul

I was not in the North Cascades anymore. The differences were obvious. The incredible access was coupled with a population of well-adept alpinists represented in large numbers. The line was heavy with guides awarded credentials by the International Federation of Mountain Guides Association (IFMGA) or Union International Des Associations De Guide De Montagne (UIAGM), the EU equivalent. These high-ranking guides are easily recognized by the metal pin on their lapel, the badges sewn onto their shoulder and pack, and their acutely well-organized and mint gear selection. This badge itself has significant meaning for this culture. To become a professional guide in countries that honor the tradition of IFMGA standards takes dedication. First, to achieve aspirant status that allows a guide to work under a fully-certified guide-mentor, at least four years are spent mastering ski mountaineer, rock, and alpine guiding. This is followed by another two years completing exams and work requirements before achieving full-guide status. The tram line reeked of this tradition.

IMG Guide Sheldon Kerr busting mixed moves during the Traverse de Rochford on the French-Italian Boarder 

Mountain access like this began nearly one hundred years ago in the French, Italian, and Swiss Alps. The history of guiding is even older. It was here that alpinism and mountain guiding were created. By the looks of the terrain, I began to understand why. I was in line equally for the guiding tradition and culture as I was for the ride up the Midi into these mountains.

The French Alps lean over Chamonix, cutting the skyline with large granite massifs laden with icefalls and towering needles. Glaciers gouge valleys for kilometers, dividing the towers who each pronounce their independence and unique character. Massive monoliths draw your eye in. The famous Grand Dru belonging to the Aiguille Verte, the Grepon, the Midi, the three summits of Mount Blanc, and all the serrated gendarme ridges that connect each feature capture your attention and unfold a potential lifetime of alpine objectives.

As I rode the cable car up from Chamonix into the alpine and over the North face of the Aiguille de Midi, the dihedrals and crack systems, including the Frendo Spur first climbed in 1941 were easy to pick out. The Frendo is a 3700ft 5.8 rock rib that leads to the upper ice faces and rock tower shouldering the Midi and is a test piece of any aspiring young alpinist. It is prominently seen from Chamonix center and summons you while you safely sip your draft beer in the square bellow.

                     French guide with client high on the South Face of the Aiguille de Midi on one of the classic routes overlooking miles of alpine  glaciers. 

The reason I came to Chamonix was to take advantage of mentorship and apprenticeship. There are hundreds of fully qualified guides who have graduated from an international certification system of the Alps IFMGA or UIAMG. These guides have spent their careers taking clients into the far reaches of these ranges. As an American IFMGA aspirant, it was this group of men and woman who I looked to for help reaching the next stage of becoming a full guide.

I didn’t focus on Alps test-piece objectives, but instead on routes with good guiding problems for me to negotiate and train on for my AMGA alpine guide’s exam this September 2010. My training goals led me to some of today’s classic alpine routes that historically, in the early 1900’s, were some Europe’s premier alpine achievements.
Mount Maudi and the Kuffner ridge. The ridge was gained via an main coulior at the base of the buttress. The route assends that prominate ridge through spines and towers topping out the dome to the right of the needle summit.

The Kuffner Ridge, also know as the Frontier Ridge, on Mount Maudi was first climbed by Mortiz von Kuffner with Alexander Burgener, Josef Furrer, and a porter in 1887 and is one of these classic routes. This ridge is a complex buttress of exposed ridge and towers holding an entire days-worth of moderate mixed climbing and snow spines.

With beta from IFMGA guides Mike Powers and Richard Mansfield, my two America ex-pat partners Matt Anderson and Dan Protz, and I set out for the climb. After a quick breakfast by headlamp in the empty cafeteria of the Italian Torino hut, we crossed 2 kilometers of glacial neve under moonlight back into France, approaching the base of Mount Maudi. The peak towered over us. Storm clouds began to build over the summit of Mount Blanc, an indicator for oncoming foul weather. The weather was moving from the back of my mind to the front as the darkness veiled the peaks true scale. I began to feel the anxiety manifested by the unknown. If we climbed high on the route it would be difficult to retreat anywhere but up. But, without much hesitation, I committed to the up.

We crossed the bergschrund and gained the sharp ridge via the 850ft access couloir running rock and ice protection along the way. Simul-climbing this classic alpine ice couloir in one long pitch set a tone of security and speed for the day.

Matt Anderson nad Dan Protz simul climbing the goat's back spines of the Kuffner Ridge with Italy to the right and France on the Left.

The terrain was already classic and kept getting better. Corniced snow ridges, moderate granite rock climbing, and easy ice all combined in a rolling gauntlet ridge crest with an electric view of the Italian side of the Mount Blanc massif. My favorite parts of the route were the exposed corniced snow ridges. I felt alive with the team perched on its crest. The French use an appropriate metaphor for this feature relating it to the furry tuft of hair that sticks up on the back of mountain goat, giving the mountain a living spirit. These ridges are difficult to protect and it is assumed among partners that you throw yourself off the opposite side in the event of a fall. This method of protection is a challenging but somewhat affective practice though not entirely fool proof. Two Italian climbers met their fate on this exact feature 24 hours after our ascent. A fatal slip caused by a collapsed cornice led to grave results. Giving plenty of respect to the spines, I knew that we were not immune to a similar fate.

AMGA ALPINE EXAM TRAINING- Chamonix Alpine climbing from Mark Allen on Vimeo.

Another classic I climbed, the Midi-Plan traverse, is a ridge run on the skyline from the Aiguille de Midi to the Aiguille de Plan and back; glaciers, knife blade snow spines, and buttresses of 5.8 hand cracks on perfect granite. This takes a full day of rope wrangling and dozens of transitions from pitch climbing to rappelling to short roping and back. Returning to the tram before the lift shuts down for the evening is the main motivator for moving efficiently. This is understandably one of the reasons people from this land are efficient alpinists.   I mock-guided this objective with U.S. IFMGA guide Dylan Taylor while he played client. This is common practice among guides who are in training mode and it allows us the opportunity to critique each other on potential improvements and correct exposure to unnecessary risk.
                               Mark mid-transition on the Midi-Plan Traverse-Photo Dylan Taylor

Mount Blance getting served a typical afternoon storm for the 2010 alpine climbing season. Unpredicatble white orographic lenticulars consumed the upper elevetions regularly this year. 

While all my climbs helped train me for my goals, most of my mentorship happened while on Mount Blanc. I was able to work several trips with UIAGM and IFMGA guides from France, Switzerland, Britain, Italy, Slovenia, and the U.S. They treated me like a little brother. Aspirants, I discovered, are somewhat of a commodity compared to the number of working full-guides. Full-guides were extremely eager to help out an underdog guide, remembering their own struggles while learning the craft. And, on this objective I felt right at home. The terrain was reminiscent of the glaciers and elevations of my home mountain, Mount Rainier. The guiding, conditions, and client profile for this peak were somewhat old-hat and made the transition into a new venue much easier. At the end of most days, I would sit with mentor guides and debrief the event on ways we could do things better. This evaluation is an extremely valuable moment for the aspirant, and is how development can occur.

                       The Aiguille de Envers Basins

The most memorable venue I visited during my stay was the Aiguilles de Envers up valley on the Mer de Glace glacier. Two cirques with massive granite towers resemble that of the Sierra. Grade IV and V rock spires of impeccably steep granite jet 2500ft out of the glacier. The hut is positioned below the steep, massive towers 10 min away from where you start roping up for the 18 pitch, 5.10 rock route.

Mark Allen casts of into a world of pristean granite with splitter cracks shooting to the summit on the Aiguille de Roc located near the Envers Hut-Photo Jay Allen

Nothing during my stay topped climbing splitter granite cracks a thousand feet off the deck with a valley glacier sweeping bellow and the Grandes Jorasses dominating the horizon. Several of the climbs lead to classic hypodermic granite needle summits provoking disbelief. This is a place I will certainly travel back to in the future.
Overall, my time in the Alps was incredibly educational. I was exposed to many historical aspects of Alpinism and what it means to the local valley. Being immersed in the alpine and exploring what the French Alps have to offer, I progressed in my own guiding and took one step closer to becoming a full IFMGA guide.

The fifth 60m rappel off of the Aiguille De Roc. Seven more to go. Jay Allen using a sigle strand descent method will a 5mm tag line for the pull-photo Mark Allen

One thing that I found missing during my adventures was something I experience in the Cascades; serenity. Coming home, scaling to the crest of the North Cascades, and looking over glaciated vistas of unclimbed rock was a breath of fresh air. We are spoiled to have this resource. We are lucky to be living in the heart of true wilderness. The North Cascades are untouched by European standards; no trams, no people, no villages and with a culture and tradition that is still being developed. Because I enjoy this wild place so much, I don’t want to see all the traditions of Europe become a standard here is the U.S.
 Europe has figured out, though, how to professionalize guiding as an industry and into a legitimately well respected trade. Professionalizing the mountain guiding standards and simultaneously deepening the traditions of guiding with our U.S. climbing culture will create a better, safer experience for my clients, my co-workers, and myself in the beautiful places we call home. I encourage you to look into the IFMGA standard by going to the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) web site and educate yourself about the importance of guide standardization and how this might affect you as a consumer. Good luck and see you in the Alps!

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BLACK DIAMON JOURNAL-Mt. Bradley Comprehensive Report

Mark Allen and Graham Zimmerman make first ascent of 4600-foot alpine big wall in Alaska-link to BD Journal

Black Diamond supports the AMGA rock guide exam with a grant and each year we are excited to see new guides pass their exams and become certified AMGA rock guides. Such is the recent case with Mark Allen (also an AMGA-certified ski guide), who passed his exams before setting off on a wild first ascent adventure with Graham Zimmerman to Mount Bradley on Alaska's Ruth Glacier. Below is Mark's report with impressive photos and superb video from the ascent that truly shows what it's like to commit to a massive alpine first ascent.

“To achieve vigorous manhood at least five qualities are necessary; muscular strength, endurance, energy, courage, and will power…There are numerous examples of vigorous men in recent history and present day in American life…By faithful adherence to the five requirements previously mentions, one develops a high degree of bodily resistance”
~ E. H. Ruddock, M. D., Vitalogy 1899

Mt. Bradley SE Face this April in the condition the SE Buttress was noticed during the late March reconnaissance. ~Photo Graham Zimmerman
Walking up after a third bivy on the wall was not the plan. We only had resources for one night on the buttress and with little padding. We anticipated a second night during the descent, but not the third—and certainly not a fourth. We agreed to not have enough fuel for breakfast brews. We shared an energy bar and a beef stick to kick-start our metabolisms. We peered out the door of the Firstlight tent having a strange aerial vista. This vantage of the North Wall of Mount Wake reminded us of our position; Twenty-five pitches up a 4600-foot buttress in undiscovered country on a tiny bivy ledge just big enough for our two-person tent.
Zimmerman on the summit morning, the third day of the climb, taking in the view from the Tower~Photo Mark Allen

We were in mid-swing of the second major crux network of the route. We had fixed the lines the night before and rappelled down to the exposed ledge after the climbing became a game of diminishing return. A near-perfect bivy blessed us part way up the 800-foot granite tower that stood like a bouncer guarding the summit. One corner of the tent that was draped over the ledge collected gear like a sinkhole. Ropes ran out of our sleeping bags, to the door, and up to the anchor.  Gear hung clipped under the visor of granite that protected our bivy from what loomed above.
This morning marked the last day of steep mixed terrain before the buttress broke down and we could count on the summit. We couldn’t afford to have another night out on the wall.Graham indecipherable words came over a mouth full of Turtle Bar combined with gestures indicated his appreciation for the view. I couldn’t help but share the excitement for what we had done already. We were having the time of our lives and we were the only lives in the Alaska Range. 


Seven years ago, Graham Zimmerman and I met in Washington on an alpine course through the American Alpine Institute. I was a young North Cascades guide and he was one of my youngest clients at 17. He absorbed everything I had to offer. He was, and still is, one of the most positive and motivated people I have ever shared the rope with. 

Paul Roderick landed us in the Great Ruth Gorge. According to the National Park Service we were going to be all alone; have the entire range to ourselves. Storms shut down any more traffic to ensure this. This was a rare opportunity for our climbing team and provided a new element of remoteness to the range. The Alaska Range is funny that way. On a sunny day one could easily flag down one of the many passing planes. On a no-fly-day you might as well be in the Hymal. Now we were on our own. No climbers. No planes. It was just the ravens, the mountains, and us.

Mt. Wake NE Buttress after a snowstorm ~Photo Mark Allen

Great Gorge ski tours during route recon. ~Photo Mark Allen
Upon first arrival the range was freshly loaded by recent storms. This put most of the climbing on hold until safer conditions. We narrowed our alpine climbing faire down to what would not predictably kill us. Mount Bradley. Initially it was the 1000-foot ribbon of ice that sucked Graham’s binoculars. Our eyes connected what looked enticing, possible, and had a hint of full-on. Weather was good, so we went for it.
We retreated after seven pitches.  Our timing was all off, a schoolboy mistake. We didn’t get high enough to gain the upper snow bench and we scratched around below. We were under a giant solar collector. The warming snow grinded on my psyche. Graham picked up on my stress. Our mortality felt like a coin toss. I slammed in two knifeblades and we bailed. Rappelling from our high point I could foresee the rope becoming stuck. We now had more time. We took sanctuary in a cave when the avalanches came. Snow poured over the cave. We resorted to alpine trickery to get the ropes back then hung out cracking jokes for an additional hour. The stressed molted away like dead skin and without remorse. The sun faded, the wall cooled, and we descended to camp.
It was exactly what we needed. A warm-up. We received a freeze thaw and mileage on ice tools. We were going to return to the wall smarter, with less weight, and with beta. We needed a different strategy.   Climb through the cold of the day and through the night, bivy in the heat of the day. We'll get about nine hours of climbing, bivy in the sunshine, and then come off the next day. That was the plan. It was simple.
Approaching the “Lighting Bolt Coulior,” the entrance to the SE Buttress during the second attempt in colder temps. ~photo Mark Allen
At 6pm we simul climbed up the 500-foot Lightning Bolt Couloir. We set Graham up for the first crux, a 5.9 A1 offwidth in the cave. I watched him squirm through a hole in the ceiling just wider than his hips and haul our packs. Before night fell Graham swiftly took us through two more pitches of runout mixed cruxes and belayed off our bail pitons from the day before.
The next block of rock and mixed climbing were key to our progress. We get through this and we are onto the “fun climbing.” The approach to the uncharted territory was to climb out off the snow ledge, change into rock shoes, and send. This was a time-consuming arduous process. After the transitions I had so much shit on my harness. The ice tools, double boots, crampons, and rock rack all created a hoop dress effect.  It was a blue-collar pitch. A chicken-wing and hooked tool behind a frozen block while stemming in rock shoes. I found the next belay and watched Graham’s headlamp progress up from the abyss. After some scraping about we agreed I would tension off the anchor into the void. I made it to a small stance and was able kick a perch with rock shoes in the snow. The long arch of slack back to Graham’s anchor terrified me. A fall here would be radical. I excavated some frozen dirt moss near my waist and pounded in the pick of my Cobra ice tool and clipped off my waist. It was a tenuous 30 minutes to return back to boots and crampons while tethered to the tool. A thousand feet of exposure hidden by the darkness. My world had the radius of my LED beam and I was glad. With my feet in crampons again, I began work up the mixed pitch. Deliberation was forced by lack of gear found in the compact headwall.  Necessity is the mother of invention; I forcibly drilled a 19cm ice screw into a patch of frozen dirt moss, my only good piece. It was like a bolt… crazy-solid. I laugh reflecting on what brings us peace in the chaos.
Graham coming into the Prow after a spice 140m unprotected snow wallow. Steep terrain above reminds us of our low position on the route. ~Photo Mark Allen

It was several more hours of easy mixed and steep snow climbing pitches to the first bivy on The Prow. We positioned the bivy safe from any avalanches on a spine abscessing from the buttress. Graham and I had one of the most astounding views of the long Ruth Valley Glacier. We sunk into the bivy basking in the sun, letting the stress of the mountain shed away. 

The Prow Bivy about 1500ft up the route after pitch 7 of new climbing. North Face of Mt. Wake in the background. This was a 6 hour mid-day bivy to wait for snowslopes to refreeze and ice conditions in the coulior to improve. ~Photo Mark Allen

bradleyAfter the bivy we headed out in the cooler temps of the afternoon as the slopes came into the shade and cast off into the headwall couloir looking for ice~Photo Graham Zimmerman

We packed up in cooler temps. The blue shade pushed out alpine yellow glow. That was the cue. We headed up to explore the Ice Ribbon. A thousand-feet of moderate gully ice protected by an entrance fee of M5+ and thin eggshell WI 5. Graham led off the belay without hesitation. It was a burly pitch and one of the route’s headiest points. Watching at the belay I fumbled with the video camera trying not to give a bad belay. Each gear placement was like a small triumph. Graham’s persistence was admirable and right then he was my personal hero. Off belay. We were in!
We jammed out the next five pitches like it was routine. It was the first time on the route that the climbing was straightforward and predicable. We gained the momentum we needed, swinging into fat, sticker blue ice in a chimney just wider than our shoulders. The climbing rivaled the world-class gully climbs of the Moose’s Tooth on the horizon just over my right shoulder. We were in our element. The formidable objective was far from our minds.
Photo of the Second Snow Bench, the Prow Bivy (bottom left), and the Ribbon a 1000ft of ice that on the second night took us to the second Bivy on the ridge just left of the couloirs exit. This was the prize of the route and the most memorable climbing. We then had to wait until first light to navigate the complex blocky ridge. This was our reward for climbing the six pitches of ice quickly. ~Photo Mark Allen

We topped the Ribbon and gained the buttress crest. The terrain above us was supposed to be easy and fun ridge climbing.  Graham and I looked up into the darkness at a complex fortress of rock. We needed sunlight to navigate such a gauntlet.  Unwilling to deal with the physiological stress, we pretended the mountain was not there and bivied until light. 

We woke to the eerie shapes of lenticular clouds on the horizon. They were right on time. Large spindrift avalanches began to pour off the slopes above. We dared not leave the spine of the buttress. I was taken away from this predicament by Graham’s positive demeanor and conversation about cute Yosemite girls that slackline. We never had a conversation about committing, but this would have been the time.
Out of the fog came the ominous Tower. We planned on skirting the feature on exposed snowslopes but the triple-x death conditions omitted any further discussion of the option. We squared up to the 800 feet of granite. In most cases I would have felt in over my head. But instead Graham and I were overriding dread with laughter and fist bumps. “Yeah, get some”became the mantra to stoke the other on. Our humor was driven by the gravity of the situation. Above us were hundreds of feet of steep technical mixed climbing tattered with fresh spindrift, below were thousands of feet of frozen alpine big wall. Our spirits were the protective shell against all that would attempt to impede our progress.
Graham racking for the final pitch to the summit. Graham is preparing to leave the Tower bivy and jug up to the high point from the night before ~Photo mark Allen

Graham Zimmerman climbing the last mixed pitches of the tower~photo Mark Allen

Graham Zimmerman at the last belay (28) while transitioning to simul climbing the last spines of the buttress. ~Photo Mark Allen

Graham and I were revitalized after the exposed six-hour bivy on the Tower. Our minds told us this was the end of the climb; we couldn’t have been further from the truth. We finished the tower and the terrain broke down. We could feel the reality of the top for the first time. Its as if dreaming of food and getting the first realization of its aroma as it becomes near to ready. My fear, my fatigue, my hunger all faded away for the moment as we sauntered towards the highest point of this giant. While walking I pointed out the two ravens that circled the summit just tens of feet above. There presence felt as if they knew the significance of our arrival. This was a climax of our climb…a very special moment in our friendship, the partnership, and our lives.
We gazed at our descent. It was still going to take us 33 hours before we would finally be done. We finished the last of our food and began heading the only way we could, down.
bradleyMark Allen and Graham Zimmerman on the summit of Mt Bradley.

On April 5th at 4pm Mark Allen and Graham Zimmerman summited Mt. Bradley via a new route on the SE buttress. This 4600-foot buttress of sustained mixed climbing required 29 pitches, 19 of which are M5 or WI 4 or harder. After sixty-six and a half hours including three on-route bivies, Vitalogy (Alaska grade V, M6+ WI5 5.9R A1) was opened. After summiting the climbers began to descend but the descent was not in condition when a second storm began to present. With the remaining time the two were forced to rappel 1500 feet down a headwall to an alpine glacier and then descend 1000 feet of active icefall to the Backside Valley Glacier to escape avalanche terrain were the two found a “safe bivy” (under an overhang of rock tucked close to the massif base) while spindrift avalanches began to run down the wall. This storm brought 15 inches of new snow, pinning the two down for a day without food and little fuel. A clearing 12 hours later allowed the climbers to start wading seven kilometers through new snow on Backside Valley Glacier, back around though 747 Pass, and then down into the Ruth Glacier to regain their camp. A third storm hit, requiring them to navigate in a whiteout, in the dark. After 99 hours they removed their packs for the last time.


Climber top ropes "Nose Job" a popular pillar climb in the Ouray Ice Park.~Photo Mark Allen


Mark Allen
Cell Phone: 360 305 2383

Ice climbing is one of the most gratifying styles of technical climbing. To be able to swing the ice tool and crampons into frozen waterfall ice is electrifying. Climbing ice has always been a surreal experience that looks like it should be beyond the realm of possibility but is quite achievable. Climbing in Ouray is the most accessible venue for technical ice climbing in the Lower 48. The Ouray Ice Park provides a full spectrum of challenges for those first-timers exploring the sport to the seasoned annual ice climber. The winter setting of the San Juan Mountains and small town mountain culture of Ouray make this the perfect vacation spot to explore the sport of ice climbing. There are many restaurants, hotels, and other recreation options to make a fully loaded vacation in Colorado this winter.

IMG Guide Ben Kurdt leads out of the Box Canyon in the Ouray Ice Park, CO~Photo Mark Allen

Join Mark Allen and other IMG guides for a privet or scheduled program this winter. I will be available to book trips December through February this season. Contact me as soon as possible to get your spot on the calendar. Availability becomes limited so don’t wait too long! To learn more about what IMG can offer you go to the International Mountain Guides Link listed above.


Contact me directly at to coordinated with my availability. Once we have resolved the dates I will help facilitate your registration through the IMG office. ~Photo S.B. Giddings