Canyon waterfall offers rare desert ice climbing

Running water has become a frozen waterfall in a Colorado National Monument canyon, making for spectacular ice climbing.

Ann Driggers takes to chandelier ice on a frozen waterfall inside Colorado National Monument.

I felt odd recently lumbering along No Thoroughfare Canyon trail in the Colorado National Monument, bundled up and weighed down with a heavy pack containing ice tools, crampons and other necessities to ward off the cold weather.

Normally, I run this sandy wash as it winds through the sagebrush on the canyon floor bounded by towering sandstone walls.

On this day, stiff-soled boots made footprints in the snow and running shorts were replaced with rugged clothing more fitting of the high alpine.

True, the temperatures were frigid, but the reason for the discombobulated dress and equipment was an atypical desert adventure.

Yes, incredible as it may seem, in the red rock country south of Grand Junction, I was going ice climbing.

Deep in the cold and shaded canyon where further progress is blocked by a 130-foot wall, running water and cold temperatures have coincided to create a frozen waterfall. At the cliff edge, the ice, released from its channel of rock, extrudes over the lip and begins its viscous flow to the canyon floor.

A narrow and vertical pillar of ice pours onto a slab of rock and fans out into a glacial sheet creating a straight-forward climb, perfect for someone such as myself who hasn’t climbed water ice in over 15 years.

As when climbing rock, movement across ice is a delicate art of balance, where one seeks an unhurried rhythm of alternating placement of feet and hands while dancing gracefully up in this ethereal world. That is the theory at least.

For me, a few jitters on the first steeper section of fragile chandelier ice coupled with waves of cold seeping into my bones, rendered my limbs numb and virtually ineffectual.

But soon enough adrenaline was overruled, and I found my groove, swinging picks through the air, shattering the brittle ice, showering myself with shards, as I listened for the thunk, confirmation of a solid placement and my crampon points bit securely into the curtain of ice.

As I clawed steadily toward the brilliant blue sky juxtaposed against the red canyon walls draped in a winter veil of ice, it seemed to me that ice climbing in canyon country, although quite surreal, is in fact the desert at its most elemental.

Read more about Ann Driggers and her outside adventures on her blog, Outdoor Junkie, at


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