Ouray: The Coolest Town in the West

Ouray Ice Park
For Australian climbers, ice can be a totally foreign medium. We do, after all, live on a hot, dry and remarkably flat continent. At home in sub-tropical Brisbane, even my freezer struggles to make ice, so it’s little wonder that there is none to be found in the surrounding landscape. While ice can be found at Kosciuszko’s Blue Lake and on the flanks of Tasmania’s Ben Lomond, the available terrain is extremely limited and forms inconsistently.

For those determined to locate and ascend this enigmatic substance, the solution has traditionally been a voyage across the ditch. That said, there are major shortfalls to be found in a New Zealand expedition as well. Fickle conditions and difficult access make NZ a less than ideal option for beginners, and climate change is certainly not improving any of these harsh realities.

And so, the question remains – how do Aussie climbers who aspire to climb the bigger peaks of the world improve their ice climbing skills?

Ouray Ice Park
The best answer may well be Uncompahgre Gorge, better known as the Ouray Ice Park, a world-class destination that provides easy access to spectacular cascades of beautiful blue water ice. This unique location caters to climbers of all stripes, whether they are swinging tools for the first time or regard their tools as family members. If getting mileage under the belt is the order of the day, one need look no further.

The creation of the Ice Park is an incredible tale of ingenuity, vision and surprisingly effective grassroots action. Found on the western slopes of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, Ouray had effectively become a ghost town by the mid 1970’s when the local mining operation closed. Summer saw hikers and tourists flock to the sleepy hamlet, but the streets were barren and the hotels closed during the long, cold winters. And so it remained until the mid-1990’s, when a couple of “crazy” ice climbers and a local hotel owner teamed up to effect a radical plan – to divert water from the city reservoir into the precipitous box canyon of Uncompahgre Gorge.

Ouray Ice ParkThe result was magnificent. The Ouray Ice Park was formed, eventually growing to encompass some 200 ice and mixed routes of all difficulties, covering almost 5km of vertical terrain, and all within a stone’s throw from town. Most of the routes feature bolted anchors to facilitate easy, quick and safe access. As if that wasn’t enough, the Ice Park is volunteer maintained and entirely free. Yes, you read that correctly – free, gratis, no charge. The locals have swapped silver mining for ice farming, and this alluring crop continues to attract thousands of climbers and their wallets to Ouray each and every year.

We hoped to be just two of these thousands, aiming to visit the Ice Park as an introduction to our year-long Pan-American climbing tour. The official season runs from December to March, but naturally, these dates are flexible and climate dependent. In 2017, the park was closed by early February, so we didn’t hold out much hope that our early March arrival would coincide with big, fat lines. As it turned out, luck was on our side and 2018 blessed us with bountiful ice and T-shirt temperatures.

OurayAfter fleeing the industrial town of Montrose, we found ourselves heading south on the US 550, winding through increasingly spectacular terrain. The steep valley walls began to draw inexorably closer, eventually looming overhead as we arrived in town with eyes wide and jaws agape. Ouray is a vision of the West, quaint but not kitsch. Original 19th century buildings line the main drag, set against a dramatic backdrop formed by whispering pines and snow-capped peaks. We were instantly spellbound by this charming hamlet that is sometimes called “The Switzerland of America”.

This is the face a rock climber makes when she swings tools for the first time…

Given that we knew next to nothing about the Ice Park aside from its existence, our first destination was Ouray Mountain Sports, a locally owned and operated outfitter in the heart of town. They pointed us toward the Million Dollar Highway, beside and under which Uncompahgre Gorge can be found, and offered some handy beta on which sectors of the park we should set our sights on.

Mere minutes after arriving in town, we were donning helmets and fixing crampons to our boots. Being somewhat late in the afternoon, we deferred any serious climbing within the gorge proper. Instead, we sheepishly approached the “Kid’s Wall” and went about some skills training – this would be the first time that Morag, despite being an experienced trad climber, had ever swung an ice tool. By the time the sun began to dip below the precipitous valley walls, she had laid down a sufficient foundation of basic skills before we retired for ales at the Ouray Brewery.

Ouray Ice Park
Morag on an introductory climb in the South Park sector

The following day found us delving deep into the canyon, headed toward the South Park sector located at the head of the valley. This sector features climbs ranging in difficulty from very basic WI2’s to steep and sustained WI5’s, all with colourful names inspired by the infamous television series. With fixed ropes facilitating access to the gorge and bolted anchors providing the ability to build foolproof top-rope anchors, this area is the perfect venue to get some laps done. Better still, you can throw a rope over terrain which might otherwise be out of your league and climb until your arms fall off.

We spent two days climbing in this sector, both of which were blamelessly clear and beautifully mild. This was an uncharacteristic and almost unfair introduction to the sport of ice climbing for Morag, and I warned her not to get used to such suspiciously hospitable conditions! Of course, there are other areas to play in as well, no matter what your skill level. The Schoolroom is another popular venue for introductory classics, whilst at the other end of the spectrum, the Lead Only Area is densely populated by steep ice and mixed testpieces.

Ouray Ice Park
The author topping out through a cool tunnel variant at The Schoolroom

The latter routes are certainly not for the faint of heart and weak of limb, and allude to the seriousness of alpine terrain, even within a controlled setting such as this. Ease of access has a tendency to diminish our capacity for risk analysis, and even experienced climbers can fall victim to the siren song of complacency. Ice and rock are two very different beasts, so climbers should remember that skill in one does not necessarily translate to skill in the other. I would certainly recommend professional guidance for those seeking to establish a solid base of skills, and reputable guides such as San Juan Mountain Guides can be found locally.

All that being said, having gained those foundational skills, there can be no better place to build a substantial resume of ice than the Ouray Ice Park. No more excuses – grab a flight to Denver, take a drive to Ouray, rent some gear and get after it. You won’t regret it, because ice is nice.

Ryan Siacci, Esq.
November 2019

2 comments
  1. We passed through Ouray a few years ago. “The Switzerland of America” made us lol, captures the American view of the world quite nicely. Safe travels mate!

    1. Hahaha totally. Almost as good as when literally anything with granite big walls is referred to as “The Yosemite of Canada/China/Chile/Cameroon etc”

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