Can isolated mountain towns really revive their economies by taking a gamble on dirtbag ice climbers?
It’s a Friday afternoon in late February. Fat, blue water ice—from which I’m hanging on a pair of ice screws—is bathed in warm, late-day sunshine. Tomorrow should arguably be the busiest day of ice climbing for the entire year, when sleepy Lake City—a tiny, remote community tucked away in a far corner of Colorado’s San Juan mountains—hosts its annual ice climbing festival. And yet, incredibly, my climbing partner, Dave, and I are the only people on the ice.
We’re at the Lake City Ice Park, what might rightly be considered the (much) lesser-known, baby brother of Ouray’s world-famous setup. A thick, black rubber hose runs downhill from a municipal water tank to the top of the climbs. From there, smaller black hoses end—literally—in showerhead nozzles hand-placed to spray water over the lip and “farm” the ice.
As Dave and I stand atop the cliff, coiling our ropes, a sole climber arrives along the Henson Creek road below, walks across the frozen creek, and free solos straight up the steepest, tallest section of ice, knocking off rotten chunks here and there and placing (and leaving behind) a series of ice screws. Topping out, we find out that he’s Craig Blakemore, head of Lake City Ice Climbs, the non-profit that manages the park, and the organizer of tomorrow’s festival.
“This place is a volcanic shithole,” he says through a bushy goatee and easy smile, referring to the area’s poor rock quality. “But it has some great ice climbing.” Strictly speaking, that shithole is the Lake City Caldera, one of the youngest volcanic formations throughout the San Juans. The result is deeply in-cut river canyons that follow the fault lines of the collapsed caldera, and steep mountains, comprised mostly of crumbly, chossy, kitty litter, that erode into fantastic rock formations … and between those formations, ice climbs. (The exception is God’s Crag, home of steep-to-overhanging bolted routes, including Jedi Mind Tricks, an M13 put up by Jared Ogden and Ryan Nelson.)
It’s the ice climbs that locals hope might re-ignite a stagnant winter economy, much like in Ouray. In the mid-1990s, Ouray was a virtual ghost town during winter. Just two restaurants stayed open. Then, locals, climbers and town officials had the brilliant idea to build an ice park—free to anyone—and invite the ice climbers to come have at it. Those climbers would stay in local hotels, eat at local restaurants and otherwise spend their money in town. Which is exactly what happened. Ouray’s Cinderella story is, by now, familiar to most in the climbing community.
Lake City hopes to write a similar chapter in its own story. Can a small, secluded San Juan community, surrounded by mountains, and brimming with edge-of-town and backcountry ice climbing potential, transform itself into a premier ice climbing destination, and in the process, revive its winter economy? In essence, if they freeze it, will the climbers come? Lightning struck once. Why not twice?
During summer, Lake City is relatively bustling. Alpine wildflowers. Fly fishing. Fourteeners. Four-wheel-drive routes over to Silverton. Texans. (At one point during the mid-19th century, a narrow sliver of the Texas Territory extended up into this area, which locals point to when explaining Lake City’s seemingly inexplicable popularity with Texans.)
Winter is quite another story. Half of Lake City sits empty, and those residents who remain brace themselves against a long, dark, cold several months. Only a small handful of local ice climbers have known of the area’s potential. Long, alpine, avalanche-exposed backcountry climbs such as Sherman and Senior Presidente up the Cottonwood Creek drainage (and many more up the Henson Creek drainage) have tempted them for years.
The ice park, which sits on the southwest corner of town, is a much more recent development. About a decade ago, Mike Camp, a local climber and volunteer EMT, discretely approached Lake City town manager Michelle Pierce about “pulling some water” from the municipal water tank in order to farm ice on a north-northwest-facing cliff just below. With unofficial permission granted, he did, but while on vacation in Georgia, got a call from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), who “wanted to know about all this ice on their land,” and who were threatening to charge Camp $12,000 to melt it all off. He rushed back to Colorado, and after a sit-down meeting with all the right people, the situation pulled an abrupt 180 and the BLM gave its stamp of approval.
Blakemore eventually took the reigns, and in 2006, the festival officially launched … with just 6 attendees, some music and free beer. This year, some 40-plus climbers are on-hand, as are Petzl and a few other sponsors. The Hinsdale County ambulance, pimped out with a lift kit—sits nearby. There’s a lead comp, and a top-roped speed-climbing competition. Given that Blakemore and Camp are pretty much the only local climbers, most everyone else is from out of town … Gunnison; Crested Butte; Parker; Fraser; Boulder; Los Alamos, New Mexico.
The atmosphere is laid back and chill, even by climbers’ standards. On festival day, there’s plenty of space to hop on the ice and climb—something unimaginable with the throngs that descend upon Ouray for its festival. Five climbers enter the lead comp.
One climber, going leashless, drops a tool, but continues trying to climb, eliciting great hoots and hollers from the crowd below, before finally taking a whipper. Eleven climbers enter the top-rope contest. Throughout the day, groups of two or three climbers break off and head up routes to either side of the comps. The rest lounge in camp chairs at the base of the cliff, or huddle in groups around a roaring fire.
It’s this laid back, casual climbing atmosphere that sets Lake City apart from a place such as Ouray, and which is perhaps its main appeal. Here you’ll find uncrowded blue ice in a town that actually welcomes climbers (and which will probably know you and your buddies by name by the time you leave).
Lake City has more churches (four) than bars (two) than stoplights (zero). Over the course of the festival weekend, I keep bumping into the same people … at the ice park, at the two bars, at the Mocha Moose coffee shop, at the general store. When heading out to the pub, the rule of thumb is simple: go to the bar with cars parked out front. One night, that bar is Packer Saloon & Cannibal Grill, named for Alfred Packer, Lake City’s infamous mid-19th century cannibal. The next night, it’s The Depot, where the festival after-party rages late into the evening.
The following morning, while most of the ice climbers are shaking off hangovers (ok, so are we, for that matter), Dave and I squeeze in a half-day more of climbing at the park before making the long drive back to the Front Range. In our short time in Lake City, we’ve become enamored with the place and its ice. We’ll be back, and likely so will other ice climbers. The Town of Lake City is betting on it. •
Peter Bronski (peterbronski.com) is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in more than 70 magazines, including Rock & Ice, Gripped, Denver Magazine, 5280, Men’s Journal, and Trail Runner.
The Lake City Ice Festival
When: Late Feb (specific dates TBA)
Where: Lake City, CO
Cost: Free (just sign a waiver)
Lodging: The Matterhorn Motel, matterhornmotel.com, $89-$150
Food: Packer Saloon and Cannibal Grill, 310 N Silver Street, 970-944-4144
OTHER ROCKY MOUNTAIN ICE FESTIVALS
Bozeman Ice Climbing Festival
Ouray Ice Festival
Jan. 6-9, 2011
Catskill Ice Festival
New Paltz, NY
Jan. 21-24, 2011
Smuggs Ice Bash
Jan. 28-30, 2011
Michigan Ice Fest
Feb 4-6, 2011
Mount Washington Valley Ice Festival
North Conway, NH
Feb. 4-6, 2011
Need the Swag?
We have all the ice climbing goodies you can handle online—including set ups for beginners and cold-blooded vets. Head to elevationoutdoors.com/ice_gear