Each year, the small town of Ouray, CO transforms into a retreat for top ice climbing athletes from around the world.
Writer: Travis Poulin
Each year, hundreds of world-class athletes gather for a festival to celebrate a sport that is arguably more distinctive than any other outdoor recreation activity: ice climbing. Though growing in popularity, it’s rare to find someone with the particular drive and ambition required to scale frozen waterfalls and cliff faces using crampons and ice axes.
The small town of Ouray, CO, population 1,000, transforms into an annual retreat for top ice climbing athletes from around the world for the Ouray Ice Festival. Each year, Ouray develops a man-made ice climbing park in Uncompahgre Gorge using a system of pipes, water, gravity and Colorado’s frigid weather.
The Ouray Ice Park is home to more than 200 different named ice climbing routes that attract climbers of all skill levels who then have the opportunity to utilize guided services, set up top-ropes and rope-solos or practice their lead climbing.
Not only does the festival bring together ice climbers from around the world, it also serves as the main source of funding for the ice park, which is free to the public. Ouray Ice Park is a non-profit organization that utilizes many ice climbing enthusiast volunteers. Users of the park can opt to become members of the organization to help further fund the maintenance operations that are required to operate the ice park and festival each year.
The festival consists of competitions, gear demos and the celebration of ice climbing, and as with most climbing organizations, safety is a main concern. Ouray may be the only town where it is illegal to not be wearing crampons and a helmet in certain areas (the ice park). The festival brings together top climbers and gear manufacturers from climbing communities around the world.
The park uses gravity-fed runoff water that travels through pipes from the town of Ouray a short distance away. The water is dripped onto the cliff faces from the pipes, where it freezes into world-class ice climbing routes. The process may sound easy, but an ice park is very difficult to build and maintain. The park has several experienced “ice farmers” that mitigate and maintain the ice throughout the winter. The park is weather dependent, and opening and closing dates can often be unpredictable.
“It gathers the tribe,” said Xander Bianchi, full time ice farmer for Ouray Ice Park. “Ice climbing is already a smaller group of people within the sport of climbing. It’s not a mainstream sport, but I think it’s growing from events like ice festivals.”
Bianchi is one of three ice farmers at the park; all three are full-time employees. Most of the other maintenance help is volunteer-based. Bianchi said Ouray Ice Park has a dedicated bunch of volunteers, and without their help the park would not operate.
Bianchi has been ice climbing for eight years and lived full time in Ouray for two. He said the ice climbing community is small, but each year he thinks more rock climbers and first-timers drift into an ice festival to try their luck in Ouray’s frozen paradise. When asked what the ice climbing community was like, Bianchi said, “We’re a weird bunch.”
Other popular ice festivals take place in Bozeman, MT; North Conway, NH; and Cody, WY.
Photo courtesy Xander Bianchi