What’s a small Colorado town to do when summer fun draws to a halt as the temperatures drop? At Ouray Ice Park, you make ice. Jen Murphy finds that if you build it, the climbers will come
Winter can be approached with a glass-half-empty or glass-half-full attitude. You can either hibernate indoors and binge-watch Netflix, or you can figure out how your favorite summer sport translates to cold-weather fun. If you’re a hardcore climber, you’ll happily get your fix crawling up a sun-kissed rock face with bare hands or using crampons and an ice pick to spider up a frozen waterfall.
In the 1970s, ice climbing was almost exclusively a sport of the hardcore, and Colorado’s San Juan Mountains were a playground for daredevil ice pioneers. The town of Ouray started to attract curious climbers when whispers swirled of an old hydroelectric pipeline that leaked 80-foot icicles in the Uncompahgre River Gorge.
After the mining industry went bust in the 1980s, Ouray relied on summer tourist draws, like jeeping, to keep its economy afloat. But in the winter, Ouray turned into a ghost town. Bill Whitt and Gary Wild, both avid climbers and owners of the Victoria Inn, saw the gorge’s potential to drum up winter business. The two men hatched a crazy idea to run hoses down the gorge and started “farming” ice to create a man-made ice-climbing park. Today, what many had written off as a harebrained scheme is credited with not just reviving Ouray, but putting the town on the global climbing map.
“Before the ice park the town was almost non-existent,” recalls Matt Wade, president of Peak Mountain Guides, an Ouray-based outfitter that runs climbing courses in the park. “Now, it’s the driver of our winter economy. Businesses that used to close for the winter stay open and flourish, and residents are able to stay in the area year-round.” This year alone, Ouray saw the opening of a buzzy new farm-to-table restaurant, Brickhouse 737, a new taco spot from Two Rascals Brewing and a new distillery. For a town with a population just over 1,000 to get three city-worthy spots in a year says a lot about the types of people now passing through.
One chilly weekend, I experience the winter renaissance for myself. By 7 a.m. there’s already a quiet buzz along Main Street and a line at Roast & Toast, a year-old café that serves strong coffee and hearty dishes like the bacon-and-ham-stuffed Box Canyon Burrito. It’s not unusual for the Ouray Ice Park to draw 400 visitors on a busy weekend, but this morning I find a half-dozen climbers ranging in age from 16 to 76.
I’m both terrified and mesmerized as I stare up at the glowing blue wall of ice. At first glance, ice climbing seems like an extreme sport far beyond my abilities. I’m daunted by the sharp gear, foreign climbing lingo and perilous heights. But the accessibility of the ice park, which is both free to the public and within walking distance from town, combined with local outfitters like Chicks Climbing & Skiing, have made the sport attainable for people of all ages and fitness levels. And with nearly 200 different climbing routes and 17,000 vertical feet of terrain along the mile-long gorge, both newbies, like myself, and professional climbers can find a challenge in the park.
“The park exposed ice climbing to a whole new audience,” Wade tells me. “People with zero outdoor experience are captivated by the uniqueness of the sport.” An estimated 13,000 people come to the ice park each year, many during the annual Ice Festival. The three-day event was founded in 1996 to help cover the park’s operating costs. Today, the festival’s climbing competitions attract world-class athletes, and its 100-plus educational clinics accommodate every skill level.
Unlike some sports, ice climbing isn’t something you can just figure out. “It requires the knowledge of specific skills and techniques,” says Angela Hawse, one of the five female owners of Chicks. In the ’80s and ’90s, Kim Reynolds, one of the sport’s pioneering women, noticed how few ladies were on the ice. “It was rare to see a woman leading a climb. If you saw a woman, she was usually belaying her boyfriend,” recalls Hawse. In 1999, Reynolds founded Chicks with the hope of empowering more women to pick up a pick.
“Being able to do a pullup isn’t a requirement for climbing,” says Dawn Glanc, a Chicks co-owner who has placed first in the women’s division of the Ice Festival. “That’s the biggest misconception, especially among women. This isn’t an upper-body sport. It’s more about body awareness, balance and power.”
Hawse assures me that if I can swing a hammer overhead and walk up steps, then I’m fit enough to climb. The first hour of instruction takes place on the ground, where I learn to use the equipment. The harness and helmet are similar to what I’ve worn rock climbing. The crampons, however, take some getting used to. They look as if someone glued daggers to the bottom of a pair of Yaktrax. “There’s an art to walking safely in crampons,” says Wade. “You want your feet wider apart to keep the spiky points away from your ankles and pants.” Next, I learn how to swing my ice pick. “People try to put a lot of muscle behind the swing, but it’s really about finesse,” says Wade. The trick is to penetrate the ice without shattering it. “Aim for depressions in the ice,” he instructs. “Convex areas tend to break.”
After a bit more talk of ropes and safety, I’m ready to tackle the ribbons of ice that pour down from above. It takes a few minutes, but I find my rhythm. I swing the pick high, position my body, kick my crampon, repeat. In rock climbing, every move is dictated by the holds that are available. But ice, I discover, is like an open canvas with no limitations. I just execute the same movements over and over. Instead of fear, the repetition puts me in a meditative state.
When I return to the ground I feel like a total badass. The only way to celebrate my accomplishment is like the locals: with a beer at Ouray Brewery followed by a soak in the town’s steamy hot springs.