Ice is nice
Want a winter escape? Try ice climbing
New Mexico may be the land of enchantment, but the Western Slope is the land of world-class wintertime variety.
The Alpine skiing in various locations draws people from all over the world. The Nordic skiing and snowmobiling on Grand Mesa are carefully guarded secrets that are beginning to attract attention from people across the country. And the ice-climbing in Ouray is truly one-of-a-kind and gaining a world-wide reputation.
“Ouray is the U.S. capital of the sport,” said Clint Cook with San Juan Mountain Guides. “People come from all over the world. Ouray is definitely an iconic location for the sport.”
With good reason. Adventurous climbers have been climbing the ice near Ouray since the mid-1990s. In 2001 the Ouray Ice Park tied into the city’s water system to get reliable pressure. That allowed water to run consistently, creating amazing ice conditions every night. Agreements between the park and the city, national forest and private landowners are in place along much of the gorge, creating a park that consists of about a mile of ice for climbing.
“On any given day, there’s at least 100 people climbing,” said Erin Eddy, executive director with The Ouray Ice Park. “Easily 200 on weekends.”
Eddy estimates that the sport generates at least $1 million annually to the local economy in lodging, dining, guide services and other activities.
The Ouray Ice Festival in January draws many visitors to town, with attendance estimates ranging from 3,000 to 5,000. Some people come to climb or take advantage of the $45 clinics and some come to simply to watch the climbers. Participation in the clinics is limited to the first 500 people who register and registration began Nov. 7. The clinics are usually sold out soon after registration opens.
Experts say that while ice climbing is similar to rock climbing, it can be easier to learn, since ice climbers’ feet have crampons that allow themto dig into the ice wherever it’s convenient. Rock climbers must find natural toe holds in the rock.
Although climbing at the Ouray ice park is free (donations gladly accepted), the correct gear for climbing is essential and expensive.
“A good pair of ice climbing boots is $400,” said Cook. Those who have rock-climbing gear can use the same ropes, but they’ll have to buy crampons for ice climbing.
The good news is that guides provide the gear for a climb if you book a program or lesson. The most popular program offered by San Mountain Guides is a two-day course that’s offered every weekend throughout the winter. All gear is included, and there is a guide for every four participants. Instruction starts at 7:30 a.m. and runs until 3:30 p.m.
“If you know you’re coming, it’s always better to call ahead and make a reservation,” says Cook. Cost for the two-day course is $340. The standard one-day private guiding costs $350.
“We also do a lot of stuff in the back country,” Cook says. “It depends on what people are looking for. For a basic introduction, the two-day course is the best way to do it.”
With 200 people climbing on any given weekend and the climbing season scheduled to start sometime around the second or third week of December, even those who aren’t sure about donning the crampons and grabbing an axe may enjoy watching others tackle the ice.