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Colorado ice climbing competition goes on despite warming and drought

The park and the festival draw in thousands of climbers and tourists to a place people never used to stop.
Colorado ice climbing competition goes on despite warming and drought
Posted at 5:33 PM, Jan 19, 2024

In southwest Colorado near the town of Ouray, winter helps turn a narrow canyon gorge into a frozen wonderland.

But the massive walls of ice, stretching more than 100 feet from the canyon floor to the rim, don't exactly happen naturally.

One of the country's most unique city parks requires a unique job: ice farmer.

"Now we'll turn on the sprayers," said Tim Foulkes, an ice farmer at the Ouray Ice Park.

When the city park closes for the day, Foulkes and his team get to work turning on hundreds of sprayers.

The water coats the jagged rocks, freezing into towering cascades of ice.

"It's a high-hazard location. We're all working on the edge of icy cliffs," Foulkes said.

For climbers, the Ouray Ice Park is an ice mecca. Every season, which only lasts about three months, more than 20,000 visitors scale the steep walls.  

"It's the equivalent of an outdoor climbing gym, except it's made of ice," said Peter O'Neil, executive director of the Ouray Ice Park. "There is really nothing else like it in the world."

This weekend the park is hosting the three-day Ouray Ice Festival and Competition.  

Elite athletes from all over the world come to compete. The challenge: climb from bottom to top before the clock runs out.

It is cold, difficult and sometimes terrifying. Though they are secured by safety harnesses and ropes, climbers can sometimes lose their hold on the obstacle wall near the top. 

April Mayhew and Marcus Garcia have both competed there. This year, they're the ones setting the route climbers will follow.

"It could be sunny. It could be snowing sideways," Mayhew said. "So then you have all of those elements and you have to perform athletically."

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Garcia has been competitive ice climbing for almost 20 years.

"I just love the comradery of the competitors," Garcia saysid"We're all competing against each other, but we're also cheering each other on. That's what I really love about it."

The park and the festival draw in thousands of climbers and tourists to a place people never used to stop. Ouray started as a mining town. It was founded in 1876 during the silver boom. But when all of the silver was mined out, it became a virtual ghost town. But by the 7019's and 80's, visitors were coming back for the ice.

"Twenty-nine years ago, people who lived here said you could lay down in the middle of Main Street and you wouldn't be run over," O'Neil said.

But a recent study found that during the 2021-2022 season, the ice park helped contribute nearly $18 million overall to the local economy, supporting 184 jobs.

At the Ouray Grocery, Sarah Martinez was working to stock the shelves ahead of festival crowds.

"The ice climbing really takes off for the town. It really does a whole other level of business for us. It's absolutely what keeps us afloat during the wintertime," said Martinez.

But keeping the park open and free to climbers is getting harder. The park only uses excess water the city doesn't need. But this year supplies have started drying up.

"This year we're running about 300 gallons per minute when we farm ice at night. We need 600," O'Neil said.

With drought and a warming climate, Foulkes and his fellow ice farmers are feeling it.

"Global warming? It's affecting us terribly," Foulkes says. "This has been the most difficult year to make ice. It was a dire struggle. We had a heat wave. We lost a lot of what we built and basically had to start over."

The park recently made a deal to get extra water from an old silver mine — water that Peter O'Neil hopes will keep the local economy from melting away.

"I like to say that the ice park is to Ouray as the ski hill is to Telluride. Without the ice park, the town would look very differently," O'Neil says.

That town is counting on its ice park to help keep its reputation as one of the hottest destinations for those brave souls who like their climbing icy cold.

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