Hip hip, Ouray!
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
OURAY, Colorado – If it’s January in western Colorado, one sport screams – quite literally – for attention.
While most are out enjoying the slopes, a hard-core few are drawn to frozen waterfalls, with the desire to propel themselves upward using crampons, axes and adrenaline.
Ice climbing is, by most accounts, a difficult and misunderstood challenge.
Some can’t fathom how – or why – a sane human being would want to endure frigid weather, long approaches and unstable conditions just to climb up a wall of vertical ice.
I can’t even explain it, and I’ve been doing it off and on for the last four years.
It’s usually freezing when you begin your approach, miserable when you first begin to cramp up during the climb, terrifying and painful when loose ice comes crashing down on you, but then exhilarating and magical when you make it to the top.
At least that’s how I see it.
Every January, climbers from around the world make the trek to Ouray for North America’s largest ice climbing festival.
Ouray is a place of such extreme natural beauty that you’d swear it is an illusion.
There’s a reason it’s known as the Switzerland of America.
However, with the odd weather Colorado – and most of the United States – has been experiencing this winter, I was welcomed by a vastly different Ouray than I remember from attending the Festival in previous years.
The air felt as if spring had returned from vacation early and summer would be joining us soon.
The usually frozen roads were nothing more than damp asphalt.
We knew, however, that the ice park would be in great shape.
The deep, narrow gorge is out of reach of the sun’s melting rays and the park staff is meticulous in its care of the ice.
Ouray is home to more than 200 named ice and mixed climbs in the Uncompahgre Gorge south of downtown.
According to the ice park’s website, a gravity-fed plumbing system uses more than 7,500 feet of pipe and 150 shower heads, spraying in excess of 150,000 gallons of water on the canyon walls each winter evening.
Organized by Jeff Lowe in 1996, the Ouray Ice Festival features some of the world’s best ice and mixed climbers.
For those who are new to the sport or are climbers who simply want to hone their skills, clinics are also offered in the park and demo gear is available to rent free of charge.
But get there before 8 a.m., as the coveted demo gear is usually gone before the rooster crows.
Our group set out for some early morning fun the day of the competition.
We were lodging in the Alpine Hideaway, which was built in 1888, placing us at an ideal location – just between the ice park and the bars.
The temptation great for both offerings, we chose to climb early and visit the brewpubs in the evening.
Fifty feet along the road, we were picked up by one of the many free shuttle buses in town and were driven to the action.
We geared up, crampons and helmets on, and hiked to an area known as South Park, as the climbs are named for characters and themes from the popular Colorado-based cartoon.
The gorge was packed with eager climbers, and some routes had as much as a two-hour wait to place a rope.
We were waiting patiently for a route to open up when we got word that a friend was climbing in the competition in just under an hour.
We left our place in “line” and headed back to watch the pros.
Sam Elias has only been climbing ice for six years, but has earned a reputation as one of the world’s finest.
Originally from Michigan, Elias, 29, makes his home in Boulder, but lived in Glenwood Springs for a few years, working at Summit Canyon Mountaineering.
We came to watch and cheer on Sam, but got to see other great climbers such as Simon Duverney, Will Mayo and Jen Olson.
Duverney and Olson had just made some fantastic attempts when Sam was announced.
The competition route this year was a mixed route rated at onsite M10, which means about as easy as getting a bill through Congress, and was placed nearly underneath the bridge south of town.
This amazing route – that featured an ice bridge – was designed by Vince Anderson of Skyward Mountaineering, and Kevin Koprek of San Juan Mountain Guides.
With the view partially obscured by the bridge, it was difficult to see the beginning of the climb, but we knew that Sam was working quickly.
“The only word that comes to mind is ‘smoke,’ the announcer said over the P.A. system.
I neared the edge of the gorge on the south side of the bridge, away from the mass of photographers, knowing that if he made it high enough in the climb, I’d have a perfect view of the upper section.
The crowd crescendoed as he attacked the route, and with eight minutes left, Sam emerged from the chasm. He climbed with the dexterity of a spider, methodical and with purpose. Almost to the top, he hooked the rock, ready to make his next move … and disappeared out of sight.
The rock his ice axe was notched into had broken off.
Sam hung on his rope, obviously disappointed. A fantastic effort, ended simply by the weakness of brittle stone.
But that’s how it goes in the world of competitive climbing.
Our group, exhilarated by Sam’s performance, decided to stick around and watch the rest of the competitors endeavor for Ice Festival supremacy.
Andres Marin was up next and made the most of the opportunity.
Marin, 28, hails from Ibague, Colombia, but lives in Ouray and works for San Juan Mountain Guides.
An obvious crowd favorite, he leaped into the route with his legendary enthusiasm.
Minutes later, he appeared in my line of sight, confident and moving at a steady pace.
Three minutes remaining.
He pulled himself up the last length of ice and bested the course.
His elation was infectious. He pumped his fists in the air and flashed a million-dollar smile, hugging friends and fellow competitors alike.
You couldn’t help but be happy for the young climber, who had just made it into second place.
When P.A. announcer asked Marin what he was doing next, he gave the perfect answer.
“I’m going out in Ouray tonight! It’s party time!”
Our plans for the night echoed his, but not until another attempt at climbing for the day.
We put our crampons on and made the trek back toward South Park in search of some free ice. Climbs were still at a premium, and we made the decision to split up and search for an open spot. My girlfriend, Jolene, and I climbed down into the gorge, while our compadres, Seth and Helen Andersen, took the high road looking for a tree to anchor off of.
We eventually ran into another friend from Aspen, Max, but his group was packing up for the day, as they were driving back to Telluride for the night. We waited patiently for a friendly rope to descend our way, but it was in vain.
The sunlight began to fade and we decided to call it a day without climbing a single pitch.
We later learned that Seth had screamed valiantly for us, but deep in the gorge, the sound was snuffed out – along with our chance to climb.
Jolene and I hiked back to the comp area, chatted with local climber Jeff Jackson for a while, and walked back to let our dogs out.
But something amazing happened as we descended toward town. Strange floating objects began to fall from the sky in great number, objects known but not seen in some time.
The phenomenon: snow in Colorado.
The flakes washed away our disappointment, knowing that we were still in one of the most beautiful towns in the world, the brewpubs were waiting and that climbing was still in the forecast for tomorrow.
Collin Szewczyk is a copy editor for the Post Independent and a novice ice climber that can sometimes be heard screaming with fear at ice climbs near Redstone. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 384-9124.
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The Glenwood Springs-Rifle sports rivalry goes way back for GSHS baseball coach and former Demons multi-sport student-athlete Eric Nieslanik.