OURAY – It has been a year of transition and growth for Ouray Ice Park, Inc., the volunteer organization that oversees the engine of Ouray’s winter economy.
As last season’s ice melted away and the Ice Park went into summer hibernation mode, the newly expanded OIPI board (which recently added five new board members to its existing three) set a long list of off-season goals focused primarily on staffing, development of a group use management plan and publicity/outreach efforts.
With winter around the corner, OIPI is closing in on many of these goals.
Board president Mike MacLeod presented a summary of OIPI’s pre-season report to the Ouray City Council at its meeting last week.
Although the park won’t open until December, OIPI plans to have its entire staff (full-time Ice Park Manager Kevin Koprek, plus one part-time and two full-time seasonal “ice farmers”) on duty by late October, taking care of a “big, long laundry list of things we need to do to make sure the park is ready for the coming season, before we can even start making ice,” MacLeod said.
Infrastructure and maintenance efforts top this list – making the park safer and more user-friendly by, for example, increasing the number of climbing anchors and improving walk-downs and hand lines into the Ice Park. Once the park opens, paths through the bottom of the gorge will also be continuously maintained throughout the winter season, MacLeod said, and ice farmers will make an effort to keep snow off the climbing routes to maintain ice quality and keep more of the vertical real estate, as it were, open for business.
OIPI staff will also install more “back tie” anchors in the bottom of the gorge, encouraging belayers to stand in safe places, away from falling ice.
In early November, the competition tower will be re-installed at the Ice Park. This 3.5 ton, 25-foot tall steel structure, painted powder blue to blend in with the ice (once winter sets in), was introduced last season, to create a challenging and crowd-pleasing venue for world-class competition.
The addition of the highly visible new climbing wall to last year’s Ouray Ice Festival literally shifted the “wow factor” of its annual Elite Mixed Climbing Competition to a whole new level, popping competitors out of the Uncompahgre Gorge, where the contests had been traditionally held, and onto the artificial wall for all the world to see. Climbers and spectators loved it, and OIPI looks forward to using it again during the 19th Annual Ice Festival, set for Jan. 9-12, 2014.
And when will the Ice Park open?
“That will be a question we will get about 300,000 times in the coming weeks,” MacLeod said.
As usual, OIPI’s targeted opening date is in mid-December – probably either Dec. 13 or Dec. 19 depending on the condition of the ice. And if all goes according to plan, the Ice Park will conclude its season in late March.
That makes for a busy, jampacked 3.5-month season of ice climbing.
Heading into this season, OIPI has made a huge commitment to improve staffing the park, expanding its payroll budget to three times what it previously was.
“The biggest challenge we are facing is managing crowds,” MacLeod explained. “It’s an interesting paradox. The Ouray Ice Park is a great tourism destination in the winter. Our responsibility is to manage it, keep the park open and running properly.”
But as the park has become more and more popular, issues of overcrowding have come to the forefront – especially when it comes to group use. While commercial guiding is tightly regulated within the park, there has never been a registration process for instructional, noncommercial groups (such as college climbing clubs) that often swamp the Ice Park in the winter season.
OIPI has realized that “we need a better presence in the park,” to deal with the overcrowding issue, MacLeod said. “Every weekend in the Ouray Ice Park is a holiday; we need to put our staff in there, not just focused on making ice. In the park, their responsibility will be to go out and emphasize outreach and communication with park guests.”
Staff will focus on safety issues inside the park, and will prioritize spending time with groups. “We really want to focus on developing a process for instructional, noncommercial groups,” MacLeod said.
Toward that end, working with San Juan Mountain Guides during the off-season, OIPI has developed a simple process through which instructional groups will be asked to fill out a preregistration form prior to arriving at the park. The form will emphasize park rules, while providing OIPI an opportunity to “know who’s coming,” MacLeod said. OIPI staffers will then make an effort to contact the groups while they are in the park.
“There are still no limits, and OIPI is still not charging any fees,” MacLeod stressed. But the noncommercial guides will have tags on their anchors to help OIPI staffers address density and crowding issues.
Also new this coming season will be a semi-permanent restroom facility in the South Park climbing area, built with grant money from the Access Fund and the American Alpine Club. “We are really excited about our restroom facility,” MacLeod said, not only because it is much-needed in that part of the park, he explained, but also because of the relationship it signifies with these worldwide organizations, and the fact that OIPI has successfully reached out to outside sources to help with park infrastructure.
Contracting with True North Designworks in Telluride, OIPI has also focused a lot of time and energy this year on creating a new high-quality resource map of the Ouray Ice Park, which will be permanently attached to three kiosk structures that were installed at the park last fall. Paper copies of the map will be available for Ouray Ice Park guests.
On the promotional front, OIPI has focused on touting the Ouray Ice Park and tourism in Ouray through a stepped-up social media presence. “It is a huge promotional piece of our model,” MacLeod said, adding that the Ouray Ice Park’s Facebook page attracts brisk traffic in the range of 3,500 views per day.
A promotional 10-minute video aptly named “Ice” that was developed during the 2013 Ouray Ice Festival “continues to bring excellent exposure to the Ouray Ice Park as well,” MacLeod said. The film spent the off-season on a national and international film festival tour and has received a number of awards. “Ice” will make its European premiere at the Fescinat Film Festival (a mountaineering and adventure film festival) in Madrid, Spain this fall.
Also new this year, OIPI has taken its show on the road, hitting target marketing areas outside of Ouray through a series of “Ouray Ice Park Road Show” events to build excitement about the coming season.
The first such event took place on Oct. 9 at the Bent Gate Mountaineering Store in the Denver metro area. Additional road shows are planned on Oct. 24 at the Black Diamond Retail Store in Salt Lake City and Two Rascals Brewing Company in Montrose on Dec. 18.
Above all, MacLeod emphasized the important partnership between OIPI and the City of Ouray, which owns and administers much of the land within the Ouray Ice Park.
“Two things are absolutely critical: to have a resource, and then we have to have access to that resource,” MacLeod said. “And you people are the people that make that happen.”