Friday, February 4, 2011

Ice climbing in Ouray, Colorado

Ouray, Colorado is one of the most popular ice climbing destinations in the world. The town's canyons boast over a mile of ice jaggedly draped over its cliff faces, the majority of which is "farmed" ice. Metal piping runs over the tops of these canyons, allowing the town to turn the water on every few nights. The water runs down the cliffs and freezes into thick sheets of ice in some places and beautiful yet slightly terrifying icicles in others.

I've managed to be a climber for three years and avoid ice climbing all the while, but last weekend I finally caved and gave it a try. I was incredibly pleasantly surprised.

Turns out, ice climbing is neither as cold, miserable, scary, or difficult as I had imagined. Sure, there were times during the weekend that I could use any and all of those adjectives to describe my experience, but for the most part, I was only partially freezing and mostly enjoying myself.

I felt very fortunate to have a very experienced and patient friend introduce me to the sport. Knowing that I'm safe makes all the difference for me in being able to push myself physically and mentally at a new and potentially dangerous sport.

The group I was with rented out the entire Historic Western Hotel, which has been open since the 1890's. The ambiance was musty and the decor was an antiquated mix between Victorian and rustic. The creaking floor boards rose and feel like waves, the hallways were narrow and uninviting, and everywhere the eyes of people in old photos followed you as you walked by. It was equal parts creepy and fascinating.

Here's just a tiny portion of the hotel's vast collection of eerie, dusty animal pelts and heads.

I finished the weekend by following my friend up an 150 foot climb called "Tangled Up in Blue." The satisfying sensation of puncturing the ice with an ice ax in just the right way so that it goes in deeply and securely enough that you can pull your whole body weight up by it was addicting. Imagine stabbing thick styrofoam with a butter knife, now imagine the same sensation but many, many more times the physical effort. Fun.

I particularly enjoyed the crumbling blocks of ice that fell down on my head with every other whack of the ax, even though that cost me a bleeding lip and a bruised nose. More than anything, I appreciated finding yet another excuse to get out into a remote, pristine location and bond with good people while reveling in nature's beauty. That to me is really the heart of climbing, whether rock or ice.