Ouray Ice Climbing Festival

In the old days, ice climbing meant trespassing on mining company land to scale frozen waterfalls. Now ice climbers have a free ice park and their very own festival in the southwest Colorado town of Ouray.

(This story originally appeared in the January/February 2015 issue of Colorado Life Magazine)



ADVENTURERS PACKED OURAY'S Beaumont Hotel patio on a chilly January evening. Bundled in a rainbow of bubbly down coats and keeping warm by the fire pits, ice climbers sipped Ouray Brewery’s Pick Axe Pilsner and exchanged stories of how they planned to scale the massive walls of ice at the Ouray Ice Festival.

Now in its 20th year, the festival is a respected Ouray institution, but it all started with the outlaw exploits of a few rogue ice pioneers.

Climbers had been coming to the mighty San Juan Mountains to test their skills for decades. In 1974 Jeff Lowe and Mike Weiss used ice axes to scale all 365 vertical feet of Telluride’s frozen Bridal Veil Falls. The feat delighted viewers of ABC’s Wide World of Sports, which broadcast the climb, but it seriously vexed the Idarado Mining Co., which owned the land and didn’t condone such death-defying stunts.

Lowe and his friends had to sneak past Idarado guards to access subsequent southwest Colorado climbs – that is until a fortunate discovery was made only minutes away from Ouray.

Climbers found a leaky, old penstock winding through the Uncompahgre River Gorge upstream of the Camp Bird Road Bridge. This pipe, which carried river water to a century-old hydroelectric plant, created a succession of icicles, some as high as 100 feet, that were perfect for picks and crampons. For a time, the power company also prohibited climbing on its property. It took the power company’s bankruptcy, a generous new owner at the hydroelectric plant and an extraordinary amount of political maneuvering, but eventually ice lovers no longer had to dodge security guards or limbo under “no trespassing” signs to find routes. This segment of the gorge became the Ouray Ice Park, a venue open to the public at no charge.

Lowe founded the Ouray Ice Festival in 1996 to help cover operating costs and to spread the word about the park’s unique opportunity to frolic freely on pristine ice ribbons. Approximately 200 climbs – a combined three miles of vertical terrain – await festival-goers today. The event is a feast for the senses, as climbers of all skill levels fill the gorge with a cacophony of languages and the sound of ice chipping from the strikes of hundreds of axes. Beginners learn the basics of how to position themselves and use their tools on the Kids Wall. Intermediate climbers battle the increasingly steep walls of Grad School while belayed by experienced teachers and experts.

An exclusive group of professionals are invited to tackle the Elite Mixed Climbing Competition. The object of this course of natural and man-made obstacles on a formation called Mighty Aphrodite is to snag the ultimate prize – a piñata at the top. During the 2014 competition only three climbers were able to spear the coveted papier-mâché bull with their axes. This gravity-defying achievement was possible by conquering ice, rock and a slippery platform perched above the gorge where the only available holds were dangling logs painted like gold nuggets. It takes just one wrong move to fall, and that happened to 21 climbers during last year’s competition. Entrants who lost their grip ended up swinging through the air, suspended by their safety lines, with heads hanging in defeat.

The Hari Berger Speed Climbing Competition, where time efficiency is valued over finesse, tests the professional climbers the following day as spectators shout words of encouragement from the canyon-rim grandstands.

This year’s kickoff party for the 20th Ouray Ice Festival, to be held at the Wright Opera House, promises to attract climbers from around the world once more. From Jan. 8 to 11, local guides teach interactive clinics using demonstration gear from more than 30 vendors. At nightly social events, top ice climbers regale audiences with slideshow talks about their exploits. This year features a speech by Will Gadd, who completed a personal challenge he called the “endless ascent.” This accomplishment, which took place during the 2010 festival, consisted of lapping the Pic o’ the Vic ice formation without stopping for 24 hours.

Both the park and the festival wouldn’t be possible without dedicated men and women known as “ice farmers.” They must go to work when the warm, orange rays of sunset fade into cold twilight blue and the mercury drops below freezing on the thermometer. Using an irrigation system of more than 7,500 feet of pipe, 200 spray nozzles and 150,000 gallons of pressurized water from the city of Ouray’s municipal tank on a typical winter’s night, the farmers harvest a crop of icy pillars clinging to canyon walls.

Farmers have to make sure water keeps flowing through the pipes all night long until the nozzles are shut off shortly before sunrise. According to Kevin Koprek, the park’s operations manager, “there is no manual to become an ice farmer.” The occupation is more akin to a form of art that uses variations of droplet size and air-to-water ratio to sculpt the frosty formations that people enjoy during the festival, as well as the rest of the park’s season spanning from December through March.

The park’s proximity to Ouray lets visitors experience window shopping through a lively Victorian downtown, sample delicious restaurants or comfortably soak in the one of the city’s hot springs after a challenging day of ice hugging. With so many activities available during the 2015 festival, thousands of adventurers are again expected to accept the Ouray Ice Park’s challenge: “Get your axe in gear.”

(This story originally appeared in the January/February 2015 issue of Colorado Life Magazine)


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