Who would have thought, 30 years ago, that sleepy wintertime Ouray would be brought back to life by an 83-year-old swimming pool and a leaky penstock?
When Ellen first taught French at the Ouray Schools in the early 1980s, main street in winter was essentially Rip Van Winkle-ville. All of the tourist-oriented businesses locked their doors. The Outlaw bar and just one motel stayed open, for those times when the gate was closed over Red Mountain Pass, as happened now and again during avalanche cycles, so stranded travelers could at least get a drink and a room without having to backtrack all the way to Montrose.
The last big mine, the Idarado, had closed down, and let go its workforce, in the late 70s. The hot springs pool, a summertime draw since 1927, was drained and empty for the season. Who would want to swim, the old-timers asked rhetorically, outside in the freezing cold? When I drove through town with friends on our way to skiing the backcountry, some mornings there wasn’t a single car on main street, no human form stirring in the frosty air.
Then some daring genius (was it town manager David Vince?) suggested they experiment with keeping the pool open all year. The promotional T-shirts read: S.A.Y. OURAY. “Swim All Year!” What a concept! And it worked. Slowly, folks were drawn to Ouray, as they were to Glenwood Springs, by the natural hot-springs pool and, yes, the delicious dichotomy of soaking in 105-degree water while catching snowflakes on your tongue.
Then an even more remarkable and unlikely thing happened. People from all across the U.S. and around the world, people with money and educations and thousands of dollars worth of gear in the backs of their SUVs, started coming to Ouray to climb manmade waterfalls. They’ll be here in swarms this weekend for the 15th annual Ouray Ice Festival, staying in jammed motels, eating in resurgent restaurants, soaking their frozen toes in the now taken-for-granted hot springs pool.
The genesis story of Ouray ice may be apocryphal, but I like it. It involves our old friend Bobo, nee James Burwick, a jack-of-all-trades mountaineer come to the San Juans in the early 80s. Bobo started one of the first guiding services here. He skied telemark; he led summer rock climbs. And one day, legend has it, he peered into the dark slit of the Uncompahgre River gorge upstream of the Camp Bird Road bridge and saw an eighty-foot icicle dripping out of a leaky water pipe.
The old penstock wound down the gorge from a dam a couple of miles upstream. And everywhere it leaked, there was another icicle. Bobo and friends rappelled down the cliffs and spidered back up the undulating ice. They wore 12-point crampons on their clunky mountaineering boots, wool pants and boiled-wool Dachstein mittens. When they reached the top—oops—their big, clumsy ice axes sometimes accidentally punched new holes in the metal pipe. Well darned if a new climb didn’t materialize after a few days or weeks.
Of course, Bobo wasn’t the first to climb ice around here. In 1974, ice pioneers Jeff Lowe and Mike Weiss climbed Telluride’s Bridal Veil Falls, the highest one-stage drop in Colorado at 365 feet. ABC’s Wide World of Sports very publicly broadcast the attempt. The notoriety horrified the Idarado Mining Company, which owned the land. Lowe had to sneak past Idarado guards for subsequent climbs, as no landowner in those days would condone such death-defying craziness.
But Lowe wasn’t crazy; he was on the cutting edge. The sport grew, and in 1995, Lowe used his star power to bring climbing friends to Ouray for the first Arctic Wolf Ouray Ice Festival. (By this time Bobo, who had been involved in a couple of scary avalanches, had decided that it was safer to sail around the world by himself.) Now the festival and its not-for-profit, free-to-everyone Ice Park, with its sophisticated plumbing and hundreds of man-made climbs, are world-renowned.
Now people climb in stretchy Lycra and what look like high-tech running shoes with titanium points. Spurs on their heels allow them to hang like fruit bats from overhangs while they rest their arms. Their axes no longer come with wooden handles. They’re not even called axes, except ironically; they are now “picks” or “tools.” You need one for each hand, and good ones will cost you $600 a pair.
Ouray is famous again. Maybe even as famous as it was in the 1890s, when during the fabulous wealth of the gold and silver boom, Camp Bird mine owner Tom Walsh bought his daughter the most famous jewel in the world, the ice-blue, 45.52-carat Hope Diamond.
– Peter Shelton's blog is peterhshelton.wordpress.com