There’s no place quite like it in the world. And there is certainly no other city in America that boasts ice climbing as such an enticing in-town activity.
With a robust mining history and evidence of it through the surrounding mountains, the so-called Little Switzerland of America lives up to its name, with soaring peaks, majestic mountain faces and scenery that stops visitors in their tracks. All over, natural ice drips from the mountains like teal wax clinging to walls above roads in and out of town.
A quintessential Colorado mountain town, it is usually quiet. But every January, more than 3,000 adventure-driven climbers descend on the tiny hamlet for the annual Ouray Climbing Festival, which is celebrating its 20th year this weekend.
The park is an entire mile of farmed ice up to 150 feet deep sourced from a city reservoir and open to the public for free. It is nestled in the Uncompahgre Gorge, a natural gash that drops out of the San Juan Mountains and right into town. With more than 200 distinct climbing routes that are meticulously formed and maintained by a staff of five, they add up to more than 3 vertical miles, in total, of climbing.
Every night from mid-December through March, ice farmers thaw the 275 shower nozzles that sit above each climb, renewing the ice with 275,000 gallons of water.
And all winter long, climbers come in droves.
Mike MacLeod is president of the board of Ouray Ice Park Inc., the body that oversees the parks operations. It has an agreement with the city, which owns most of the land the park sits on, to maintain the park and, in effect, bring the climbers to town.
“The Ice Park in general is really important for the local economy,” MacLeod said. “But the reason we have the Ouray Ice Festival is so we can fund the park. The park is free, but it takes a lot. We are responsible for making it happen – hire ice farmers, put in all the infrastructure. So at the end of the day, this is a fundraiser.”
He said about 70 percent of the money to operate the park comes from a weekend of festival programs and social activities. Outdoor industry luminaries, like Peter Metcalf, once an outdoors educator based in Silverton and now CEO of global outdoor gear giant Black Diamond Equipment, speak at venues in town at night when the ice is being reborn, and people line up out the door to see them.
Scores of outdoor industry companies support the festival with sponsorship dollars and equipment demonstrations. Many attendees come unprepared but get outfitted top to bottom from vendors.
“That’s basically the financial model that allows it to be free,” MacLeod said.
The model is a win-win. While the ice is free, climbers get hungry and thirsty, filling local establishments downtown, blocks from the park. Local rooms fill up months in advance, and the dollars add up.
“We’ll have 13 to 14 thousand visitor days to the park this winter,” he said. “This weekend’s big, but next weekend’s big and the weekend after that.”
But aside from the positive economic impact, the park and the festival breed a spirit of adventure, and it all starts before the sun is up. Half a dozen languages are spoken on the shuttle buses to and from the event. In the 112 skills clinics, even stateside climbers are from everywhere in the country.
Caryn Johansen, a rock climber from Queens, New York, said she has always wanted to climb ice, and especially came to Ouray to do it. With an estimated 1,000 others, she is taking clinics from trained professionals – at a fraction of the cost – on how to get started.
“I’ve got my boots and gear. It should be good,” she said.
Her partner, Derek Frome, of Palo Alto, California, another climber new to ice, said Ouray is a departure form his normal Yosemite National Park outings.
Both of them said they have never seen anything like it – the Ice Park or the Ouray Ice Festival – before.
“It’s a blast, Frome said. “Really, very fun.”
Tyler Grundstrom of Salt Lake City said above all, he comes for the atmosphere.
“It’s being here with a bunch of like-minded people who like to do epic things,” he said. “There’s something kind of visceral about climbing. It’s a way to interact with nature and the outdoors. You’re competing with yourself to get up something, and it’s kind of an art.”
Everywhere in the park, climbers reached a personal summit and let out sighs of relief.
“It feels good to get to the top,” Grundstrom said. “And it’s an accomplishment, too.”