MONTROSE - “It’s not just a tower. It’s a work of art,” observed Ouray Ice Park, Inc. board president Mike MacLeod last Saturday, watching the installation of the massive new climbing wall that will be the centerpiece of the 2013 Ouray Ice Festival.
In a delicate operation spanning several hours, a giant crane positioned at the very edge of the Uncompahgre Gorge swung the towering structure into place as roped-in mountaineers nudged it into footings atop a cliff in the area where the annual Ice Fest takes place.
If all goes according to plan, this 3.5 ton, 25-foot tall steel structure, painted powder blue to blend in with the ice (once winter comes), will serve as a launching pad for the Ouray Ice Festival’s future, by creating an even more challenging and crowd-pleasing venue for world-class competition.
The wall, equipped with artificial rock climbing holds for dry tooling, looms over a popular climb called Aphrodite in the Lower Bridge area of the Ouray Ice Park where the 2013 Elite Mixed Climbing Competition will be staged. It is mounted in such a way that it can overhang the Uncompahgre Gorge by 15 degrees to 45 degrees, depending on the route setter’s desired level of difficulty.
Its creation was a collaborative effort. The entire OIPI board brainstormed the design. OIPI board member and structural engineer Brad McMillion did all the engineering work pro bono. Ouray metal artist and welder Jeff Skoloda fabricated the structure in a large workshop space in the old BIOTA warehouse in the North Ouray Corridor. He said it took five days of solid welding, 75 pounds of welding rod and about 3,500 pounds of steel to get the job done.
Together, Skoloda and McMillon devised a way to install and anchor the tower without using concrete, as originally planned. Instead, in order to avoid creating a permanent eyesore, they created a minimalistic system of steel base plates and back ties. All of the anchors are sunk 16-24 inches into solid rock and epoxied into place. The climbing wall itself is removable.
It will be up to route-setter Vince Anderson to create a comp route for the 2013 Ouray Ice Festival that showcases the new structure. He has developed a reputation over the past several years for his devious, difficult mixed rock and ice routes that foil even the world’s best climbers. Typically, in his route-setting efforts, Anderson has eschewed manmade obstacles and enhancements, instead seeking to mimic that which is found in nature.
Last year, however, he veered away from this purist aesthetic, with a new route for the Elite Mixed Climbing Competition that had competitors traversing from one side of the Uncompahgre Gorge to the other while dangling 50 feet above the canyon floor from a narrow manmade ice bridge.
Competitors loved the route. The only problem was, with much of the action taking place deep inside the narrow gorge, hardly anyone could see what they were up to.
This year, with the addition of the highly visible new climbing wall, the “wow factor” of the competition literally shifts to a whole new level, popping competitors out of the canyon and onto the artificial wall for all the world to see.
OIPI plans to create a new viewing area in a natural amphitheater down inside the Uncompahgre Gorge to accommodate more spectators.
“We want to spice up the competition and make it more spectator friendly,” MacLeod explained.
It all bodes well for the 18th Annual Ouray Ice Festival, set for Jan. 10-14, 2013.
According to MacLeod, 2013 is shaping up to have the deepest field of female competitors that the festival has seen in many years. There will be at least twice as many women competing as in 2012, including local favorite Dawn Glanc, Boulderite Emily Harrington and, returning for the first time in many years, German mountaineer Ines Papert, who in 2005 was the first woman contender to win the title of overall champion in what was then called the “difficulty competition” at the Ouray Ice Festival.
The men’s field is beginning to coalesce as well. Jeff Mercier, a Rab/Petzl sponsored athlete from France who won the Ouray Ice Festival’s Elite Mixed Climbing Competition in 2008 on the infamous Flying Circus comp route, has announced his intention to compete again.
OIPI is also excited to bring back a speed climbing competition to the fest in 2013. Ice Park operations manager Kevin Koprek, who is in charge of growing and grooming the ice in the park, plans to create two long, beautiful columns of ice on either side of the mixed climbing route, where the speed contests will take place.
The concept is simple. Two climbers race against each other – one on each ice column – to see who gets to the top first. Then they switch sides and do it all over again.
“It is hugely popular on the World Cup scene in Europe, and a great way of showcasing the sport,” MacLeod said.
As they ascend the cold, hard ice, climbers will be competing for plenty of cold, hard cash; $9,000 will be divided among the top three male and female competitors in the Elite Mixed Climbing Competition, and a total of $7,000 will go to the top three men and women in speed climbing.