Ice climber Rachel Nelson, from Moab Utah, uses her ice tools to get a firm hold on the huge, human-made ice cliff known as the Pic o’ the Vic section at the Ouray Ice Park Jan. 11, 2019. (Andy Cross, The Denver Post)
Chances are that you’ve heard of the Ouray Ice Park, but if you’re not already an ice climber, you may not know much about visiting it.
Ouray is a small town surrounded by big mountains in adjacent national forest land. Guided backcountry skiing, soaking in the hot springs and snowshoeing are just a few of the outdoor recreation opportunities, but the big draw in the winter in this town a five-hour drive from Denver is ice climbing.
This winter, the ice park celebrates its 25th anniversary with a target opening date of Dec. 14 (opening and closing dates are weather dependent).
The sport of ice climbing is exactly what it sounds like: scaling ice instead of rock, using ice axes (not bare or mittened hands) to make your way up. Before you plan your trip to this world-renowned ice park, be in the know:
- The park does not rent the required gear of crampons and helmets, and if you’re climbing, you’ll need rope, ice axes and more. Visitors need to go to a local outfitter such as San Juan Mountain Guides or one of the handful of guide companies here.
- As long as you’re renting the equipment, it’s smart to hire a guide. The ice park does not offer classes or instruction, so a guide is critical to enjoying the park. The Ouray Ice Park website includes a list of recommended guides, and the local outfitters also have guides. The ice park is made up of several distinct climbing areas, and a guide will know the best route for your abilities and will belay you while you climb.
- Ice farmers and other volunteers spend the season essentially making the park. The water comes from city water runoff and is gravity fed to tanks above the Uncompahgre River gorge. A complicated system of pipes brings the water to the park where ice farmers manage the flows to make the climbing walls. The ice walls are regularly groomed by the ice farmers or other volunteers who anchor in and sweep. Using large brooms, the ice is kept free of debris and makes for an ideal climbing area.
- It’s free! The Ouray Ice Park is a non-profit organization that relies on donations and membership fees to operate. Membership options range from $40 to $150 per year. Benefits of membership include discounts in town on lodging and on special events at the ice park, such as the annual Ouray Ice Festival, held Jan. 23-26. Note that the festival is also free, but clinics and nightly events will have costs.
- Got a junior ice climber? On the first Saturdays in January, February and March, there’s a free kids’ climbing clinic on the Kids Wall at the ice park. The Kids Wall is an area outside of the gorge (no climbing down to the bottom first) with routes on a slab of ice for practice climbing. Kids who are ages 7 to 17 can come on a first Saturday, and San Juan Mountain Guides provides the gear and instructions for free. All kids need are proper winter clothes to stay warm and an adult to sign a waiver.
Check Ouray Ice Park’s website for daily operating hours and to make sure it’s open before you go.
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