How to Plan an Epic Ice-climbing Adventure in Ouray, Colorado
Trust the ice.
This was the mantra my climbing instructor, Lani Chapko of Chicks with Picks, had encouraged me to repeat as I attempted to ascend a towering frozen waterfall. With my boots still firmly planted on the ground, this seemed like a reasonable statement. But at 30 feet in the air, with nothing more than spiky crampons and an eighth-of-an-inch-wide steel point anchoring me to the side of a ravine, it sounded ludicrous.
In most parts of the country, ice climbing is considered a niche adventure sport. In Ouray, a tiny town cradled in the mountains of southwestern Colorado, it's the lifeblood of winter. Shop windows carry the sign please remove crampons before entering. The unofficial town slogan is "Have an ice day."
On a frigid January weekday, I drove 5½ hours from Denver to join climbers from around the globe at the annual Ouray Ice Festival. Elite athletes go to compete, while enthusiasts and curious novices partake in a long weekend of educational clinics, gear demos, and nightly outdoor parties. The events are centered around Ouray Ice Park, the world's first man-made ice climbing park, and one of the largest, spanning one mile of the Uncompahgre Gorge just outside of town. A mostly volunteer team of "ice farmers" carefully grooms its 100-plus climbing routes using excess town water fed through a system of 300 sprinklers and spouts. It's part engineering feat, part natural sculpture garden.
Ouray Ice Park has undoubtedly helped popularize the sport of ice climbing, but many would argue it has also helped save the town. Founded in 1876, Ouray was sustained by mining for a century. When that industry dwindled, the community relied on summer hikers and off-roaders to keep businesses afloat. In winter, Ouray, with no ski resorts, turned into a ghost town.
In those days, a handful of climbers would typically make the pilgrimage to scale the area's naturally formed backcountry ice. One of those diehards, Kitty Calhoun, a climbing legend who co-owns Chicks with Picks and still works for the group as a guide, told me that by the early 1980s Ouray was essentially dead. "It truly felt frozen in time," said Calhoun, a South Carolina native who hasn't lost her Southern drawl. "The arrival of the ice park in 1996 changed everything."
Today, the town's Main Street, registered as a National Historic District, is busy with visitors all winter long. Its beautifully preserved Queen Anne and Victorian buildings look like a film set, but, in fact, many have been converted into boutique properties like the six-room Imogene Hotel and locally owned shops, restaurants, and craft breweries.
Early on my first day in town I was joined by three other Denver-area women in their thirties and forties for a two-day beginner's clinic. Some had ice climbed before; others, like me, were complete newbies. A 30-minute hike from the entrance of the park to the bottom of the gorge allowed us to practice walking in our crampons, which turned our feet into wolverine claws. In an area called the School Room, Chapko demonstrated how to kick our crampons into the ice, then swiftly swing one ice ax at a time overhead. Our grip had to stay relaxed to avoid cutting off blood flow to the fingers, which can result in a painful phenomenon known as the screaming barfies. From below, pillars and cauliflower-shaped ice formations, which shimmered blue and white, were so captivating that my nervousness shifted to curiosity. I volunteered to climb first as a partner belayed me by staying on the ground to hold tension in my safety rope.
By day two, we'd graduated to steeper walls. Soon it was my turn to ascend Pic of the Vic, a near-vertical, 130-foot ice wall, my most challenging climb yet. The group cheered me on as I swung my ice ax overhead, remembering to initiate a sharp downward movement from my elbow and add a flick of the wrist to nail a secure hold. The pick planted with a reassuring thunk, locking into the ice. Taking a deep breath, I swiftly kicked my right boot up and into the wall, followed by the left, sinking the razor-sharp blades of my crampons into the ice like fangs.
Icicles crashed down nearby — a reminder that ice is anything but predictable. The last thing I wanted to do was let go of one hand, but Calhoun encouraged me to occasionally shake out my arms to keep my blood flowing. Halfway up the 70-foot face, I considered calling it quits. But Calhoun coached me toward secure holds, and I discovered that, when I found the rhythm of two kicks and two swings, the climbing became meditative. Before I knew it, I had reached the top. I let out a big whoop of accomplishment, then realized I had to lean back, push off the ice, and get lowered down, which was almost scarier than climbing up.
Thankfully, Ouray offers plenty of ways to burn off an adrenaline rush. Back in town, I thawed my frozen limbs and achy muscles in natural hot springs at Box Canyon Lodge & Hot Springs and sipped a Box Canyon Brown Ale from Ouray Brewery. Staring off at the snowcapped mountains, I understood Calhoun's obsession with the ice and her dedication to sharing it with others. Now that I'd scaled a frozen waterfall, I felt like I could do anything.
America's Top Ice Climbing Spots
Adirondacks, New York
Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia and innovator of ice climbing tools, put this area on the map in 1969 when he ascended a route now named Chouinard's Gully. Adirondack Rock & River makes the sport accessible with lodging and an ice park exclusively for clients.
The South Fork of the Shoshone River Valley has one of the largest concentrations of multi-pitch ice climbs in the Lower 48. Wyoming Mountain Guides can arrange tours of the South Fork.
North Conway, New Hampshire
The International Mountain Climbing School offers guided climbs up challenging routes like Pinnacle Gully as well as clinics throughout the White Mountains.
Home to more than 180 ice climbing routes, both novices and pros can find a challenge here. Alaska Guide Co. leads trips all winter to well-known routes like the 600-foot Bridal Veil Falls in the climbing mecca Keystone Canyon.
A version of this story first appeared in the December 2021/January 2022 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline Mind Over Matter.