OURAY – Summer’s answer to the Ouray Ice Festival hits town like a splash of ice-cold water this Thursday, Aug. 15-Sunday, Aug. 18, when upwards of 100 adventurous souls don wetsuits and climbing harnesses to explore the amazing hidden canyon country surrounding Ouray.
“It’s shaping up to be a really cool event,” founder Greg Foy said of the upcoming rendezvous of canyoners, known simply as the Ouray Canyon Festival. “People are carpooling in from California, Washington, Utah, New Orleans, New York City. They’re coming from all over the country. The festival is growing. It’s pretty neat.”
Canyoning 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 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.
Headquarters for the Ouray Canyon Festival will once again be under the big tent in Fellin Park, adjacent to the Ouray Hot Springs Pool. Three double-sided display boards will have a plethora of information about canyoning in the area and around the world.
The four-day event offers a great opportunity to discover new canyons, make new friends, share ideas and information and learn new skills and techniques. Wetsuits and other gear can be rented at Ouray Mountain Sports.
“One of the purposes of the festival is to create an opportunity for people who are very used to dry canyons to come and see what wet canyons are like, and start practicing those skills,” Foy said. “It’s also an opportunity for newcomers to the sport to make contacts and go on trips.”
While there are many planned and scheduled elements to the festival, it also has a spontaneous, organic quality. “There is a trip signup table, and anyone who wants to do a canyon on a particular day can start a sheet,” Foy said. “Others will sign on and eventually someone will lead it.”
Additionally, training opportunities will be offered before the festival. These will include an Introductory Course and an ACA Technical Canyoneering Course. Other activities include free skills workshops and clinics, gear demos and swaps, and socializing around the fire pit at festival headquarters each evening.
On Friday evening, Aug. 16, there will also be a mini-film festival at the Wright Opera House, featuring several short films (including a 30-minute feature about Grand Canyon side slot exploration titled The Last Great Unknown), as well as the Colorado premiere of the feature-length film, GORGING.
The film, which was released just two months ago, follows three influential pioneers – a canyoneering instructor, photographer, and guidebook author – who each respond to a growing interest in the sport. It also charts the journey of Steve Cabourne, an enthusiastic weekend warrior from Los Angeles whose pursuits place himself further and further into dangerous territory.
A tale of adventure and risk, GORGING employs the story of canyoneering to examine larger questions about the pursuit of thrills and the consequences that follow.
Ouray is a uniquely great place for canyoning, Foy said. Portland Canyon, a popular beginner’s route, is readily accessible and within walking distance of downtown Ouray.
Other classic local routes, such as Cascade and Oak Creek Canyons, require a moderate hike to access virtually untouched terrain – strange nether-worlds of water-polished grottos, hidden pools, thundering waterfalls and dizzying drop-offs that can’t be seen from any trail.
Foy, a math and social studies teacher at Ouray Middle School who spent the bulk of his career as an IT specialist involved in major aircraft overhaul and repair for the U.S. military, is completely hooked on the sport. He marvels at the kaleidoscopic nature of Ouray’s prolific canyon systems – especially during the summer monsoon season when flash floods can radically alter their interior terrain in just a few violent moments.
But even during monsoon season, he said, it is possible to safely explore them, so long as you get an early start and are out of the canyons before the afternoon storms blow in.
The popular guidebook Canyoning in Ouray (Blue Moon Press), published six years ago, describes all of the options in the area, with several new climbs included in a recently released second edition. Author Michael Dallin is back in town once again during the festival and will appear in person at the Wright Opera House film fest on Friday night.
For more information about the Ouray Canyon Festival, or to RSVP for the event, visit ouraycanyonfestival.net.