A small handful of members from Team Petzl, led by a certain Ueli Steck in "well-earned vacation" mode, was in Colorado for the Ouray Ice Festival. Not far away there were at least two good reasons to face off with the most famous octopod of the Rocky Mountains. Number one was to pay a friendly visit to the first ascensionist, who lives in Boulder, and number two was to climb the legendary route...

Guillaume Vallot reports --

Octopussy © Guillaume Vallot
Mathieu Maynadier takes his turn flashing Octopussy

 

Jeff Lowe pushes the boundaries of mixed climbing with "Octopussy"

April 1994, a series of photos renders the vertical world speechless. The shock came in the form of a Gore-Tex clad climber equipped with Charlet Moser crampons and ice axes as he took on a formidable roof. To reach a small section of ice hanging out above the void, Jeff Lowe used rock climbing technique. The boundaries of mixed climbing were all at once pushed so far out to a point that a new game was created where ice slowly but surely lost its leading role. Far ahead of his time, Jeff Lowe was the complete climber. Even though climbing the south face of Ama Dablam in alpine style and his route Metanoïa up the Eiger's North Face radically changed the standards in their respective domains, Octopussy – the first M8 in history – caused a small earthquake in the climbing community. Rare has photography inspired so many dreams, vocations, or opened so many new doors: the merger between the worlds of rock and ice climbing.
 

 

Ueli Steck sends "Octopussy" twenty years later

Octopussy © Guillaume Vallot
Ueli Steck a the start of Octopussy, behind the Fang (bang!)

Twenty years later, almost to the day, on the road to the Ouray Ice Festival, Ueli Steck stopped to see Jeff Lowe, who has unfortunately suffered from Parkinson's disease for the last ten years. Next, he made a half-day stopover at the limestone cliffs of the Amphitheater in Vail, a true laboratory for mixed climbing for the last thirty years and where the objective of the trip, Octopussy, is located.

 

Descending from his onsight, Ueli talks about the route:

When the photos from Octopussy came out, I was 18 years old. I could picture them clearly in my head. For me, at the time, the route was "unattainable," I never thought that one day I would be able to climb something like that. I was already in to mountaineering and had climbed the Eiger, but I had just started ice climbing and in plastic boots. It is the kind of route that inspires. Even though it was impossible for me at that particular moment, it pushed me and motivated me to train hard. Octopussy is one of those legendary routes that I promised myself I would climb at some point in my life. While not that hard, it's part of history. I like that. When I saw the Amphitheater for the first time I was surprised, as route development has continued.

Octopussy © Guillaume Vallot
The Amphitheater in Vail from the right side with the Fang and Erwan Le Lann in the middle

All routes are bolted (except for those that were established without bolts), and there are routes up to M13. Octopussy is a beautiful route. The start is burly, up overhanging rock protected by three bolts, with somewhat difficult hooking. Thin ice covers the next twenty meters, a pitch first climbed in 1993 called The Seventh Tentacle and originally rated WI6+. The anchor has two bolts. Then an easy traverse leads to a faint dihedral in the roof. You clip two equalized pitons here and can also add protection if needed. 

Octopussy © Guillaume Vallot
Ueli Steck sending Octopussy onsight

Octopussy © Guillaume Vallot
Ueli Steck sending Octopussy onsight

From here, there are three stout moves above the void before getting your feet back on to the ice. This is where it gets a bit dicey. Onsight, I had to decide which way to go. First, I thought that I could go around left, but in the end I went around right, just like on the first ascent. The mantle is hard since the ice is thin and the tentacles extremely short. That's pretty much it. Even if the crux is short the entire route is varied and includes one truly magnificent pitch. I did not want to miss the onsight, so I held on to my ice tools a little harder than needed. Jeff had such a strong head game. He did so many amazing things. I think that he was way ahead of his time. He never thought about the business side of the mountains, he was only interested in climbing; a truly passionate mountaineer. When you see him you think to yourself, I need to enjoy things as much as possible now, that it's all a blessing, and that the situation can change quickly. You can still feel his passion. His is a wonderful lesson in courage that inspires great respect.
 

Octopussy © Guillaume Vallot
Erwan Le Lann climbing the well-formed Fang in the background, Mathieu Maynadier at the top of 7th Tentacle right before starting the Octopussy traverse.

Octopussy © Guillaume Vallot
Jennifer Olson on one of recent mixed routes in Vail's Amphitheater and Mathieu Maynadier climbing the Fang to warm down after Octopussy.

 

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