Legend has it that ice climbing Mecca, Ouray Ice Park, can trace its roots back to a leaking irrigation pipe. Back in the early ‘80s, climbers peering down into Ouray, Colorado’s Uncompahgre River Gorge noticed a massive 80-foot icicle. Upon rappelling down to investigate its source, they found a leak in a hydroelectric water pipeline. They also found that this improbable icicle made for great climbing. If the climbers’ ice tools “accidentally” caused a few more leaks to sprout, and thus a few more climbing routes, well, that’s their business.
Today, the “ice farmers” of Ouray use an elaborate irrigation system to create the world’s largest man-made ice climbing venue. And in the winter, the sleepy town of Ouray turns into a premier ice climbing destination.
The park’s biggest weekend of the year is the Ouray Ice Festival, when ice climbers from all over the world, ranging from beginner to pro, meet up for several days of climbing competitions, clinics, and camaraderie. Because the ice park is always free to the public, and farming ice is quite expensive, the festival also serves as the park’s biggest fundraiser, with many of ice climbing’s top brands showing up as event sponsors.
This year, we took the Backcountry Airstream to the festival, where we hung out with our friends at Black Diamond and met many of our climbing customers.
“I was climbing in Ouray on occasion before the ice park existed,” said Doug Heinrich, VP of Product for Black Diamond. “There was a guy that worked at “the Vic” (the Ouray Victorian Inn) that started gathering friends to climb in the canyon and stay at the hotel. It was a grassroots get-together that brought a few ice climbers. It was eventually organized into a real event. I had the good fortune to participate in the competition when it was by invitation and climbing ice was scored on style as well as a mixed comp. It was a great gathering of athletes as mixed climbing was changing rapidly. My favorite part of the festival is to teach and watch new climbers learn about a new activity. The stoke meter is super high at Ouray!”
“The festival is a great excuse for many folks to road-trip for the sole purpose of ice climbing and connecting with other like-minded folks that they maybe haven’t seen in a year,” said Kolin Powick, Category Director of Climbing for Black Diamond. “It’s for people that are, or want to be, well-rounded year-round climbers.” While Ouray is one of the largest ice climbing events in the country, Powick says there are many more out there. “There are many big ice festivals and lots of grassroots ones as well: Bozeman, Ouray, and Michigan are probably the biggest, but there are more in Alaska, New England, and California.”
“Black Diamond is a major equipment sponsor of the event and the gear sponsor for the whole park,” said Powick. “BD has been producing some of the best technical ice gear for upwards of 50 years, since the Chouinard days. You basically can’t think of ice climbing without thinking of BD.”
When asked how ice climbing gear has evolved over the years, Powick said, “to go into this in detail would take hours. At the end of the day, the gear is lighter and easier to use. Picks go in better, tools are lighter and easier to swing and don’t bash your knuckles, screws are easier to place, leashes are all but extinct, leaving leashless the way of today, allowing for easier placing of gear, swapping of tools and hand temperature regulation. Crampons are lighter and work better, and on the extreme front, mixed climbing has made it necessary for the gear to come along with it.”
When asked about his favorite thing about the ice festival, Powick said, “seeing new climbers have their minds blown by watching and learning from the best athletes in the business.” He offered advice to beginners attending the festival for the first time: “Take advantage of the festival to learn about the gear, try different products, get tips from the pros. It’s an incredible opportunity. Imagine going to try out the very latest basketball shoes and shooting hoops with Kobe or LeBron. That’s basically what you get to do at the ice festival.”
Powick and many others look forward to the ice fest all year. He listed some of his favorite parts of the festival, the things that keep him coming back: “Giving beginners a chance to experience ice climbing is amazing. Beginners, intermediate and advanced climbers have the opportunity to learn from the pros—such a great opportunity. Watching the comp is always fun. The slide shows in the evening are always enjoyable. The parties afterwards have been known to get out of hand. I look forward to it all.”