A Climb in the Park, Ouray Ice Climbing Festival
Exploring the fat ice of the Uncompaghreby Alex Sepulveda
I had first heard of Mark Twight less than a year ago, but knew his was a big name in the climbing world. After hearing rumors of superhero stature, and reading excerpts of Extreme Alpinism, I’d garnered an appreciation for the man who was about to teach me to ice climb. He handed me a pair of Grivel Tech Wings, and my eyes fixated on leashless shafts. Though he had just explained the benefits of learning to ice climb without leashes, the thought of losing hold of one of my tools and watching it plummet was nerve-racking. I took his word for it.
Ouray Ice Park.
“Climbing,” I declared as confidently as a titmouse. The belayer’s booming “climb on” resonated off the icy walls of the narrow gorge where we stood as I lifted my right arm and struck the ice. Feet firmly planted on the ground, my first strike was strong, producing a satisfying clink that denotes solid placement.
A few seconds quickly confirmed I am not ambidextrous—every time I tried to sink my left tool, I ended up bashing the ice with every part of the head except the pick. The result was a lot of “dinner plating,” the phenomenon of dinner plate-sized ice chunks breaking off and crashing to the ground.
I moved up slowly but surely, realizing that the technique, especially footwork, isn’t all that different from climbing rock. Rather than improving, my left arm only flailed the harder I tried. I clung to near vertical ice, high above the ground, and was absolutely gripped. I looked to Twight for some advice. He was perched just to my left, climbing without a rope, protection, or care in the world. His confidence, which I interpreted as sheer insanity, was distracting, and my legs began to quake.
He advised me to widen my stance a bit and to try not to kill the ice with my left hand, but rather allow the momentum of my strike to sink smoothly into the wall. Multiple attempts (and several dinner plates) later, I heard the clink, weighted the tool, and it felt bomber—the movement finally clicked with my awkward left arm. I worked my feet up, learning to trust the front points of my crampons balanced atop glassy nubs, and was exhilarated when I reached the top.
The best gear manufacturers in the world offered free demo gear.
This was the culmination of an incredible weekend experience at the Ouray Ice Festival, the best outdoor event I’ve ever attended. The camaraderie, the accessibility to the best instruction and gear in the world, and the utter inexpense of the whole affair had no equal.
Ouray, the city
Ouray, a relic of western mining glory, sits at the end of
a box canyon along the western edge of the San Juan Mountains. Naturally
terraced buttes dotted with widely spaced pines and beautifully formed icicles
create a spectacular, so-called "Switzerland America" backdrop for the Ouray
Ice Park, which culminates at the head of the canyon.
Looking up the Uncompahgre Gorge and the Ouray Ice Park.
The park itself is housed in the narrow Uncompahgre Gorge that extends 1¼ miles south of Ouray ending at a dam. In 1994, a few locals decided to tap into a pipe that pumps water from the dam to a hydroelectric plant in town, and to spray it over the edge of the mile-long gorge to create thick, perfect ice. The Ouray Ice Park was born, and the next winter, in January 1996, it hosted the first annual Ouray Ice Festival. In its relatively young existence, the park and festival have revitalized the local economy while attracting diverse climbers from all over the world—this year ten nations were represented at the event.
Clinics which began Friday and ran through Sunday booked up quickly—not surprisingly as they’re free and the instructors are superstars of the alpine world, including the likes of Sue Nott, Jack Tackle, Peter Athans, and Ed Viesturs to name a few. All levels of instruction were well represented, from Abby Watkins’ basics for women to Jared Ogden’s tutelage on mixed technique.
Abby Watkins leads a The North Face sponsored women's intro clinic.
After my clinic and climbing with people I met at the park, I was exhausted and famished. Friday and Saturday evenings, participants gathered at the Ouray Community Center for dinner and beer-a-plenty for a mere $10. Manufacturers awarded high-end gear in huge rounds of Roshambo the first night, and auctioned off more the next. Climbers mingled, feasting, drinking, and reconnecting with old partners and travel companions. I saw a Peruvian guide run into a client from California, and an American and Canadian reunite after meeting in Europe years ago. Stories were exchanged, and throughout the entire event the camaraderie was palpable. People were there to climb, learn, encourage each other, and to have a great time.
The Ouray Ice Festival was incredibly well-organized, extremely laid back, and one of the best weekends I’ve ever had. I couldn’t imagine a better way to wet your feet on the ice.