OURAY – The area beyond the lower bridge over the Uncompahgre Gorge buzzed with activity. Herds of people decked out in helmets and mountaineering boots wandered a maze of colorful tents, where vendors doled out warm drinks, food samples and ice climbing equipment.
A set of speakers near the bridge pumped out upbeat music. Some gathered around small fire pits to warm their hands, and others chatted with mountain guides, elite athletes and friendly ice park volunteers. Many others stood on the rim of the gorge or the bridge and watched the spectacle below.
One hundred feet below, in the depths of the gorge, a climber swung one of her two ice tools into a frozen waterfall. She stood on cramponed boots 20 or so feet above the Uncompahgre River.
“Square up those shoulders a bit,” encouraged Durango’s Marcus Garcia from the base of the climb.
The climber adjusted her position, and, kicking her feet higher into the ice, continued moving.
Garcia, an athlete and instructor, taught a clinic as part of the Ouray Ice Festival, an annual gathering of ice climbers that takes place at the Ouray Ice Park just south of downtown Ouray. Over its 25-year history, the Ice Festival has evolved from a tiny event with a few tents and a hundred-some climbers to a colorful spectacle attended by thousands of people and regarded as one of the premiere ice climbing events in the country, complete with elite competitions, more than 100 clinics, several multimedia presentations and other festivities over its three days and four nights.
The spirit of community, however, remains the same and is reinforced by a strong culture of support and mentorship. Garcia is one of many climbers who has evolved with the festival and the sport of ice climbing, itself, and seeks to drive that evolution forward.
People have been climbing ice in the Ouray area since the 1970s. Much of it formed from water dripping from a leaky pipeline that was part of the City of Ouray’s old municipal water system. Later, Bill Whitt and Gary Wild, hotel owners looking to bring in winter business, had the idea to “farm” the ice in essence to divert more water from the pipeline and let it fall over the sheer walls of the Uncomphagre Gorge and freeze into aesthetic ice climbing routes. They struck a deal with Eric Jacobson, owner and operator of Ouray Hydroelectric, who owned the property that today makes up the ice park. In 1995, the Ouray Ice Park was officially born.
Minutes from downtown, the Ouray Ice Park offers ice climbing that is truly accessible – and a lot of it. The park sports over three miles of cumulative vertical terrain. And while Ouray Ice Park, Inc. or OIPI – the 501(c)(3) organization that runs the park and festival – sells memberships, the park is free and open to the public. The ice festival, since its conception, funds the majority of the park’s operation costs.
No story about the earliest days of the festival, which began a year after the ice park opened in 1996, is complete without talking about Jeff Lowe.
“Jeff is the whole soul of modern ice climbing,” said Tom Tatum, who is in charge of the festival’s television and satellite broadcasts and has been in attendance from the beginning.
Lowe, regarded as one of the premiere alpinists of his generation, died after a long battle with a neurodegenerative condition in 2018 but is very much present in the minds of people who have attended the ice fest from the start.
Tatum recalled how Lowe, with Mike Weiss, changed the world of ice climbing with a 1974 ascent of Bridal Veil Falls in Telluride, which was broadcast on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.” Tatum described watching the footage from this climb over two decades later in a small upstairs room in the Ouray Community Center with fellow climbers during an evening of one of the first ice festivals in Ouray.
On Saturday night, midway through the 2020 festival, more than 400 climbers packed the Ouray Community Center to watch climbing films premiered by some of the festival’s sponsors. A bar served beer, and a silent auction with the latest ice climbing gear and apparel was held. It was a little different than in Lowe’s day when climbers would bring their own six-packs and gather around a small screen.
A lot has changed since then, not least of all the Ouray itself. And the formation of the ice park, as well as an annual festival, has been the single largest driver of that change.
“Twenty-five years ago, there was one restaurant and one hotel open here in the winter,” said Ralph Tingey, an OIPI board member. “The festival took (Ouray) from a summer Jeeping town to a year-round destination where people can make a year-round living.”
How OIPI runs the ice park and festival has changed, too. According to Dan Chehayl, OIPI’s executive director, it has transformed from a “volunteer, cowboy-run organization to a machine that’s more well oiled and professional.”
A crucial piece of the ice park is the ice itself, maintained by “ice farmers” who do everything from turning on and off the park’s extensive irrigation system to “dagger mitigation,” or removing large and dangerous icicles from the climbing routes. That hard work seems to be paying off. Chehayl said, “People who have been coming to the fest for 25 years say this is the best ice they’ve ever seen.”
The field in the competition was extremely strong, featuring professional athletes from all over the country and several from Canada and Russia. Late in the afternoon, Russian Maxim Tomilov took the win after an incredibly smooth, quick and controlled climb to the last of four wooden boxes suspended over the gorge.
Durango’s Garcia, who spent much of Friday teaching clinics, was the first athlete to compete. Soon after, he was back where he is most comfortable: at the bottom of the gorge teaching more clinics.
An active interest in teaching and mentoring is a common thread between Garcia and Lowe: “Jeff always had a clinic during the festival,” said Tatum. “Teaching was a big part of his philosophy.”
Garcia is no stranger to mentorship. As the owner of the Rock Lounge in Durango, he’s worked with many local children on their development as climbers, but more importantly, he said, on their development as people. “I try to teach these kids to learn to live with fear, not in fear.”
Garcia returned to the competition wall later in the day, not to climb but to cheer on two young climbers he’s worked very closely with over the years, Liam Foster and Catalina Shirley, both of Durango. Shirley breezed up the ice and rock sections of the route, and then on the overhanging wooden wall tried several times to reach a distant hold, then switched her strategy and reached to an ever higher hold. The crowd exploded.
She credited her growth as a climber over the last several years to Garcia.
“He goes so far out of his way for all of us,” she said. “He’s the best coach in the world.”
Garcia called mentoring Foster and watching him “come onto the world scene” one of the proudest accomplishments of his career. Foster, who recently placed ninth in men’s lead climbing at the UIAA Ice Climbing World Cup in South Korea, placed fourth in provisional results Saturday.
Of Garcia, Foster said, “I’m unbelievably lucky to have gotten to learn from him and have him in my life. Climbing has changed how I think about the world. ... He’s done an amazing job bringing up the next generation of competition ice climbers.”
As the Ouray Ice Festival grows, those who are at the helm hope to retain the community spirit that has been present since Lowe organized the first gathering 25 years ago. And Garcia knows that the future of the sport, just like the ice park and festival, is contingent upon young climbers. As he readied himself to teach another clinic, he proudly reflected that this year, Foster is no longer a student: he’s teaching a clinic of his own.