Fully visible from South Fork Road, Ovisight is a three pitch WI6 climb of grand proportions, dominating the upper reaches of the Legg Creek drainage with a triad of impressive free-standing pillars, all WI5 or harder. First ascended by Alex Lowe and Stan Price in 1991, Ovisight was once a regional test-piece, and still, amidst rising standards, remains a coveted tick for climbers across North America.
Ovisight was Chris’s brainchild, something he spotted from the road on our commute to Moratorium three days earlier. The triple tier of pillars was striking, the obvious king line of roadside Cody ice. Consultation with Winter Dance revealed the stout grade of WI6, accompanied by a bold picture of Hans Johnstone leading the crux pillar in thiiiiin conditions. Mountain Project ticks suggested a “fat” 2023 showing – potentially soft for the grade, and at the least, definitively “in”. Two main questions, unable to be answered by guidebook or internet, arose. One, just how far, and how heinous, would the approach be? And two, would the lower south facing first pitch of Legg Creek, necessary to reach the upper Legg Creek drainage and the first pitch of Ovisight, be climbable after relatively warm conditions? Legg had a reputation for sunbakery and subsequent running water – two undesirable characteristics for grade four ice. A full rest day re-upping on plentiful calories, a short hike and ice bath in Deer Creek, and a generous night’s rest – into the blackness by 6:00AM, day four.
The “hike” up Legg Creek redefined torquing, a trail-less mess of water crossings, ice waddling and scree groveling suitable only to those with a high tolerance for masochism. In higher snow the approach would have been far more covered and therefor more pleasant, but dusted in little more than four inches of sugar the drainage was cryptic, slippery and inhospitable. After some 2.5 hours we reached the infancy of the Legg Creek ice climb, which involved a few sections of steep ice bouldering to reach the main pitch. The 30M WI4 was more of rampy grade three, delaminated, wet, but secure enough – on to higher lands. For prospecting climbers, it should be noted that Legg Creek is rarely climbed as a route to its’ own – more of a necessary evil to reach climbs above.
The snowpack dramatically deepened above the Legg Creek climb, making travel faster and easier on the body. At the first prominent drainage to the west we forked left and headed for the obvious Ovisight pitch one directly ahead – total approach time: 3.25 hours, no snacking.
I reserved a background air of nervousness as Chris tied in for the real pitch one, an intimidating task of steep cauliflowers and an upper pillar studded with features, but steep as all mighty – classic WI6- climbing emerging from a dramatic amphitheater cave of mudstone. Intensifying wet snow added to the atmosphere, with wispy flakes the size of half-dollars sticking to every available surface like barnacles. Protection was sparse, and a few overhanging bulges made me grateful for a stronger partner and top-rope, though I did feel more solid than expected, and could imagine leading such ice in the not-so-distant future. This pitch made a serious bid for my favorite piece of ice in 2023, and boy was it photogenic.
From the top of pitch one, some 300-500 feet of knee deep post-holing led to a pair of steep pillars separated by little more than a rope-length. To the left is some unnamed piece of ice, generally unattractive and not part of the original Ovisight line. To the right is another pillar of epic proportions, the obvious aesthetic choice, and perhaps more “solid” than pitch one – no chandeliers or funky features, just punch ya’ in tha’ nose grade five vertical. Unsure on whether I was up the task, I needed a nudge from Chris, perhaps my most encouraging climbing partner summer or winter, to take the sharp end. About halfway up the pillar fatigue began to set in – no distinct crux, but absolutely no stances for true rest. I considered hanging on screws a handful of times, but ultimately forged on, proving my progression and satisfying my soul beyond any shadow of doubt – my first virgin grade five onsight. I belayed Chris up – a quick hug, and back to slogging.
Finding the final pitch of Ovisight proved harder than expected, as it unintuitively lies in a different drainage than pitch two, and is obscured by trees until directly beneath. At first we continued above pitch two into an icy slot, until a 20 foot vertical step raised questions. As it turns out, this might be the beginning of a separate and rarely visited Aaron Mulkey climb of the WI4 varietal. A short traverse climber’s left into the adjacent drainage deposited us at the base of the staggering third pitch – hardly a pillar, how about a behemoth four story curtain the width of a two lane highway. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a chunk of ice quite like it.
By the time we reached our last belay in yet another impressive cave, wet snow had us permeated us to the bone. From Goretex shell to base layer, ice boots to long underwear, I looked like I’d spent the last eight hours walking through a tropical storm. Under any other circumstances such wetness could have been cause for mission abortion, but temperatures in the mid-thirties kept frostbite concern at bay, and more importantly, we had a task finish. Amidst a mounting storm Chris tied in for another testing pitch. 10M of WI4, a short snow ramp, 30M of full value WI5+ in a bulgy and cryptic ice cleft, another short ramp and a final headwall of honest WI5. Chris managed to burn all of our 14 screws, and by the time I reached the belay I could hardly feel my hands, pumped beyond reason, and despite overflowing stoke, was psyched to rack tools for the day. Unfortunately I slipped off the final pitch with an extreme case of screaming barfies, and therefor did not succeed in a no-falls ascent – Chris however, took the pot. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a face so stoked atop an ice climb, and I was beyond grateful to share that moment with him.
The full descent from Ovisight ballparked three or four hours – 3,000 vertical feet, five rappels and plentiful down-downclimbing. We rappelled the third pitch with two ropes, and used only one 70M rope for the rest. We reached the car by headlamp, 13 hours after departure, the only end fitting to the best of adventures.
Ovisight earned it’s name when the first ascent party spotted a bighorn sheep high on route. Ovis is a genus relating to sheep and thus, Ovisight was born. Just as this atypical name derives spiritual roots, climbing Ovisight was an ethereal experience for me. Never has a multi-pitch climb felt more improbable, more unlikely. Between foul weather, poor approach conditions, delaminated ice on the Legg Creek pitch and frankly, just flat out difficult climbing, I was tested. Both Chris and I achieved the personal lead experiences we were looking for – him on pitches one and three, and myself on pitch two. The synergy of sharing those experiences through opposite ends of a climbing rope was powerful. Upon return we once again plowed down tacos and rejoiced in the magic of such a gravitational day in the mountains, and with snowflakes falling from the sky, pondered the idea that despite intentions to stay for a longer duration, the coming storm could urge an audible.
Gear & Xtra Beta
For aspiring climbers, ice screws will be the only required gear for ascent in normal conditions. If pitch one is not in, Oversight (WI5) to climber’s left may provide passage to pitch two (more info in Winter Dance or on Mountain Project). Ovisight does not see much traffic and as such, extra cord and biners are worthwhile kit for anchor doctoring.
Winter Dance by Joe Josephson is the most comprehensive guidebook for South Fork ice to date. This CalTopo map provides useful approach beta and information, and was used for metrics in this article.
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Ski mountaineering, rock climbing, ice climbing and all other forms of mountain recreation are inherently dangerous. Should you decide to attempt anything you read about in this article, you are doing so at your own risk! This article is written to the best possible level of accuracy and detail, but I am only human – information could be presented wrong. Furthermore, conditions in the mountains are subject to change at any time. Ten Thousand Too Far and Brandon Wanthal are not liable for any actions or repercussions acted upon or suffered from the result of this article’s reading
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