Ouray is ice climbing’s version of Mecca. Man-made ice formed by water piped in through a simple PVC-based system ensures that there’s consistent ice even when Mother Nature doesn’t provide. This is why ice climbers of all stripes venture here, much as the Islamic faithful pilgrimage to the Holy City of Mecca in Saudi Arabia.
Known far and wide in present times for its ice climbing, the former gold and silver mining town of Ouray doesn’t simply cater to the elite athlete set that shows up for the Ouray Ice Festival, now in its 19th year. Nope, there is ice here for climbers of most abilities – only the sorts who like to climb in an inverted position for a long distance will be disappointed.
As well as witnessing a few guides teaching on either side of us, I heard several people around us admit it was their first day of ice climbing as Neil Dillon and I hacked out our own ascents. Intermingled with those were obviously capable climbers, seasoned veterans, and even the crag-style partiers whose partying will waft your way. Remember, Ouray is in Colorado, where smoking weed is legal. Expect to both see and smell someone lighting up nearby during your days of swinging ice axes.
Everything in Ouray is pretty straightforward. The town is comprised of one Main street and a few side streets. Hotels and lodging options abound. A few eateries and pubs are interspersed on the street with typical small town shops. (the Ouray Brewery right on Main Street gave us such fast, friendly, and attentive service, as well as good food – including incredible fries! – that we ate there twice instead of checking out another locale.) The ice park is just past the south end of town. Maybe 300 meters past it. Follow the road around one curve to the right, one to the left, hit an immediate right turn, and you’re at the well-known bridge viewing point.
Navigating Ouray’s Ice Park :
- Ice climbing in the mountains, just like skiing, relies on Nature, which is predictably fickle. The water flows that supply the Ice Park are less iffy. Many nozzle installations pour, spray, and dribble water down into numerous different climbs.
- The majority of the climbing is via top rope. Establish your anchor, toss your rope, and either rap in or take one of several walking trails down. This claims that area as yours, particularly if you’re walking down, and prevents any sort of route jumping by other parties. The trails have ratty, often knotted ropes to help you out over the ice bulges and steeper sections. Then climb! There is a lead climbing area immediately adjacent to the bridge, where top-roping is prohibited unless you’re the second. The handful of routes in this area are among the longest and steepest in the park. Otherwise, everything in the park is mandated as top-rope.
- The previous point in mind, it is sorta hard to see every climb from above. So you might get established, get down, and see a better looking climb right next to your location. It’s not a bad idea to send one climber down to scout the route you’ve chosen, and leave the other remaining above to pull the rope and move it over a route or three. The problem with having your entire party scout from below is twofold: 1) others could move onto your route as you’re climbing back up to establish your anchor, and 2) it’s easy to confuse one route for another from above.
- There is a short, easy practice area 50 feet from the bridge. Probably great if you need or want to warm up a bit before committing to the longer routes in the ravine.
- Obvious foot trails lead the way around the rim of the entire park. Above the piping, where a handrail and grate acts as a bridge, rubber mats cover the bridge surface. This helps prevent spike to grate mating, and resultant face-first flights 100 feet down into the gorge.
- This is about as safe a place to run ice climbing drills as you’ll find anywhere, so dice it up if you’re inclined. It’s all about elevating your game.
- There’s no requirement to do so, but there are benches just beyond the bridge where putting on one’s crampons is facilitated. You wouldn’t want to slip whilst walking around looking for your climb, but before that, walking up the road in your spikes isn’t the best idea.
- Numerous trees and a few bolts are available for top rope anchor building. Don’t build an anchor on the railings; not cool, not allowed. Hot tip: most of the anchors require fairly long webbing or cordelette. Plan accordingly. Although I brought a solid variety of anchor making materials, we primarily used Neil’s longer cordelette. Think 20-30 feet rather than 6-10.
- This one is about as obvious as not sticking a screwdriver into a live electrical socket, but don’t walk on either the large metal pipe or the smaller PVC pipes..
- There is enough flat area at the bottom of the majority of the gorge to enable belayers to belay from the far side of the canyon. Many established anchors are available for belayers to tie in. All of this is nice because there’s a fairly relentless cascade of (sometimes large) pieces of ice – whether dinner plates or mushroom caps or otherwise – from not only the climber you’re belaying, but all the others around, as well.
- That last point in mind, keep an eye out above if you’re walking around in the belay area, scouting your next climb from below, or simply exiting. Ouray Ice Park asks that you not occupy one route for more than three hours, so you’re gonna have to move around, even if you have a large party. While no one is trying to kill you, there are some areas where virtually every pick placement by the climber above will rip out a cauliflower head, mushroom cap, or even just boring old spear shaped icicles.
- Did I mention that a helmet and crampons are mandatory in the climbing areas?
- Ouray Ice Park, located in the Uncompahgre Gorge, operates as a free, first-come, first served ice climbing venue. That’s pretty rad. However, the place isn’t free to operate, so getting an Ouray Ice Park membership ($40) is the way to support this awesome resource. Get yours online at the link.
- Hot Springs are plentiful in Ouray, Colorado, so don’t forget your swimsuit!
- Last pointer: Roadside ice climbing is abundant! If the park is super busy, or you want to lead climb, or just yearn for diversity, drive around and find some worthy ice distractions. There are plenty of classic climbs to be found, including Bird Brain Boulevard, Stairway to Heaven, and Bridal Veil Falls.