The Ouray Ice Park
America’s #1 Ice Climbing Destination
Ouray, Colorado is home to the world-famous Ouray Ice Park as well as some of the finest backcountry multi-pitch ice climbing terrain in the Lower 48 states. San Juan Mountain Guides is Ouray’s only year round climbing guide service- The Local Experts. Most of our guides call Ouray home and their knowledge of the area is truly incomparable. Our guide service instructs in all disciplines of climbing, although ice climbing is our specialty.
Due to a number of factors, Ouray is one of the best places to learn the art of ice climbing. Two-minute approach walks, mild winter temperatures, abundant sunshine and a lifetime of ice climbing objectives combine to make Ouray one of the world’s finest ice climbing destinations. There is a good variety of terrain for every skill level, for first-time-climbing grandparents to well-skilled leaders.
Ice climbing enthusiasts have been coming to Ouray, Colorado since the seventies to ply their craft on a few of the steep classics that formed on the sheer walls of the Uncompahgre Gorge. Climbs such as “Stone Free” and “Tangled Up in Blue” were the stiff test pieces in the gorge located at the south end of the sleepy alpine hamlet. Wooden shafted ice axes, flexible crampons, leather boots, wool stocking caps and gloves, and a considerable degree of skill and moxie comprised the tools of the day. Although the equipment changed dramatically over the next 15-20 years, the ice climbing challenges in Ouray remained very much the same. It wasn’t until some enterprising local climbers came upon the idea to manipulate a nearby water source and start spraying it over the edges of the mile long gorge that the Ouray ice climbing scene began to evolve into its present state.
Unbeknownst to many climbers, the portion of the Uncompahgre Gorge where the Ouray Ice Park is located lies mostly on private property. Eric Jacobsen, owner and operator of Ouray Hydroelectric, purchased the property in a bankruptcy auction from a defunct utility company in 1992. Eric is among the rare breed of benevolent private property owners sympathetic to climbers and their desire to climb on his property. Eric’s only caveat was that he had to have adequate liability insurance coverage provided for himself and his company in order to allow climbing on his property. Under a unique land-use arrangement, the County of Ouray insured Eric and Ouray Hydroelectric under its insurance umbrella and Eric in turn leased to the county the use of the land for recreational purposes for $1.00 a year until 2008. This was the critical ingredient for laying the foundation of the Ice Park.
A Brief History of the Ice Park
In the fall of 1994, Bill Whitt, Gary Wild, and Mike O’Donnell strung out some half inch pvc pipe and the odd assortment of garden hose and sprinkler heads and began to farm ice in the gorge. The results surprised even the pundits: long steep flows of crystal blue ice on previously blank rock; the Ouray Ice Park had arrived. Word spread quickly among the small ice climbing fraternity and that winter of 1994-5 saw many climbers come down to Ouray to test out the newly formed terrain.
The Ouray Ice Park was built entirely by an enthusiastic volunteer work force as well as donated materials and capital. Ouray Ice Park, Inc. (OIPI) was formed in January of 1997 in order to provide some formal organization to what had previously been a loosely organized grassroots effort. OIPI is a non-profit corporation that includes nine volunteer board members who are considerably skilled at ditch-digging and plumbing systems. The Ouray Ice Park as we know it today is a shining example of what a volunteer organization can accomplish with little capital but a lot of enthusiasm and vision. OIPI has continued to improve and expand the Ice Park each year through memberships, corporate sponsorships, and funds raised by the annual Ouray Ice Festival.
The Ouray Ice Festival, held each Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend in January, is an eclectic gathering of ice climbers, gear manufacturing exhibitors, and ice climbing voyeurs simply thrilled to watch at a safe distance from the precipitous edges. The festival was first held in January of 1995 and is promoted by ice climbing pioneer Jeff Lowe. The festival is now entering its eighth year and is widely recognized as being the premier gathering of its kind, with familiar faces returning annually to climb, socialize, test out the latest equipment, or watch the pro’s try to scratch their way up Jeff’s latest exhibition route test piece. Over half of the annual operating capital needed to run the Ouray Ice Park is raised each year by the Ouray Ice Festival and it’s corporate sponsors. As the Festival has grown so too has the Ice Park, and the relationship has directly resulted in the fine ice climbing venue that we are all able to enjoy each winter here in Ouray.
The Ouray Ice Park is entering its eighth season of operation and this year will mark the greatest expansion and capital improvement project that the OIPI board has embarked upon thus far. All of the existing pipe in the park is being replaced including large portions with galvanized steel. Additionally, the long-standing dream of expanding the park to the south beyond the popular “Schoolroom” area appears to be coming to fruition. Affectionately referred to as “South Park”, this expansion will increase the climbable ice in the park by approximately 25% and significantly add to the total of intermediate terrain thereby reducing the pressure in the “Schoolroom.” If you have been a volunteer worker or sponsoring member of the Ouray Ice Park give yourself a big pat on the back for helping to make all of this happen and if you’d like to get involved and give something back to the Park please contact OIPI at P.O. Box 1058 Ouray,