Each winter, as the picturesque falls of Box Canyon freeze, the Uncompahgre Gorge is transformed into an ice climbing mecca.
The vast ice walls attract about 15,000 ice climbers from around the world to the small southwestern town of Ouray every year.
It all begins with Ice Farmers who spray the canyon walls using overflow water from the City of Ouray in November. They are helped by more than 150 sprinklers, placed throughout the canyon. As the ice grows, the farmers fill in gaps, “prune the crops” by cutting down dangerous daggers that sometimes form, and install anchor bolts where needed.
Eventually, this creates 14 distinct climbing areas with over 200 climbs and three miles of vertical terrain. All within about a one-mile span of the canyon.
People have been ice climbing in Ouray for decades. However, creating manmade ice walls in the Uncompahgre Gorge began in the early 1980s.
According to local legend, a mountaineer known as Bobo came to Ouray in the early 1980s. He looked down the Uncompahgre Gorge and noticed a massive eighty-foot icicle hanging from a water pipe that was leaking. So he, and a few friends rappelled down the cliffs and climbed back up the icicle. But when they got the top, their ice axe “accidently” punched a new hole in the pipe. And soon another climb appeared. So, naturally this would happen again. And again.
Work on the official ice park began in 1991. Bill Whitt, an avid ice climber and Gary Wild, a real estate developer, moved to Ouray and bought a hotel together. They came up with idea for the ice park as a way to bring more people to the town in the winter.
They eventually got permission from the owners of the land and began ice farming. According to testimonies from Whitt, it was not an easy process at first. But eventually they figured it out, the ice started growing, and people started coming to the area. By 1997, Ouray Ice Park, Inc was officially established.
And for the last 21 years, thousands of ice climbers have converged on the town for one of the largest ice climbing festivals in the world.
This year, the Ouray Ice Festival is taking place from January 19th until the 22nd. The three-day, three-night festival includes equipment demos, vendor exhibitions, climbing clinics, free open climbing, evening presentations, silent auctions, parties and elite competitions.
The ice park is open to the public and is free to use. It’s typically open from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 7:30 a.m. until 4 p.m. on weekends. All climbers are required to wear crampons and a helmet at all times while in the park. The park does not rent gear or offer classes or clinics outside of the Ice Festival weekend, but many vendors in the town of Ouray, do. You can find out more at the park’s website.