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If You Freeze it, They Will Come

Since its creation in 1997, the Ouray Ice Park has become a premier destination for not only climbers, but also a haven for travelers and outdoors enthusiasts from all over the world. The annual Ice Festival is the main fundraiser for the Ice Park.

Since its creation in 1997, the Ouray Ice Park has become a premier destination for not only climbers, but also a haven for travelers and outdoors enthusiasts from all over the world. The annual Ice Festival is the main fundraiser for the Ice Park.

At one time, not terribly long ago, the small town of Ouray didn’t carry enough clout to earn a listing on most Colorado state maps.

Now, thanks to some ingenuity and a boost from Mother Nature, Ouray is a veritable hotbed.

Of ice. Walls and walls of ice. Seemingly nonstop ice as far as the eye can see.

Nestled in the mountains of southwestern Colorado, this gem is no longer a best-kept secret. That holds true especially in the winter, when the denizens wait patiently until it gets just cold enough, for long enough, before frozen dreams can be realized.

It’s here, at the Ouray Ice Park where, from late December through March, ice climbers and outdoors enthusiasts from around the world – yes, world – come to this newfound mecca of frozen waterfalls and enormous and awe-inspiring partitions of ice.

Quite simply, it’s a spectacle that you have to see to believe at the world’s first official ice park.

See for yourself Jan. 19-22 at the 22nd Ouray Ice Festival. For three days and nights, Ouray, located 70 miles north of Durango, becomes the globe’s ice climbing capital. No one else comes close.

Watch the world’s best traverse and maneuver this human-made ice climbing venue. Or, try out the latest ice tools, apparel and gear and learn how to climb from the pros. 

Yes, ice climbing is a small sport, and Ouray is still a small town. But you can’t deny the sport’s effect on this town’s destiny.

“As a kid who grew up in Ouray, this is unimaginable and unbelievable; it has made a huge impact on Ouray for sure,” says Lora Slawitschka, who owns and operates the city’s Ouray Chalet Inn and has been involved with the park in some capacity for the past 16 years. “It’s an amazing feat.”

As a way to drum up wintertime business in this sleepy town – known then more for its backcountry skiing, scenic byways and biking – Victorian Inn hotel co-owners Bill Whitt and Gary Wild envisioned an ice park as the ultimate solution.

They were right, way back in 1971.

Now, two generations later, it’s people like Dan Chehayl who keep Whitt’s and Wild’s legacy strong, and growing.

“They came up with this hair-brained idea of farming ice,” says Chehayl, the Park’s director of operations who formerly had the job title of ice farmer. “They wondered how to get more people to come to Ouray and stay in hotels in the wintertime. They had to convince a lot of people that they weren’t crazy. I oversee it now, and I’m proud to continue their legacy. It’s the biggest ice festival in the world.”

Their idea was to, using a long connection of plumbing and hoses, complete with shower heads and sprinklers, transform the Uncompahgre Gorge into an ice climbing haven. Each November, these ice farmers spray water down the canyon walls of the gorge, resulting in the creation of walls of ice.

Additional work is carved out from overflow water from the city of Ouray and more than 150 sprinklers that make the Park, opened in 1997, unique in its own right. Today, the Ouray Ice Park yields more than 200 manmade ice and mixed climbs, 14 distinct climbing areas and three miles of vertical terrain.

Then, the people wait, and wait, for nature to do its work at 12,000 feet above sea level.

The result is nothing more than breathtaking.

“It’s awesome. The Ice Park is just something else,” says former competitive ice climber Andres Marin, a native of Colombia who moved to Ouray 11 years ago. “It’s the biggest ice park in the world. It brings everyone together. You can see 4-year-old kids and people 70 years old all climbing. There are so very few places in the world where you can find that kind of terrain and that camaraderie. It’s such an amazing place to be.”

What makes it most amazing is that admission to the Ice Park is free, despite its high cost of maintenance. But what happens during three days each January helps fund the park for the rest of the year.

Now, you see, how Ouray rightfully earned its spot on all Colorado state maps moving forward.

Or, as they say in Ouray, “Have an ice day!”