Climbing on rock is fun, so it should be even more fun on ice, right?
Personally, I never gave this idea much thought until recently when a friend suggested the ultimate Colorado weekend trip: 150+ top rope ice climbing routes all within a 5-minute drive from the charming town of Ouray, CO with nearby Orvis Hot Springs for those cool, sore nights spent at altitude. Each year thousands of people visit the free Ouray Ice Park from mid-December to late March for icy climbing and epic snowy views. This year, I was hoping to add my name to the list.
Jon Bowen breaks off ice in order to secure proper placement.
In typical weekend warrior fashion, we packed our bags and started the 5.5 hour drive to Ouray from Denver at 3:30 am in the morning with the hopes of hopping on ice lines by the time morning coffee really started to kick in. The scenic drive to Ouray takes you over several mountain passes, Gunnison National Forest, and last minute supply stop, Montrose, before reaching the American, “Swiss Alps” town of Ouray.
In town, several local mountain shops offer ice tools, crampons, and boot rentals for those keen enough to test themselves on ice for the first time. Local guiding company, San Juan Mountain Guides, even offers private ice guiding tours in the park for beginners who require further instruction and support. My take? If you know how to set an anchor and are comfortable leading 5.9 sport climbing routes, a map and full tank of stoke will take you a long way.
Jon Bowen follows an alternate approach into “South Park”, one of the park’s best sections of ice for beginners and intermediates far away from crowds.
Nick Richardson belays in the canyon with one of the most important pieces of gear for ice climbing: crampons.
As you continue south on US-550 past Ouray you’ll quickly discover the Uncompahgre Gorge, home to the ice climbing man-made mecca. Thanks to some clever engineering and an overflow of excess water from the City of Ouray’s spring-fed supply tank, the deep, shady gorge turns into an ice climbing paradise where beginners and professionals alike come to test themselves each year. In November, a committed group of volunteers and staff spray water down the canyon resulting in walls of ice up to 40 meters in height with routes ranging in difficulty from WI1-WI6/M1-M9+. With both ice and mixed climbs, 11 distinct climbing areas, and three miles of vertical terrain, there is truly something for any outdoor enthusiast.
Take me as an example, for my first time on ice I managed to successfully climb (on top rope) routes graded up to WI4. As an intermediate rock climber the transition seemed simple enough, kick in your crampons into ice until you feel solid enough to stand up and pick at the ice with your tools until you can create enough of a dent to hang on. Easy enough, right? After my fair share of falls (and maybe even a bruise or two) I began to feel a bit differently. But by day 3 of climbing and after dropping an ice tool halfway up the wall, my stubbornness (and the teasing of friends) told me to continue upward and resulted in a successful send with just a single ice tool. Moral of the story? Get off the couch and head yourself out to Ouray for some good ‘ol Colorado fun.
Martin Ferguson on “Cartmanland” (WI4).
Because every great adventure ends with a pinch of whiskey.
Intimidated by the idea of ice climbing for the first time? Are you in need of some new mountain friends because your latest climbing partner keeps sleeping in on the weekends? Then head out to the 2018 Ouray Ice Festival hosted by the Ouray Ice Park on January 18th -21st! With over 100 interactive and educational climbing clinics to accommodate every skill level, participants are sure to have an experience to remember. Best part of all? No registration is required to attend but if you’d like to sign up for a clinic visit Ouray’s festival partner: San Juan Mountain Guides.
About the Author & Photographer
Adam A. Pawlikiewicz
As a Colorado native I grew up climbing, riding, and skiing all around the Front Range. To say I’m obsessed with the outdoors is quite an understatement. I live for moments spent outside with friends pushing themselves to their absolute limits and as a photographer I aim to capture those raw moments of pure joy found through struggle and accomplishment.