A Slippery Slope

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, November 1997

A Slippery Slope

The world's first ice-climbing park goes up in Colorado
By Pam Grout


Waves of Majesty

A beach bum's version of the Super Bowl, the Triple Crown of Surfing will decide the 1997 world champion. The competition, which starts November 12 at Alii Beach Park on Oahu, culminates December 8-20 at Oahu's Ehukai Beach Park, where you'll see the likes of Kelly Slater ride Pipeline's 20-foot waves. All events are free. Call 808-637-6376 for details.

Fish Shtick

Dispelling the widely held belief that they have no sense of humor, the North Country's Scandinavians go decorously mad during the annual Fish House Parade in tiny Aitkin, Minnesota. On the day after Thanksgiving, ice fishermen adorn themselves and their shacks in costumes, some involving cross-dressing or, from what we hear, a touch of nudity. Thousands of spectators line the route. For information, call the Aitkin Area Chamber of Commerce at 800-526-8342.

Camp Singletrack

Worried that your local singletrack has been degraded by use during the summer? The Nantahala Outdoor Center offers a solution via its three-day camp on designing and maintaining singletrack, November 14-16. The first day is spent in workshops, the second working on trails, and the third reaping one's just rewards by riding the refurbished routes. A $20 deposit is required, but lodging at NOC is free. Call 888-662-1662 for details.

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There's a frosty the snowman quality to natural ice walls: They appear, they shimmer, they evoke childlike glee. Then the sun hits them and they liquefy. And they can be darn hard to find. "I've sometimes walked a zillion miles and almost puked from exhaustion," says Colorado ice-climbing guide Mike O'Donnell, "all in search of 90 feet of frozen water."

The good folks of Ouray, Colorado recognized in this an opportunity. Two years ago, a group of locals, most of them climbers themselves, began developing the world's first ice-climbing park. Laying pipe, building catwalks, and installing nozzles, the builders created a wall with all the shimmering enticements of the natural variety. But it had certain signal advantages: It was accessible, easily replenished, and hearteningly close to a burrito shop.

The completed Ouray Ice Park, set amidst the splendor of the San Juan Mountains, now extends about 120 feet up the steep cliffs of the Uncompahgre Gorge. Its mile and a half of ice hardens each winter into massive waterfalls, icicle fans, and chandeliers sheltering more than 45 routes, from the simple to the insanely difficult. Best of all, the park is only a three-minute hike from the heart of Ouray, a funky, semirestored mining town where you can trade climbing tips over microbrews and then soak at one of the largest hot springs in the world.

So far, Ouray's wintertime ice kingdom has remained relatively undiscovered, a frozen Colorado Brigadoon. But that's likely to change. Last year, as many as 25 cars jammed the parking lot — admittedly a puny turnout compared to that at the skiing mecca of Telluride, an hour to the southwest. But according to townspeople, it represents a dramatic increase over traffic in 1995. Much of the nation's small and fanatical ice-climbing fraternity now winters in Ouray. "To an ice climber," says Rahn Zaccari, an avid climber who moved to the area two years ago, "hanging out here is akin to being a football fan and living next to Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and Joe Namath."

For less rabid types, Ouray represents perhaps the best place in the country to learn ice climbing. Dozens of marginally employed climbers mill about downtown, eager to lead newcomers up routes with such inspirational names as Bloody Sunday and Root Canal. Drop your bags at the Ouray Victorian Inn (doubles, $55; 970-325-7222), call San Juan Mountain Guides (970-325-4925), and you can be practicing monkey hangs within the hour. Guides, gear, and a full-day lesson cost about $195 per person. Use of the park itself is free. And every year, during the Arctic Wolf Ouray Ice Festival, the lessons themselves are free. This season's festival will be held January 16-19.

Eventually you may feel proficient enough to lead an entirely new route — park founders say there's room for at least 50 more — and achieve a climber's version of immortality: You name the pitch. Choose carefully, however. Puns may be easy but can be painful. (Think "Ice Try" or "Cold Storage.") And the appellation you pick will last longer than the exact route. It disappears, after all, each spring.

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