Ice Climbing Festival Kicks Off in Ouray

Global warming be damned, they’re making ice in Ouray…and they’re going to climb it.
Ice climbing is one of the fun things to do in the San Juan Mountains when it gets cold, with classic routes like Bridal Veil Falls and the Ames Ice Hose, as well as the world-renowned Ouray Ice Park. This year, though, operators at the Ouray Ice Park were sweating (literally) when a bout of warm weather threatened to put off the 2011 Ice Festival. “This year has been tough on us,” says Erin Eddy, the executive director of the organization that runs the Ice Park. “In the last week of November we were close to opening the park early. Then we had 21 days of 40- and 50-degree temperatures and 6 solid 12-plus hour periods of heavy rain. Seventy-five percent of the ice in the park fell apart.”
The New Year, however, ushered in colder weather and according to Eddy, park workers and volunteers “made great strides in ice formation.” They were able to freeze enough water in the gorge to accommodate the 16th Annual Ouray Ice Festival, which kicked off yesterday and runs through the weekend.
The Ice Park is a unique amenity, a mile-long gorge filled with manmade ice climbing routes of all levels, 168-plus routes in a normal season. Climbers can access the climbs with just a short walk from the car (instead of a dangerous hike into avalanche terrain) and it’s easy to set up a top rope; it’s one of the safest environments imaginable for ice climbing.
That doesn’t mean the climbing is easy—the competition at the Festival attracts some of the world’s best ice climbers. One year I remember watching the winner use not one, but two “figure four” maneuvers to top out. A figure four is used when the ice or rock is too steep to hold the toe spikes of your crampons; the climber hurls one leg over his own arm, which is holding an ice axe on the face, then uses his own arm as a foothold so he/she can move his other ice axe up higher. The climber’s body is contorted into something resembling a figure four, and it is one of the most athletic feats I’ve ever witnessed. Sheer desire and brute strength in action.
If you want to check out this level of athleticism or try ice climbing yourself, this is the weekend to do it. Climbing companies let you demo gear for free at the Festival, and there are lots of instructors and easy routes on site to get you started.