A Man-Made Ice Climbing Wonder
Every season, the staff of the Ouray Ice Park works together to shape the spectacular Uncompahgre Gorge into an ice-climbing wonder.
It all starts in November when ice farmers spray water down the canyon walls of the Uncompahgre Gorge to create the breathtaking walls of ice where ice climbers will work their magic. The ice farmers need more than 250 sprinklers to turn this dazzling gorge into an ice climbing arena.
The Ouray Ice Park exists thanks to an overflow of excess water from the City of Ouray’s spring-fed supply tank; a clever layout of irrigation pipe; more than a hundred garden-variety showerheads; a little knowledge of fluid mechanics; and a perfectly located deep, shady, and cold Uncompahgre Gorge.
The most impressive part is how close the ice park is to the city. It feels like there is a little ice oasis in the middle of the town. Ice climbers, walkers, and fans of the icy outdoors who are seeking relaxation and eye-catching views can appreciate this frozen beauty.
The Ouray Ice Park personnel ultimately create 100 man-made ice and mixed climbs, 11 distinct climbing areas, and three miles of vertical terrain.
History of the Ouray Ice Park
In 1974, ice pioneers Jeff Lowe and Mike Weiss climbed Telluride’s Bridal Veil Falls, the highest one-stage drop in Colorado at 365 feet. This horrified the Idarado Mining Company, which owned the land. Lowe had to sneak past Idarado guards for subsequent climbs, as no landowner in those days would condone such death-defying craziness.
In the early 80s, a mountaineer called James Burwick came to the San Juan’s. One day, legend has it, he peered into the dark slit of the Uncompahgre River gorge and saw an eighty-foot icicle dripping out of a leaky water pipe. A hydroelectric pipeline wound down the gorge from a dam a couple of miles upstream. And everywhere it leaked, there was another icicle.
In 1991, ice climber Bill Whitt and local attorney Gary Wild bought a hotel together in Ouray. Dick Fowler worked on the penstock. The three of them dreamed up the Ouray Ice Park. When they got the blessing of Eric Jacobson, the owner of the Ouray Hydroelectric Plant, the Ice Park was born.
Miraculously, it worked. The ice started growing and ice climbers flocked to Ouray from around the world. The effort to “farm” ice attracted enough attention that in 1997 Ouray Ice Park, Inc. (OIPI) was officially established to organize the Ouray Ice Park.
Each winter, OIPI hosts the Ouray Ice Festival to celebrate the Park and raise funds for its operation. Despite the high cost of maintenance, the Park remains free and open for public use. In over 20 years of operation, it has become one of the premier ice climbing venues in the world.
Keeping the Park Open
Although 2020 has been challenging, the Ouray Ice Park administration is looking into ways to keep the ice park open to the public and has chosen to preserve the park’s free entrance. As always, visitors and outdoor aficionados are welcome, although ice climbers have to maintain social distancing and might be asked to wait if a climbing area has attained maximum capacity.
Likewise, ice climbing events will need to be fanned out over several winter weeks, again for social distancing purposes.
Helping the Ouray Ice Park
Times are difficult and the Ouray Ice Park has to adapt. While admission will remain free, the Ice Park needs to find new sources of revenue to keep it going. The Ouray Ice Park relies on the annual three-day festival for about 60 percent of its revenue. That revenue goes directly to making ice and paying the ice farmers and other staff. Crucially, it’s also what keeps the park free to the public.
Instead, the Ouray Ice Park now has to rely on its sponsors and us to keep it going.
If you love the icy outdoors and would like to help, the best you can do is watch the live stream of the Ice Fest. The more people, the merrier: sponsors will expand their financial backing if they see people interested in the event.
You can also join the Ouray Ice Park Membership Program. Starting at only $75/year, your membership fee goes directly to funding the cost of the Ice Park’s operations so they can continue to build a world-class ice climbing park every year.
If membership isn’t for you, the Ouray Ice Park will greatly appreciate a tax-deductible donation to keep the park free to the public while paying for all the personnel who create, keep, and maintain the ice climbing terrain.
In these unpredictable times, we can all pull together so that our cultural, athletic, and national events can carry beyond the epidemic!