There is 17,000 vertical feet of rock wall, along one and half miles of canyon, that needs to get covered with ice every year, and it's the job of a four-man crew of ice farmers to grow all the ice.
The ice farmers turn the Uncompahgre Gorge in Ouray into a frozen paradise for ice climbers at the Ouray Ice Park.
“The ice farmer title in this community I think is something that is respected you know," said Logan Tyler, manager and ice farmer at the Ouray Ice Park. "I imagine there's always a group of people that just want to believe that we are a bunch of derelicts up here, climbing around and spraying water everywhere."
The city of Ouray allows them to divert 100,000 to 300,000 gallons of water every night to get the job done. They use about 250 different sprayer heads to strategically spread water over the canyon walls. That dripping water freezes to form between 200 and 300 individual climbing routes.
“You know like any crop, it will let you know if you made a mistake, or if you decided to be lazy. It has no tolerance for mistakes, so we try to be as in touch with it as possible," Tyler told 9NEWS on a recent visit to the park.
The job of an ice farmer is not just to spray water though, they also must fine-tune the routes. That sometimes requires them to repel down to ice hazards, resembling huge daggers, and chop them down.
“The most important tool we have here is this guy right here, a piolet, or big old ice ax," Tyler said. "You got to beat the ice down. You got to let it know who's boss."
“When dealing with these extreme pluming conditions you never know what's going to happen, so it's always a fine line of destruction and creation,” Tyler said.
Warm temperatures during our visit to Ouray on Friday prevented the farmers from growing any new ice overnight.
It's a problem that has plagued the western San Juan's all winter. They were able to grow a lot of ice and open the park, thanks to a long cold snap just before Christmas.
There is also a terrible lack of snow visible in the surrounding mountains of southwest Colorado, but that is actually helpful to ice farmers.
“Part of the success that we had early in the season was due to the fact that we didn't have snow everywhere," Tyler said. "Which obviously makes it easier to move around, less mitigation of the snow, and you get higher yields when it comes to ice production."
The Ouray Ice Park is ideal for beginners, but you find many very experienced ice climbers there as well. The ice is a little less dense than the ice you find in the backcountry, and safe access to avalanche-free territory is appealing to many.
The park is a non-profit recreational area that is completely free to the public. It is financially sustained mainly due to sponsorships, memberships, and donations.
Experienced ice climbers or rock climbers familiar with rope work do not require any supervision at the park. First time or beginning climbers are encouraged to seek out a guide which are available by appointment in Ouray or even by some outside mountain guide companies.
The climbers at the Ouray Ice Park are passionate about their sport, and the ice farmers are equally as passionate, if not more.
“You know some days are tough, but at the same time, when somebody climbs off of one of these walls, and they look at you and thank you for that experience, you know ya it feels great," Tyler said.
The ice farmers will be hoping for colder temperatures to return to Ouray soon, so they can open more routes and prepare for the world renowned Ouray Ice Fest, which is scheduled for January 18-21.