OURAY – How do you train to win the Elite Mixed Climbing Competition at the Ouray Ice Festival? Here’s one way: veteran ice climber Jeff Mercier spent the past month bouldering with his 8-year-old son Pablo near their home in Chamonix, France.
Mercier, 45, thinks this put him in the right mindset to master a tricky comp route designed by alpinist Vince Anderson that required equal parts playfulness and acrobatic prowess.
Under sunny skies on Saturday, Jan. 11, two dozen of the world’s best ice climbers (17 men and seven women) took on the comp route, first ascending an established M8 route known as Mighty Aphrodite in the Lower Bridge area of the Ouray Ice Park, then transitioning over an ice bulge onto a purpose-built climbing wall teetering on the brink of the Uncompahgre Gorge, and negotiating (with varying degrees of success) an overhanging traverse linking three gold-painted wooden “nuggets” that dangled from the wall.
The route, dubbed Gold Digger (a tip of the hat to Ouray’s mining heritage) required those few climbers who made the full pull to finish off their effort with a “whipper” – a flying leap – to tag a donkey-shaped piñata filled with cheese balls that dangling teasingly from a pole at the top of the tower.
Only three climbers “sent” the route, electrifying the crowds of spectators that had gathered on bleachers and observation platforms to cheer them on. Mercier, the last to climb, got to the top the fastest, in 11:22, well within the 12-minute time limit, crocheting together a chain of tricky upside-down maneuvers known as figure 4s and figure 9s to traverse the dangling nuggets. But Italian climber Mauro Dorigatti was the first to prove the route was climbable.
Dorigatti, a Ouray Ice Fest neophyte who is better known on the European Ice Climbing World Cup circuit, was the 14th climber of the day to tackle the route that had shaken off previous competitors like a dog with fleas. The Italian climber showed them how it was done, using ice tools and crampons to claw from one nugget to the next, then scampering up the spare upper portion of the route to tag the piñata and take the plunge.
Coloradoan Will Mayo, who is no stranger to the Ouray Ice Festival, was next in line. He, too, unlocked the route, finishing with a spectacular whipper that sent the piñata flying down into the gorge, loosening a few cheese balls from its guts.
Remarkably, only 26 seconds separated the three top male finishers, and only half a second separated Dorigatti and Mayo, who finished in 11:38 and 11:39 respectively.
It was the closest finish that Ouray Ice Park, Inc. board member Clint Estes could remember in the history of the competition. “It makes you realize that every move they are making counts,” he marveled.
As close as it was, this year’s comp was also infused with a spirit of camaraderie; indeed, the top three finishers spent a good deal of time climbing together outside of the competition. “You are never alone here; you are always climbing with different guys, teaching clinics. It is a very good experience,” said Mercier. “We don’t come here just to be better than each other.”
In the women’s contest, seasoned Ice Climbing World Cup winner and International Mountain Guide Stéphanie Maureau of France floated the lower portion of the route, elegantly transitioned onto the comp wall and spidered her way across the nuggets, establishing a firm upside-down hold on the last one with her ice tools before finally peeling off the course. It was enough to send her to the top of the women’s podium.
Canadian Jen Olson, on her way to Sochi, Russia where ice climbing will be a demo sport during the upcoming Winter Olympics, had been leading the women’s race until Maureau’s impressive performance, staking out a controlled hang on the second nugget before falling, for a 2nd place podium finish.
Local Dawn Glanc came in 3rd, losing a tool to “the drink” as she attempted to transition from the first to the second nugget.
Fellow Ouray-ite Andres Marin was similarly foiled in his quest for glory.
“I’m looking forward to hitting the piñata and taking a 30-footer,” he had said before his climb. But the dangling donkey eluded him, as he, too, dropped an ice tool after making a firm stick in the second nugget. Always a crowd-pleaser, Marin flopped his arm back toward the spectators across the gorge with a theatrically sheepish grin before dropping off the course.
Marin fared better on Sunday morning, coming in 1st place – by a hair – in the Men’s Division in the Hari Berger Speed Comp, with a time of 1:23.4. Dorigatti was a mere tenth of a second behind, with a time of 1:23.5, and Mercier came 3rd place, a second later, at 1:24.6.
But the day belonged to Kendra Stricht, a speed climber from Minnesota and a regular on the Ice Climbing World Cup circuit, who crushed the competition – guys and gals alike – to come in 1st place overall with a time of 1:18.3.
“It’s a longer speed route than what I’m used to,” she said. “I had to pace myself a little bit more, but it was really fun. I loved doing it.” Glanc (2:09.3) and Maureau (2:18.9) won 2nd and 3rd place among women contenders in the speed comp, respectively.
GATHERING OF THE TRIBE
As always, the Ice Fest was about much more than the competition. It was a “gathering of the tribe,” as hundreds of climbers from across the country and the world traveled to Ouray to partake in climbing clinics, gear demos, free walk-up climbing for kids and adults, and evening parties and presentations.
It all started off with a bang on Thursday night, Jan. 9, as legendary Swiss alpinist Ueli Steck gave a standing-room-only multimedia presentation at the Main Street Theater in Ouray, focusing on his recent Annapurna conquest.
“[Steck] inspires a new generation to keep on pushing and focus on what you want to achieve and keep positive about it,” said Daniel Araiza of Guadalajara, Mexico, after the presentation. “It’s all in the mind.”
This year’s fest was also graced by a surprise appearance by Jeff Lowe, who founded the Ouray Ice Festival 19 years ago and helped transform Ouray’s winter economy, and the ice climbing community, forevermore.
Lowe, who now suffers from a neurodegenerative disease similar to ALS, and his partner Connie Self traveled from their home in Boulder to attend Saturday night’s festivities at the Ouray Community Center. Here, Ouray-based mountaineering luminary Jim Donini introduced the second annual Jeff Lowe Service Award, given this year to Asolo General Manager Bruce Franks. The award is intended to be given annually to someone who has volunteered significant time and talents to the Fest’s success.
“It’s about honoring the past and looking to the future,” said Franks, a constant presence at the Ouray Ice Festival over the years, whose company is one of the Fest’s title sponsors. This year, Asolo walked the talk by sponsoring the Ice Fest’s youngest presenter, 19-year-old Kristen Kelliher.
In a bid to complete her quest to become the youngest female to summit the top peak in each of the United States’ 50 states, Kelliher graduated from high school a semester early, and worked four jobs to earn enough money to go climb 20,320’ Mt. McKinley, the last peak on her list. One day in the middle of winter, she rode her bike to the Asolo corporate headquarters, which just happened to be 20 miles from her home in New Hampshire, and successfully asked for the company’s sponsorship.
Now, with Mt. McKinley under her belt, Kelliher is hooked on mountaineering, and looking toward new adventures.
“More people need to be saying yes,” Franks said.
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PUBLISHED ON JAN. 12 AT 1:22 P.M.
OURAY – French climbers dominated the route at Saturday’s Elite Mixed Climbing Competition at the 19th Annual Ouray Ice Festival, exhibiting remarkable strength and acrobatic prowess on a difficult route dubbed the Gold Digger.
In the Men’s Division, Jeff Mercier was the last to climb, and claimed the top prize – literally. He was the fastest of three male competitors who made the full pull, using his ice ax to tap a piñata that dangled from a pole at the very top of the comp tower with a time of 11 minutes and 22 seconds. The cut-off was 12 minutes. Mercier was the top-seeded climber this year; he came in 2nd Place in the Elite Mixed Climbing Competition last year, and 1st Place in the Speed Comp.
Italian Mauro Dorigatti and Will Mayo of Colorado thrilled crowds with their own back-to-back conquests of Gold-Digger earlier in the day. Remarkably, Dorigatti’s and Mayo’s times were a mere second apart; Dorigatti earned 2nd place with his time of 11:38, and Mayo, who climbed immediately afterwards, finished in 11:39, whacking the piñata so hard with his ice ax that he sent it tumbling down into the Uncompahgre Gorge.
Stephanie Maureau, also of France, took first place among women competitors. She was the only competitor in the Women’s Division to reach the highest of three mini-tuna logs that dangled across the mid-section of the comp tower, spray-painted to resemble glittering gold nuggets. Climbers Jen Olson of Canada and Dawn Glanc of Ouray came in 2nd and 3rd Place, respectively.
The Ouray Ice Festival concludes this Sunday, with the Hari Berger Speed Comp in the morning, and Lowa Awards Ceremony in the early afternoon, and opportunities for kids and adults to experience ice climbing for free at the Kids Climbing College and La Sportiva Zone’s adult walk-up climbing.
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