Climbing Ouray’s Mammoth Icicles

By Anne Martin

Combining weight-shifting technique and strength, the climbers ascend gracefully and quickly, occasionally resting on their holds or the ropes to shake blood flow back into their frozen hands. The canyon echoes with the sharp sounds of metal on metal and the loud clinks of metal on ice, while the soft sound of the nearly frozen Uncompahgre River can be heard in the background. Climbers’ commands resonate through the canyon, such as “belay off” or “climb on!” Occasionally a loud break and sharp warning shout of “ICE!”, followed by a crash silences the canyon before the tick of tools on frozen formations resumes. This frigid place is the Ouray Ice Park, the world’s only farmed ice park. The sport is ice climbing, which is an often-overlooked activity, either because of its inaccessibility or the perceived danger involved.

Ice climbing is breathtakingly beautiful, but temporary. Ice forms and changes with falling water or changing conditions. UOuray Icicles2_Winter2013nlike rock climbing, the route evolves over the years and even by month. New problems, such as billowing ice mushrooms, delicate icicles, and giant pillars, arise that beg to be resolved. It can be dangerous, but with proper gear to protect oneself from falling ice, in addition to awareness of conditions and technique training, the risk can be managed. Climbing ice is quite different than rock. With rock you can feel with your fingers the gaps and pits, but with ice, your hands are at the end of a steel tool that searches for holds. Your feet are more fixed with the crampon points and lose the ability to be fluid in finding steps. However, unlike rock, holds can be created with the tools.

Ice climbing is rooted in European mountaineering and is a relatively new addition to the world of climbing, as it started in the early 1900s. There are two basic types of ice climbing, alpine and water. Alpine ice climbing refers to the ascent of ice formed by precipitation that freezes on a mountain. Examples of alpine ice are the permanent icefalls and glaciers broken by deep crevasses on mountains such as Rainier, Everest, or K2, or the temporary snowfields or ice bands that form high in the Rocky Mountains. Climbers will often climb alpine ice after a long approach, and it is usually as a means to reach a summit.

Water ice climbing refers to the ascent of formations resulting from freezing waterfalls or other water flow. While the technical nature of alpine ice can far exceed that of water on certain routes or in some environments, generally water ice is sought out for its more technical nature. The flow of water freezing in layers forms caverns, overhangs, mushrooms, long icicles, and pillars, which all have different considerations for negotiating a climb. Mixed climbing refers to a combination of ice and rock. Each style has a separate ranking system and all are considered different categories of sport.

Ouray Ice Park is home to more than 200 water ice-climbing and mixed-climbing routes. Many of these routes are top-roped, which means they are climbed from a rope that is fixed to an anchor above. However, there are also several areas to challenge climbers skilled in lead technique, or placing ice screws and fixing the rope as they ascend. The park is located mere steps from the town of Ouray and provides some of the most accessible climbing in the country. Furthermore, the park is free to climbers, because it is maintained entirely by volunteer time and funds. Climbers are asked to become members of the ice park for a $40 annual fee. While not required, it is encouraged so the park can continue to operate and be supported.

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The park started much by accident, as two enthusiasts, Bill Whitt and Gary Wild, while exploring the canyon, discovered natural formations as well as walls created by leaks in the water supply to Ouray. Inspired by the leaky water supply, Whitt and Wild used personal funds and supplies to run common PVC pipe and many garden hoses up the canyon supplying water. They attached faucets and showerheads to spray out water and create formations. In 1997, Ouray Ice Park, Inc. donated volunteer time and supplies that provided a more sophisticated system. The current system gravity feeds overflow water from the City of Ouray’s water tank. While visitors have been coming to the park since the 1970s, it was the upgrade of the system and ice climbing gear that prompted hundreds of climbers to visit Ouray each year.

Local guiding companies, such as San Juan Mountain Guides, instruct novice and expert climbers on basic and advanced techniques. The schools are led by some of the most expert climbers and skilled mountaineers in the world. The gear required to ice climb is similar to basic mountaineering equipment, but with simple design modifications that allow it to be used on vertical ice and withstand the environment. Europeans climbing the Alps began experimenting with crampon design in the 1930s by positioning the front point to be more horizontal and the crampons themselves to be more rigid. This allowed climbers to kick into more vertical formations and rest their weight on the crampons without fear of popping out of the hold. However, it was with Yvon Chouinard’s changes to the ice axe in 1966 when ice climbing rapidly gained popularity. Traditional mountaineering axes measured approximately 150 to 160 centimeters with the pick having only a gentle curve. Chouinard shortened the axe to only 55 centimeters and dramatically increased the curve of the pick, which aided in the stability of the tool in holding the climber’s weight. Current axes have only changed slightly, with removable leashes for the climber’s wrist, slightly shorter shafts, and with revolutionary materials allowing for extremely lightweight gear.

Ropes used for ice climbing have a dry coating that helps the rope resist taking on water. A wet rope is heavier, becomes larger, and is more difficult to manage. Aside from the crampons, axe, and rope, other gear to navigate the Ouray Ice Park includes all the basic climbing standards: anchor-setting webbing and locking carabiners, a belay device, harness, non-locking carabiners, stiff-soled boots (usually plastic), and warm clothes, not to mention a helmet to protect oneself from falling ice, which is common.

As water freezes, air pockets form within the ice. Additionally, changes in temperature cause softer or harder ice. Debris from neighboring rock, blowing dust, and dirt can incorporate itself into the ice and weaken the formation. When an ice axe is thrown into the ice, if temperatures change or too much ice weights a formation, blocks will dislodge and fall. If not in the way of danger, it can be an incredible sight to behold, so climbers must be aware and careful of where and how they place their tools and hold their weight.

The vertical walls of Ouray’s ice castles are ever changing, based on how quickly the water freezes and how the water settles and forms. An ice route can contain any number of formations, from bulbous cauliflower steps, long delicate chandeliers, and aerated pocketed walls with countless places for pick placement, to solid pillars plasticized with melting water. Each formation and combination presents problems for the climber to resolve and be challenged.

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The park is filled with these formations, and it is the amplitude of challenge that sparked the first Ice Festival in Ouray, which is now the largest festival in North America, if not the world, and perhaps the only festival of its kind. The festival was first organized by Jeff Lowe in 1996 as a way to attract attention to the park and the sport. By 2008, the festival saw its record number of attendees reach 5,000, and it has attracted worldclass climbers, such as Ines Papert of Bavaria, Germany, and France’s Simon Duverney, the top female and male competitors at the 2013 Ouray Ice Festivial, sponsored by Asolo and Rock & Ice magazine, among others.

The Ice Festival is host to two competitions, the elite mixed and, new to 2013, the speed competition. The mixed climbing competition features a route chosen in the canyon of moderate difficulty. The festival organizers affix a structure above the route made of plywood, plastic climbing holds, a hanging log, and rods. Climbers are judged on how quickly they ascend the ice, transition from the ice to the log, and then return to the plywood wall that reaches to the top. The speed climbing competition is on a separate route and is exactly how it sounds, although spectators are shocked when climbers reach the top of a typical route in less than a minute. The Ouray Ice Park’s board of directors chooses all competitors based on an application evaluating experience and accomplishments. Approximately 15 to 20 competitors participate in a given year, competing for $16,000 in prize money.

While the elite competitor field is small, in a typical year, 3,000 climbers and spectators visit the festival. The festival organizes clinics for kids, novice adults, and experts. Local guides and even some of the top competitors instruct these half-day or full-day courses. So popular, the courses typically reach capacity within the first few days of being announced, so it is an experience to be planned in advance. Clinics range from introductory, advanced mixed, lead climbing, women’s specific, children, and specific techniques, such as footwork or ice screw placement. In addition to clinics and competition, the festival attracts major sponsors that provide free gear demos for athletes and climbers.

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In addition to climbing, films on athletes and the sport are featured each night at the Ouray Main Street Theater and the Wright Opera House. In 2013, a feature film of Ines Papert’s attempt to climb the southeast face of Mount Kyzyl Asker (5,842 meters) in Kyrgyzstan had viewers on the edge of their seats. After the show, Papert treated visitors to a slideshow of climbing the ice city at the Harbin International Ice Festival in China, which is not permitted, but for which she was granted special access after proving she would not harm the ice structures. Visitors leave the festival inspired and in awe of the sport and its athletes.

The 20th Annual Ouray Ice Festival will be held January 8–11, 2015. Although the specially designed ice-climbing route is restricted to some of the best ice climbers in the world, many clinics and events are open to the public. The free Kid’s Climbing Clinic introduces children ages 8 to 17 to the art of ice climbing, while other activities include zip-lining and ice carving, not to mention music, parties, and entertainment. Reservations for clinics and hotels should be made well in advance.

For those who want to start to learn the sport of ice climbing, enthusiasts often recommend the gear demos and clinics offered at the Ouray Ice Festival to get a feel for the sport and learn basic techniques. Beginners are advised to rent or borrow gear the first time, because it is expensive to buy and difficult to sell, especially out of season. It can be helpful to first practice with crampons and ice tools on lowangle snow or alpine ice in the mountains, read as much as possible about the sport of ice climbing, and learn basic rock climbing techniques taught by instructors at the Colorado Mountain Club. Seek out basic ice climbing instruction that teaches site awareness, technical ice axe and crampon use, handling rope systems, understanding ice protection, selection of proper gear, and how to fuel the body in frigid winter temperatures, such as that offered by San Juan Mountain Guides in Ouray and the Colorado Mountain Club.Then head out to Ouray’s icy wonderland and have fun!


Anne Martin is a native Coloradan and a member of the Denver Group. She is a novice climber of vertical ice and rock but thoroughly enjoys class 3 and 4 scrambling in high alpine environments. She also enjoys glacier travel and has made two unguided summits of Mount Rainier via the Emmons Glacier route and hopes to spend more time on the Northwest volcanoes. Most of her time is spent training for marathons and ultramarathons on trails across Colorado. Ouray and Silverton are her favorite areas to train and spend time. Anne has volunteered as an assistant instructor for Wilderness Trekking School (WTS), while her husband, Kevin, has volunteered as an assistant instructor for Basic Mountaineering School (BMS).
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2013 Issue (1021) of Trail & Timberline

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