The flow of water starts only as a light spray, but after exposure to the frigid Colorado air, the ice in the Ouray Ice Park is a spectacular display of frozen waterfalls and massive ice daggers.
The Ouray Ice Park is a two-mile stretch of the Uncompahgre Gorge in Ouray, Colo. dedicated to ice climbing. Using a gravity-fed system of pipes and 250 sprinkler heads, ice farmers, as they are called, spray water into the gorge five nights a week, encasing it in ice.
With its manmade ice park and easy accessibility to natural ice climbing locations in the San Juan Mountains, Ouray is the premier ice climbing destination in the U.S. – drawing climbers from around the world – most notably for the Ouray Ice Climbing Festival every January.
"The San Juan Mountains are a super-rugged range. They are very steep compared to the other parts of the Rockies and we get adequate snowfall and also sun," said Clint Cook, director of San Juan Mountain Guides. "You have to have both of those factors to make ice. If it's just cold all the time you won't get water flowing, so it's just a really nice natural setup for ice climbing here in the San Juans."
Ice climbing presents the same challenges as rock climbing – except the surface is always different and the conditions, of course, colder. Ice climbers use a basic harness and helmet as well as crampons, clamp-on spikes that attach to a climber's boots, and ice axes which are used to navigate up and down the ice.
"There's kind of a misconception that you got to be a body builder or have a super strong upper-body to be able to ice climb and that's really not the case at all," said Cook. "It's really about balance and moving your body smoothly and fluidly. What you do with your hips and your legs is more important that pulling your way up with your ice tools."
Once an activity reserved for only grizzled mountaineers, ice climbing is growing in popularity, with advancements in gear technology and easy access to training facilities like the Ouray Ice Park. Last year, the Ouray Ice Park received almost 12,000 visitors, the most since it opened in 1994. And thanks to donations, the park is completely free for all climbers.