The World’s Best Ice Climbers Gather Here
On any given winter day along the edge of Colorado’s Uncompahgre Gorge, you’re nearly guaranteed to spy at least one daredevil dangling from a rope below you, clinging to an icy cliffside by crampons and the buried edge of an ice-axe. These rocky walls, amid the towering peaks of the San Juan mountain range, make up part of the world’s only ice park, steps from the small Victorian town of Ouray. Designed by expert climbers to challenge extremely skilled practitioners are 160 routes with names like “Evil has no Boundaries,” “Verminator,” and “Dizzy with the Vision.” Even the way down to the base of these routes, along a rough trail with only a rope for support, can test the steeliest nerves.
Faucets line the canyon’s rim and, in December, when it’s cold enough for water to freeze on a one-mile stretch of rocky walls, park officials turn on the spigots. Water trickles down the rock outcroppings and sleek walls that fall downward to the Uncompahgre River below. Gradually a sheath of frozen water covers the canyon sides, and it’s time to start ice-climbing.
During the 3-day Ouray Ice Festival every January, a huge crowd shows up to watch some of the world’s best climbers tackle challenges laid out on the 2-mile (3km) stretch of canyon primed for climbing. Three thousand visitors come to town for the event, and some 90% are ice climbers, so the routes can get crowded. During the remainder of the ice-climbing season (mid-Dec through Apr), it’s much calmer.
Interactive ice clinics take place during the festival and throughout the ice-climbing season. High-profile climbers teach basics such as setting anchors as well as advanced leading and other maneuvers. Local youngsters learn to climb early here on the Kids Wall.
Ouray is a special spot for people who want to explore the outdoors in a remote location and then relax in natural hot springs at the end of the day. The town has a pool complex with sections for swimming, a water slide, a shallow area for youngsters, and a game section popular for water volleyball. In the winter, cross-country and backcountry skiing are close to town. Summertime offers jeep trips up to Yankee Basin, ATV rides, and hiking and mountain biking trails that start from town. —LF
Ouray Ice Park ( 970/325-4288; www.ourayicepark.com). Chicks with Picks (offers women-only ice-climbing classes in Jan; 970-626-4424; www.chickswithpicks.com). Ouray Visitors Center ( 800/228-1876; www.ouraycolorado.com).
When to Go: Mid-Dec to Mar or early Apr.
Montrose Regional Airport, Colorado (36 miles/58km).
$ Ouray Chalet Inn, 510 Main St. ( 800-924-2538 or 970/325-4331; www.ouraychaletinn.com). $–$$ Box Canyon Lodge, 45 Third Ave. ( 800/327-5080 or 970/325-4981; www.boxcanyonouray.com). $$–$$$ Beaumont Hotel, 505 Main St. ( 888/447-3255 or 970/325-7000; www.beaumonthotel.com).