Colorado weather being what it is, we had 70 degrees (21C) and sun that January, despite the fact that it was the middle of winter. Suffering from the usual post-travel depression, I met up with my friends for a day of sport climbing in Boulder Canyon as quickly as I could. My friend Ben, a Buddhist scholar at Naropa University, told me “I’m inviting a few classmates along. You’ll like them.”
Ironically, neither climbed at all. One was a monk; his order didn’t permit him. The other was Meg, who let us all know, loudly: “I’m going ice climbing tomorrow and I need to save my strength.”
That was the beginning of the end.
Over the next two years, Meg and I climbed some mountains and built a friendship. I found my way into her friend group of serious climbers, and I was slowly sucked more and more towards alpinism, mountains, and ice.
For the past six years, that friend group has taken an annual Super Bowl trip to the Ouray Ice Park, in Ouray, Colorado. I was invited last year, but I was in Italy at the time.
This year, I finally joined the fun. And let me tell you:
Ouray is cool.
There can’t be many places like this in the world. Learn why, below the jump.
The Ouray Ice Park
The Ouray Ice Park is, basically, a free, outdoor, ice-climbing gym. Yes — it’s as unique as it sounds.
Where is the Ouray Ice Park?
The Ouray Ice Park is located in Ouray, Colorado, a sleepy little mountain town in Southwestern Colorado (USA). Southwestern Colorado lacks the big cities of the Front Range (Denver, Boulder, Colorado Springs), but it is indisputably the best part of Colorado (try not to tell anyone). SW Colorado has less people, better mountains, more scenery, and amazing access to outdoors sports like fishing, hunting, climbing, kayaking, canyoneering… the list goes on. The region is well worth checking out.
Ouray is about a six-to-seven hour drive from Denver. It’s far enough away that if you’re traveling from Denver to Ouray, you want to consider at least making a long weekend of it — which is what we did. We arrived on Wednesday evening, climbed on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. We hit the road around 4 o’clock on Sunday, and returned to the Front Range very early Monday morning.
Cars in the Ouray Ice Park parking lot seemed to be a pretty even distribution between Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Arizona license plates.
What is the Ouray Ice Park?
In the early 1980s, climbers noticed that a large water pipe running along the top of the Uncompahgre Gorge, right outside of Ouray, was leaking. Those leaks were forming 80-foot icicles down into the gorge — exactly the sort of beautiful formations which ice climbers drool over.
Local climbers started knocking more holes in the pipe, intentionally, to form new ice climbs. When word got out about the climbs, more climbers started to come to Ouray. To meet the demand, more climbs were created. This led, over the years, to the formation of the modern Ouray Ice Park. Today, the maintenance of the ice climbs is a little more involved, as you can read about here, or see in the video below:
You can read more about the history of the Ouray Ice Park on their website.
Today, the park has over a mile of nearly-contiguous, artificial ice climbs. On its website, the Ouray Ice Park claims over 200 routes, but the park feels like it might easily contain even more.
How can it be free?
The Ouray Ice Park is supported by the Ouray Ice Festival, sponsorships, and donations. Although it doesn’t generate much money directly, the presence of the ice park is a huge stimulus for the businesses in the town of Ouray, which would otherwise be almost deserted during the winter.
Ouray’s executive director Dan Chehayl explained it this way in a 2016 interview:
Without the Ouray Ice Park, Ouray would be a ghost town in the winter. There was little to no economy before the park really began to take off in the early ’90s. Over the years, as the park grew and became more popular and more climbers visited and moved into town, the economy grew with it, until it eventually became the ice climbing mecca it is today.
The local businesses and the community as a whole rely heavily on the park to keep their businesses going through the winter season. Ouray now has one of the largest climbing communities in the United States. Behind practically every door in town there is at least one climber, and it is a strong community where we are all friends and are all working together to protect our climbing resource and keep it sustainable as it grows each year. It is a very welcoming community as well—new climbers roll into town every day and are welcomed with open arms.
The Ouray Ice Festival
The Ouray Ice Fest is an annual weekend celebration and fundraiser for the ice park. The ice park raises more than half its annual operating revenue during this weekend.
Although the weekend of the Ouray Ice Fest is the most crowded the park will ever be, it’s probably the best time to come visit. The atmosphere is festive, and for just $5 you can demo all the gear you’d like, including expensive jackets, ice tools, crampons, and mountaineering boots.
Clinics during the Ouray Ice Fest
In addition to affordable gear demos, many ice climbing classes are offered during the Ouray Ice Fest. I’d say the majority of these are “intro to ice climbing” classes or similar novice-level courses, but there are also more advanced offerings like: “how to lead ice”, “steep ice” and “intro to mixed climbing”. The clinics and seminars at the Ice Fest are taught by mountain guides and professional climbers. Some of the presenters in 2019 included Conrad Anker, Margot Talbot, David Lama, and Will Gadd. In 2019, these clinics cost $80 each.
Ouray Ice Fest Competitions
If you prefer watching to doing, pro climbers compete in the Elite Mixed Climbing Competition and the Speed Climbing Competitions during the Ice Fest.
The speed competition takes place on an artificial wall, while the mixed competition climbs natural routes with significant rock sections (mixed climbing = mixed rock and ice). These competitions can be a real spectacle, with some of the best in the world coming to compete.
Are there other Ice Parks?
There ARE other man-made ice climbing parks in the USA, including one in Lake City, Colorado, and a couple small ones in Minnesota (near the cities of Sandstone and Winona). Exum Guides used to operate an ice park in Jackson, Wyoming, but the land was sold and it’s currently closed.
Ouray is undoubtedly the biggest ice park in the continental United States. As I said before, there can’t be many places like Ouray in the world.
International Ice Parks
There’s the Eispark Osttirol in Austria, and an INDOOR ice climbing facility in Scotland called Ice Factor… but those are the only two venues *I* know of that compare to Ouray in scope and ambition. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Poles had something like this… but I don’t speak Polish.
(Know of any others? Leave em in the comments!)
Visiting the Ouray Ice Park
Despite being (maybe) the largest ice park in the world, Ouray doesn’t seem like a big deal. Parking is free, admittance is free, and as long as you’re not endangering the lives of others, you can pretty much do what you want. The park estimates it receives between 7,000 and 8,000 visitors per year.
Your local ski resort gets that number of visitors in a day, I bet. Ice climbing, by its nature, will probably always remain an extremely fringe sport.
Although that certainly didn’t stop some of the old-timers on our crew from complaining that “back in the day”, there were less people and more ice.
Our trip to Ouray
We spent three days climbing in the Ouray Ice Park, in the Schoolroom, South Park, and New Funtier areas. We also scared ourselves silly on the long routes near Pic of The Vic. Climbers pictured in this post are a mix of friends and strangers.
On the fourth and final day of our trip, we went into the mountains around Ouray to climb some alpine ice, which was a great change of pace compared to climbing in the park. More on the ice climbing around Ouray, a little further down.
But first, let’s explore the Ice Park itself.
Ouray, Colorado: “The top-ropin’ and beer drinkin’ capital of the world”
The Ice Park is a great way to learn to ice climb, or for an intermediate climber to put in some miles without the long drives, approaches, and avalanche danger that usually characterize alpine waterfall ice climbing. The park is accessible, and anchoring is straightforward. Lead climbing is never required.
Climbers can easily walk along the top of the climbs and anchor off using bolted anchor stations or the abundant trees that live along the top of the gorge. After setting your top-rope anchor, climbers can either rappel in, be lowered, or walk down into the canyon using fixed ropes.
The park does have a couple rules: you cannot occupy any anchor for more than three consecutive hours, and you cannot occupy an anchor and then leave the rope idle. This is to prevent people bogarting climbs.
The Ice Park is SUPER accessible
From the parking lot to the closest climbs, one needs to walk less than 100 meters. To reach the farthest climbs in the park, it’s a moderate hike of one mile (1.6 kms).
You could walk to the ice park from town, if you wanted to put in a little extra alpine training.
Medical assistance is never far away in case of an emergency, and other climbers are always nearby to lend a helping hand if you need someone to double-check your anchor or help you out with the belay.
When you get cold and tired and want a beer, it’s a quick and easy process to collect your gear, head back to town, and enjoy an adult beverage inside a nice warm building (or hot tub).
Lead Climbing in the Ouray Ice Park
The ratio of lead climbers to top-ropers in the Ouray Ice Park is probably 1:10. Maybe even worse. Could be 1:20. I wasn’t really counting.
There aren’t many people leading.
Part of this is due to the fact that the ice park is a zoo, with lots of novices and guided groups kicking down ice and crowding routes.
Part of this is the fact that not a lot of people lead ice to begin with.
And part of it is due to ice quality. Since the ice at the Ouray Ice Park is so frequently climbed, destroyed, and re-formed, it holds a lot of air. A couple of experienced ice climbers told me that they don’t like to lead in the park because of the ice quality.
Lead climbing *is* allowed in Ouray, but make sure to occupy the top anchor of the climb before you start leading, so that other parties don’t throw a rope down on you. I saw two visiting Spanish climbers learn this the hard way, when they racked up at the bottom of a route to start leading it, only to have someone throw a rope down from above, and snake their route before they could even swing one tool.
Ouray on a weekend
We chose to visit Ouray the weekend AFTER the ice fest, so as to avoid the crowds. This was Super Bowl Weekend (practically an American holiday). Even still, almost every route in the park was occupied on Saturday and Sunday. We were able to find sufficient routes for our group to climb pretty comfortably, but we were a lot of people, and able to pretty easily string up multiple ropes and rotate between climbs.
The weekdays were blissfully empty. If possible, I recommend visiting the Ouray Ice Park on a weekday.
Ice Climbing OUTSIDE of the Ouray Ice Park
The Ice Park was created because Ouray sits at a favorable location to form waterfall ice. There are plenty of long smears and beautiful alpine routes in the mountains surrounding the town, for those looking for more of an adventure than can be found at the Ice Park.
Telluride’s Bridalveil Falls is the undisputed jewel of the area, and a testpiece for ice climbers from all across the world (Read a great trip report, here). There are also a number of gnarly climbs just outside of Ouray itself, including The Ribbon and Bird Brain Boulevard.
Smaller, less intimidating climbs are around too, if you know where to look.
Our last day: Camp Bird Road
Sunday morning, after a bout of drinking the night before, we got off to a slow start. It was the last day of our climbing trip; we’d climbed the three previous days, and many of our group were leaving: tired; or hungover; or pregnant. Five of us still had the stoke to continue.
It was warm and raining lightly in Ouray, which never makes for fun ice conditions. If it’s warm enough for liquid to fall as water, it’s also warm enough for waterfall ice to melt. Into your face. As you’re trying to climb up it.
That’s an experience best avoided.
So, we went higher.
If you drive to the Ouray Ice Park and continue driving, you’ll end up on Camp Bird Road. This road is located along a steep valley, where significant ice seems to form. We only elevated about 100 or 200 meters (300-600 feet) from the town, but that elevation change was enough to yield significant changes in the weather.
While it was sunny and rainy in Ouray, several inches of fresh powder lay on the ground at Camp Bird. Perfect.
It was like walking inside of a perfectly dusted snowglobe.
We continued up, found some ice all to ourselves, and spent our afternoon swinging sharp pointy things into it, going up and down. After three days climbing with crowds in the park, this was a perfect change of pace.
After the weather turned more ominous and cold, we hopped in our cars and headed for home. Half the crew was from Grand Junction, so they were home in just three hours or so. The rest of us had a long, seven-hour drive back to the Front Range.
It passed quickly, in a tired, satisfied haze.
What else is there to do in Ouray?
In winter, not much.
“That’s why I like this place,” said one of the Ouray veterans on my trip. “You know everyone you see is either a local, or a climber. There’s no other reason to be here,” they added, laughing.
There are five hot springs pools in or around Ouray:
- Ouray Hot Springs Pool (big pool entering town)
- The Wiesbaden Hot Springs
- The Twin Peaks Hot Springs
- The Box Canyon Hot Springs
- Orvis Hot Springs (clothing optional)
My party raved about the Orvis hot springs non-stop, but unfortunately, we never made it there on this trip. Sad!!
There are a few restaurants and bars in town, but the whole place is more or less shut down by 10 or 11, even on a weekend night. It’s a sleepy little pueblo.
Bring food and cook at your condo — you’re going to be exhausted after a day of climbing.
Duckett’s Market on the main street has a decent selection of food at reasonable prices.
The Ouray Bar Scene
There are a few bars and breweries in Ouray. Take your pick, but don’t expect much of a wild, late-night scene.
We went to the Ourayle House on both nights we went out. Someone in our party had a loud and affectionate love for it. They called it “my favorite bar in the entire world.”
I will admit: this place certainly had a very strong flavour! Whether you’ll enjoy it or not, I can’t say. (The TripAdvisor reviews reveal a pretty distinct division between those who “get it” and those who “don’t get it”)
[This bar might deserve it’s own post. Unfortunately, we forgot about the flash on our disposable camera (Wal-Mart will develop these), which meant we ruined a lot of pictures.]
The bartender (alias Mr grumpypants) closed the bar, with us in it, around 10 both nights.
We walked the three blocks back to our rental condo. I went to bed. Four of our party opened a bottle of whisky, and cracked in.
In the morning, it was empty.
Ouray is packed with tourists in the summer. The town’s location in the mountains is incredible, and it offers easy access to tons of nearby 14ers (14,000+ foot mountains), jeep tours, fishing, kayaking, hot springs, hiking, camping… the place is poppin’.
So if you want to visit Ouray, go in summer, okay? Leave the winter for us ice climbers.
The Last Word
Like Indian Creek, Ouray is one of those places that possesses a special energy. It’s rare; it’s unique; and it’s the sort of place that is becoming more difficult to find in this rapidly-shrinking world.
I hesitate to write on it.
(But I know, in the end — ice climbing is only for true crazies).
Although the Ouray Ice Park can be crowded and artificial, the fact remains: there are few other places in the WORLD where you can rack up so much practice ice climbing in such a short period of time, with such minimal hassle. I felt that my skill level and confidence as an ice climber increased exponentially during the four days we spent in Ouray.
Ouray is well worth a visit for any experienced or aspiring ice climber, or for those who just want to get a taste of something extraordinary.
Have you been to Ouray? Leave your thoughts in the comments.