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Tuesday, January 13, 2015

"Falling" In Love At Ouray's Annual Ice Festival

Upwards of 15,000 people descend on Lovely Ouray each and every January… a Winter Rush of Ice Climbers from all over the world. It seems our Ice Park farms some of the best ice and climbing routes found anywhere on the globe, and we've become a premier, world class "destination" for spike-shoed throngs of all ages—decked out with high dollar ice axes, industrial strength carabiners, and hundred foot lengths of rope from which to dangle their "participles."

It's fun to wander along the edge of the Uncompahgre Gorge during Ice Fest, a slit-canyon so narrow winter sunlight rarely, if ever, reaches bottom. I love the circus atmosphere, rock music echoing and colorful gear rep tents filled with the latest and greatest. I also love the aroma of burgers grilling over an open fire, mounds of chili steaming in paper bowls, hot chocolate mustaches on the upper lips of children, people dangling from ropes and seemingly velcro-ed to vertical slabs of ice, shouts of "Climbing" and "Climb on" and the occasional "Falling." And, the incessant chip, chip, chip of ice axes looking for a hold in the brittle, fickle arena of frozen water. I breathed it all in. 

There's a leaky old penstock pipeline that dates back well over a hundred years, and it follows along the edge of the gorge on it's way to an antique, but still functioning, generating turbine at the edge of town. A few decades ago, a couple of guys noticed that leaks in the  penstock during wintertime formed beautiful flows of blue ice all the way down into the depths of the canyon. Serendipitous lightbulbs went off in heads. These unscrupulous climber-types (identities shall not be be mentioned) began to "encourage" more and more leaks in the penstock with hammers and punches and such. Eventually, a rather nice series of icefalls took shape along the entire west canyon wall, and the rest, as they say, is "history." 

Over time, word made its way through the ice climbing grapevine, and climbers began making pilgrimages to Lovely Ouray's Great Wall of Ice. Main Street merchants, along with the "Chamber," threw some ad-gas on the fire and, Whoosh, Ouray flared into a world class wintertime Ice Climbing destination… perfectly set in a lonely, mountainous Hot Springs Crevice deep in Southwest Colorado. Who knew such a cottage industry would spring forth from a few deeds of mischief?  

And, as if climbing out of the depths of the Uncompaghre Gorge isn't enough, there is a negatively inclined climbing wall on the canyon rim that leans out over the frightening chasm; it has a bell suspended at the top and the goal is to ring it. The plastic "holds" are so small, barely enough to secure a toe hold and the tip of a climbing axe. I watched the gal below, forearms and hands already dead from climbing the canyon's ice, try to surmount the greatest obstacle of all… a sadistic, maniacally inspired pitfall from hell.

She wants desperately to ring the bell—a continuous roar builds among the crowd of spectators. She holds the ice axe in her teeth and alternately dangles her bloodless arms, trying to encourage flow to swollen, exhausted muscles. She hangs in defiance of gravity, waiting, praying? and calls up strength from some unknown reserve that few of us will ever need or find in our lifetimes. How long, dear God, can she hold on? 

Sensing that now-or-never, ready-or-not moment, she pulls herself up to the next higher hold… her right arm fully extended, shaking from the death grip she has on the handle of her axe.

But she's too spread out on the wall and retreats to previous holds. She doesn't quit. Minutes go by while she takes turns resting forearms, dangling and shaking them out in order to try again. I pull for her—ache for her—such that my own muscles are tensed in sympathetic knots. I catch myself holding my breath. I want her to succeed, what a determined warrior she is. I want her in my "foxhole."  I also want to take away some of her pain.

The crowd roars support. Cheers, whistles, clanging bells. The fifteenth round ticks down... she is our Mohammad Ali and we want her to win. I shoot photos for something to do besides hoping and praying.  Another round of hand dangling, holding the axe in her teeth while she shakes out forearms again. Her muscles are deep into anaerobic shock…every one calling for oxygen… in a place where there is little O2 to begin with. Cheering swells. They love her, and some of us are falling in-love with her—this champion, this brute of a gal, this warrior.

Suddenly a collective gasp goes up from the crowd as she falls. I caught the photo below. Before the rope was taught, an ovation began. Chants went up. Whistles echoed. Bells clanged. She fought hard and long, but fell short of her objective. We don't care. We love her, and for a fleeting moment I am in-love with her… a true honest to God heroine.

Repel away, Repel away, and live to climb another day...



  1. We were in Ouray last Summer (twice, we had so much fun we went back for more). We hiked along that pipepline (did the primeter trail)................never knew that was how the ice climbing got started! The things you find out.

  2. What beauty the ice makes...love the pictures of the person in red climbing the ice wall.

  3. Absolutely gorgeous and totally crazy! Great photos, Mark!


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