The annual event, which celebrates its 15th anniversary this weekend, has reached the upper echelons in the ice climbing world by maintaining a mighty reputation as paramount to any other similar event on the continent, and perhaps the world. Its venue, located in the ice-shrouded narrows of the picturesque Uncompahgre Gorge just south of Ouray, is matchless; meanwhile, the festival itself has emerged not only as Ouray’s most popular winter calendar highlight, drawing crowds of competitors and spectators by the thousands, but also as one of the competitive ice climbing community’s most well-liked events.
“It is the oldest and longest running festival, to my knowledge, in North America, and probably the world,” says Ice Festival Director Erin Eddy. “Internationally we are recognized as a very consistent, well-run event.”
While the annual Ice Festival has become a shining, ice-shrouded beacon for the Ouray Ice Park, drawing more and more climbers and visitors to the area every winter thanks to its repute as the continent’s preeminent ice climbing event, the Festival – as well as its place of birth – boast much more humble roots than one might expect.
The glacial curtains of the Uncompahgre Gorge have for decades served as a captivating playground for ice climbers, starting in the 1970s when the sport first emerged in earnest on mountain athletes’ radar in the western United States. In those days, climbers were of the “purist” variety: They climbed ice where they could find it, when it was there, because they had no other choice.
Enter a few innovative local climbers, a few decades later: By finding ways to manipulate a nearby water source to add more water, and thus ice, to the Gorge walls, ice climbing in Ouray enjoyed a slow-evolving renaissance. By adding more frozen shrouds to the mile-long gorge, early Ice Park supporters helped ignite what would become a hot ice climbing scene in what was an otherwise sleepy winter Ouray.
The Ouray Ice Park was founded upon the groundwork laid by Ouray’s early climbers, its town government, and a benevolent private property owner. The portion of the Uncompahgre Gorge where the Ouray Ice Park is located actually lies on private property. Eric Jacobsen, owner and operator of Ouray Hydroelectric, purchased the property in a bankruptcy auction from a defunct utility company in 1992. Under a unique land-use arrangement, Ouray County insured Jacobsen and Ouray Hydroelectric under its insurance umbrella; Jacobsen, in turn, agreed to lease the land to the county for recreational purposes (for a mere $1.00 a year until 2010.)
While the undercurrents were stirring for the birth of the Ouray Ice Park, the area didn’t see a big influx of new visitors or interest until 1994, when local ice enthusiasts Bill Whitt and Gary Wild came up with a wild idea. They strung PVC pipe and a sundry assortment of garden hose and sprinkler heads along the lip of the gorge, and thus got into the business of “ice farming.”
The results surprised even the pundits: long steep flows of crystal blue ice on previously blank rock; the Ouray Ice Park had arrived. Word spread quickly that winter, with the newly formed area seeing a big increase in visiting ice climbers.
With a world-class venue to promote, the Ouray Ice Festival soon was born. The first-ever event was held in January of 1996, nurtured under the guidance of ice climbing pioneer Jeff Lowe. The formation of Ouray Ice Park Inc. (OIPI) followed closely on the heels of the inaugural Ice Festival, with the formal organization coming into being in January of 1997.
In 2001 Lowe sold the Ouray Ice Festival to OIPI, and Eddy took the reigns as Ice Festival Director as well as the Ice Park’s executive director. He says the Festival’s shift to local ownership in 2001 represented a vital first step in its evolution into the internationally recognized event it is know as today.
“It was truly a collective effort from many in the community, who spent countless hours and did an amazing job bringing it up to where it is now,” Eddy says. A festival that was once visited by only a handful of American ice climbers, a dozen or less sponsors, and was known more as an “exhibition,” now boasts an internationally touted competitive field, upwards of 40 sponsors, and many opportunities for non-competitive climbers to be involved in the festivities through its adult and children’s climbing clinics.
Today, the Ice Park and the Ice Festival continue to survive thanks to their symbiotic relationship: The park provides a picture-perfect venue for some of the finest ice climbing on the planet, while the festival serves as the Park’s primary revenue source (accounting for over 70 percent of the Park’s annual budget, Eddy reports.)