For climbers who yearn to feel the satisfying “thwack” of an ice tool setting firmly into a frozen waterfall in the Uncompahgre Gorge each year, the future is looking a little brighter.
No, it isn’t the blinding Colorado sun reflecting off the shimmering sheets of ice that cling to the gorge’s walls each winter; rather, it’s the Ouray Ice Park Incorporated’s “Our Water Our Future campaign,” which has allowed the nonprofit that runs the park to take major steps toward ensuring its longevity and expanding its terrain.
The procurement of new water rights and expansion of the work is not merely a million-dollar investment in the climbing community – it is an insurance policy of sorts for the town of Ouray, both economically and otherwise.
The park drew about 20,600 visitors during the 2021-22 season and hosted three major events, including the world-famous Ouray Ice Festival. An economic impact study of that season found that over 95% of climbers who visited the park were not Ouray locals.
The same study found that the park’s nonlocal visitors had a spending impact on the town of $17.3 million, which benefited primarily hotels, restaurants and guiding services.
“The ice park is a huge part of the winter economy and anything that helps it remain a reliable resource is huge,” said Patrick Ormond, head guide of Ouray-based San Juan Mountain Guides.
The Ouray Ice Park boasts more than 125 ice climbing routes in the winter, the result of the work of four “ice farmers,” who oversee the creation of these routes and remove hazardous ice formations. The park, which is free to use, is the largest human-made ice climbing locale in the country.
The park’s value to Ouray extends beyond the jobs it sustains.
“The city of Ouray values the place that we exist – the mountains we live in,” said Ouray Mayor Ethan Funk. “And we adapt ourselves to those mountains, and the ice park is a part of that process of us adapting and understanding and making use of the mountains around us.”
Until now, the park’s ice farmers have used overflow water from the city’s water supply. But as a historic drought ravages the southwestern U.S., the future reliability of that supply was called into question. Ouray gets its water from the Weehawken Spring, which has already begun to run low, causing concern within the town.
“What if, down the road, the source of the water really, really diminished and all we get is overflow and there’s no longer any overflow?” asked an alarmed Peter O’Neil, the executive director of Ouray Ice Park Inc., the nonprofit that runs the park. “The first priority of the city water tanks is potable drinking water, fire suppression, flushing toilets and taking showers. We get the excess. If there is no excess, there is no ice park.”
O’Neil said this jeopardizing factor was first identified several years ago, and he was brought in during fall 2020 to help Ouray Ice Park Inc. secure a more sustainable solution to the problem.
The solution, it turned out, was an entirely new source of water. And not just new water – five times as much water as the park has been receiving from the city. The benefactor was the Ouray Silver Mines.
Bryan Briggs, then-CEO of the mine, agreed to donate three shares – about 1,526 gallons per minute – of nonconsumptive water to the town of Ouray in a 10-year renewable lease that will be managed by Ouray Ice Park Inc. The transfer explicitly said the water could be used only to farm ice.
The mine had little use for the water flowing through its property and saw an opportunity to support the community.
“Bryan Briggs said, ‘We’re a good community steward, a community partner and we want to work with the Ouray ice park,’ so they said, ‘We will do this,’” O’Neil said.
Not only did the mine make its water available to the park essentially free of charge, but it covered the legal cost of doing so. The mine racked up an estimated $100,000 in legal bills that it donated in-kind to the park during the course of a year that it worked in Colorado’s water court to secure the transfer.
As O’Neil often reminds people, the park is free to use but not free to operate. Even with the mine’s donation confirmed, the estimated cost of installing infrastructure to divert the water from Canyon Creek and pump it up Box Canyon Road to the gorge rim clocked in at nearly $1.1 million.
Several major foundations, including Gates Family Foundation, El Pomar Foundation, Great Outdoors Colorado and the Boettcher Foundation have become significant supporters of the project. Despite having raised over $600,000 and with another $200,000 to be made available upon the acceptance of National Environmental Policy Act paperwork later this fall, O’Neil says the ice park is about $300,000 short.
However, the support from the town of Ouray and the community has been immense. And, perhaps true to the ethos held by many climbers that one must save money wherever possible, OIPI found another way to cut costs by partnering with the town.
The diversion point for the new water supply is located in Canyon Creek just before its confluence with the Uncompahgre River, at least a half mile from the gorge’s rim. In order to transport the water to the gorge, OIPI must install a vertical turbine pump at the diversion point and run a 6-inch pipe up Box Canyon Road to the park’s sprinkler system. The estimated costs of that alone will be over $200,000.
However, Clearnetworx, a Montrose-based fiber internet company, wanted to install fiber-optic cable along that section of road and agreed to share the cost of the excavation if the company could run its cable in the same trench.
“We’re pinching every penny to try to figure out how to make this happen,” O’Neil said.
Funk said the new water deal for the park was necessary for it to grow sustainability and keep pace with the park’s growing popularity.
Still, drought is only one of several ways climate change is jeopardizing the park’s future. Like all winter sports industries that rely on cold weather, the park continues to be threatened by warmer weather and shorter winters.
Warmer weather can, in some circumstances, actually improve ice climbing conditions. Warmer ice is more plastic, meaning tools and crampons stick in it better making it easier to climb. Colder ice becomes brittle and flakes off in what ice climbers call “dinner plates.”
But warmer weather can also cause safety concerns.
“Water starts to percolate behind the ice and then the ice falls off,” O’Neil said. “The Thursday before Christmas last year, it rained in Ouray. About a third of our ice delaminated from the rock and collapsed.”
These sorts of events can lead to having to close the park in the interest of climbers’ safety.
Ormond said as temperatures heat up and the park has become more crowded, San Juan Mountain Guides has begun to look for backcountry ice that forms naturally at higher elevations. The company has also expanded the backcountry ski guiding part of its business – intense spring storms are not always conducive to the production of ice in Ouray, but they can create prime skiing conditions.
“The guiding community exists in large part because of the Ouray Ice Park as something that spurs that community to exist,” Funk said. “You get jobs, you get young people who come in to run and manage the ice park, you get outdoor enthusiast who now live in the community because they want to live in a place like that.”
O’Neil expects the construction crew to break ground on the trench for the pipe on Wednesday, however there is still no projected date of completion for the project. He had hoped to have the new system in place for this year’s ice season, however global supply chain shortages have caused delays. The park is still awaiting the delivery of a transformer that will allow the power company to run the vertical turbine pump.
Dependent on weather, O’Neil hopes to open the park the week before Christmas, using the city’s excess water supply.