Ice Climbing in Ouray

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Margaritas are one thing, but you haven't really tasted ice until you climb one of Ouray's frozen waterfalls. I curse Mike O'Donnell for confiscating my ice axes, and when I slip for the second time down a Winnebago-size slab of vertical ice and smack hard against the frozen pack, I have a real desire to crampon him in the groin. But my instructor stands out of reach on the ground 40 feet below, belaying me, while I dangle from a rope on the frozen western wall of Uncompahgre Gorge in Ouray Ice Park. A lazy breeze wafts through the gorge. Birds sing. Why the hell am I not out snowshoeing leisurely across some meadow in a more amicable part of the San Juan Mountains?

Access & Resources:

The park is open everyday from 7 am to 5 pm. For ice conditions and more climbing information, visit: www.ourayicepark.comOuray's annual Ice Festival: www.ourayicefestival.com

"Move your feet!" O'Donnell bellows. I kick my crampons into the ice and resume the desperate search for footing. Earlier, I'd made the critical mistake of performing "not bad" — in O'Donnell's estimation — in my first scramble up the wall using a full complement of gear. "But your feet need work," he had declared, reaching for my axes. "I'll take those."Don't let the boot-camp growling fool you — few pursuits set the heart pounding and the adrenaline racing like ice climbing. The sport, at its core, amounts to more than scaling monolithic chunks of ice. It means interpreting and navigating one of Mother Nature's most breathtaking works of art — the frozen waterfall. That's what makes it exhilarating, and that's why ice climbing has mushroomed in popularity nationwide. Last winter in Ouray, Colorado, O'Donnell taught 300 clients, double the number of his previous season.

Likewise, the Eastern Mountain Sports Climbing School in North Conway, New Hampshire, another leading academy, trained 600 students last season, up from 282 in 1992. Sales of ice axes and crampons are booming. What's more, the number of national ice climbing festivals in North America has burgeoned from two to six in the last seven years, and — in the surest sign yet that pop culture has flung open its arms and embraced the sport — ESPN has featured ice climbing prominently in their Extreme Games.

More than anything, the biggest boost to the sport's popularity has been the rapid evolution of equipment. "People realize they can venture into hostile environments and still be cozy in their insulated fibers," explains Charlie Townsend of Eastern Mountain. "And you don't have to be a brute to climb anymore with the advances in ice axes and crampons."


Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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