Climbing & Canyoneering: Top Destinations
There are few areas in the world that have become as famous for such an obscure, niche sport as ice climbing as has Ouray, Colorado. Since the 1970s, climbers have been coming to this gorgeous mountain town about 70 miles north of Durango to test their mettle on the ice flows that drape over the lip of the Uncompahgre Gorge. Back then, the wood-shaft ice axes, leather boots, and wool outerwear were top-of-the-line but still terribly crude compared to today's carbon-fiber tools with recurved picks, plastic boots, and waterproof-breathable laminates. But if it was just about rudimentary gear, Hillary wouldn't have "knocked the bastard off"; likewise, the Ouray pioneers of the bell-bottom era cast off on classics like Stone Free and launched what would become a premier destination for clinging to vertical ice.
Today the Ouray Ice Park has about 175 climbs ranging from beginner to terrifying (www.ourayicepark.com; free to all). In 1994 some climbers figured out that if they ran piping along the top of the cliff band to drizzle water down the sheer walls, they could control the types of ice flows that formed. The result is relatively consistent ice—and a heck of a lot of it—in a sport known for conditions that can change drastically in a very short time. While no climb is ever going to be the same twice, it's a guarantee you can find something to climb on just about any given winter day.
What's more, the gorge, though on private property, receives the benefit of being insured by the town, and fundraisers keep the area on the map for climbers looking to sample some of the best ice around. It's possible to park the car and be roped up on a climb in two minutes. New this year is a section of climbing called South Park. Grants from the Access Fund as well as private donors have also allowed volunteers to install better irrigation, which naturally translates into better climbing. The Ouray Ice Festival consistently draws the best of the best as well as general enthusiasts each Martin Luther King, Jr., Holiday weekend. With that kind of easy access and superb grassroots support, it's no wonder Ouray is the place to be.
While there are dozens of areas to climb, the popular Schoolroom section is a good place to get your bearings, especially if you aren't exactly a star ice climber. There are about 11 routes here that range in difficulty from Water Ice 2 to WI4 or 5. Farther along you find another popular area called New Funtier. Climbs here are about the same difficulty as those in the Schoolroom, but currently there are a few more to choose from—about 13 routes total.
The same basics for rock-climbing safety and methods generally apply to ice climbing—locking off, staying balanced, being efficient—but ice climbing requires a new set of skills that can be tough to figure out without lots of experience. Unlike the occasional rock hold that might break off, ice is consistently breaking off and changing. To make matters more complicated, you're attached to a lot of very sharp steel. Top roping at Ouray is always a great option that's infinitely safer than trying to lead. But if your ice skills could use some polishing, check in with San Juan Mountain Guides based in town. These pros offer a two-day course designed to show you the ins and outs of beginner ice climbing. They'll start you off on low-angled terrain before gradually moving up to more technical turf. Instructors will show you how to belay, test placements, and avoid shattering ice back into your soft pretty face. Courses cost $305 for the two days, and take place about once a month on weekends starting December 30 (a Friday, prior to the New Year's festivities). Visit www.ourayclimbing.com or call 970-325-4925 to sign up.
Of course, like rock climbing, there can be ice climbs wherever there are ice walls. Some climbs just appear, like the frozen falls that flank Alberta's sweeping Icefields Parkway, on which you'll see some daring souls poised like precarious winter mantises. Some, like the Hyalite Canyon south of Bozeman in Montana's Gallatin National Forest, require a little more legwork to access. Unploughed roads and the canyon's remote wilderness calls for a mega ski-in grunt, but then again, therein lies your reward—hundreds of climbs in a spectacular alpine setting, all to your blessed self. Just ask Conrad Anker, who still nips into this backcountry zone for some winter exertion. The folks at Barrel Mountaineering on Main Street in Bozeman have a lot of good beta (406-582-1335, www.barrelmountaineering.com), as does the online resource www.montanaice.com.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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