The Lake Louise Ice Gully is a 3-4 pitch alpine ice climb situated stunningly above Lake Louise on the eastern flank of Wyoming’s Wind River Range, easily accessed from the small town of Dubois. The very wide flow is considered classic for the area and has many variations, ranging from rambling WI3 to firm WI4, with ample opportunities for daring mixed lines on each of the gully’s two massive walls. In one very long round trip day from Teton Valley, Idaho, Connor James and I completed the route in four pitches, climbing to the highest ice point on climber’s left and finishing with an unforeseen but brilliant pitch of wildly exposed WI4, my first alpine lead at the grade!
The Local Moderate? Sure.
I’m new to the northwest Wyoming ice game, but in my circles “The Gully” is widely considered the best entry level multi-pitch ice climb accessible to the Jackson/Teton Valley area. According to a measly two articles I could find online, the flow climbs at WI3 with a crux pitch at the very top. In reality, I found the Gully to be a “choose your own adventure” kind of climb, with WI3 as the minimum grade of competency required to dance. Once you wiggle through pitch one, which can be mildly mixed on a low or warm year (WI2+, M2 for us), the breadth of the 75-100 foot wide ice flow spills out before you. Several options exist to make the climbing easier, harder or more sustained depending on one’s taste, and an optional fourth pitch of wicked WI4 exists high left of the typical route’s end and descent anchor. Furthermore, an obvious mixed line or three temptingly adorns either wall, adjacent to pitch three, though I know of no documented ascents. Contrary to other trip reports we found the approach quite arduous, involving three miles of hiking, half a mile of frozen lake crossing and 500 feet of heinous scree scrambling that taxed us a whopping three hours of ankle torquing turmoil. The local moderate multi-pitch classic? Sure, one could call it that. But given the extreme remoteness and edgy alpine feel I’d motion to emphasize that “moderate” and “beginner” have different definitions. Climbing the Lake Louise Gully is a far cry from a day at the crag.
Approximately four miles south of Dubois on WY-26, two sleep deprived climbers from Teton Valley turned west onto Trail Lake Road, following the miraculously dry dirt path for 9.5 miles to the Glacier Lake Trailhead. Trail Lake Road is graded well, but driving faster than 30 miles per hour isn’t practical. We packed skis for the approach but saw only sagebrush and granite on this warm March morning. We were on foot from the get go, dry trail for the first mile interspersed with isothermal snow for the next two. Still recovering from torn ligaments and a fracture over nine months ago, the rutted and inconsistent trail took it’s toll on my fragile ankles. Damning clouds loomed above and a slight breeze warned of potential storming to come. Fortunately Lake Louise was frozen solid – other beta warns of inefficient bushwhacking along the shore. Connor and I took to the ice like two penguins with ice tools and forty pound packs (wait…), shuffling a full half mile to the base of the approach scree field.
We had a difficult time spotting the Gully at first. The ever famous Golden Tears (WI4+, 5.8) was obvious on the far southern bank, but it wasn’t until we hit the centerpoint of the lake and did a full pirouette that we noticed the obvious third pitch of the Lake Louise Ice Gully, high on the skyline, about 2000 feet east of Golden Tears. I must admit, from terra firma our route looked awfully mighty, and I spent the next hour hoping the climbing wouldn’t be quite as gnarly as it appeared.
To dispatch the scree field separating us from the ice we deployed line-of-sight tactics, crawling up a grim hillside filled with talus, chossy cliff-bands and devilishly steep vegetation. Mostly frustrating, occasionally dangerous, no climber’s trail in sight… did we go the right way? I couldn’t begin to tell you – but eventually the presence of rappel anchors and steepening gully walls suggested we were finally about there.
The aspirational Will Gadd in me perked up when I saw the still continuous but quite thin ice of pitch one. Ice climbing is cool, but something about mixed climbing really tickles my fancy. We tied in just before 11:00AM, after 2-3 hours on the approach and one short pitch of easily soloed, mostly snow covered ice (someone donate a GPS watch to Ten Thousand Too Far and this blog will become a lot more precise with times and distances). I got one good insurance screw down low, but climbed largely unprotected through the initial chimney of pitch one. The ice was too thin and aerated for screws, and if it weren’t for one rusty angle piton wedged in a crack thirty feet off the ground, my rope would have been lip service. Above this chimney, a short ramp led past an anchor and into another slabby chimney featuring easy but delicate moves between rock and ice. Protection was once again dubious. The highlight of pitch one was a move involving a right tool placement and a left hand single pad crimp, which I used to walk my mono-points up a 70 degree slab covered with a smear of centimeter thick ice, 10 feet out from my last stubby. Though the climbing was relatively easy, transitions between rock and ice, and awkward moves above minimal protection made this fifty meter pitch more engaging than the grade suggests. I’d suggest WI2+, M2, PG-13, likely easier on a bigger and colder year. The belay above the second chimney was a slung block anchor on climber’s right with new slings.
Above pitch one we got our first looks at the massive upper Gully, packed wall to wall with brilliantly terraced yellow and blue ice. The beast looked nowhere near as terrifying as she first appeared. As a matter of fact, she just looked darn fun. Connor took the helm on pitch two, landing his first ice climbing lead on a wandering pitch of straightforward WI2. After the 60M rope ran clean we simul-climbed another ten meters and built a screw belay.
Pitch three was the meat and potatoes of our climb, fifty meters of sustained and bulgy WI3 with spectacular exposure above Lake Louise. With only ten screws and two at the belay, I ran this hallmark pitch out pretty heavy, placing protection every 25-30 feet. The spring ice was quite sticky on this warm March morning, providing incredibly secure climbing. If one was determined to follow the path of least resistance, this pitch could have been completed at the grade of WI3-, maybe even WI2+, though Connor and I climbed the steeper west wall to boost the experience a little bit.
Alright, so pitch three was awesome – good movement on great ice, exceptionally scenic, but for such a gnarly approach it didn’t quite feel like the “cherry atop the sundae” I was looking for. As much as I love cruiser routes, I salivate for challenge. Pitch three just had a few too many rests – felt a little too “alpine-ish”. Right on cue, an unexpected pitch four swooped in to save the day.
Up and left of our belay (tree) lied one last curtain of chandelier-esque WI4, glimmering in the afternoon sun that recently burnt through the thick clouds of morning. The ice looked delicate, a pinch intimidating but definitely climbable, with a great rest halfway up. I’ve only climbed the WI4 grade a few times, and never in such an engaging environment, but after a whole winter of feverishly chasing ice, “pitch four” seemed like the next logical step.
I got two screws low to protect the belay and started up with focus and intent. Compared to my first two WI4 leads in Hyalite Canyon, the biggest difference I noticed was a dramatic increase in upper body strength. Instead of getting pumped within the first ten feet, I was able to rest efficiently and sew the pitch with ample protection. One foot pop near the top got both Connor and I’s heart on edge, but with two points of solid contact I was able to arrest an awkward swing, regain composure and finish the line with grace. I used to be hard on myself for near misses, always pursuing stylistic perfection, but often times that’s just not how climbing – or anything in life – goes. Rather than criticize miscues, my recent focus has been on celebrating successes, in this case, maintaining enough tension through my core and right side-body to stay adhered to the ice, and the subsequent mental fortitude required to continue on without panic. I was surprised to find no established anchor above pitch four, so in the spirit of gratitude we donated a sling and two carabiners to the Lake Louise Ice Gully, and the next climber who wants to try their hand a cool and quirky finish on this great route.
Using a 60M rope and tagline we made five rappels from the top of pitch four, exclusively on trees and fixed anchors, to reach the base of the pitch one. Two additional single rope rappels (optional, 30M, WI2-) brought us to our stashed gear. Instead of following our initial approach, we went rogue and tried to descend further east, romping through a gnarly isothermal powder field before dead-ending on a chossy cliff. One final rappel (20M) off a very dead but very large tree saw us through the technical terrain and into the unforgiving scree field above the lake. Painstakingly tedious was the name of the game. We reached Lake Louise at sunset and the car by 10:00PM, 13 hours round-trip, no broken ankles or face-plants – just starvation, stoke and resentment over the impending three hour slog home. Hey, at least we made it.
Summary, Reflection & Gear Check
Was the Gully worth climbing? For sure. Scenic? Beyond words. Quality climbing? Boo yah, especially pitches three and four. But should we have camped? Absolutely. From campsite to campsite, or hotel room to hotel room, climbing the Gully mid-winter makes for a totally reasonable alpine-style day. But from Idaho to Idaho, tacking on some six hours of driving, climbing the Gully wrecked the better half of my next week.
As a relatively new ice climber scratching at the WI4 grade, the Gully was a rad, all encompassing adventure – they key words being “all encompassing.” The ice itself was tamer then I expected, and without the unexpected gem of pitch four I would have been slightly disappointed by the ease of travel. That said, the experience of climbing sustained water ice with thousands of feet of exposure above the brilliant Lake Louise makes the mission worth its’ weight in gold. I brought a full single rock rack but placed nada, zip, zilch for rock protection – dead weight! If climbing early season, a trim scattering of rock gear could be handy. Otherwise, a rack of screws with a few stubbies (10cm, 13cm) should suffice. Two 60M ropes covered our descent needs handily.
Is the Lake Louise Ice Gully the last water ice of the 21/22 season? Signs point to yes – but who knows! According to “Best Climbs in Grand Teton National Park”, Rimrock Falls is best climbed late season. Does April count as late season? Have I missed the boat? Only time will tell.
As always, I would like to give a huge thank you to my supporters, Icelantic Skis and Chasing Paradise.
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Mountains are dangerous. Skiing them is more dangerous. Can’t we just admire those beautiful peaks from the parking lot? With binoculars and a lime Lacroix? Hmm… Nevertheless, mountain conditions change regularly, and the information in this article is only accurate as it pertains to the titled date. This article is written strictly for informational purposes only. Should you decide to attempt anything you read about in this article, you are doing so at your own risk!