Big. Fat. Blue. The stuff of frozen dreams. For months, ice farmers have been carefully coaxing magical slabs, pillars, and fangs to life in preparation for the 20th annual Ouray Ice Festival, which takes place January 8-11, 2015, at the Ouray Ice Park in southern Colorado. Park workers are now scurrying around like elves, putting the finishing touches on plans for four days of ice climbing clinics, demos, competitions, and parties that will fire up everyone from ice junkies to newbies.
Whether you don crampons or not, the venue is a sight to behold. The Ouray Ice Park is a fairytale landscape of artificial ice features crafted by the park’s ice farmers, who use a gravity-fed system of 7,500 feet of irrigation pipe and 235 shower heads to create more than 200 ice climbing routes, drip by drip. It’s a world-renowned mecca that opens its pearly gates to ice climbers from approximately mid-December to late March, depending on Mother Nature’s mood.
Famed mountaineer Jeff Lowe started the ice festival in 1996 as a way to fund the ice park. What began as a gathering of just a few scruffy climbers has blossomed into a full-on ice extravaganza, attracting 3,000 people who come to test the latest gear, hone their skills, pick up tips from elite athletes, swill beer with fellow climbers, or simply spectate. The festival has become the lifeblood of the park, raising the majority of its $200,000 annual operating costs.
Lowe, who has thousands of first ascents and countless gear innovations to his credit, says the ice festival is one of the best things he’s created. “[It’s] a gathering of the tribe from around the country and the world. It’s gotten bigger and better, but it still retains the same spirit of the very first festival—a celebration of ice climbers, ice climbing, the town of Ouray, and the surrounding mountains.”
This year’s festival includes a record number of interactive seminars and clinics—nearly 100 opportunities to learn ice climbing from the pros, including gurus like Conrad Anker and “Captain Adventure” Will Gadd.
Even those who have never swung an ice tool can sample the sport at the festival. The Kids Climbing College at the Kid’s Wall offers anyone from ages eight to 17 a chance to tackle the ice under the tutelage of guides from San Juan Mountain Guides . Just next door, adults can get a taste in free walk-up clinics at the La Sportiva Climbing Zone.
For those who would rather climb on their own time and try out the latest gear, manufacturers will be on hand to demo everything from boots, tools, crampons, gloves, jackets, and more.
Two world-class competitions will showcase how to send it in style, featuring top athletes, such as Angelika Rainer, Ines Papert, Will Gadd, and Simon Duverney. The Hari Berger Speed Competition pits two climbers side by side to see who can top out on ice slabs the fastest. In the Elite Mixed Climbing Comp, nearly 30 athletes will compete to climb the farthest in 12 minutes up a gnarly mixed route that culminates on a 25-foot overhanging tower. With a combined $14,500 kitty at stake for the two events, competition is sure to be fierce.
Mike MacLeod, president of the Board of Directors for Ouray Ice Park Inc., says there’s a lot to love about the festival—especially the people. “Thousands of people are just having so much fun. And you see these incredible famous climbers... It’s fun to watch them do their thing.”
MacLeod also gets a bit misty-eyed talking about the gear at the festival. “It’s hard not to get into the gear in this sport. You can really learn a lot about the innovation and what goes behind it.”
Founder Lowe is attending the festival this year—perhaps for the last time, as he suffers from a progressive degenerative disorder—and hopes to give a sneak preview of his film, Jeff Lowe’s Metanoia, which chronicles his extraordinary life.
“It’s really gratifying that [my partner] Connie and I can go to this 20th festival,” says Lowe. “I’m looking forward to a great big love fest! I never thought I would live long enough to see 2015, let alone be able to share our new film. It means a lot to me to share this film with my tribe.”
Bill Sweasy, who ran Red Wing Shoe Co. for 20 years, credits Lowe and the ice festival with getting him into ice climbing at the ripe age of 45. “When I went to the Ouray Ice Festival and met Jeff, he was so welcoming and encouraging. I’ll never forget how much the culture there was open to newbies and wannabes. The slideshows and opportunities to learn from real pros was what kept me going back and trying to get better.”
Tickets are required for some events, like clinics and parties. If you don’t want to pony up a dime, the demos, Kids Climbing College, La Sportiva Climbing Zone, park access, and spectating are all free.
To learn more:
Ouray Ice Festival
January 8-11, 2015