Ouray Ice Park, Colorado, Part 1

Climbing steep ice
Climbing steep ice; photo by Jared Larson

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.

Uncompahgre Gorge just up from the second bridge.
Uncompahgre Gorge just up from the second bridge.
South Park area.
South Park area.

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.

Shower head at the edge of the gorge.
Shower head at the edge of 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.

Heading out to climb.
Heading out to climb.
Walking from our motel up to the gorge.
Walking from our motel up to the gorge.
Gearing up and heading up the gorge.
Gearing up and heading up the gorge; photo by Finn Christensen

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.

At the top of the gorge.
At the top of the gorge; photo by Finn Christensen
Setting up an anchor.
Setting up an anchor.
Untangling a rope to set up another anchor.
Untangling a rope to set up another anchor; photo by Finn Christensen

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.

Finn rapping off.
Finn rapping off.
Kai rappelling into the gorge.
Kai rappelling into the gorge.

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.

Lars getting ready to take a big scary step off the edge.
Lars getting ready to take a big scary step off the edge; photo by Finn Christensen
Ready to go now.
Ready to go now; photo by Finn Christensen

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.

Hiking/climbing out of the South Park area.
Hiking/climbing out of the South Park area; photo by Finn Christensen

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.

Showing Lars how to tie in.
Showing Lars how to tie in; photo by Finn Christensen
Lars swinging well.
Lars swinging well.
After trying out my Petzl Quark tools, Lars decided he liked Jared's lighter Cassin tools.
After trying out my Petzl Quark tools, Lars decided he liked Jared’s lighter Cassin tools.
Lars climbing high.
Lars climbing high.
Finn and Lars relaxing in the gorge between climbs.
Finn and Lars relaxing in the gorge between climbs.
Kai on belay duty.
Kai on belay duty.
Between climbs.
Between climbs; photo by Finn Christensen
Jared
Jared

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.

Lars topping out on the first day.
Lars topping out on the first day; photo by Finn Christensen

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, the aspiring photojournalist.
Finn, the aspiring photojournalist.

Finn always has a camera with him and is an aspiring photojournalist. He was there to document the experience.

Lars' first experience with the screaming barfies.
Lars’ first experience with the screaming barfies; photo by Finn Christensen
Warming his hands on my belly.
Warming his hands on my belly; photo by Finn Christensen
Recovering from the screaming barfies.
Recovering from the screaming barfies.

The rest of us climbed out without incident.

Jared topping out on the first day.
Jared topping out on the first day.
Kai and Jared hiking out at the end of the day.
Kai and Jared hiking out at the end of the day.
Finn and Lars hiking out.
Finn and Lars hiking out.
Me and my boys.
Me and my boys; photo by Kai Larson
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