The Ouray Ice Park is located just outside the small mountain town of Ouray in the Uncompahgre Gorge in Southwestern Colorado in the San Juan Range. The gorge is about a mile long and very narrow.
Most of the ice here is farmed, meaning that there is an irrigation pipe that is tapped with small shower heads all along the top of one side of the gorge. Each evening the water is turned on which creates the amazing ice all up and down the gorge.
There are more than 200 routes compacted into the small area. The gorge is only about a 15 minute walk from town. In fact, we stay at a motel right next to the gorge. In the morning we gear up right in our motel room, with everything but our crampons, step out the door and walk up the snow covered road to the climbs.
This is our third year climbing at Ouray. It is a great place for beginners or for more experienced climbers to hone their skills. The vast majority of the climbs are done on a top rope. You basically hike out onto the edge of the gorge, select a line, set up your anchors (usually on trees), then rappel down into the gorge and climb with a static belay. There are some areas that are too long for a doubled rope and require belaying from the top, and there is also a lead-only area as well.
Since there were five of us climbing we had two ropes and would set up anchors next to each other so we could trade off climbing on the two ropes and have multiple lines to choose from.
My climbing partner of almost 30 years drove out with his 21 year old son Jared on New Year’s Day. They got a half day of climbing in that afternoon. We were visiting family in Denver and drove out that evening to meet them. I had my two youngest sons with me, Finn age 17, and Lars, age 13. Finn has climbed ice a few times with me, but this was Lars’ first time.
When it came time for Lars to descend into the gorge, I thought it best that we lower him down rather than have him rappel. It was his first time climbing ice. It took some coaxing to get him over the edge. It’s a pretty scary thing taking that first step over the edge.
Some of the areas have a walk out option and other areas require that you climb out. The South Park area has a steep “trail” with a fixed rope that you can hang on to for more security.
We really like to climb here because you can climb so much in such a short amount of time. It is a great place to practice for longer climbs. Among non-climbers, ice climbing has the reputation of being an extreme sport that is highly dangerous. There are some objective hazards that cannot be controlled such as falling chunks of ice, or bad weather, but having climbed ice for 25 years now, I don’t think it is much more dangerous than rock climbing. As with any kind of climbing it is important to be cautious, stay within your limits, and have good safety practices (i.e. double checking harnesses, knots, anchors, and so on).
The first day we spent in the New Funtier area. We found a couple good lines next to each other, one a bit easier and one a little harder. Younger children can have a difficult time ice climbing because they don’t have much upper body strength. I wondered how Lars would do but I was pleasantly surprised that he did so well. On his first try he climbed all the way to the top of the pitch. Then he climbed it again, and again, each time on slightly different routes. One of the nice things about climbing ice is that you can climb multiple variations all on the same top rope. Lars really enjoyed ice climbing and claimed to like it better than rock climbing. We were all so surprised that he did so well and liked it so much.
The sreaming barfies—Ice climbing can be cold, and sometimes miserable, especially if you get wet. The screaming barfies is a term used by ice and alpine climbers to describe the pain experienced when your hands get really cold, then begin to warm up again. It usually happens when your hands get wet, and you have been gripping your tools for a long time which reduces the circulation in your hands. When your hands then begin to warm up the pain is quite excruciating. You usually end up writhing on the ground nauseated and wanting to throw up.
At the end of the first day, we decided to climb out of the gorge because the “walk out” was steep and rocky and I didn’t want Lars doing that with crampons on. So Lars climbed out, his fourth pitch of the day, with a pack on. 2/3 the way up his arms were pretty blown and he was really tired. But he was game and just kept climbing. By the time he got to the top he was all in.
By the time he untied, his hands started to warm up a bit. I was about 30 yards away breaking down the other anchor when I saw him coming toward me. He was in a lot of pain. I sat him down, pulled off his gloves, pulled up my jacket and shirt, and put his bare hands on my bare chest to warm them up. He was hurting. And Finn and I were trying not to laugh. Just about every ice climber has experienced the screaming barfies. It’s a sort of right of passage and Lars was having his first experience.
Finn always has a camera with him and is an aspiring photojournalist. He was there to document the experience.
The rest of us climbed out without incident.