Tons of ice climbing. World-class competition. All-you-can-drink craft beer. Cheap gear. Sound good? Then you should’ve been at the ice festival this past weekend in Ouray, CO. Ouray (rhymes with hooray!) is a fantastic little mountain town in the heart of the San Juan Mountains of Southwestern Colorado. Its annual festival features the premiere ice and mixed climbing competition on this side of the Atlantic. That means the best climbers in the world congregate there, some taking part in the comp and the others teaching clinics and giving slide shows.

The Competition

I rolled into town after a 4am departure from Salt Lake, plenty in time to catch the main competition. At around 10:00 I took the shuttle a half mile or so up to the Ice Park. The comp was in full swing by the time I arrived. Some highlights:

  • Will Mayo cruising up the mixed part only to drop an ice tool at the beginning of the suspended log section. He made some gnarly moves with one tool, though, somehow managing to make it to the bottom of the plywood board (a 42° incline mind you) before falling.
  • Jeff Mercier coming out of nowhere to set the bar for the rest of the comp, methodically making his way up the route before sending the final dyno to top out. Awesome stuff.
  • Ines Papert blazing the route only to get stuck on the last move of the board. She’s pretty short and made a couple of static attempts at the top, but fell soon afterwards. She won the women’s competition nonetheless.
  • Evgeny “Jack” Kryvosheytsev (that’s a mouthful) also crusing the route but popping a tool unexpectedly on the third to last hold on the route. He was a favorite to win and ended up taking second instead.

Hot Springs

Ouray has dozens of natural hot springs in town, all of them of course have been scarfed up by various hotels. After six hours of hanging out in the cold I decided to

Who needs two tools?

wander around and see if any of them would let me hang out for awhile. After a bit of inquiring I found the Wiesbaden Hotel (as if it wasn’t similar enough to Austria) and promptly paid 15 bucks to soak for a bit. Holy crap was it awesome! The receptionist recommended the vapor cave so I went downstairs and opened a huge, heavy wooden door to reveal a steamy, slimy, slightly stinky room. Wtf is this? I thought before hearing some voices from beyond, deeper into the weirdest dungeon ever. Beyond another wooden door was the real deal, a 105° natural sauna with a small wading pool filled with blazingly hot spring water.

Now I have been to several hot springs both here out West and in Europe, and this took the case. I am a naturalist and the whole layout was perfect: a cave bore out of bedrock with only a few unassuming planks of wood around the outside to sit or lie on. I wish I would have taken a picture, it was so sweet.

So I hung out down there for twenty minutes or so, sweating and chatting it up with a climber couple from Denver about the comp and whatnot. Then I migrated outside to yet another natural hot spring, a swimming pool filled with the same refreshing water! It was here that I really soaked all the gloriousness in, chatting with a bunch of people from BC, Colorado and even a (preliminary) competitor from the comp.

An Orgy of Beer and Lasagna

Next up was something I had been looking forward to for awhile: An Ouray volunteer fire department benefit dinner consisting of Lasagna and all-you-can-drink beer! They even had New Belgium reps go around and fill up your cup as you waited in line for food!! Only $15 and you got all this, plus the added benefit of a room full of funny, friendly, genuinely awesome people. They are really what make the event, I had never before experienced such an awesome community.

Will Gadd, the First Class Badass

Any ice climber knows about Will Gadd, one of the preeminent luminaries in the sport and frequent dominator of the Ouray Ice competition. After the lasagna dinner he put on a slideshow chronicling his climbing life including numerous significant alpine, ice and mixed routes all over the world. He’s also apparently a prolific paraglider and had some amazing footage of gliding all over the Rockies, from Boulder to Banff. Oh and the slideshow was all-you-can-drink New Belgium beer also. The know their clientele.

I hadn’t gotten a hotel in time and didn’t feel like shelling out 90 bucks for one, so I passed out in the car for the night. Colorado mountain towns aren’t so toasty in mid-January; however I had planned for it with my dual-sleeping bag system, in which I was nice and toasty.

Sunday Clinics

Another big reason I came down to the festival was for the clinics. Climbing ice is substantially more dangerous than rock, and unlike most things I feel like I need some instruction before going at it full-on. And not only are the clinics in a great locale, but they’re all taught by the premiere, sponsored climbing badasses of the day. Sunday morning was my easy/intermediate ice clinic taught by Kelly Cordes, another ice and rock strongman sponsored by several companies. His ascent of the Great Trango Tower with Josh Wharton is one of the most amazing stories I’ve ever read.

The clinic went well, I’ve gotten so much stronger since the last time I went ice climbing it was almost comical. I still need to work on my footwork but I’m feeling better and better on ice. In the afternoon I took an avalanche clinic put on my one of the guides for San Juan Mountain Guides. I already knew about half the material but the other half has definitely beneficial. Avalanches really creep me out and I do enough backcountry skiing and climbing that I need to learn as much as I can to be safe from the biggest objective hazard in the mountains. Already this winter I have learned quite a bit; I find it fascinating and am already an almost religious follower of the postings by the Utah Avalanche Center.

So if it’s not already obvious, Ouray was a hell of a time and I will definitely be back next year, hopefully with people that don’t back out the day before the trip (no names there)! For now I’m pretty psyched to get back on the ice!