Birthdays are fun. There are cold libations. People make toasts. And there is usually some cake. In other words, it’s a party.
And this year the little town of Ouray in southwestern Colorado is going to be throwing a pretty big party. The town, which hosts their annual Ouray Ice Festival from Jan. 8 to Jan. 11, is celebrating two decades on the ice. It’s a major milestone for an event that started as a low-key winter happening and has grown into arguably the most important ice climbing festival in America. A cake, along with plenty of ice cream, seems in order. But even if there isn’t a cake, there will certainly be cold libations and lots of ice to go around, along with plenty of other happenings. And that’s just how event organizers like it.
“We have a record number of climbing clinics this year,” says Mike MacLeod, the president of the board of directors for the Ouray Ice Park. He says that this not only means there is more than ever to do this year, but that the town also expects a record number of attendees, making the 20th year anniversary the biggest event so far in the history of the Ouray Ice Festival.
The seeds for this year’s festival were planted in 1996, the first year that the event was held. It’s since become a January fixture for the community, a global gathering of the ice climbing tribe. Gear companies, product manufacturers and reps, climbers (both pro and amateur), friends and family descend on Ouray during the festival. And a festival it is, combining exhibitions, presentations, slide shows, competition, clinics and more.
Ouray has always been a mountaineering, climbing and backcountry skiing destination. The town is in pole position to the wild and rugged San Juan Mountains, a jagged collection of peaks that have rightly been compared to the more notable parts of the Alps. Ice climbing has been part and parcel of the outdoor challenges here for years, with natural snowmelt from the high peaks above the community forming classic and difficult climbs within easy access of the town’s center. Early test pieces such as “Stone Free” and “Tangled Up In Blue” were first climbed in the early ’90s and the area started becoming known as a winter climbing destination during that same time.
Despite the natural advantages that the town has been blessed with, it took more than Mother Nature to put Ouray on the map when it came to ice. In the winter of 1993-94 locals started “farming” ice in the Uncompahgre Gorge just outside town using a system of hoses and nozzles to build new climbs in the box canyon section of the Gorge, thus germinating the first routes of what would eventually become the Ouray Ice Park. The results proved to be spectacular. So much so that the legendary climber and product designer Jeff Lowe chose the location to host the Arctic Wolf Ouray Ice Festival.
That event was a success. Bolstered by Lowe’s fame and the energy and enthusiasm of the town’s residents, the event attracted nearly 400 climbers from countries around the world: England, France, Spain, Bolivia, Canada, Argentina and New Zealand were represented. The event also exceeded expectations in building community assets when it came to farming the ice in the gorge, with more than $1,100 raised to continue work on the Ouray Ice Park.
Over the next few years, the festival quickly gathered steam. Only one year later, $3,000 was raised for the Ice Park via a gear auction that continues today. With an in-kind grant of $5,000 from Salomon, the financial footing of the ice park was secure. The festival also started a series of climbing exhibitions that evolved into the competitions that are currently one of the highlights of the week. A look back at the history of these early events reveals plenty of future and current climbing hall of famers: Barry Blanchard (Canada), Helgi Christensen (Iceland), Malcolm Daly (USA), Will Gadd (Canada) in 1997; with Bruno Sourzac (France), Jennifer Stewart (USA), Pete Takeda (USA), Amanda Tarr (USA) and Jean- Philippe Villemaire (Canada) attending in 1998. With top climbing talent embracing the event, the sponsors followed. From a mere 11 sponsors in that first year, support has exploded, along with participation.
“It’s how many people who are coming down here to climb, that is what really jumps out at me,” MacLeod says. “In regards to the competitions, we have the largest women’s field we’ve ever had in the mixed competition and we keep increasing the number of clinics. We’ve had the biggest increase in the number of clinics since the festival started and they are filled, too.”
For MacLeod, this participation is what makes the festival unique. He says that despite the big names that come to compete, the festival remains at its heart a participatory event, where even never-evers and young kids have the opportunity to get out on the frozen waterfalls and give it a go.
“We have kids climbing, college students and all sorts of people who give it a try,” says MacLeod. “You can walk up, gear up and give it a shot.”
It’s this openness to newcomers that makes ice climbing surprisingly accessible, adds MacLeod.
“We’re like a family or tribe,” he says and laughs. “There’s always someone who is willing to help you.”
MacLeod adds that this is why that even while many of the clinics may be listed as sold out on the festival’s webpage, those interested in the festival or who perhaps want to attend a specific clinic should probably just show up.
“There are cancellations and sometimes people can’t make it,” he says, before hinting that if you’re on the spot and ask nicely, “the tribe” will probably find a way to work things out.
He also says that while this weekend may be the busiest and arguably most interesting weekend to check out Ouray’s ice, it’s not the only opportunity to go climb there or even just head down to take photos (the Ice Park has plenty of observatory platforms that make for awesome vantage points for spectators and photographers), or to visit the town and soak in the local hot springs.
“You don’t have to be a pro or an expert,” says MacLeod. “When it comes to Ouray ice climbing,” he adds, “we have three and a half months of climbing here, and on most days there will be a whole lot of normal people just like me out there.”
The Ouray Ice Park is a man-made ice climbing venue operated in a spectacular natural gorge within walking distance of Ouray, Colo. It is home to more than 200 ice and mixed climbs, most within a 15-minute walk of the park entrance. The park and its infrastructure are jointly owned and managed by the city of Ouray, the nonprofit Ouray Ice Park, Inc. and a mix of other private and public landowners.
Despite the high cost of its maintenance, the park remains free and open for public use. In more than 20 years of operation, it has become one of the premier ice climbing venues in the world. Visit http://ourayicepark.com to learn more.
The park is host to the biggest ice festival in North America, the Ouray Ice Festival, which runs from Jan. 8 to Jan. 11. Now in its 20th year, the event features competitions, clinics, ice climbing lessons, gear demos and a whole lot more. Visit ourayicepark.com/ice-festival for details.