This is what happens when leaky plumbing gets really, really bad: ESPN camera crews show up, hotels triple their occupancy rates and a moribund mountain town becomes the mecca of ice climbing.
The Ouray Ice Park, which started as a few accidental leaks in a pipeline hanging over a gorge and flourished into a bouquet of purposeful leaks, now boasts more than 200 climbs that draw people from around the world.
As it celebrates its 21st season (in 2016) of ice-induced adrenaline, the park’s reputation for varied, accessible ice regularly attracts everyone from frightened first-timers to the sport’s elite pros.
“You might see a guy from Grand Junction out there in his camo jacket and Levis learning to climb not far from a guy who is just back from a big peak in Alaska,” said Erin Eddy, manager of the ice park and director of the annual Ouray Ice Festival, which draws hundreds of climbers and national TV crews.
Ouray has always been a pilgrimage spot for climbers, Eddy said, but it wasn’t until a few residents started farming ice that the word got out.
This region of the San Juan Mountains has the steep gorges, cold temperatures and trickling water needed to make high-quality, natural ice falls.
“Back in the ’60s, climbers like Jeff Lowe were coming here to climb the natural stuff and it got a reputation as a place for climbers,” Eddy said.
Near the road from the town to the mountains white beards of ice regularly grew from an aging pipeline leading to the city’s hydroelectric plant. It was inevitable that guys passing by would scale the icefalls formed from leaks. Once they did, it was only a matter of time before one of the ax-wielding alpinists helped the leaks out a bit with his pick.
But the true, legal ice park didn’t get started until two climbers running a motel in town, Gary Wild and Bill Whitt, tried to find something to liven up the dreary winter tourist traffic.
“Why don’t we build some ice climbs?” Whitt asked one day in 1993, according to the often-recounted story of the park’s conception.
They rounded up some plastic hose, hooked it to the city’s water system and left the water running.
Ouray became home to the world’s first ice park. Its opening coincided with a growing interest in outdoor sports. The number of climbers nationwide has increased by almost 30 percent since 2001, according to the Outdoor Industry Association.
As people from all over the world started showing up at the park in crampons, it quickly grew from a string of 60 routes created by dribbling water from primitive plastic pipes into a milelong curtain of ice crafted with a system of about 125 shower heads pumping out 75,000 gallons of icy mist every night.
“It’s turned into one of the most renowned ice venues in the world,” Eddy said.
SCHOOL ROOM ON ICE
For anyone not just returning from a big peak in Alaska, it is also one of the best places to learn this esoteric sport.
Hanging on a freezing, brittle cliff might not sound like a good time, but the number of new ice climbers taking a crack at it has more than doubled in the past 10 years, according to the Outdoor Industry Association.
Attaching metal spikes to every appendage and stabbing up a column of ice like an ax murderer can be a little intimidating.
“There is a lot of whacking involved, but it’s not too hard, and this is the best place to try it,” said Skip Wobig, 55, who has driven up from Fort Worth, Texas, for many years to get his ice-climbing fix.
He likes the challenge, he likes being outside, and he doesn’t mind being into something that sounds exotic, edgy, and dangerous back in Fort Worth.
As Wobig talked, he occasionally dodged saucer-sized chunks of ice dislodged by a firsttimer he was belaying up a slab in a section of the park called School Room.
The ropes of beginners hung in School Room as thick as the strings of a harp, and struck nearly as many notes: short, tall, thin, pudgy, excited and timid.
ALL WITH NO WAITING
Just around the bend, a crew of professionals from Austria and British Columbia were attacking an overhanging, mixed route of rock and ice.
The park has a climb for everyone.
“You can climb yourself stupid here and not have to worry about avalanches or a long walk in,” Wobig said. “Plus, if you get hungry or tired, you can just walk back to town.”
Most climbers come from the Front Range, where the little ice that does form may have a line of climbers eight deep waiting at the bottom on a busy weekend.
“Here we never have to wait,” said John Semich, who had driven down from Denver. “And we still get to hang out with a crowd of like-minded people.”
Signs in the windows of restaurants and hotels in Ouray advertise climber’s specials.
The town’s businesses used to hibernate all winter, but thanks to the pick-wielding crowds, with their bright plastic boots, bright plastic helmets and bright plastic credit cards, Ouray hums right through the coldest months.
“We used to shut down; it just wasn’t worth staying open,” said Kit Skelding, owner of a bed and breakfast.
“That has all changed in the last few years. Now I have guys coming from as far away as England. They can’t believe how good the climbing is here.”
TAKE A CRACK AT IT
A full set of ice climbing gear can easily cost more than $1,000, but anyone wanting to give it a try can rent gear and sign up for guided instruction for much less.
Ouray Mountain Sports, on Main Street, rents helmets and boots for just $5 to $15 a day; 1-970-325-4284.
San Juan Mountain Guides offers a weekend introductory ice climbing course for $305, including all equipment; 1-970-325-4925
GRAB YOUR GEAR
Ice Tool: Often mistakenly called an ice ax, the head of the tool sports a pick on one side and either an adze or a hammer on the other.
Crampons: Sets of metal spikes strapped to the bottom of a climber’s boots.
Ice Screws: Hollow metal tubes that climbers auger into the ice to use as safety anchors. ‘
Biner: Short for carabiner, a metal clip used to attach a climber’s rope to an ice screw or other anchor. A hard plastic helmet is a necessity to protect a climber from falling ice and flailing tools.
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