Let There Be Ice! Visiting Ouray’s Famous Ice Park

I officially nominate the Ouray Ice Park as one of the wonders of the modern world. But it’s not the glistening, gorgeously crafted icefalls that cascade 80-100 feet down the shady walls of Box Canyon that justify such a lofty title, it’s the fact the entire experience is free and open to the public. In a country where people are eager to sue for buying food that makes them fat or for falling down a flight of stairs while robbing a house, Ouray’s Ice Park is a staggeringly fresh breath of freedom. Despite the fact ice climbing is inherently more dangerous than drinking a cup of hot coffee, it’s one of the few places in America where you get treated like a responsible adult – and add to that the park remains free of charge (thanks to the efforts of volunteers and community fund raisers).

Ouray Ice Festival climbers in Box Canyon.
Climbers play on the frozen waterfalls at the 2011 Ouray Ice Festival.

Last weekend, the 16th annual Ouray Ice Festival brought climbers, gear manufacturers and plenty of spectators to the humble town (2010 population: 813) to celebrate and showcase Box Canyon’s irresistible frozen waterfalls. Local guide companies such as the San Juan Mountain Guides led a bevy of clinics for climbers of all abilities and a series of competitions let elite ice enthusiasts show off their moxie. Founded in 1996 by renowned ice expert Jeff Lowe, the event is now run by the Ouray Ice Park Inc., a non-profit that maintains the park. Post-climbing fun included several slideshows, movies and a zombie themed party.

The science behind the icefalls is elementary: a water pipe crowns the canyon rim and has dozens of outlet faucets which volunteers use to craft the stunning pillars of ice that drape the canyon walls. The ephemeral frozen towers are both beautiful and functional. Routes span the length of the chilly canyon floor and offer both water ice and mixed terrain climbs. While the official posted rules require helmets and crampons in the park, mother nature dictates the necessary safety precautions. Climbers need to provide their own ropes and gear and there are anchors (both natural and man made) for setting up top ropes. All you have to do is gear up and get down there. The park doesn’t have hours of operation and no one is looking over your shoulder. Self-responsibility can be so enlightening!

Ouoray ice festival 2011
Tents of the gear sponsors above the lower sections of the Ouray Ice Park.

The vibe during the ice festival always seems more relaxed and friendly than rock climbing events. As one friend noted, “In ice climbing, everyone has to keep those hot bods under down-filled wraps and the cold weather keeps egos in check.” Perhaps. Or maybe the laid back scene has less to do with the sinewy all-stars of rock and more with the nature of ice climbing itself. No two trips up the ice are the same. Dynamic alterations happen every time a climber drives a pick or crampon into the ice crystals. It’s impossible to overpower ice routes, for they are forever changing. To excel on ice, a climber aims to perfect the method itself – and what’s more Zen than striving to master the journey rather than the destination?

If you’d like to visit the ice park, simply go there! The ice festival, held in early January every year, is the marquee event and one of the few times you may have to wait for a desired route. A normal day (even on weekends) offers all the solitude and climbing you could want. A membership to the ice park, which is really a donation, is a modest $40.00. Unlike the endless badgering of NPR or Public Television, it truly is a humble request that helps keep the operation running. It should be noted that an ice park membership will get you half-off admission at the natural hot springs in town, a worthy place to relax under the stars in 80°F – 105°F pools. Funny aside: at the festival, the hot springs gave climbers a reality check when a bundled up, teenaged lifeguard chastised a few guys (who had spent the previous few hours dangling a hundred feet off frozen waterfalls) for sitting on the “dangerous” poolside walls that sat maybe three inches above the water.

Ouray in the winter is a magical place and even if you aren’t a dedicated ice climber, it’s worth a visit to test your mettle in Box Canyon. For those (like myself) who escape from the Denver-Boulder-Colorado Springs metro corridor, it’s powerfully good stuff for the soul.

For guided instruction or if you’ve never climbed, contact the San Juan Mountain Guides – good blokes with ridiculously strong climbing credentials. And for more events and news, such as future women’s only climbing clinics and more, visit the Ouray Ice Park web site. Remember, it only takes one good day on the ice to “pick up” ice climbing.

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