It became the refrain of the day, the steady beat to which a group of middle-schoolers accomplished things that hours, maybe just minutes, before had seemed, well, not impossible but certainly unlikely.
“Trust it!” Matt Tredway hollered again and again, his voice cutting through the still and chilled air and bouncing off the ice and around the small canyon.
And the students, sixth- and seventh-graders from Steamboat Springs Middle School, did. Ax swing by ax swing and step by step, they trusted their way up the steep ice tower. The Pumphouse is a frozen waterfall dangling off the side of a mountain so near Vail that Interstate 70 is visible and one could swap crampons for Volkls and be riding up a chairlift in less than 10 minutes.
To the students, it was a whole different world.
They stood at the base and watched, heads tilted permanently upward, as their teachers and chaperones scampered up and down the ice, fixing lines and showing how it’s done.
One young climber-to-be turned to the group, their eyes still fixed skyward, and said what all were thinking.
“This is a whole lot better than a day in school.”
Step by step
The Pumphouse waterfall stands 600 feet above the highway and the groomed trails of the Vail Nordic Center (the Vail Golf Club by summer). It beams from its perch overlooking the valley like a blue jewel, tucked safe from the sun in a fold in the mountainous ridge.
A classic Vail climb, it takes an exhausting 20- to 30-minute hike to reach the base of the 80-foot icefalls. In the grand scheme of ice climbing, it’s hardly a difficult challenge, rating a WI3 or WI4 on the water-ice grading system. But it’s more difficult than climbs that can be found at Fish Creek Falls near Steamboat Springs.
For middle-schoolers Brody King, Koby Bishop, Mitch McCannon, Sam Rossman, Hunter Mihaich, Joe DeLine, Jake Andersen and Robby Brown, standing Wednesday at the base, the Pumphouse seemed a mile high.
From the moment ax was put to ice, the lessons started.
Don’t walk under a frozen waterfall filled with climbers unless you’re ready to be bombarded by ice rocks.
Always be prepared for a previously unseen wave of snow to come crashing down.
Walk duck-footed to avoid cutting holes in your skiing pants.
When the first children took to the ice, they swung their axes inaccurately and they failed to get firm plants with the claws on the toes of their crampons. They climbed well and eventually high, but two hours later, the same children scampered up the tamer bottom section. They traversed horizontally across the ice face to find easier routes.
They made it up all 80 feet to the top and ended rampant speculation among the children as to what was up there: a moose or a convenience store.
“There’s not much up there,” Brody said. “Some bushes and trees.”
Rocks and snowy trees weren’t the only things at the top of the Pumphouse, however. A healthy dose of accomplishment waited there, as well.
“When you finally get that high up, you feel so proud of yourself,” Joe said.
Tredway was introduced to ice climbing by an outdoors enthusiast as he grew up in Durango. That early interest sparked a love for adventure that has been with Tredway his whole life.
Now, he’s one of Steamboat’s most active outdoors activists. He founded Everything Outdoor Steamboat in 1987, the organization that gets Steamboat middle-schoolers out of the classroom and into the wild and that was behind Wednesday’s adventure.
“No matter what they say afterward, when they’re standing here at the bottom in the morning, they are thinking, ‘No way,’” Tredway said. “I get a thrill out of seeing those guys do something like that.
“You can just feel them soar, their confidence, and you can see a surge. You can see how that’s going to transfer to the rest of their lives.”
The students climbed for nearly three hours, working their way up and down the ice and playing in the snow between turns. Leaving was fun, too. They plopped onto their butts and rocketed away, sliding nearly two-thirds of the way back down to the Nordic trails and the parking lot. When they emerged back into the sunlight, they were exhausted, they were thrilled, and they were proud.
“You know how many other middle school students in the country get to do this stuff?” Tredway asked at one point in the afternoon.
“We know most kids don’t have teachers that would take them for this,” seventh-grader Mitch McCannon said. “It was a lot of fun.”