Ouray Ice Fest

Welcome to 2017!

Since the Captains moved to Colorado over a year ago, we’ve gotten much more familiar with the amazing rock climbing in the Front Range and beyond. This weekend, however, we ventured out into new territory at the 2017 Ouray Ice Festival.

Late Thursday night, Dan, Jonathan, and I rolled into the tiny town of Ouray, CO and made the first of many stops at “Mr. Grumpy Pants,” a local brewery with a healthy serving of mountain attitude. Ouray and the surrounding canyons make up one of the world’s best ice climbing destinations and the 3-mile long Ouray Ice Park is less than a mile from town, right along the Uncompahgre River.

A 7:00am view of Ouray from outside of town to the South.

A 7:00am view of Ouray from outside of town to the South.

Although the town has just 800 residents, the Ouray Ice Fest attracts more than 3,000 people each year. Proceeds from the festival benefit Ice Park itself, which costs over $200,000/year to create and maintain. For the low, low cost of a $5 “gear card,” it’s really an amazing opportunity to demo some top notch gear, climb in a world-famous ice park, and see some of the world’s top ice climbers compete.

While many of the Ice Fest’s visitors stay in hotels and shower after each day of climbing, the Captains -- lacking resources for that kind of vacation -- enjoyed the Ice Fest in classic dirtbag style. By day, we used the brewery as a home base to warm ourselves by the fire (and take in the local delights, naturally), and by night, the team ventured outside of town, where Dan stayed cozy in his Subaru Forrester while Jonathan and Molly took refuge in their tent.

With winter camping gear, climbing accoutrement, food for the weekend, and 3 sets of cross-country skis, the trusty Forrester carted around our beautiful “pile of toys,” as one observer put it. And boy, did we put those toys to good use.

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Day 1 of the Fest was warm and sunny (around 32°F), as we started swing tools and figuring out how to walk up walls of ice. If you’ve never climbed ice or seen someone do it, it’s basically the most ridiculous hobby ever. You strap sharp pointy things to your feet (crampons), hold sharp pointy things in your hands (ice tools), then walk your way up vertical ice flows on tiny sharp points of contact. As you might expect, we are all in love with it.

Here are Dan and Jonathan getting after it on day 1:

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Although we quickly found that the rumored crowds were a reality, we were lucky to find our people at the base of the wall: two of our neighboring climbers were recent PCT hiker trash! Sharing ropes with the crowds meant more climbing for all.

Molly belays amidst a sea of festival-goers.

Molly belays amidst a sea of festival-goers.

Later that evening, we packed in a quick nordic tour on the pass above town, then stole the chance to night climb outside of the park on a natural waterfall right next to our camp site.

What a day!

Jonathan topping out on the last climb of Day 1.

Jonathan topping out on the last climb of Day 1.

And just in case you were starting to think, “this hobby isn’t quite silly enough,” well, don’t you worry; it only gets sillier.

Rather than simply climbing up walls of ice, on day 2 we ventured into the world of mixed climbing (“mixed” referring to a mixture of rock and ice). Since climbers are wearing gloves and carrying picks, the “rock climbing” involved is not what you might imagine. Rather, climbers use the picks on their tools to pull themselves up using tiny ledges and small cracks in the rock.

Here’s Molly just starting out on her first ever mixed route:

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After an abbreviated day of climbing, we headed back to the car to cook up some hot chocolate and whiskey on the side of the road. Dan captured the dirtbag glory of this moment, featuring an avalanche shovel/wind-screen and a metal file to stir our tasty beverage:

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We had to warm up quickly because the Mixed Competition was just getting good!

Back in the Park, elite climbers were speeding their way up the mixed route known as “Mighty Aphrodite” to a steel tower with plastic climbing holds. The climber who achieves the highest point on this route in the fastest time is declared the winner -- and this competition is known for its challenging routes. In 2015, not a single climber made it to the top.

This year’s route:

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We were lucky enough to watch several amazing climbers, including a 15-year-old (?!) from the U.S. Youth Mixed Climbing Team (who knew that even existed?). And I had a fangirling meltdown when I got to see Ines Papert, a world champion mixed and ice climber and registered super-human. Ines not only took first place in her division for this competition, but she also won her division handily for the speed climbing competition the following morning.

Here’s Ines rocking a figure 4 on her way to the win:

With a long drive ahead on Day 3, we woke up early and claimed our route, 130ft of beautiful blue ice. Our toes were freezing, but the burritos were warm and this last climb was a group favorite.

All in all, the weekend was a fantastic adventure and an amazing introduction to ice. This certainly won’t be the last time you’ll see us swinging tools.


Jonathan, Molly, and Dan