First Days on the Road and Attending the Ouray Ice Festival

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I officially departed on my Epic Dirtbag Adventure on Saturday, January 5th for the long drive down to Ouray, Colorado. I blasted through Washington State into the eastern corner of Oregon and on to Boise, Idaho on day one. I had my first Wal-Mart parking lot camping experience at the 24-hour store on the east side of the city.

It was a chilly 12 degrees, but sleeping in my truck bed under the canopy was slightly warmer. It was a little strange sleeping in such an urban environment and it took me a little while to get to sleep. Once I did, all was well though! In the morning there was a bunch of iced-over condensation covering the interior windows of my canopy.

One nice thing about sleeping in Wal-Mart parking lots is you can just wander into the store when you wake up and pick up some breakfast.

Sunday was still super cold through the Intermountain West. I stopped at a rest area outside of town and brewed up my first cup of delicious Aeropress Coffee on the road. I pressed on along the long and mostly boring drive to Salt Lake City where I stopped to meet up with Twitter acquaintance @SteveWWeiss, who did his own six-month climbing road trip last year, and I watched the Seattle Seahawks defeat the Washington Redskins.

From there I pressed on until Price, Utah where I decided to call it a night after what was beginning to seem like endless driving. I pulled up into the Wal-Mart parking lot once again and started prepping the back of my truck for bed. It was already a paltry 6 degrees, with a projected low of 2 that night. I was just wearing running shoes as I got things situated in the back of my truck and could feel my toes going extremely cold.

I chickened out and hopped back in the truck, blasting the heat, and driving around town. I opted to grab a $50 hotel room in town than to spend a ridiculously chilly night in the back of my truck in a 15-degree sleeping bag. Dirtbag/hardman fail.

Monday I continued on my never-ending drive to Ouray… It had been quite a while since I’ve been on a big drive on the West Coast, I’d just become so accustomed to everything being so much smaller on the East Coast. I made an impromptu decision to “swing by” Arches National Park on my way down.

I drove through the gate and used my America the Beautiful pass (the $80 annual pass that provides entrance to more than 2,000 federal recreation areas) for the first time… I had wanted to check out Delicate Arch, but it was 13 miles of windy roads and a short hike in, so it wasn’t really the time or day for me to do it.

Instead I basically just drove up the road a bit, came to a cool overlook and took a couple of pictures before driving back out. Not the best use of my time, and certainly not an ideal first visit to Arches, but what I saw was amazingly beautiful nonetheless.

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I finally pulled up to my new place, located just a couple blocks from the ice park! I’m sharing a pretty nice 3 bedroom, 2 bath vacation/condo rental with a couple of cool guides. I was lucky enough to secure a room a month prior to my arrival thanks to word of mouth and being introduced into “the matrix”.

Word of mouth is definitely the way to go in a small town like Ouray (population 900-some), with a small and core group of seasonal employees. So, no, I’m not quite yet dirtbaggin’ it, when I’ve got a roof over my head, a kitchen, and a bedroom–but I am here to climb as much as I can.

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Ouray Ice Park

I wasted no time getting out to the park. For those who might be unfamiliar with the appeal of the Ouray Ice Park, it is a gorge right beside town in which they’ve installed a series of pipes which spray water on the canyon walls with sprinklers every evening to create the ice climbs.

In terms of the accessibility, quantity, quality, and concentration of ice climbing, Ouray simply cannot be beaten. 200+ ice routes of all grades and difficulties within a 10-15 minute walk. You can walk along the top of the crag, find an open anchor (bolts, chains, or tree) and toss a rope over. Most areas have walk down paths and rope handlines for support.

In the months preceding my arrival, I had connected with a number of climbers in the area via the American Alpine Club’s member search function. Initially, I was just reaching out to find info about possible room rentals and the best way to go about doing so.

It’s definitely a great function, and I got lots of helpful replies from local climbers, guides, and even some famous pro-athletes like Steve House. I kept in touch with a few people who expressed interest in partnering up as well. I met up with Colin who was living down in Montrose to climb over the next couple days.

We headed over to South Park and New Funtier, two of the areas further upstream in the park; both of which offer a number of easy to moderate routes, as well as some harder stuff. It had been about a year since I’ve played on any water ice, and it was great to be back at it! Temperatures in Ouray were balmy with 30-some degrees during the day time, and it just seemed so pleasant and civilized.

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In the days preceding the upcoming ice festival I also did a couple of hours volunteering each day to help get things set up… Putting up the gear sponsor’s tents, staking them down, helping offload gear from vehicles as they arrived, and even helping to lift and arrange big 200+ pound blocks of ice which would be carved into the winners’ podium.

It was cool to take a peek behind the festival scenes and to meet some great, dedicated people–some of which have been volunteering and supporting the ice festival and park since it’s inception.

18th Annual Ouray Ice Festival 2013

The festival kicked off officially on Thursday night. Sam Elias gave an interesting talk and slideshow at the Main Street Theater. He spoke about how he got into the sport, his time at the Red River Gorge and Miguel’s Pizza, how he got into ice and mixed climbing here in Ouray, and finally about his recent ascent of Everest with Emily Harrington and Conrad Anker.

It was a long slideshow, but he had some interesting stories to tell, and he mixed it up with some short videos as well. Following the slideshow, there was a big kick-off party across the street at the Beaumont Grill, hosted by the American Alpine Club, which included free food and drinks.

There was a great turnout (of course, it’s free!) and it was fun to connect with more people who were arriving from all over the country, and even all over the world at this point.

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Friday morning I headed up to the Ice Park to try and get in on some of the free gear demos. I’ve got all my own gear, but I might as well check out some new stuff if it’s free! I picked up the La Sportiva Trango Extreme boots for the day and tried to get a pair of Nomic ice tools from Petzl, but their booth was just a madhouse, so I gave up.

My first clinic of the day was an ice footwork clinic with Kyle Dempster. He took us down to the Scottish Gullies near the lower bridge and had us work on technique while climbing low angled ice, utilizing the low dagger technique (wrapping your hand around the top of the handle at around waist height), and the virtues of the no-hands rest on such terrain.

Kyle is an accomplished climber of huge alpine objectives in the major ranges as well as the owner of the Higher Ground Coffee shop in Salt Lake City. He had some valuable tips to share and seemed like a good guy.

I also met some cool people in the clinics, like Cale, a fellow Seattleite who has been coming to Ouray for the past couple of years, and Ali who runs a climbing/mountaineering website dedicated to the lesser-known and lesser-traveled mountains of Pakistan ( Half the fun of doing the clinics is just meeting cool new people, and to get the opportunity to chat with some really accomplished climbers.

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My afternoon clinic was with Sam Elias on intermediate ice. We headed over to the area known as the School Room just beside the upper bridge, it is one of the most accessible and popular areas of the entire park (not that it mattered during ice fest since they had certain sections closed off for clinics).

Sam put us straight on some steeper WI4 climbs to see how we were doing and then began offering up tips and feedback based on our climbing. Sam’s clinic was pretty useful, he had plenty of advice about footwork, hip technique, trusting the movement of your tools, and so forth.

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The evening wrapped up with a visit to the Ouray Community Center for the indoor gear expo, dinner, and silent auction. It was great to get a hands-on look at some of the new gear that companies will be releasing, like the Black Diamond X4 Camalots, the Black Diamond Magnetron Carabiners, and other assorted gear.

Some notable “celebrity” climbers were in attendance as well, like Conrad Anker, Emily Harrington, and even old-school Yosemite hardman Jim Bridwell, who was selling his old tomahawks and homemade camming devices for $20 a pop. The spaghetti feed and beverages were good, the gear was cool, and there was even a little bit of free schwag to be had at the event (but mostly just stickers).

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Saturday I hit up the park again early–hoping to borrow some Nomic ice tools for the day, but again it was a ridiculous line. I borrowed the Scarpa Jorasses boots though before heading to the North Face tent for this morning’s first clinic with Emily Harrington and Heidi Wirtz for a session about using your hips for maximum security on ice.

It was cold this morning–real cold. I was getting a little worried for my toes as we stood around waiting to head down into the park. Putting on the super cold boots that had been left out all night probably wasn’t the best idea.

The toes eventually warmed up as we began moving, but I still had to remain vigilant throughout the day to keep them warm and moving. We did the hips clinic down in the School Room, and I found it quite helpful to really review the technique in detail and get active feedback from Heidi. Monkey hang on the tools, kick-kick-kick your feet higher, stand up and get your hips in, swing your tool, repeat.

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During the break between clinics, I caught I little bit of the Elite Mixed Climbing Competition and just happened to catch Simon Duverney’s run at the gnarly mixed route which leads to a huge overhanging steel board where it tops out. He made it look easy, simple as that.

He topped out a full couple minutes ahead of the only other person to complete the route, Jeff Mercier… Impressive stuff.

Only 2 out of 25 competitors could even complete it, and both were French. I guess there is something to be said about having the Alps as your training ground! We were joking that there should a separate French competition and an ‘everybody else’ competition.

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For my afternoon clinic, I met up with Angela Hawse, a local and one of the most experienced guides around (only the sixth woman to achieve full IFMGA certification) for a clinic on ice screw placements for aspiring leaders.

Angela gave us a primer on where and why to place ice screws, general ice leading strategy, some common pitfalls, and so forth before having us mock lead a route, which was my first time really doing any ice mock leading.

It was a fun, informative, and useful exercise, particularly when receiving feedback from Angela about our placements. She was a fun, friendly guide, and she was also a great help to me when I was doing my initial research about housing opportunities in the area through my AAC search.

That evening there were a number of slideshows, a big party, and other festivities… I went home after the afternoon clinic to make dinner and to save a bit of money, then ended up falling asleep early, thus missing out on all the events that night. Bummer.

Sunday morning was my final clinic of the festival, a multi-pitch and belay transitions seminar with local guide Dawn Glanc. Since this was a purely instructional, non-climbing clinic, I didn’t bother borrowing any gear, and just wore my beefiest of gear to keep me warm in the New Hampshire-esque cold that had settled over Ouray.

Three of us headed up to the top of the Kid’s Wall to play with anchor building and talk transitions. This clinic ended up being pretty much just a review for me, but Dawn was a detailed and thorough instructor, and review is always good. But she did elaborate on some of the things she does specifically with multi-pitch ice in mind, which was very helpful.

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I watched a bit of the Hari Berger speed climbing competition from the lower bridge before making my way to the Ouray Brewery to catch the second half of the Seahawks taking on the Atlanta Falcons with some fellow Seattleites. It was such a nail biter of a game! But the Seahawks weren’t able to pull it off, bummer.

All-in-all those first few days in Ouray were pretty amazing! The Ouray Ice Festival is a fun experience and definitely worth checking out. If I were only going to make one trip to Ouray in a season, I would probably not pick that weekend to do so, though, since it is so very busy.

The clinics are a great value, very informative, fun, and you meet some cool people. One thing that is important to note, the clinics are taught by some pro climbers, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are very good instructors. World-class climber does not equal world-class teacher (and vice versa).

That’s not to say the clinics aren’t worthwhile, but it’s just something to keep in mind. If you are looking for a better quality of instruction, you might want to do your research and ensure that the clinics you sign up for are taught by those with more guiding/instructional experience.

Ouray Ice Festival Details

January 10-13, 2013
Half-Day Clinics $49 each
Five Clinics for $245

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First Days on the Road and Attending the Ouray Ice Festival trip-reports, instructional, ice-climbing, epic-dirtbag-adventure


Head Writer and Adventurer at Desk to Dirtbag
Ryan is an author, adventurer, perpetual wanderer, and self-proclaimed dirtbag (but that might not mean what you think). Originally from Seattle, he headed to Washington D.C. where he spent five years working for Congress before heeding the call of the wild. He set out truck camping to road trip across the American West, and then across all of Central America and South America. When he isn't on the move, you can find him living as an expat in Colombia. He is also the author of the best selling book: Big Travel, Small Budget that will help you travel more for less. Follow the adventures on social media or read more.

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Comments 4

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  1. Good stuff here man. Informative about the whole event. You going to try to make it up to the International Climbing Festival in Lander this year?

    1. Post

      Thanks Kris! That event in Lander wasn’t on my radar until now… I’ll have to see if I can make it happen. Thanks for stopping by and bringing it to my attention!

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