My second year at Sterling College, several of the upper classmen visited Ouray with a professor of mine as part of a "mountain cultures semester." When they returned to Vermont, it was spring break and they told me about the ice climbing mecca. At this point, I was already head over heels for the sport, so we all jumped into my Volvo station wagon and drove 36 hours straight to Ouray, got out of the car at 7 a.m. and started climbing. After that I was hooked on Ouray.
(Two years later) a friend of mine was working as an ice farmer in Ouray and they needed an extra hand, so I was hired on as a part-time ice farmer. I started at the bottom doing all the grunt work-shoveling snow off climbs, clearing anchors, lots of chopping ice bulges around the shower heads, drains and valves, sanding walkways, emptying trash cans. The following year, I began working full time farming the ice.
You refer to Ouray Ice Park as a mecca for climbers. Why is that?
DC: It is the biggest and most popular, period. People do not travel from all over the world or country to go to any ice park other than ours. Our terrain is incredible, breathtaking, and awe-inspiring.
We are located five minutes outside of Ouray -- also known as the Switzerland of America. We are in the heartland of many of the North America's best backcountry ice climbs, so you can train for a few days at the park, then go out into the backcountry and climb a 300-foot continuous classic piece of ice like Bridal Veil Falls, The Ribbon, or Stairway to Heaven. We have about 17,000 feet of vertical ice climbs in the park and we see between seven and eight thousand visitors each season.
What's the best ice for climbing?
DC: The visiting climbers like ice that is big and fat and blue. Sometimes they like it sticky, like it is in the on warmer, sunny days or a lot of late season; sometimes they like it harder and more brittle. The ice is always different, depending on the weather and the season. That is part of the fun of it -- it's always different. Most people probably like the sticky stuff better -- the "hero" ice or "plastic" that you can swing your ice axes in and it sticks automatically and effortlessly.
How does the park benefit both the local community in Ouray County, and the climbing community at large?
DC: Without the Ouray Ice Park, Ouray would be a ghost town in the winter. There was little to no economy before the park really began to take off in the early '90s. Over the years, as the park grew and became more popular and more climbers visited and moved into town, the economy grew with it, until it eventually became the ice climbing mecca it is today.
The local businesses and the community as a whole rely heavily on the park to keep their businesses going through the winter season. Ouray now has one of the largest climbing communities in the United States. Behind practically every door in town there is at least one climber, and it is a strong community where we are all friends and are all working together to protect our climbing resource and keep it sustainable as it grows each year. It is a very welcoming community as well -- new climbers roll into town every day and are welcomed with open arms.
What are your goals for the ice park? Any plans for expansion?
DC: Making the best ice possible, a good experience for the visitors, and safety for staff and visitors are my goals each year.
We are always looking to expand our terrain each year, adding additional climbs where we can. A continued goal is to maximize the benefit to the local community and the broader climbing community as well. Maintaining and improving the infrastructure is also a big focus, as is retention of staff year to year, making this a desirable job.
We are always adding shower heads to the ends of each section in the park to make one or two more climbs. We are also looking to expand some gaps in the park where there are presently no ice climbs or shower heads, but the pipe passes through to get to another area. The reason these places haven't been developed in the past is either due to accessibility or sun exposure.
The places where we are looking to develop a whole new area have poor accessibility because of safe access to the top of the cliff, both for the ice farmers and climbers. We would need to put infrastructure in the form of stairs and walkways to develop this, which entails board approval, city approval, and fundraising.
The Ouray Ice Park is free to visitors if you have your own gear. You can also rent gear and take lessons from local outfitters. The park is open from mid-December until late March, depending on the weather.
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