Ouray: Ice-climbing legend Jeff Lowe and the Switzerland of America
Special to the Daily
Ouray Ice Park
What: The region’s largest ice-climbing park with routes for climbers of all abilities, situated in shady Uncompahgre Gorge with access to local guides and experts
Where: 280 CO Road 361, Ouray 81427
Hours: Monday to Friday 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.;
Season: January to mid or late-March, depending on conditions
Highlights: Hundreds of routes for climbers of all abilities, including 13 different walls like Scottish Gullies with routes from WI2/3 to WI4
The ice park requires helmets, harnesses, ropes, ice tools and crampons. All equipment and expert guides are available at local outfitters, including San Juan Mountain Guides. The park is also home to the Ouray Ice Festival, held every January. For more information on the park and festival, including route maps for all faces, see www.ourayicepark.com.
On my latest trip to Ouray, I discovered more than an incredible ice-climbing mecca — I found a way of life. I recognized the importance of living in the moment while learning from the past through the inspiring stories of pioneers, entrepreneurs and visionaries in small-town Colorado.
Ouray is a quaint little town with an average year-round population of 1,000 people. Those who make this place their home came for different reasons. In the 1800s, gold and silver mining boosted this sleepy town’s economy. Gold rushers took big risks in search of riches.
Today, like many mountain towns, Ouray has a different story to tell. Tourism is now the main driving force, yet before the construction of the town’s ice wall everything would shut down in the winter months. The nearest ski area is 30 miles away at Silverton, and the town’s remote location nearly two hours from Grand Junction (and almost six hours from Denver) makes it less convenient than taking Interstate 70 to Summit County and beyond. It’s a small town that’s truly small.
But one climbing pioneer had a dream: Jeff Lowe. He saw not only an opportunity to capitalize on catastrophe when a broken water pipe created a perfect ice-climbing wall two decades ago — he also saw a way to “join a tribe of ice climbers together.”
In 1995, he paired with a few sponsors and invested $10,000 of his own money to raise enough funds for the first (and only) ice-climbing festival in the world. This bold move placed Ouray on the map forever as an epic, must-visit ice-climbing destination.
And it has been ever since.
Swiss Alps in the San Juans
Ice climbing has been around for many years, but the access points for many of the best ice faces and frozen waterfalls are located in avalanche-prone locations. This makes the approach dangerous long before the climb.
The Ouray ice-climbing park gives beginners to experts easy access to hundreds of climbing routes less than a mile from downtown Ouray. Lowe’s vision rallied this tribe of ice climbers to Colorado, and ever since then, Ouray’s winter economy and reputation has been transformed.
Nicknamed “the Switzerland of America,” Ouray is situated in a stunning valley surrounded by steep, jagged mountains. Minutes up the road is Box Canyon and Uncompahgre Gorge, where man-made frozen waterfalls create hundreds of ice-climbing routes. Due to its location — it faces away from direct sunlight — the canyon remains cool, keeping the ice in perfect shape. While looking around, you might think that you stumbled upon a remote village high in the Swiss Alps.
Into the canyon
Before we began our expedition, I rented ice boots and crampons from the local San Juan Mountain Guides climbing shop. We found a narrow trail with numerous top-rope anchors. Once set up, I began the long self-repelling descent into the beautiful canyon.
A low-volume river separated the canyon’s climbing side from the side where we repelled. I’m sure in the spring this river’s runoff from the surrounding peaks is gushing, but in late February it was a small trickle.
Then I looked up. I was in awe at the massive walls of ice. In my opinion, the routes weren’t particularly difficult, but just challenging enough to get the heart pumping. We took turns moving our bodies up the wall, armed with two ice axes (or tools) and special boots with crampons before switching out with our belayer. The most intimidating aspect of the sport is the fact that you have deadly weapons in your hands and giant spikes on your feet.
Rock vs. ice
Compared to rock climbing, I believe ice climbing is easier. Unlike rock, you only need to place the ice axes about one centimeter into the ice for grip. With rock climbing, you must find the right hold in order to move up the route.
In Ouray we went top-roping to reduce the risk of injury after a fall, just like rock climbing, but the biggest difference between the two is placing trust in both the ice and the gear. Sometimes, you will be hit by little pieces of ice break-off, but nothing that was of any concern. Since the belayer stands on the opposite side of the river, it is unlikely that large chunks will ever pose a danger to people on the ground.
That being said, wearing a helmet is not an option — it’s a mandatory addition. As a beginner, ice is only one factor. You do not want to hit your head with the sharp tools needed to climb.
Ouray on ice
The ice-climbing walls in Ouray have a certain type of charm that comes from a love of the sport. Climbing entrepreneurs followed through with a vision and a simple idea, turning what was once a winter ghost town into a revitalized hub with the help of ice.
San Juan Mountain Guides is a great resource for finding guides to teach you the art of ice climbing, but if you want to go on your own the park is free. Even though the town brought a new breed of individuals, when you walk into a few of the shops, you might feel as though you have stepped back into time. At one store, there was still an old cash register and rocks shimmering with flakes of gold — touches that stay true to this town’s beginnings.
At the end of the day, climbing is not complete without a soak at the Orvis Hot Springs. This clothing-optional establishment makes for the perfect atmosphere to fully relax. As I watched the sun dip low and the stars begin to shine through, I thought about those who are not afraid to take a risk and to follow their dreams. Jeff Lowe is one of those men. However, what makes his story even richer is how, in 2008, he was diagnosed with a progressive neurodegenerative disorder. Lowe, a man who climbed near-impossible routes all over the world, now must find joy in everyday life while his body begins to shut down.
Yet no matter how challenging or despairing the situation, this man’s indomitable spirit shines through. His courage should be an inspiration to us all: He has broken all odds and even had the willpower to create a movie called “Metanoia,” about his life on top of the world and his journey to death.
Under the stars at Orvis Hot Springs — and earlier on the ice walls outside of Ouray — I was reminded that life is short, so go out there, take risks and start living it.
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