I’ve written about the Ouray Ice Park a lot over the years, admired its surreal icescapes, seen how it’s transformed the little town I grew up in, which used to close up like a clamshell every winter and has since evolved into an international ice climbing destination. But this is the first time that I’ve donned crampons and helmet and descended into the gorge to find out what all the fuss is about.
Guiding me is Nate Disser. The tall, darkly bearded 30-something from upstate New York is the new owner of San Juan Mountain Guides, the local outfitting company that holds the guiding concession in the Ouray Ice Park. Nate has guided for years, and has the kind of warm, relaxed demeanor that builds confidence and makes you believe you’re in good hands.
We’re starting with the basics – Ice Axe 101.
There’s nothing Cro-Magnon about these tools. They are lithe, graceful objects (resembling the slender curved neck of a Sandhill Crane and its long pointed beak), engineered to sink into the tiniest divot of ice and hold the full weight of a dangling climber.
Nate shows me how to stand in relation to the ice, with my legs straight, hipbones tilting forward, chest open and shoulders arching back. “Beginners have a tendency to hunch into the ice instead of rearing back and away from it,” he explains.
Following Nate’s instruction, I extend my arm above my head and swing the axe with a smooth, loose motion. The magic comes with a little wrist-flick at the end that sinks the tip of the axe into its icy target with a satisfying “thunk.”
“See how my wrist is real loose?” Nate asks. “See how right at the end, the speed of the head of the tool gets a lot faster? Now try. Feel that?”
My axe thunks into the ice – and, amazingly, although only a tiny portion of its tip is engaged, it’s enough for a solid stick.
Ice climbing is not so much about brute strength as finesse, which makes this sport surprisingly accessible to upper-body weaklings like me, who spend a whole lot more time slinging ink than axes.
After a little practice, Nate reckons I’m ready to start climbing. He describes the basic concept of moving up the ice.
First, standing tall, swing your axe well above your head to find solid placement, ideally aiming for tiny pockmarks and divots that will receive the pick’s sharp-toothed kiss.
Glance down to find your foot placement, stepping up one foot at a time and kicking the front spikes of your crampons straight into the ice. “It’s the one time when your butt can go out,” Nate adds.
And then, in a balanced yet athletic froglike movement, straighten your legs to stand up once more. Now you’re back in position to do the same thing all over again. Swing those axes. Step the feet up. Stick the butt out. Stand, and tilt hips forward into the ice. Extend an arm, and swing again.
“The frogman move allows one to be very mobile and agile on the ice,” Nate explains, as he puts me on-belay with a figure-eight knot.
It’s March 21. We are in a part of the Ice Park called the Scottish Gullies, popular with beginners for its easy access, sloping lower aspects and shorter routes, and we are looking at excellent conditions for the first day of spring. This is about as late in the season as you can push it, Nate says. The park traditionally opens in mid-December, and has just a three-month season.
The ice this time of year is called transition ice, which means it’s about to not be ice any more. Much of its surface is crusted with a thin layer of soft, slushy, rotten-looking snow. But appearances can be deceiving. Underneath the surface rot is what ice climbers call hero, or plastic, ice.
In the winter, when it’s really, really cold, the ice can be brittle. That makes it harder to climb. “It requires a little more strength and nuance in how you swing the tool,” Nate explains. “The ice this time of year, you can swing one time and it’s like a laser beam in there. You know?”
My first ascent is a breeze. I guess that’s why they call it hero ice. Anyone can climb it. I’m busting out my frogman moves. My crampons kick in effortlessly, and my axe finds easy purchase.
Before I know it, I’m 30 or so feet up the ice wall, and Nate is hollering at me to come on down.
We take a little breather to talk about footwork. Nate demonstrates.
“I really trust my feet, trust my crampons,” he says. “And if you look at my heels, they are about even, or maybe a little dropped. It’s an Achilles tendon stretch. What I don’t want is standing on tippy-toes. That is like not trusting the crampons to do their work. And then you’re really flaming your calves up.”
It turns out that ice climbing is all about relaxing yourself, and not over-clenching your body.
“The best ice climbers are pretty darn strong, but they’re not beefcake strong,” Nate says. “It’s like they are barely moving – allowing their body to stay fresh until they really need to do a big move; then, they’ve got the energy to do it. You’ve got to conserve your energy and use it only when you are backed into a corner.”
After a few minutes’ rest, it’s time for another ascent.
“OK. You are on belay,” Nate says. “Climb on.”
He keeps the rope nice and tight, and I work my way up the ice wall, one frogman move at a time. Like a chessboard, the route above me opens up, and I go for it.
Nate praises me from below. “Great! A big move. Nice, Samantha.”
I can see how people are prone to drawing life lessons from the ice. Women climbers especially talk about the relief that comes from putting yourself in a situation which forces you to be totally in the moment. I am feeling it. I’m there.
Then, improbably, my cell phone rings from my zippered jacket pocket. I have to laugh. Here, in this fairytale land of giant ice, deep within the Uncompahgre Gorge, there is perfect five-bar reception. I let the call go to voicemail and remind myself to silence the ringer when I get back down.
Nate is below, talking about isosceles triangles, and advising me to reposition my feet to more accurately resemble one.
“Now move off of that,” he says. “That’s it. Yes. Excellent. Nice job.”
As the ice steepens to near-vertical, my breath starts coming in shallow, frustrated grunts. There is only the sound of my ice tools hacking into the ice, the shatter and clatter of ice shards falling, breaking like glass. Hack, hack, tinkle, hack. Sigh.
My calves and shins are burning. I can’t will myself to drop my heels, to trust that the crampons will hold. My sunglasses are getting steamy. The thought of energy conservation is beginning to make a lot of sense.
Nate’s voice rises up to me.
“Nice. Excellent. Reposition your body. Step up. That’s it. Good. Keep that elbow tight. Excellent.”
Now, a different problem. My axe has found purchase, but it doesn’t want to come out of the ice. No worries, Nate says. Take a moment to “chillax.” Shake out your arms. Enjoy the view. Breathe.
Here in the belly of the Uncompahgre Gorge, it is suddenly so quiet. The swollen creek rushes by down below. Birdsong announces the end of winter. You would never guess that a highway snakes past us, just over the lip of the canyon, and that a busy little town is just a few minutes’ walk away.
I cut my reporter’s teeth on stories of the genesis of the Ouray Ice Park in the 1990s. That’s when a trio of ingenious locals cobbled together a system of hoses, valves, showerheads and timed sprayers along the length of an old hydroelectric pipeline on the rim of the Uncompahgre Gorge near Ouray. The plan was to allow water to dribble down the cliff faces and freeze into climbable ice.
It worked splendidly. Since 1996, the place has been officially known as the Ouray Ice Park. Every winter, shaded 70-to-100-foot cliff faces, a plentiful municipal water supply, subzero overnight temperatures and an intrepid gang of ice farmers join forces to create exquisite frothy ribbons of steep blue ice spilling down into the gorge’s narrow innards, drawing ice climbers and spectators from around the world.
Over the years, the Ice Park has grown, and so has its reputation. Today the park spans more than a mile of the Uncompahgre Gorge and offers more than three vertical miles of terrain in about 200 identified routes equipped with dozens of fixed anchors and access points. Its sophisticated gravity-fed plumbing system has evolved considerably, since those early days of dribbling hoses that had to be thawed with a hairdryer every time they froze. Using more than 7,500 feet of pipe and 150 spray nozzles, over 150,000 gallons of highly pressurized spring water are sprayed on the canyon walls on a typical winter’s night.
The billowing blue beauty of the place, with its crystalline draperies and drippy chandeliers of ice, makes me feel as if I’m scaling Superman’s Fortress of Solitude.
As the climb gets steeper and my strength wanes, I have a panicky urge to hold onto the belay rope, the only thing, seemingly, between me and falling. Nate talks me through my moves. My forearms are on fire.
It’s lactic acid, he explains when I come back down. As it builds up, it creates the sensation of burning. Over time, as you gain strength, not only do your muscles get bigger, but they more effectively move lactic acid out of the system and refresh the muscles.
The sun is warming the canyon air. From time to time, big chunks of ice slough off from up above and fall to the canyon floor. Soon, it will complete the transition from ice to slush, and the park will shut down for the season.
It’s late morning. We’ve been at this for an hour and a half or so, and Nate reckons we need to be out of the canyon by about 1 p.m. The plan is to climb up out of the gorge on a narrow icy tongue that slithers through a shaded gully where the sun never shines.
Nate will lead, setting ice screws along the way to protect the route, and I will follow, as he belays me from the top. It will be my responsibility, as the second, to take the ice screws out on my way up.
As we’re working out the details of how the climb will unfold, two more climbers sail over the lip of the canyon in belayed rappels, kicking into the ice and sending fragments of it tumbling as they descend.
They are Ben Allason from Bristol, England, and his girlfriend Julie Wheeler of Kerry, Ireland. It’s their first time ice climbing, too. We sit around comparing notes and watching their guide, Andres Marin, self-belay down into the gorge.
Marin is a slight, animated 28-year-old Petzl-and-Gu-sponsored climber and skydiver from Ibague, Colombia, who for the past several years has wintered in Ouray, working as an ice and mixed climbing guide for San Juan Mountain Guides when he’s not climbing competitively.
When Marin reaches the canyon floor, he strides over to his clients with a high-wattage grin. The trio’s presence here underscores the international character of the ice park, where on any given day, you are likely to hear languages and accents from around the world.
“OK, Samantha, you want to go climb out of here?”
Nate ascends our escape route, smooth and efficient, each movement flowing into the next, pausing only a few times to place the protection.
Now it’s my turn. Things go fine until I get into the crux of the climb, well inside the shaded gully. The ice here is lustrous and unyielding, with few natural divots or pockmarks in which to sink axe and crampons. Somehow I need to find a way to stabilize myself so I can remove an ice screw. As I struggle for secure pick placement, my legs start to shake uncontrollably – climbers call this phenomenon Elvis-leg – and the top of the climb looks very, very far away.
It takes every ounce of juice I’ve got to complete the climb. My axe swings have become feeble and lazy. But Nate is cheering for me as I fight my way up and out of the gully.
And then suddenly it’s done. I stab the air with my axes, riding a fierce surge of relief and euphoria. My heart is beating hard. The ice spills away beneath me, away over the edge of the cliff. I can’t even see the way I’ve come, down there. It’s all behind me now.
Every ounce of my being feels the accomplishment. My body and mind are completely spent. I’ve used up stuff I didn’t even know I had.
And maybe that’s the point. Ice climbing puts us in awesomely inhospitable places, and with the right tools and encouragement, we learn we can claw our way out of just about anything.
“The San Juan Mountains and Ouray, there’s no place like this in the world,” Nate marvels as we trudge back to his truck. “There’s no other Ouray Ice Park anywhere.”