Travel

Climbers find chills and thrills at a Colorado ice park

I held tight to a knotted rope as I slipped and slid over rock and ice, down the steep bank of the Uncompahgre River, to the frozen floor of the Ouray Ice Park.

It was the easiest way to the bottom of the gorge - the way beginners get down to the area known as "the schoolroom," my husband assured me.

At the bottom, I could hear the mostly frozen river rushing under the ice and see climbers in bright yellow, red and black jackets slowly chopping and kicking, smoothly pulling themselves up and down vertical ice and rock, like four-legged spiders crawling over frozen waterfalls.

Carolyn Parker, an accomplished guide - who later would belay expert climbers from all over the world down a much deeper, steeper part of the canyon for the Ouray Ice Festival competition - offered me two "lightweight" steel axes, "just to get a feel for ice climbing."

Then she chopped a tiny target hole in the 30-foot wall of ice in front of us.

When I flicked my right wrist forward as she instructed, the ax stuck in the wall somewhere near the target - about once in six tries. None of my left-handed swings hit their mark. Parker suggested I might want to forget the axes and try hugging the frozen waterfall in front of me and pushing my way up the wall of ice. Which I will definitely try. Next year.

For this year, I was happy that Ouray has made ice climbing a beautiful spectator sport. Dozens of routes are visible from the rim of the gorge and within an easy walk of the tiny town's hotels, shops and restaurants.

"The beauty is, the ice park is a stone's throw from all the comforts of home, so anybody can climb" - or at least watch, says Erin Eddy, the park's executive director.

Carefully walk out over either bridge spanning the ice park this time of year, and you're in a surrealistic world of sparkling crystal chandeliers, sheer walls of ice, dense blue columns and ruffles of foamy white that look like overflows from a giant can of shaving cream.

Elite rock and ice climbers from all over the world compete during the festival in mid-January. But the mile-long park is open, free, every day from December through the end of March to anyone who wants to strap on a helmet and crampons and give ice climbing a try, or watch.

When four skiers piled out of a car at the high bridge where I was taking pictures one afternoon, I heard one ask, "Where are we? What is this?" then exclaim, "Oh, my gosh, there are people out there on that ice! Look, they are climbing up icicles!"

"This is Ouray. I told you, you had to see it," said the skier who had obviously talked her friends into stopping.

Tiny Ouray, in the San Juan mountains of southwest Colorado, has about 800 full-time residents. Nearly all of them are somehow involved in the ice festival, held every year in January.

Besides the climbing competition, the five-day festival offers more than 70 clinics on subjects ranging from "Introduction to Ice" to "Hard Mixed" (rock and ice) climbing, slide shows, a pancake breakfast and an open-air trade show.

You can try equipment for free, get 2 ½ hours of instruction from some of the best climbers in the world for $20, run in the snowshoe race, watch the death-defying professional slackline competition (on a tightrope that stretches across the canyon with safety lines to catch those who fall), enter the ax-throwing contest, introduce your children to ice at the Kids Climbing College or just watch.

When I got cold during competition one afternoon, I ducked inside an igloo built in two hours by two men who developed "the Icebox," a lightweight, portable tool to help pack snow into uniform blocks for building shelters. It was 42 degrees inside the igloo, 18 degrees outside in the falling snow.

About 2,000 visitors attend the festival each year; and 200 to 300 visit the park on any given winter weekend. This year there were competitors from Spain, Japan, England, Ukraine and all over Canada and the U.S.

Hundreds of people cheered when Evgeny "Jack" Kryvosheytsev, 37, of Ukraine finished in the finals - the only climber to complete the course.

It was not that way when a few residents of Ouray - best known for its hot mineral springs, including a million-gallon municipal pool, open year-round - first started "farming" ice 15 years ago.

"People used to say you could lie down in the middle of Main Street and take a nap in winter and not get run over," says Bill Whitt, who moved to Ouray primarily to climb and bought the Victorian Inn with a friend, Gary Wild, in 1991.

"In January of '91 we had two hotels in town, and if either rented out a room in the middle of the week, we were real excited about it," Whitt says. "We started offering continental breakfast because nobody was open for breakfast in the winter."

The area was already known as a natural paradise for rock and ice climbers, but there weren't very many of them.

"We thought it would be a good idea to attract more climbers and other winter visitors, and water was already leaking from an old reservoir just above the gorge," Whitt recalls.

That first year, he and Wild used shovels to redirect some of the leaks and create five new routes. The next year, they convinced the owner of the hydroelectric plant to let them weld spigots to his pipes and add hoses and sprinkler heads to create more ice flows.

"A lot of times the hoses would all freeze up, and we would have to disconnect them and throw them in the hot tubs down here at the hotel to unfreeze them," Whitt recalls. "That spawned a whole new idea: We decided to put in hard plastic pipes that we could cut off to keep the water from freezing up and make an ice park in the gorge. Now there are thousands of feet of hose and tons of hard plastic pipe and valves."

The first ice festival was in January 1996. Now, the park usually opens to climbers in mid-December.

"We know if we start climbing on it too soon, a lot of big, interesting features get knocked off or never grow to their potential, so we wait until the ice is ready. By sometime in January, it's about as big as it's going to get for the year because of all the climbers and then the gradual warming. We can barely keep up with the melting, but we usually have good ice into early April," says Whitt, chairman of the ice park's board of directors.

"A lot of ice was already here, but we started `farming' a lot more to make it thicker, safer, harder so it is more controlled," says Lora Slawitschka, assistant director of the festival. "Especially in dry years, we kinda help it along, but it's still natural ice."

You can also climb in the many canyons around Ouray, hike, cross-country ski, ice skate or soak in the hot mineral water, or stay in Ouray and get a lift ticket for $45 to ski in Telluride, an hour away.

Some shop owners still close for the winter, because summer is busy with four-wheeling, jeep touring, hiking, fishing, rock climbing, camping, fantastic scenery and cool, clean mountain air. But the locals agree that the ice park has turned Ouray's economy around.

"Before the ice park opened, the whole town emptied out in winter," Eddy said. "When the last leaves were falling, the last stores were closing and people were moving out. We figure the park adds $4 million to the economy each year."

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IF YOU GO:

Established as a mining town in the mid-1800s, Ouray, Colo., is on U.S. 550, known as "the Million Dollar Highway" near Red Mountain Pass, about 70 miles north of Durango and 37 miles south of Montrose, where the nearest airport is located.

GETTING THERE:

-If you drive, you might stay longer than planned: The passes sometimes close for several days because of avalanche risk. If you fly, you need a shuttle or rental car to get to Ouray from either the Durango or Montrose airport. Once you're in Ouray, everything is within walking distance.

-The ice park is usually open from mid-December through the first week of April, depending on the weather. Except for the routes where the competition and clinics are held, it is free to the public, even during the festival.

STAYING:

-There are plenty of year-round hotels, lodges, cabins and bed-and-breakfasts, most ranging from $55 to $90 a night (summer rates are higher). Some have private hot tubs fed by the mineral springs. Most offer discounts to anyone willing to purchase a $40 membership in the ice park. We stayed at Box Canyon Lodge, just around the corner from the road that leads up to the ice park and Box Canyon Falls. It's right across the street from the Victorian Inn, a popular place known affectionately as "the Vic."

EATING:

-Most bars and restaurants are open in winter, although they sometimes close early on slow nights. We especially liked the Outlaw Restaurant, a good steakhouse with beef, chicken and fish dishes and lively crowds; Buen Tiempo, with good Mexican food and great margaritas; the Artisan's Bakery, with great sandwiches and pastries; and La Papillon Bakery, with fresh-baked bread and wonderful lunch specials.

SHOPPING:

-There are enough art galleries, jewelry stores, mineral shops and leather shops with friendly owners and shopkeepers to keep the town interesting, including my favorites: Ouray Glassworks and Pottery Co.; and the Swiss Shop, with beautiful photographs, unusual puzzles, Christmas bulbs and other Swiss imports, appropriate for a town that calls itself, "the Switzerland of America."

GUIDE SERVICES:

-Try San Juan Mountain Guides at Ourayclimbing.com (970-325-4925) or Suntoucher Mountain Guides at suntoucher.com (505-400-5590).

MORE INFORMATION:

-ourayicepark.com (970-325-4288), ourayicefestival.com or ouraycolorado.com.

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