Outside magazine, November 1997
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.