A crowd dressed in bright, puffy jackets whooped and clapped from the edge of a gut-twistingly deep gorge.
Below them, a young guy with pink hair and an ax in each hand raced against a clock, propelling himself up what looked like plunging chandeliers of ice – the world-famous ice of the Ouray Ice Park, just a short hike up from the tiny town in southwestern Colorado.
The clock ran out, but the climber still got second place, not to mention huge cheers. The 27th Ouray Ice Festival – held last weekend – was both a chance for elite climbers to show off their moves and for beginners to learn the ropes.
It’s the kind of low-key event you could bring your baby to, which Rizlie Etcobanez and his wife, Rochelle, did. They were hiking farther up the gorge.
“We're definitely trying to get her into it,” said Etcobanez, as he stopped for air. “It’s just that it’s tiring to get her up here.”
He started to laugh, but 1-year-old Lyanna, looking like a puffy starfish in her carrier, stayed fast asleep. The couple from Aurora had never ice climbed when they first came to the festival a few years ago. But they’ve kept improving, with the help of people here.
“The community’s just so well-knit,” Etcobanez said. “It’s awesome. Everyone just looks after each other.”
This year, the festival drew about 2,000 attendees. Not bad for an event hosted by a community about half that size. Peter O’Neil, the ice park’s executive director, calls this spot the “gravitational epicenter of ice climbing in North America.”
He also knows just how humble its beginnings were back in the 1990s.
“It was the dream of a couple of local ice climbers,” O’Neil said. “I mean, literally they ran garden hoses over, you know, a couple of the cliffs.”
Now the park is key to Ouray’s winter economy, which was almost nonexistent before the park opened. The park still makes every bit of its own ice, thanks to what it calls its “ice farmers,” who’ve had to deal with warming temperatures and a growing park. These days, it has 150 routes spread across a mile and a half.
But the festival almost didn’t happen – not just this year – but ever again.
Last spring, a rockfall dropped an estimated 12,000 pounds of debris on the park. Some wondered if it would be able to reopen – the park needed extensive repairs.
Use of the park is free, just as it’s always been. The nonprofit survives off donations and fundraisers, and it even stayed free after the rockfall caused more than $100,0000 of damage. But, the community rallied, and with the support of ice climbers from across the country, the park was able to crowdfund the money needed to reopen the attraction.
So, the climbing went on, and while it definitely remains a niche sport, this place aims to bring more people into the fold, to get them hooked on ice climbing.
A bit away from the gorge, newbies in harnesses and helmets picked their way up what’s called the “kids wall,” though it still looked pretty imposing to this reporter. Colorado Springs resident Y Mason was volunteering, belaying beginner after beginner.
“There's something special about conquering a wall full of ice and getting to the top and saying to yourself ‘I did that,’” said Mason, who’s been climbing ice for seven years.
It even helped her get over her fear of heights. She remembers the moment she was no longer afraid, after scaling a 100-foot wall at this park.
“That's why I'm here: to empower people, especially people of color,” said Mason, whose family comes from Cape Verde, off the coast of Africa.
There was a long line of people waiting to try the ice climbing. And so often, after someone conquered their very first climb, they had a big smile and shining eyes.
Moriah Bell, from Denver, didn’t need convincing. She was already hooked.
“It’s fun kicking a wall of ice!” she exclaimed.
Cecelia Routzahn, an 8-year-old from Montrose, offered this advice: “Hit it in there hard with your boots and your ax!”
So I decided to try it, though it took me a second to learn to walk with crampons on – those imposing ice spikes strapped to your feet. And by “a second,” I mean I only fell twice.
But finally, with the help of a few kind volunteers and a lot of instruction, I did make it onto that ice wall – swinging my axes and digging in my boots with all the precision of a newborn horse learning to walk.
I went about 8, hard-earned feet. I didn’t feel any catharsis yet, but I did feel myself wanting to get better.
And hey, there’s always next year’s ice festival.