It has a lyric name, Bridalveil Fall, and a majestic setting in the ragged San Juan Mountains, a mile or so above the Idorado Mine in Telluride, Colo. The fall starts at the brow of a 410-foot cliff where Bridalveil Creek drops away in a deafening cascade that generates enough power to light a sizable town. The plunging water creates violent patterns over rocky chutes and strikes angry rainbows in the mist that billows up. It hits bottom with terrible impact, and its thunder echoes in repeating detonations off the walls going down the canyon.
This is in the summer. In winter, all the violence stands paralyzed. Force has been over-powered by cold, and there is only silence. The scars from this battle between water and winter are visible all the way up the 40-story column of ice. There are knobs and odd writhings and strange gashes. Feathered arcs of frost and ice spread like angel wings along the cliffs to each side.
Bridalveil Fall is mute as marble in winter, but there is so much force locked into its frozen length that it still seems fraught with danger. There is a supernatural quality about it; it is a place where no man would care to venture.
Jeff Lowe is 28 years old, slender and bespectacled. He has long flaxen hair and the serene look of a seminary student. He stands looking at the fall on this late winter afternoon and says, casually, "It looks in better shape than I might have expected." He tilts his head back. "Those dark streaks up there might be a little rotten." His head goes farther back. "But it looks as if it could be O.K. all the way." Then he brings his head forward. "Climbing ice is sort of self-limiting. It's hard enough to do in good conditions without pushing yourself to climb when it's dangerous. If you're smart enough to climb ice, you're also smart enough to know when not to climb ice." He kneels in the snow and starts to rummage in his rucksack for his equipment.
Jeff Lowe has decided that today he is possibly smart enough to climb Bridalveil Fall. Alone. If he should succeed in this venture, it will be the first time that anyone has climbed it solo.
To an outsider, the prospect is frightening. Even to an expert climber, it is a daring idea. It was barely four years ago, in the winter of 1974, that two men managed to climb Bridalveil for the first time. That event is a celebrated accomplishment among climbers, described by author-climber Yvon Chouinard in his book Climbing Ice as "one of the most difficult waterfall climbs of the era."
One of the two men to make that historic ascent was Jeff Lowe; the other was his good friend Mike Weis. Now, as he unpacks his equipment at the foot of the fall, Lowe recalls the day. "There are not that many landmark climbs in your life. When Mike and I first tried it, Bridalveil was a total unknown. We had no idea we could do it. Technically, it turned out to be very difficult. At no time were we absolutely sure we could make it. It took us 10½ hours. At the end of any climb you always have some satisfaction—if nothing else, a kind of mellow craftsman's satisfaction. But when Mike and I got to the top of Bridalveil that first time, we started giggling and laughing. We rolled around like puppies. We slapped each other on the back. We howled and hollered. It was a little hokey, but we felt this incredible elation. Like we had just pulled off the crime of the century."
Lowe glances up Bridalveil once more and says, "There's probably not much about it today that is anything like that time we climbed it." He takes his crampons from his pack and then his ice ax. The ax has a curved and barbed point. Out comes a North Wall ice hammer; it has a similar curved sawtooth pick, but it also has a blunt end to be used for pounding in ice screws if he decides to belay on his way up. He coils a 150-foot length of Perlon rope at his waist, along with a cluster of ice screws, the pitons of "hard-water" climbers.
Lowe points out the route he will probably take: "Up the Apron about 60 feet, and that angle is, oh, maybe 75 degrees. Those lumps of ice above there are called cauliflowers or mushrooms, and there's an overhang—it could be tough. Then there might be some rotten ice—I don't like the color of it, but if it's O.K. it shouldn't be difficult. Then up there at 300 feet is another overhang. I don't know about that. If I get past all that, the last 100 feet look like they'll be like climbing a stairway—no strain." Most of the climb is going to be at about 90 degrees, pure vertical. Jeff Lowe finds this factor barely interesting: the condition of the ice surface is far more critical than its angle.
"The ice is wet, and that's good. It doesn't have that deep glassy blue that comes when it's really cold and brittle; ice' like that tends to shatter when you kick in a crampon or plant an ax. This is good because everything penetrates and bites like the ice is cork. The crampons will penetrate a good half inch—maybe more."