OURAY — At the bottom of a cold crevasse in the Uncompahgre Gorge, where sunlight reaches but only a few minutes a day, the climb to the surface begins.
The darkness is broken with the clicking echoes of steel penetrating ice. Slowly a small figure emerges on the icy wall, tethered by a rope.
If the passion of ice climbing lies in the ascent, then Ouray has succeeded in fostering the rise of this winter sport. Climbers and spectators from around the world will celebrate the 25th Ouray Ice Festival, Jan. 23-26.
What started out as a few rowdy locals climbing frozen leaks from an old water pipeline has turned into a world-class ice climbing destination.
During the ice festival, all of the hotel rooms in Ouray are booked, restaurants are packed, and a slew of foreign languages can be heard around town. Ouray’s population of just over 1,000 residents triples in size.
About a quarter-mile south of downtown, the Ouray Ice Park spans the Uncompahgre Gorge. Combined with the Uncompahgre River below, the box canyon forms a dramatic backdrop that is spectacular and functional for adventurers picking their way up fangs of ice using axes and wearing boots fitted with spikes on the toes.
The park uses about 7,500 feet of irrigation pipe to drip and spray more than 200,000 gallons of spring water from nozzles, usually starting just after Thanksgiving. The effect is a blue, man-made icescape.
Temperature is everything, as the freezing process begins in late fall. Ice farmers try to get the park open after Thanksgiving, yet unpredictable temperatures can keep climbers off the ice for days and even weeks.
“It was warm and we struggled getting the park open, but we had some cold weeks that helped,” said Dan Chehayl, the ice park’s executive director and one of the park’s ice farmers.
In 2019, record amounts of snowfall and moisture broke a years-long drought in the Western Slope of Colorado, including the northern San Juan Mountains.
“We’re having a good season this year. We have an unlimited water supply, and that’s something we haven’t had in five to six years because of the drought,” Chehayl said.
Chehayl reports 100 to 150 routes are open this season to climbers of every skill level, from young children to boomers, and beyond.
Pirates of ice
Ouray resident Bill Whitt arrived in town from southern California in 1989, seeking a “climbing lifestyle.” He had read somewhere there was good climbing in the Ouray area and decided to investigate for himself.
The first routes of the gorge were climbed on small ribbons of ice formed from leaks from a water pipeline that was part of an old hydroelectric water system. Water was engineered to flow from a dam at the bottom of Red Mountain through 1.5-mile pipeline along the rim of the gorge to spin turbines in the city’s then-dormant hydroelectric facility. It was located on the southern edge of town.
In those early days, Whitt and fellow climber Bill McTiernan, another Ouray local, ventured into the gorge each winter with crampons and tools exploring mixed routes of rock and ice.
For years they had the gorge to themselves.
“Those guys were pirates back then,” Chehayl said with a chuckle.
After hydroelectric manager Eric Jacobson acquired the Ouray Hydroelectric Plant from Colorado-Ute Electric Association following bankruptcy proceedings in 1992, access to the gorge dried up, Whitt said. Jacobson welded the leaks shut to prevent ice climbers from trespassing on the property.
“At that point we had to play ball,” Whitt said. “Before it became the ice park, there wasn’t any permission to climb there.”
During this time, Whitt and business partner Gary Wild, a retired lawyer from California, co-owned a hotel in Ouray. Together, they decided to create an ice park to attract people to town during the slow, sleepy winter months. But in order to begin, they first had to mend relations with Jacobson.
Whitt said Wild met up with Jacobson one day with a six-pack of beer as a peace offering to get the holes open on the pipeline again. After the two “hugged it out,” Whitt remembers, Wild began connecting hoses and shower heads to the pipeline to create new columns of ice.
“We would go out there and from one drip, there would be two; then two drips became three, and so on. That’s how it grew,” Whitt said.
Wild did all the legal work pro bono with Jacobson making sure there was adequate liability insurance for climbers.
From there, Whitt said, Ouray was officially on the map for ice climbing.
“Nothing was happening here, nothing,” Whitt said of Ouray during the winter months of the early 90s. “There was nobody here. It was dead until that park got going. People thought we were nuts!”
Located at 7,792 feet, Ouray historically is a mining town. The Uncompahgre River that runs through it can have unique colorations due to heavy mineral influences from the San Juan Mountains. The minerals, combined with sediment from the constantly eroding landscapes, is not a conducive mix for successful ice climbing.
In those early years of the festival, the ice, heavy with minerals and sediment, would not freeze well. The ice would become soft, melt quickly and break easily, creating “gross looking climbs,” Chehayl said. Worse, it could be dangerous for climbers.
The early ice farming system rough, Whitt remembers.
The park had to move from the old water supply to a reservoir that supplies the City of Ouray’s potable water. Now, water from the city’s reservoir, through the farming system, makes hardened blue ice on a massive scale.
“Compared to the orange water, the water now is eons better. Now we have that perfect blue ice,” Whitt said.
The City of Ouray is partnered with the ice park, whose board of directors and Jacobson lease part of the property to the city for $1 per year. In 2012, 24 acres of the park was transferred to the City of Ouray from the U.S. Forest Service, which led to more improvements and a sense of permanency.
Ouray has always had summer visitors who know it as “the Switzerland of the USA.” The growth and maturity of the ice park has brought not only winter tourism, but full-time residents.
According to data provided by the Ouray Visitors Center, 93% of winter visitors surveyed in 2018 reported they traveled to Ouray specifically for ice climbing, staying on average five-to-seven nights.
During the 2015-16 season, ice park visitors contributed $3.6 million to Ouray’s overall $5.3 million winter visitor economy, a separate report says.
“Now it’s a ski area, without the ski area,” Whitt said.
Chehayl said accessibility makes the Ouray Ice Park a success. Located just off U.S. 550, the park is walking distance from a parking lot. Multiple viewing platforms have been built and the water-delivery infrastructure has improved. This has helped grow the popularity of the ice park.
Chehayl expects the annual elite climbing competition, scheduled for 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, to be one of the best ever, thanks to the 25-year milestone. Whitt is one of the judges.
“We’re proud to celebrate the park, the caliber of climbers that come here, the sport itself, and looking forward to the future and see what 25 more brings,” Chehayl said.
The Colorado Sun has no paywall, meaning readers do not have to pay to access stories. We believe vital information needs to be seen by the people impacted, whether it’s a public health crisis, investigative reporting or keeping lawmakers accountable.
This reporting depends on support from readers like you. For just $5/month, you can invest in an informed community.