Aside from being cold, dangerous, expensive and limited to a few select areas in the world, there is a lot to be said for ice climbing. Namely, it can be a ton of fun and there is nothing like sinking a pick & ‘poons into a vertical pillar of frozen water which may or may not collapse and kill you. It’s fun for the whole family.
I mainly ice climb just to stay proficient at it so that if I ever come across a section of ice on a ski mountaineering trip, I’ll know what to do. Modern ice tools and crampons have made vertical water-ice almost so trivial that nowadays the worlds toughest ice climbs take place mainly on rock.
Traditionally, ice climbing meant long approaches to a remote waterfall which the climber would then have to ascend from the bottom up, placing ice screws along the way for protection. Ice screws are expensive and placing them is tiring, so the standard operating procedure was to run it out and hope for the best. In the meantime, your partner who is belaying you at the base of the climb is getting brained with large chunks of ice falling from above while his hands go numb from cold.
But… the Ouray Ice Park has changed all of that. The park has been around for about 15 years and as America’s premier ice climbing center, it attracts thousands of visitors from all around the world each year. Ouray, Colorado has always been a hotbed of ice climbing as it was central to classics like Birdbrain Boulevard, The Ames Ice Hose, Bridelveil Falls (in nearby Telluride) and The Whorehouse Hose in Silverton. Whereas these are all big, natural ice flows, what makes the ice park unique is that it is almost entirely man-made.
The ice park began as almost a happy accident when an old water tube which ran along the top edge of the 100′ deep Box Canyon sprung a leak. This leak turned into a perfect ice pillar which was so easily accessible from town that it became a destination climb in itself. Soon after that, a group of enterprising climbers constructed a system of 20-30 shower sprinkler heads along the lip of Box Canyon and began “farming” ice by turning the water on at night and then climbing the pillars by day. Currently, the canyon sports and endless array of climbs ranging from overhanging desperadoes to lower angle learning areas.
Approaching the ice from the town of Ouray involves a ten minute walk (you can also drive if you concerned about bulking your legs up), so you can sleep in a warm bed, have a civilized breakfast, go ice climbing, come back for lunch, do another session in the afternoon, then eat at a restaurant and swill American whisky at night. Most of the climbs have permanent beef-cake anchors at the top, so you can rig a rope over a pillar, rap down, and then top rope it to your hearts content. There is also an area dedicated to lead climbing if you want to break out your Christmas ice screws and scare yourself.
For technical and legal reasons, the ice park is free although any donations will be gratefully accepted. It is a great way to check out ice climbing, especially as you can rent all the gear you need in town as well as hiring a guide to literally show you the ropes. It’s fun. Really.
Category: Trip Reports