Ice Fest

Dutch climber Marianne van der Steen has a little fun after finishing her winning climb during the 2019 Elite Mixed comp. (Photo courtesy of Brook Hayer)

Imagine this: You’re standing in a narrow gorge in January, and all around you, snow and ice carpet the red rock walls to create a three-dimensional, wintertime collage of San Juan Mountains colorOn one side of the gorge lies a 60-foot pitch of vertical ice, glistening sea-glass green in the morning light, rivulets of water frozen in a towering formation of icy tendrils. Above that is another tower — this one a manmade structure, with plastic “climbing features” attached to it — ascending at an overhanging angle into the sky. Finally, at the top of it all, there’s a steel cable stretched across the narrow gorge with a series of Cirque du Soleil-worthy contraptions suspended in the chilly air: massive dangling cubes and trapeze-style monkey bars.

Add in crowds of cheering onlookers and elite climbers from around the globe swiftly ascending this beastly route of rock, ice and artificial features, and you have the Elite Mixed Climbing competition at the annual Ouray Ice Fest. This year, it will take place in the Ouray Ice Park, beginning at 9 a.m. Jan. 25, during the 25th annual Ouray Ice Festival.

“We encourage everyone to show up and check it out,” said Ouray Ice Park Executive Director Dan Chehayl. “Being at the festival and watching the competition is just as much for everybody as it is for climbers. You’re going to be wowed. It’s a place to get welcomed into a whole other world.”

Since its official formation in 1995, the dedicated staff and volunteers at the ice park have been transforming the gorge into a wintertime Mecca for ice climbers each year. Using a system of thousands of feet of pipes, hundreds of spray nozzles and approximately 200,000 gallons of water each night from the city’s overflow tank, the resulting man-made ice creates over 100 climbing routes, comprising nearly three miles of vertical terrain. Surprisingly, admission to the ice park is free and open to the public; the annual festival is its biggest fundraiser, generating more than half of its operating costs for the year.

This year, the festival celebrates its silver anniversary, marking 25 years of commitment to the annual celebration of climbing ice in the Uncompahgre Gorge, the ice park’s home. As such, festivalgoers can expect new events, such as the Après Climb Expo, where from 3-4:30 p.m. on Jan. 24-25 attendees can enjoy beer provided by Upslope Brewing and warm their hands over fire barrels. The centerpiece attraction — and conversational icebreaker, so to speak — will be a 15-foot-high, steel-framed sculpture packed with firewood, then coated in ice. The art installation was created as a collaboration between local artist Jeff Skoloda and the so-called “ice farmers,” park staff who control water flow throughout the park in order to harvest the ice for climbing. On Jan. 25, the art piece will be lit on fire, Burning Man-style, its melting exterior (as the center goes up in flames) meant to foment conversation about climate change. 

“The idea of this space is to hang out, think, and talk about climate change and how it’s going to affect the park and winter tourism throughout the West,” said Chehayl, who noted that members of the advocacy group Protect Our Winters will be present for discussions.

For those seeking a physical experience as well as an intellectual one, this year’s fest will continue the tradition of encouraging interested festivarians to get on the ice themselves during free adult walk-up climbing. From 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Jan. 24 and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Jan. 25. Guides will be available to assist anyone who wants to experience the unique sensation of ascending a wall of ice with spikes attached to their hands and feet Jan. 26. Participants will be able to demo ice axes, crampons and boots, and all necessary climbing gear, and expertise is provided free of charge. 

“All you need is some warm clothes and gloves. We’ll get you outfitted with gear and tie you onto a rope with an experienced belayer and some people there to tell you what to do,” Chehayl said. “It’s a great opportunity to try ice climbing for the first time, test some gear from our sponsors, and see if it’s something you want to keep doing.”

Adults aren’t the only ones who can get in on the action; children will also have a chance to climb ice during Kids Climbing College from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Jan. 25-26. Chehayl pointed out that the Kids Climbing College is also a free monthly event that takes place on the first Saturday of each month at the ice park. Run by San Juan Mountain Guides, all kids between the ages of 7-17 are welcome to try ice climbing from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. with expert instruction.

Still unsure of whether you should try ice climbing yourself? Listen to professional ice climber and longtime Ouray Ice Park devotee Tim Foulkes. Foulkes first visited the ice park in 1999 on a trip with the Western State Mountain Rescue team, where he took a class and climbed ice for the first time.

“They handed me these crazy tools and told me how to do it, and after I came down, classmates told me I was just glowing, beaming, grinning ear to ear,” Foulkes recalled of that first climb. “I just didn’t want it to stop.”

Twenty years later, he says, he still absolutely loves it.

“The beauty and the ephemeral quality of frozen water is insane,” he said. “It’s like nature’s artwork. When I stand under these amazing climbs, like Bridal Veil Falls or the Ames Ice Hose, it still just takes my breath away.”

In addition to walk-up climbing opportunities, the festival will also offer more than 100 clinics, for climbers of all levels of experience, starting at $69 per person, on subjects ranging from footwork fundamentals, skills for lead climbers, placement of protective gear and more. For information on clinics, availability, and schedules, head to the San Juan Mountain Guide website mtnguide.netand navigate to the schedule by clicking the “ice” tab, followed by the “more ice climbing” option.

Once the sun goes down in the ice park, there’s still plenty more fun to be had in town, with a full schedule of evening events, including presentations by professional climbers, auctions, comedy acts and, of course, parties.

The Wright Opera House in Ouray will host the kick-off party Jan. 23 from 7:30-9:30 p.m. For a $10 entry fee, guests can enjoy beer provided by Upslope Brewing, food and prizes, and live music by Colorado bluegrass band Rapidgrass. All proceeds from the kick-off party will benefit the American Alpine Club.

The evenings of Jan. 24-25 at the Ouray Community Center will fuel attendees’ sense of adventure with presentations by professional climbers from around the globe. The climbers will present true stories on everything from monk-blessed journeys to seek remote Himalayan ice, to coping with loss and grief in the Wind River Range, to one climber’s personal story of transformation and her subsequent activism to increase inclusivity for LGBTQ people in the climbing world. On. Jan. 24, speakers will include Ari Novak and Karsten Delap on “Himalayan Ice,” and Nikki Smith on “Being Nikki Smith.” On Jan. 25, Tom Livingstone will present on “The Great Game,” and Jesse Huey, Whitt Magro and Maury Birdwell will speak of “Gambling in the Winds.”

Following the speaker presentations and the live auction Jan. 25, is the moment of the weekend many have been waiting for: the one-and-only, infamous Petzl Party. This year’s theme for the weekend’s biggest bash is “Space,” with costumes strongly encouraged. For $20, you’ll get admission into the hottest dance party in town, Upslope beer included, featuring danceable beats provided by Ridgway local DJ John Walker. 

“The Petzl Party is a raucous, crazy party,” Chehayl said. “It’s been around for a long time. It started out as a party that got out of control, in rental homes around town.”

Eventually, festival organizers decided to take the event under their wing to manage the mayhem a bit more, “but it’s still wild and crazy,” Chehayl said.

Billed as part-dance party, part-rave, part-costume party, this year the sky’s not even the limit for the sequin-clad extraterrestrials, “Star Wars” cameos, and other cosmic costumers who will show up to show off their disguises. The winner of the best costume award will take home a new pair of Petzl ice tools and intergalactic bragging rights.

While the soiree officially runs from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. at the Ouray Community Center, many choose to dance through the night at the after parties sure to follow, with “locations TBA and yours to figure out,” according to the official ice fest how-to guide.

For those not feeling sluggish the morning of Jan. 26, another full day of festivities awaits. The morning kicks off at 9 a.m. with the Hari Berger Speed Competition, in which climbers face off racing vertically up adjacent pillars of ice in the gorge, sometimes scaling the entire route in just 30 seconds. To ensure fairness of difficulty, the climbers then swap routes and race a second time. Because the speed comp is open to all climbers, it often provides a spirited showdown between local legends and professional climbers.

Finally, for those who would like to see what the world-famous Ouray Ice Festival is all about but wish to add some variety to their daily activities, Ouray is home to an ice rink, a small ski hill with a tow-rope, and several famous hot springs to warm the blood and chase away the screaming-barfies.

If you’re lucky enough not to know what the screaming-barfies are, just ask an ice climber next weekend.

For more information, visit ourayicepark.com.