Weather threatens Ouray Ice Climbing Festival

Ouray closed its ice park in Box Canyon for safety reasons because rain and unusually mild weather has melted and dislodged chunks of the manmade ice.



122310 1a Ice Park

Ouray closed its ice park in Box Canyon for safety reasons because rain and unusually mild weather has melted and dislodged chunks of the manmade ice.

OURAY — The temperature was 46 degrees at lunchtime Wednesday in Ouray.

That’s probably fine in November for the mountain town, but not late December, when frigid temperatures become the norm and necessary for one of the city’s most popular annual events.

Concern is rising among ice makers, city officials and local business owners who are trying to remain positive just weeks before the start of the annual Ouray Ice Climbing Festival.

The ice climbing park in Box Canyon, which is above the rushing waters of Canyon Creek, was closed Monday because recent storms brought rain instead of snow to the area, prompting safety concerns after large sections of ice broke off in the gorge.

Slowly, drip by drip, the ice continued to melt Wednesday, all the while solidifying concerns about the quality and safety of the remaining ice.

“In the season of Christmas I would use one word, grim,” Ridgway resident and ice-climbing guide Gary Ryan said.

According to the National Weather Service, rain, snow and temperatures in the 40s are expected for the rest of the week and weekend, hampering the ice making at the park.

“We made great ice in November. In the past three weeks,  we’ve had 40 to 50 degree temps every day. We’ve only made ice two or three nights since then. We temporarily closed the park on Monday after 48 continuous hours of rain,” Ouray Ice Climbing Festival director Erin Eddy wrote in an e-mail Wednesday.

“Absolutely everybody I’ve heard from is concerned, especially now when they had to close the park,” said Patrick Rondinelli, Ouray’s city administrator.

Rondinelli said the city works with the Ouray Ice Park Inc. annually to make sure the park can build the large plumes of quality ice that have made Ouray a worldwide destination for climbers. The 16th annual ice climbing festival is scheduled for Jan. 6–9.

Sprayers are used during the coldest temperatures, mainly at night, and distribute water in the gorge, creating large sheets of ice hundreds of feet in length. But that hasn’t helped much recently.

“From what they have told me ... for the past couple of nights the sprayers have not been operating,” Rondinelli said.

Ryan said the ice will repair itself given time and cold temperatures.

“It needs to be in the teens at night and the sprayers operating to repair itself,” he said.

Meanwhile, climbers already are in town, according to Mary Peck of Wiesbaden Hot Springs and Lodge.

In past years, the climbing park already would be open, with hundreds of climbers training and acclimatizing their bodies to Ouray’s elevation of 7,872 feet. The climbers rent hotel rooms, eat and drink at local restaurants and at times, according to one business owner, “overwhelm” the town and its services, leaving behind large sums of money.

“We have our fingers crossed,” Rondinelli said. “Our local businesses greatly depend on the park and that festival every year. Some people want me to do something about it. I tell them that I really can’t do anything about the weather, except, well, maybe go to church.”

Eddy, who has overseen the ice park’s development, has been waiting for the cold temperatures to return. His voice mail simply says, “Please leave a good message.”

“I’ve seen rain and warm temps like this several times in the last 15 years that I’ve been involved with the park. I have never seen temperatures in the 40 and 50s for such a prolonged amount of time,” Eddy said. “We hope to make ice again on Saturday and next week as temps are forecast to finally be in the 20s at night. … The festival will go on, and we’ll just modify things as necessary.”

Peck added, “We have a lot of climbers who like to stay here and soak, and right now we’re 50 percent full. It is somewhat of a concern, but we’ll wait and see what happens after the holidays.”

Ryan said many climbers are heading into the high country that surrounds Ouray, chasing the large sheets of ice that form naturally.

“There is a lot of natural ice up there, but even that is being affected by the warm weather,” Ryan said.

For information about the park’s conditions and the upcoming festival, log onto http://www.ourayicepark.com.



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