Ouray Ice Park

| February 23, 2009

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.

Where there's blood, there's ice climbing.

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.

Mountain Hardwear Athlete Dawn Glanc makes it look easy.

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.

One of many sections of the Ouray Ice Park. The competition routes climb up the ice, then traverse onto the overhanging board in the middle of the bridge.

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.

Mountain Hardwear designer Tracey Mammolito stickin' picks.

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.

The walkway along the top of the ice climbs with anchors to the right and sprinkler heads to the left.

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.

Help support StraightChuter.com and stick it good with Black Diamond Fusion Ice Tools on sale now at Backcountry.com. Click on the photo below…


Category: Trip Reports

About the Author ()

Andrew McLean lives in Park City, Utah and is a gear designer, writer, photographer, ski mountaineer, climber, Mountain Unicycle rider and father of two very loud little girls.

Comments (6)

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  1. Rob says:

    In New England we have it easy. From my place in North Woodstock, it’s twenty minutes to the Flume and Black Dyke, and a bit longer will put you at Frankenstein and North Conway, premier climbing spots all.
    – R

  2. Jared says:

    Gah! My friends keep trying to convince me to go ice climbing, but I keep resisting. Why? Because I’m afraid that I’ll fall in love with it and have to shell out even more money for gear that costs hundreds of dollars. I know one day I’ll relent . . . it’s only a matter of time. And unceasing peer pressure from my ice climbing friends doesn’t help.

  3. Rob says:

    Actually, the biggest cost in ice climbing (well, assuming you don’t get super fancy ice tools) are the boots. Lucky us, we already have pretty fancy boots that work perfectly on vertical ice, as long as you use step-in crampons. I can easily climb W3+ over at Frankenstein (Trestles, Walk in the Woods, Standard) with my Megarides and though I had trouble on some W4 this past weekend (The Flume), that had more to do with killing my arms in the rock gym than anything else. To be honest, you should have a pair of crampons, a harness, and a rope anyway if you are doing serious winter mountaineering of any sort. That leaves ice tools and ice pro. A pair of leashed/leashless “pseudo alpine” ice tools (BD Venom, CAMP Alpax, Petzl Aztarex, Grivel AirTech, etc.) will set you back around $200, which really isn’t that bad, especially since you should carry at least one traditional mountaineering axe with you in the winter anyway. As long as you can find an easy way up (YDS1-4, or even up to W3- once you are confident on ice), you can go a pretty long time without getting ice pro, especially if the friends you climb with have a good rack.

    Besides, there is nothing more badass than setting out on a hike with ice axes AND skis strapped to your back.
    – R

  4. Andrew says:

    Hi Rob – I’d fully agree with all of that and more than anything like to make fun of ice climbing as that’s what avid ice climbers do themselves.

    As you mentioned, about the only thing you really need is a set of technical tools. For ski mountaineering, I like the BD Venom with a technical pick as it can get you up just about anything. It may not be as efficient as a leashless tool, but they are much more versatile and lightweight. Between a pair of those and some Sabertooth Crampons, you can climb stuff way harder and steeper than you could ever ski.

    Expanding on that idea, the Venom ice tool is pretty much the only one I use for ski mountaineering as I think that Whippets cover the piolet spectrum and anything more than a Venom is overkill. I usually carry one Adz Venom, but if I think there may be some extended ice climbing, I’d carry a hammer version as well. If you don’t expect a lot of vertical water-ice, I only carry one tool with the idea being that if you need to, you can borrow a partners ice tool, climb a pitch, set an anchor, then lower the tool set back down.

  5. Rob says:

    Actually, I was reading The White Spider and Harrer did what seems to be a 6-rope long W3/3+ without crampons, one ice piton, and only a single moutainteering axe! Redonk!
    – R

  6. Jared says:

    Well, I have everything I need except for crampons and axes. Now I really have no excuse. . . Thanks for almost pushing me over the edge. Maybe if I’m a good boy this year I can use my Christmas money and get on some ice next year

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