Once upon a time, in a bar in southwest Colorado:
“Hey, have you ever been to that canyon up above Ouray on the Uncompahgre River? That place is beautiful!”
“Yeah, yeah, but don’t you think it could do with a little more…ice?”
“Yeah, you know, it’s not quite Hoth-like enough for my tastes. I can’t really imagine executing a perfect Tauntaun bivy there if I’m just surrounded by these beautiful bare rock walls.”
“Um, well, the reservoir is up above there, so I guess you could just draw off a bit of water from the town water supply, run a couple of PVC pipes along the edge and just spray down the walls…you weirdo.”
Thus began the illustrious history of the Ouray Ice Park, an incredible area just south of Ouray, Colorado (that’s pronounced YOUR-ray, if you’re a newb like us). Every winter, it’s home to the Ouray Ice Festival, where novices and pros alike come to demo the latest gear, take clinics and check out some true pros racing up the walls of the canyon. We headed out there with a couple of friends, Caryn and Jess, to see what all the fuss is about.
We took off on a Friday from Boulder around noon and spent the entire day cruising on I-70. The weather was blessedly clear and cooperative, so we made good time while alternating between “Things You Missed in History Class” and “TrainingBeta” podcasts. We even stopped in Avon, CO (Teresa’s former snowboard-instructing home) for a bite at Bender’s Burgers, a must-try if you’re in the area. We cruised into Ouray after dark, so we couldn’t really see what was all around us, but we had the distinct impression that we were surrounded my mountains. Like, completely, totally encircled. After dinner at Ouray Brewery and a stop at the local market for lunch supplies, we collapsed back in our room at the Matterhorn Motel for a good night’s rest.
The next morning, we got an early start because we’d heard that demo gear at the festival goes quickly and nothing would be worse than ice climbing sans ice axes and crampons. The festival didn’t officially start until 8, but by the time we arrived at 7:45 there were already long lines for gear and a couple of tents that had opened early were handing out the last of their ice tools. Luckily, Petzl got a late start/stuck to schedule, and we scored crampons and ice tools from them. In fact, we learned later that we double-lucked-out, as Peztl’s Nomic is widely considered to be the industry standard for top-of-the-line ice tools.
After assembling all the gear for the day, we hea…wait, did I mention that all of this is unfolding surrounded by incredible mountain majesty? Because it was:
Ok, anyway. We met up with our guide, Shingo (awesome), and hiked down into the South Park area of the canyon with six other novices out for our first ever ice-climbing adventure. The way down might have been the most treacherous part of the day, but when we got to the bottom we were greeted by a view that would make the most ardent Hothian (?) swoon. After a few basic instructions about body position (in a triangle below your highest tool, keeping that arm straight), movement (swing-kick-kick is ideal), and heckle-able offenses (using the “X” body position and moving both tools before resetting your feet are both fair game), we headed up the ice…and it was incredible.
There are certain times when you’re playing sports when you just know you did it right: swishing a shot, hitting a ball in the sweet spot of the bat/club, stomping a landing snowbording or skiing. There’s instant feedback from the feel, the sound, that you just did it perfectly, and it feels effortless. Well, getting a single-swing “stick” with an ice axe is just like that. With one swing of the axe, you’ve lodged it firmly enough in the ice that you know that it can support your entire body weight, and you’re rewarded with a satisfying “thunk” and a solid feel in your hand. And if you screw it up? You get to try again seconds later.
This striving for the perfect swing, as well as learning to trust your tools and foot placements, was something totally new yet incredibly fun. Unlike rock climbing, where there are a variety of hand- and foot-hold sizes, shapes and orientations, you really have one hand-hold (your ice axe) and one foothold (your crampon). Especially with feet, Shingo imparted a key bit of wisdom to us: if you have a good axe placement, you get as many kicks as you want to get your crampons locked in nicely, so if your feet are slipping off on a climb, it’s your own damn fault. The ability to create handholds and footholds virtually anywhere means that ice climbing can become repetitive if you’re doing it right (swing-kick-kick) but it also means that there’s a nice rhythm to it (swing-kick-kick).
Sure, there are some hazards – we heard frequent shouts of “ICE!” up and down the canyon as climbers alerted those below to falling chunks they’d dislodged with their axes or crampons (helmets are a definite must), as well as one or two shouts of “TOOL!” as fellow n00bs lost grip on their axes and dropped them – but they were all manageable in this environment. Teresa and I each got in four climbs on the day, ascending a variety of low-angle routes with some short steep sections. By late afternoon it was time to go, and we hiked back out tired and happy.
We returned our gear, bid farewell to Shingo, who was awesome (awesome!), and headed back to town. After a change of clothes and regrouping with Jess and Caryn, we headed to dinner at Buen Tiempo, where we chilled out with margaritas by the pitcher (great), infinite chips and salsa (awesome) and enchiladas (perfect post-climbing food). Teresa and I skipped out on the lecture/slideshow/live auction being held at the Ouray opera house and instead opted for what turned into two hours of charades with one of Teresa’s friends from high school (and his 10-12 other friends). After disptching such clues as John Madden, sexy pants and “screaming barfies” (what happens after an ice climb when the blood rushes back into your hands as you lower them below your head), we headed back to the hotel and crashed hard. Pretty sure we didn’t make it to 10pm.
We got back after it the next morning bright and early – after a full “novice ice” lesson on Saturday we tackled the “intermediate ice” clinic with Doug Sheppard. Again, descending into the canyon was the most dangerous part of the day, but again, we found incredible surroundings waiting for us at the bottom, this time in the School Yard area of the park. After a brief warm-up lesson we were climbing again, this time on ice with much longer stretches of vertical ice. This provided fewer places to relax and put an emphasis on moving efficiently but proved to be even more fun. There was even a route which ascended between two columns of ice which required more varied body positions – “we’ve got a rock climber here!” Doug said as Teresa stuck a leg out especially wide to move up between the pillars. Throughout the morning, big snowflakes fell lazily but the weather was comfortable, providing a picturesque end to our climbing for the trip.
We dropped our gear in the park for the last time, watched some speed climbers compete (including a pair racing up in just their boxers) and lingered long enough to even score some free gear – Teresa came away with a sweet Patagonia shell they had been demoing that weekend. With the snow still falling, we loaded up the car and hit the road. It was an absolutely fantastic weekend and there’s no doubt in my mind we’ll be back next year (…or this summer: I hear the rock is just as good as the ice).