© 2024 KVNF Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Ice Climbing Draws Thousands To Small Colorado Community

Rock climbing is already a popular sport. And, its winter cousin ice climbing is gaining popularity too. 

Ice Climbing In Ouray

It’s a chilly morning at the Ouray Ice Park. 

Hundreds of people are gathered here for the 20th annual Ouray Ice Festival.

The event celebrates the sport of ice climbing. And, the park is a mecca for it.

"Well, it’s an ice climbing venue, but it’s a little bit unique, Mike MacLeod the president of the park’s board of directors, says. "Most ice climbing around the world is frozen waterfalls in the backcountry. In Ouray, we have this deep, shady gorge that stays cold all the time and we actually spray water over the side and we literally farm ice. So we make...ice climbing [routes] almost like a climbing gym."

MacLeod says most of the ice in the park is man-made. And, people from all across the globe come here to climb it.

"The big thing we have in Ouray, what makes it really popular all over the world is access to ice and easy access to ice," he says. "Ice climbing is a sport that traditionally of course is in the backcountry. Access is a great challenge with the sport, but in Ouray we have 200 ice climbs right there within 10 minutes of town. You can literally walk to a climb."

Ice Climbing 101

Mark Miller is an ice climbing instructor for San Juan Mountain Guides. He describes the frozen water he loves to scale as an aesthetic medium.

"You just see these big blue sheets of all these interesting shapes," Miller says. "And, they change by the day, week, or even sometimes by the hour as the temperature changes. We come out here and the climb changes as the ice melts, freezes, re-grows, and breaks. So it’s a new problem. It’s always fresh."

Miller has been teaching the sport for the past 20 years.

ice climbing, Ouray Ice Park, Ouray Ice Festival
Credit Laura Palmisano / KVNF
Jessica Knowles tries the beginners' climb at the Ouray Ice Festival.

 "Ice climbing itself isn’t going to change much," he says. "I mean the tools have changed, but the technique is the same. What makes it interesting is every person you teach is different."

Ice climbing requires some specialized equipment.

"You are going to have a stiff boot, a little stiffer than you’re probably used to walking in, but not as ridged and hard as a ski boot," Miller says. "[And then] a crampon that goes on that [boot] that will basically have 10 bottom points sticking down and two or one front points sticking forward that are going to support you. And then a set of ice tools or an ice axe."

In addition to those items you also need a helmet, a harness, a safety rope, and of course, warm clothes.

Miller has this advice for novices.

"Feet matter most," he says. "If your weight is on your feet, your legs are doing all of the hard work. And, you don’t need upper body strength. You need balance [and] basically the ability to walk upstairs physically."

Trying The Sport

Just off the beginners' climb at the ice festival is Jessica Knowles, who came over from Vail. 

ice climbing, Ouray Ice Park, Ouray Ice Festival
Credit Laura Palmisano / KVNF
The beginner's climbing area at the Ouray Ice Festival.

"It was great," she says. "It’s a pretty good warm-up. I haven’t been ice climbing this season yet. And I still don’t have my own gear so this is the perfect opportunity to try stuff out."

At the festival, people can try ice climbing for free. Knowles has done it a few times. But, she’s also a rock climber and says some of those skills transfer.

"It’s just kind of just a different feeling than when you’re rock climbing," she says. "In rock climbing you have to look for the holds and find them. In ice climbing you make them where you want to be. [And] it’s definitely a different technique. They cross over a little bit."

The Ouray Ice Park is open from mid-December to late March.

MacLeod says every year it draws thousands to the small community of Ouray.

"We estimate 13,000 or 14,000 visitor days during our season so it has a pretty significant impact on tourism in Ouray," he says.  "It’s probably the most important part of the winter economy there."

He says the ice festival provides 70 percent of the funding needed to keep the park free.

It’s been open for over 20 years. And, MacLeod has been climbing here for 10.

He says he’s seen ice climbing evolve from a fringe sport to a more mainstream activity.

"Probably one of the biggest things that has changed is just it's so much more accessible to more people," he says. "And, we see every year more and more people trying ice climbing and getting into ice climbing."

Laura joined KVNF in 2014. She was the news director for two years and now works as a freelance reporter covering Colorado's Western Slope. Laura is an award-winning journalist with work recognized by the Society of Professional Journalists, Colorado Broadcasters Association, and RTDNA. In 2015, she was a fellow for the Institute for Justice & Journalism. Her fellowship project, a three-part series on the Karen refugee community in Delta, Colorado, received a regional Edward R. Murrow Award.
Related Content