17th Annual Ouray Ice Festival

Ouray Ice Festival

Last weekend marked the 17th Annual Ouray Ice Festival. Started by Jeff Lowe in 1996, each year, familiar faces return to the festival to climb, socialize, test out the latest gear, and watch amazing climbers power their way up the competition route.

For four days, over 5,000 climbers descended on the tiny town of Ouray, Colorado to take part in the festival held in the Ouray Ice Park. The Park is a manmade ice climbing venue set in the gorge just outside of town. More than 200 ice and mixed climbs of all levels are at literally your fingertips, with less than 10-minute walk from town to the Park entrance.

The Ouray Ice Festival clinics pair vendors and their sponsored athletes with an enthusiastic audience of amateur climbers. Over 80 clinics and full day seminars were on offer, for everyone from the first time ice climber to those ready to jump on the sharp end of the rope. For such an affordable amount of money, you gain access to expert advice from world-class athletes, while supporting the Ice Park at the same time.

One of the highlights of the festival for me was the steep ice clinic with Steve House. Climbing truly vertical ice is all about good technique and avoiding the dreaded forearm pump. Steve taught me many little tricks to keep the pump at bay, tips you can only get from someone with that much experience.

Popsicle-Slushy Ouray Ice Park

The full day seminars are great for anyone looking to take their skills to the next level. On Saturday, I took a full day seminar with Markus Beck about learning to lead. We spent the day mock leading, getting comfortable with screw placement, clipping in, climbing efficiency, and basically dialing in the skills we will need when we jump on the sharp end for real.

If you are a first time ice climber or don’t own all the required ice climbing gear yet, not to worry. With a full suite of festival sponsors such as OR, Marmot, Scarpa, Patagonia, Petzl, and Black Diamond, you can demo the latest climbing gear including boots, crampons, tools, backpacks, harnesses, helmets, and apparel.

The mixed climbing competition, held on the Saturday of the Festival, is always fun to watch, climber or not. Each year, I am in awe of the incredible skill and strength of the competitors. This year's route went from one side of the gorge to the other, with an ice bridge across the top. The crowds went wild watching the competitors fig four their way across this ice bridge and hang upside down while trying to transition onto a sheer rock face across the other side.

Ouray Ice Climbing Competition

If you plan to partake in the Ouray Ice Festival or simply come to climb in the Ouray Ice Park, I recommend buying a yearly Ice Park membership. For $40, you not only help to support the Park, but receive discounts on lodging, restaurants, and other services in town, often exceeding the cost of the membership itself.

The local San Juan Mountain Guides are a huge support to the Park and the Festival as well. Each day, the guides set up all the ropes, help out with clinics, and take down ropes at the end of the day.

After a day of bashing and kicking away at the ice, you can go soak your cold body and aching muscles in the sulfur free Ouray Hot Springs at the edge of town. After a good soak, the Festival evenings are filled with food, beer, auctions where you can win the latest gear at reasonable prices, slideshows from incredible climbers, and the annual, often crazy, themed dance party.

If you want to give ice climbing a try, improve your skills, or simply mingle with thousands of like minded climbers, plan to come to the Ouray Ice Festival next January. With the competition, zip lines, hot tubs, food and drink vendors, walk up clinics for adults and kids, the Ouray Ice Festival is accessible to and fun for everyone. 

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