Climbing Ice in Ouray, Colorado

On the Gorge; photo by Kai Larson

Our first thought when we got to the Uncompahgre Gorge was, “What took us so long to climb here.”  The amount of ice is impressive, especially the density of ice climbs in such a small area, and it is so close to town. There are about 200 distinct lines all within about a thirty minute walk. Ouray is a quaint mountain town about 2 hours south of Grand Junction in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. The town consists basically of one main drag with several side streets. It is definitely a tourist town and in the winter, the ice climbers descend in huge numbers.

Ouray Main Street
Foreground: Uncompahgre Gorge, Background: Ouray

We left Provo at 6:00 pm on Thursday evening and drove right into a pretty impressive storm. While it was only raining in Provo, as we ascended Highway 6 toward Price, the weather turned to sleet, then snow, then a full on blizzard. It was so bad at times we had to drive 20 mph and could barely see past the hood of the car. When the visibility was that bad we drove by feel, just staying between the rumble strips in the center of the road and on the side. It was pretty epic. We were surprised that it was still snowing in Price. We then managed to stay ahead of the main storm, but drove through pockets of pretty heavy snow. We had a quick dinner in Green River and arrived in Ouray at 12:30 am. We stayed at the Ouray Victorian Inn, which we highly recommend. They cater to ice climbers, have nice clean rooms, free breakfast, two large hot tubs, and are located literally on the edge of the gorge on the end of town.

The next morning we geared up right there in our room, then walked about 20 minutes to the ice climbs in the gorge. This is a really  interesting place. Though there are a few natural ice climbs, most of the ice has been farmed. That is, city water has been piped along the edge of the gorge and outfitted with shower heads every few feet along the edge of the gorge. At night they turn on the water and it freezes into beautiful walls of ice. The city owns the area and call it “The Ouray Ice Park.” It’s a really an impressive place.

Climbers in the gorge

It had snowed about 14-16 inches over night so we broke trail to an area called “The New Funtier.” Most of the climbs require that you set up anchors on top of the gorge, then rappel down into the gorge and climb back out. It is easy to set up a static belay which we did. The anchors consist of trees, occasional bolts, and sometimes chains that have been preset. In the “New Funtier” area we used large trees, and long runners or cordelettes to set up our anchors. The ice was varied—solid and dry in some places, and wet and chandeliered in other places. It is nice to have a static belay because you can climb a number of different lines without moving your anchors. That and you can really push yourself when climbing on a top rope. In some areas they have set up fixed ropes on steep slopes that allow one to climb out of the gorge on less technical ground. The photo below shows one of these “escape” routes.

Escape route
In the gorge
Matt on WI 3-4; photo: Kai Larson
Kai on WI 3-4

We climbed hard all day in this area. By the last pitch, my forearms were pretty blown. In fact at one point on a climb my left forearm cramped up and my middle finger retracted into a curled position and I could not straighten it out for a minute or so. Weird sensation. We were pretty happy that it was not too crowded.

The next day we headed out at about the same time, around 9:00 am. Big mistake. Not only was it a Saturday, but there were also several clinics going on, such as the annual “Chicks with Picks” seminar. I’ve never seen so many ice climbers in one place. It was completely packed. Literally every single line was taken and there were strings of climbers walking up and down the gorge looking for an open climb. There actually were a couple open lines, but they were either super long, longer than my 60 m rope could handle, or they were quite extreme, like free standing delicate, vertical pillars with lots of rock in places. We were pretty bummed out. We marched up and down the gorge looking for a place. At one point we thought we really scored by finding an open chain anchor above the Schoolroom area. As we were setting up our anchor, some climbers shouted up from the bottom of the gorge, that the line below was mostly rock. An open anchor was too good to be true.

We trudged back to our room to regroup. We decided to spend the afternoon exploring the gorge, a bit of reconnaissance for a return trip at a future time. We also planned to do some bouldering and practice making v-thread anchors. The crowds did not let up, but we found some nice areas down in the gorge and bouldered around until we were pretty pumped. I also practiced making v-threads, which I had not done before. A v-thread is where you use a long ice screw and screw it into the ice at an angle, then remove it and screw it in again several inches from the first hole and at an angle where it will intersect at the back of the first hole made. A piece of cord or webbing is then threaded through and can be used as an anchor to rappel off. This can be a life saving way to get off a long ice or mountain climb and has the benefit that you usually do not have to leave ice screws or rock gear behind. Of 11 v-threads I attempted I successfully made 7. But probably only about 4 were good deep ones that I would really trust.

We vowed to come back next year during the week when it would not be so crowded. It was amazing the difference from Friday to Saturday.

Bouldering in the Schoolroom area; photo: Kai Larson
A beautiful setting

By the end of the second day, we were pretty wiped out. I certainly need to do some more regular upper body workouts as my arms, shoulders, and back were pretty thrashed.

Ice climbing is very gear intensive.

Gear explosion in our motel room

One casualty of the trip was my rope. When coiling it in the room that night I noticed a nasty cut on it, that went into the core. Unfortunately it was not that close to the end where I could just cut it and have a slightly shorter rope, which is not that uncommon. Also, the rope is only about a year old and has plenty of life left in it. It looks like it was hit by falling ice or something, though there was not that much ice coming down. When I got home I cut it, sealed the end with a flame, then measured the damage. I had to cut off 52 feet, which leaves me with a 44 meter rope. That’s a bit on the short side for most pitches of climbing. I’m really bummed about it, as ropes are not cheap.

The damaged rope

We were way too tired to drive home on Saturday night, so we soaked in the hot tub, had a nice dinner in town, then drove home on Sunday morning. All in all, it was a great trip and we have  decided to make this an annual outing. A couple things we learned: bring a longer rope, like a 70 meter, or bring two ropes that can be tied together. We were surprised that quite a few of the climbs required longer than a 60 meter rope. The other thing we learned is that Saturdays are really crowded. We did talk to some local climbers from Montrose and they said they have never seen the place so crowded, except during the annual Ice Festival and competition.

A parting shot of the alpenglow over Ouray taken with my iPhone.

Alpenglow over Ouray
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