Ouray Canyon Festival – Summer’s Answer to Ice Fest  
by Samantha Wright
Aug 16, 2012 | 2492 views | 1 1 comments | 7 7 recommendations | email to a friend | print
DOWNCLIMBING - A.J. Pastula committing to the descent into Portland Creek at last year's Ouray Canyon Festival. (Photo by Brett Schreckengost)
DOWNCLIMBING - A.J. Pastula committing to the descent into Portland Creek at last year's Ouray Canyon Festival. (Photo by Brett Schreckengost)

OURAY – If squeezing into a wetsuit and taking an icy cold shower as you rappel down a slippery cliff face sounds like your idea of a good time, you’ll be in good company here this week as the third annual Ouray Canyon Festival takes place, Wednesday, Aug. 16-Sunday, Aug. 19.

“It’s sort of a summer version of the Ouray Ice Festival,” said fest firestarter and local canyoneer Greg Foy.

Festival headquarters are under the big tent in Fellin Park, adjacent to the Hot Springs Pool. The five-day event offers a great opportunity to discover new canyons, make new friends, share ideas and information and learn new skills and techniques.

Each day of the festival, participants will don wetsuits and climbing harnesses, and head into the depths of Ouray's prolific canyon systems.

Volunteers will organize a variety of trips each day, intended for canyoneers of various skill levels. Other rendezvous activities include skills workshops, gear demos, slide and film presentations, gear swaps, and socializing around the fire pit at festival headquarters each evening.

Three double-sided display boards will have a plethora of information about canyoning in the area and around the world.

“It’s an opportunity for people who are thinking about trying it to mingle and find out what it’s all about,” Foy said.

In conjunction with the festival, San Juan Mountain Guides offers guided full-day and half-day trips and several American Canyoneering Association-certified courses. Wetsuits and other gear can be rented at Ouray Mountain Sports.

Organizers deemed the 2011 Ouray Canyoning Festival, which attracted  over 50 canyoneers, a huge success; this year, Foy said, there will be at least 60 to 80 attendees, from around the country. And the sport continues to build an avid local following, as well, largely thanks to Foy’s weekly free guided forays into local canyons. (Contact him at 970/325-4117 or greg_foy@msn.com to join a tour.)

Canyoning, explains Foy, involves getting into a "wet" canyon (one with water flowing through it year-round) and down-climbing its length, often waist-deep in swiftly flowing, icy cold water, sometimes rappelling down multiple cliff faces alongside or even within powerful waterfalls.

The water element is what differentiates canyoning from the more commonly known sport of canyoneering, which takes place in mostly dry canyons like the slot canyons of Utah.

Ouray is a uniquely great place for canyoning. Portland Canyon, a popular beginner’s route, is readily accessible and within a stone’s throw of downtown Ouray. Other classic routes, such as Cascade and Oak Creek Canyons, require a moderate hike to access virtually untouched and unseen terrain – strange nether-worlds of water-polished grottos, hidden pools, thundering waterfalls and dizzying drop-offs.

Foy, for one, is absolutely mesmerized by such prospects.

“Lower Oak Creek Canyon has a 170-foot waterfall – a beautiful straight shot that you can’t see from any trail,” he raved. “The whole creek is picture-perfect.”

Canyons are kaleidoscopic in nature – especially during the summer monsoon season when flash floods can radically alter their interior terrain in just a few violent moments.

“They change; they absolutely change,” Foy said. “Every time you go into a canyon, it’s a different place. It’s magical. But you have to be very careful.”

The sold-out guidebook Canyoning in Ouray (Blue Moon Press), published five years ago, describes all of the options in the area. Author Michael Dallin is back in town again during the festival to collect updated information for a forthcoming second edition.

The book comes with this disclaimer: “Canyoneering is an inherently dangerous sport that may result in serious injury or death,” alongside this excerpt from William Wordsworth’s poem The Simplon Pass: “The stationary blasts of waterfalls/ And in the narrow rent, at every turn/ Winds thwarting winds bewildered and forlorn/ The torrents shooting from the clear blue sky.”

This coupling of inherent danger and savage beauty aptly sums up the sport’s appeal.

For more information about the Ouray Canyon Festival, visit www.ouraycanyonfestival.net

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August 20, 2012
My awesome husband, Jonathan Hunter, in that impressive picture above (mis-identified as AJ). I'd recognize that gear anywhere!! xx -Mella