One of my friends, JB, organizes the “Super Awesome Outdoor Group” on Facebook. It’s a place where we post different outdoor activities to do every week. He loves ice climbing, and he organized a trip to Ouray to climb and watch the ice climbing competition. Unfortunately, for him, he got very sick and couldn’t attend, but ten of us did (at different times).
The Ouray Ice Park is considered the best park in the United States and also one of the best in the World. Located in the Uncompahgre Gorge, originally climbers came to Ouray in the 70’s to test out two steep classics…”Stone Free” and “Tangled Up in the Blue”. Over time, equipment improved and some local climbers came up with the idea to spray water from a nearby source on the mile long gorge forming a mile of crystal blue, farmed ice. In 1994, the volunteer organized, free ice park was born.
Word traveled fast in the small ice climbing community, and by 1996, the Ouray Ice Park held its first festival which is now recognized as being a premier event. It attracts climbers from all over the world who compete and test out the latest gear from the gear manufacturing exhibitors. It is the only ice park with over a mile of farmed ice located within the city limits, thus it attracts several spectators like us!
Having said that, three folks in our group arrived in Ouray on Tuesday night after a LONG, snowy drive and hired a guide to take them out for a day of climbing. They kicked their feet into the ice with their crampons and used their ice axes to hack holes in the ice and climb to the top of several routes. They all loved it!
I joined them on Wednesday and we opted for a snowshoe on the Perimeter Trail, highlighting Ouray’s treasures. The five mile loop was described in Ouray’s Visitors Guide as starting and ending at the Visitor Center at the altitude of 7,800 feet, climbing steeply at first, but mostly undulating through the forest with parts of the trail great for family friendly hikes.
We started from my hotel and we climbed a four wheel drive road before we finally reached the trailhead. The trail was snow packed, and while we had strapped on our snowshoes, the best option for the hike looked like micro-spikes which we left in our rooms. Not long after we strapped on our snowshoes, we reached some stairs and a metal bridge which led to Box Canyon Falls…the snowshoes came off! We trounced around just in our boots for a while, but tired of carrying the snowshoes, so we strapped them on again as we looped around the back side of the ice park. We climbed over pipes that took water to the park, crossed over a wood bridge by Ouray’s old water tunnel, and continued back up to the road. The views of the surrounding snow capped mountains were magnificent.
Too lazy to unstrap the snowshoes, we crossed the asphalt carefully, found the trail and started climbing…SWITCHBACKS! Our little pamphlet did not show switchbacks…it was a simple dotted line that looped straight around the city. Probably eight or more switchbacks later, we finally reached the ridge and descended down toward the Portland Trailhead. The snow much deeper here made the snowshoes somewhat useful, as opposed to a hindrance.
After a short detour, we reached the Baby Bathtubs (rock formations carved out by water) and then carried on to Cascade Falls which was mostly frozen though some water still tumbled down the cliff. After the Cascade Falls, the trail hugged a cliff formation. Fortunately, the sun had melted the snow here, otherwise this part could have been treacherous. And of course, off came the snowshoes. After passing by the ledge, we descended down the trail and even made the first tracks in the snow as the few hikers that had followed it missed the descending switchbacks! Our hike/snowshoe included a bit of sliding and was much more challenging than expected, but it offered fantastic views of the snow covered town.
For our evening activities, we drove to Ridgway for Colorado Boy pizza and beer and then attempted to go see Ueli Steck, a famous Swiss climber known for his speed, give a presentation. It filled to capacity (200), and we were right at the cutoff.
A front moved in on Friday. We went to the ice park for a bit, and I checked out the railroad museum in Ridgway. It’s a stretch calling it a museum. There are a handful of railway items and some cars parked outside with a description. Beyond that, we played cards, grabbed the best burger in town, watched a climbing presentation and greeted the rest of our friends that trickled in to town the rest of the day/night. They had long drives too, due to the bad weather. I was the only one that didn’t, but there was still time!
Saturday included a day at the ice park. Six of us tested out the free climbing at the beginners wall. It’s definitely an adrenaline rush for the first time. Some of us, having never tried it, were a little nervous about what to expect. The volunteers who belayed us gave a variety of tips…form an A shape, kick your crampons into the ice, take small steps. We all topped out! I’m certain they made it easy, so we’d all want to become members of the ice park. Those who had rock climbed, still liked rock climbing better, including myself, but it was a little hard to compare to ten minutes of scaling the ice.
After our short climb, we watched the mix climbing event. The competitors started on ice, then switched to rock and then had to climb a tower with wood “nuggets” hanging on it to reach a pinata in twelve minutes. I wasn’t sure I’d enjoy watching the competition, only because I wasn’t sure I’d be able to appreciate their moves. But it was quite enjoyable! We could tell the difference between the elite and the others as they made it look effortless. It was also exciting because only three climbers made it to the pinata. I don’t know how many competitors there were, but they started at 9am and didn’t finish until almost 3pm, so the route proved challenging!
In addition, the weather was glorious which made it easy to hang out in the sun! Only the last hour with the sun behind the mountain became a little unbearable, but we had to see if we won anything in the raffles at the exhibitor tents. We got a little swag and a free shot of whiskey before we headed back to the hotel or hot springs or ice skating rink. Yes, we split up for a bit.
Then the news came that a horrible winter storm was going to hit at midnight, so half the group skipped dinner, the presentations and the party packed up and headed out. It may have been a smart decision as the four of us who stayed until the morning got trapped in Glenwood Springs. Sadly, it wasn’t due to bad weather, but a semi jack-knifed and closed down the highway and there is no other way out! We had a nice lunch at the brewery before we headed back out, but by this time, an inch of snow seemed to challenge countless drivers at Vail Pass. Not to mention, the truck drivers decided to stop in the middle of the road to chain up. What happened to pulling over? Eleven hours later, we arrived at home after a fun time in Ouray! I’ll definitely be going back. ETB