Ouray – Colorado’s Ice Climbing Mecca

Note: The 22nd Annual Ouray Ice Festival will be held January 19-22, 2017. Even if you don’t climb, this is a beautiful sport to watch. Not only are all the ice falls gorgeous, the expertise of the climbers is thrilling to watch as well.

21st Annual Ouray Ice Festival

Over the 2016 Martin Luther King weekend the 21st Annual Ouray Ice Festival was held. More than 3,000 climbers descended on the small town guarding access to the heart of the San Juan Mountains via route 550, Colorado’s Million Dollar Highway.

Ouray is a small town that used to hibernate for the winter when travel on Hwy. 550 froze shut like the slopes it is a gateway to. Those cold temperatures, plus a pipeline of water for the Ouray Hydroelectric Power company provide the perfect atmosphere for farming huge columns of ice that climbers love to crawl over.

The Ouray Ice Park

The Ouray Ice Park

The Ouray Ice Park is a mile long section of the Uncompahgre River, where the water has, over millenia, gouged steep walls that are perfect for ice to grow. And grow it does; a network of pipes, valves and jets dribble or spray water in the dead of night to create huge icicles that are never quite the same from day to day, providing infinite variety in one of the climbing communities more exhilarating specialties.

The Ouray Ice Festival is one of the bigger fund raising events of the Ouray Ice Park, a non-profit organization that manages the park. Contrary to the norm, the ice park is open to the public free of charge from late November through the end of March. There are over 200 designated routes spanning a mile of canyon. Whether you’re a beginner, or looking for a new challenge, there are climbs for every level of ice climber, from the School Room zone for beginners, to areas demanding skill and experience, like Grad School.

The festival combines excellent opportunities for people to learn the sport of ice climbing through clinics offered by local guides and sponsored athletes. At the other end of the spectrum there are two competitions, one for speed, the other for technical proficiency on mixed routes, including a final, overhanging artificial wall. There are several companies offering products to try, from climbing boots to ice tools and outerwear, plus food and all the usual party beverages.

History of the Ice Park

Uh oh! A wall of ice let go and water gushed out of the pipe it fell from.  Fortunately no one was hurt, and nearby climbers scrambled to get to safer ground.  Then attention returned to the speed climbing competition.

Uh oh! A wall of ice let go and water gushed out of the pipe it fell from. Fortunately no one was hurt, and nearby climbers scrambled to get to safer ground. Then attention returned to the speed climbing competition.

Legend has it that James Burwick, a hardy mountaineer in Colorado’s San Juan range was the first to put two and two together for ice climbing the Uncompahgre Gourge in Ouray. He wasn’t thinking festivals or ice climbing parks or a way to save a small town that went dormant every winter for lack of cash flow from lack of traffic. All he saw was frozen waterfalls born of leaks from the penstock pipe feeding the hydroelectric generators in Ouray. Wherever there was a leak in the penstock, a potential ice-climb grew.

The walls of the Uncompahgre River canyon upstream of Ouray were soon crawling with ice climbers who were in on the secret.

In 1991 two men, Bill Whitt a California windsurfer turned ice climber and local attorney Gary Wild, saw the commercial potential to attract ice climbers to Ouray, a town that practically starved every winter. They bought the Victorian Inn hotel and, with a six-pack of beer serving as moderator, Wild worked out a deal with the owner of Ouray Hydroelectric Plant to use the Uncompahgre Gorge to create an ice climbing park.

Once word got out that there was reliable, world class ice climbing in Ouray, climbers flocked to the town. Before the ice park went in half the town boarded up in the winter; now it thrives.

Ouray Bound

If you’re looking for a great venue to meet like minded mountain climbers you’d be hard pressed to find a better option. From Denver it’s a good six hour drive, depending on how clustered I-70 is when you pass through the Eisenstalled tunnel. When skies are clear and snow cloaks the surrounding slopes it’s a beautiful drive, with the final destination, the San Juan Range, arguably the most delectable view of the entire route.

Besides incredible ice climbing, there are excellent backcountry skiing options up Yankee Boy basin, directly out of the ice park, or innumerable other destinations along Hwy. 550. Adrenalin isn’t all that Ouray offers; on the other end of the spectrum Ouray’s Hot Springs’ offer the ultimate opportunity for relaxation.

No one else made it this high and only Ryan went on to top out and win the mixed climbing competition.

No one else made it this high and only Ryan went on to top out and win the mixed climbing competition.


More on the Ouray Ice Park and Festival here

Red Fox Apparel for Ice Climbing:

Men’s and Women’s Waterproof shells
Men’s and Women’s Baselayers
Men’s down garments and Women’s puffy Down

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