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Go Climb a Waterfall

There's a voice. It's faint and indistinct, what with having to travel up a hundred feet of ice and then compete with a bunch of other sounds: kids from Boulder whooping farther down the canyon, the unfrozen waterfall burbling behind the frozen waterfall, and my own panting. But I'm pretty sure it's the voice of my guide — an endlessly patient guy who, like me, is named Mark — trying to tell me something useful and important. Almost everything he's said has been useful and important. Things like, "You want to make sure that knot is tied right. Because if you fall, and it isn't, you're going to be bummed." And: "You want to get a good placement with that pick before you move the other one. You want to feel like you can hang right off it. Because you will be hanging right off it."

What's he saying now?I strain to make it out: "...Don't hang on so tight. Relax. Loosen your grip." I'm wrong; he's talking nonsense. I know it's nonsense because right now my feet rest on the two front points of my crampons, driven maybe a half-inch into the ice; my hands clutch nothing except the two ice axes I had feebly whacked home moments before. The last thing I'm going to do is loosen my grip. (Hours later, I realize Mark was right: my hands are too weak to unzip my snow pants.)

I am in Ouray, Colorado. More specifically, I'm halfway up the Uncompahgre Gorge, site of a half-mile-long artificial waterfall and — in winter — America's first man-made ice-climbing park. Ten minutes by foot from my hotel, 15 from an excellent margarita, I am in the U.S. capital of the sport of the future.

For a long time, ice climbing was a fringe activity, not least because it was dangerous. I first heard about the sport from a rock-climbing instructor who described it by saying: "If you get hurt climbing rock, it's because you screwed up. Ice climbing, you can do everything exactly right and still die. It's great." This kind of pitch made the sport tough to popularize. But 15 years later, here I am, following in the footsteps of the professional lunatics on ESPN's X Games, the business execs out for a new thrill, the summertime rock jocks looking for a wintertime fix, and the 17-year-olds who borrowed mom's car for the weekend. Next week, a blind guy is going to do a climb that's rated more difficult than the one I'm on right now; he'll likely do it faster, too. Clearly, something changed during those 15 years.

In the early days, ice was seen as just another one of the hardships you had to deal with in alpinism; the tools reflected that mind-set. You carried a longish ice ax in one hand and an ice dagger or a modified rock hammer in the other. Both tools, while practical for alpine ascents on snow and rock, were not so great for ice, since their straight blades were just as likely to fracture the ice as to give you any sort of purchase. Crampons — spikes worn on the feet — were on a flexible frame, which meant that if you wanted to climb something steep, you had to have calf muscles the size of most people's thighs (a necessity for the German front-point technique), or ankles made of rubber (if you wanted to go French-style and use only the bottom spikes), or arms like the Incredible Hulk's (the Scots liked chopping steps, using one leg for support while hacking out the next foothold). A lack of sensible fear also helped, since climbers were mostly protected from falling by ropes secured to modified rock pitons — much like large nails — which, when hammered in, often shattered the ice around them and promptly fell out. Or were impossible to remove. Or came out all too easily when you fell.

By the seventies, things had improved. Californian Yvon Chouinard (founder of the Patagonia company) and Scotsman Hamish MacInnes both struck on the idea of curving the ax blade and shortening the handle, which increases the odds that the ax will stick in the ice and makes it easier to use two tools simultaneously. Around the same time, Greg Lowe (of the Lowe Alpine Systems gear company) developed the Footfang, a rigid-frame crampon that makes both front-pointing and French technique possible for people with normal physiques; he also invented the Snarg ice piton, a hollow-core ice screw that is reasonably easy to insert and remove. Improbable climbs suddenly became plausible.

That's not to say that millions of people rushed out and hit their local frozen waterfall — mostly because almost no one has a local frozen waterfall. Finding one generally meant a long, steep backcountry hike at a time of year when the weather was guaranteed to be either really, really cold or just plain wretched. Or both. Usually both. This helped keep the ice-climbing community small throughout the eighties. But in 1994, Bill Whitt and Gary Wild — the owners of the Ouray Victorian Inn — and a few others looked at a gorge and saw an opportunity where, for years, everyone else had seen nothing but a hole. They also saw a solution to the town's perennial problem: winter.

Set in the (relative) lowlands of southern Colorado's San Juan Mountains, Ouray is ridiculously beautiful. It's ringed by pine forests and sprawling ranches and 14,000-foot peaks and precious little else. The town was founded in 1878 when silver was discovered nearby; unlike most mining towns, Ouray never burned down, so a lot of old buildings are still standing (it looks like Northern Exposure's Cicely, Alaska). Seven hundred people live here year-round, all of whom, as far as I could tell, climb, bike, and ski. Since none of the mountains have ski lifts, however, winter tourists have generally bypassed Ouray for Telluride.

This is where Whitt, Wild, and friends come in. The fact that rock climbing was taking off had not escaped their notice: climbing walls were being built all over, and people were turning out in droves to try them. If they could put together a similar setup in Ouray for ice climbing, they reasoned, maybe they could start a trend, too. Using new pipes, they tapped into a reservoir built in 1900. Come winter, they let the water run — instant frozen waterfall, a half-mile of it, right next to the hotel. Add a bar, Buen Tiempo, within walking distance of the climb site, and you've got an ice climber's paradise.

After eight hours of French technique, front-pointing, and monkey-hanging, it became clear to me that the bar isn't a mere accessory; it is a vital part of the experience. Almost every climber I'd seen was there. Mike O'Donnell, the owner of San Juan Mountain Guides, asked how my day had gone. "Great," I said, using two rubbery arms to lift my drink to my mouth. "Mark lied and told me I was good." Mike lied, too, and told me his guides didn't usually butter clients up; I liked him for that. For the next hour, we talked climbing. We discussed the overall winner of that year's Ice Festival competition, Frenchman Bruno Sourcy, who climbed "like water flowing up," and Don Whilans, an English climber famous for, among other things, his views on fitness: "Drink a lot of beer. Get fat. Walk it off on the approach march." We also touched on falling: "Some people think you're not pushing yourself hard enough if you don't," said Mike. "But I believe you really want to avoid it. You've just got too many sharp metal things hanging off you."

In danger of falling myself, I cadged a ride to the hotel, collapsed onto the bed, and listened to my muscles complain. My calves were burning; my forearms throbbed. Then I thought about the brief moment when I had gotten it right, when I was moving easily up a frozen waterfall, when climbing actually felt like dancing. And I realized that I could hardly wait until next winter, so I could come back and fall down some more.

the cold, hard facts
San Juan Mountain Guides (970/325-4925; private rates start at $210 per day) offers one-on-one instruction for all levels. Ouray has two lodging choices: climbers hang at the Ouray Victorian Inn (50 Third Ave.; 970/325-4064; doubles from $49), where they get a 15 percent discount; you might prefer the antiques-filled China Clipper (525 Second St.; 970/325-0565; rooms from $65). Wherever you stay, make sure you eat — and drink — with the climbers at Buen Tiempo (426 Main St.; 970/325-4544; dinner for two $20).

MARK VAN DE WALLE's short story "Wild Kingdom" appears in the anthology Sleep (Universal Press).

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