OURAY – Shouts of excitement and celebration pour over the walls of the Ouray Ice Park – and it isn’t from the annual festival for which the town and park are internationally known. The ecstatic ice climbers are here for the second annual All In Ice Fest, an event for ice climbers of historically marginalized backgrounds.
The roughly 160 attendees descended on Ouray from across the nation to ascend frozen waterfalls in the town’s world-famous ice park. Some are accomplished ice climbers, certified guides or are in training to take their certification exams; others picked up a pair of ice tools for the first time last weekend.
The festival ran Friday through Sunday and featured an assortment of introductory and advanced clinics on ice climbing techniques and skills, as well as social and informational events in the evenings.
The mission of the festival is to “elevate and highlight marginalized communities – including Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), LGBTQIA2S+ communities, and Adaptive climbers.” But the festival welcomes climbers without asking attendees to check any particular box with respect to their identity and historical marginalization. Instead, the registration form asks the registrant to “elaborate” on their identity.
“I think it’s affirming our own experiences,” said Elizabeth Sahagún, founder and program director of the festival. “You don’t just have to be one of these identities to experience that (marginalization). And you can have intersecting identities – are you going to check two boxes? That isn’t really a full picture of who you are and what you’re bringing to the space.”
The early pioneers of ice climbing were largely white, able-bodied, cisgender men who embodied the image of a colonizer. The goals of All In are to grow the ice climbing community, provide opportunities for professional development and celebrate the accomplishments of climbers of marginalized backgrounds, no matter how large or small.
“People who don’t see people who are like them in these outdoor spaces – it makes it really hard to approach, it makes it really hard to try something new,” said Boaz Cesaretti, an alpine guide who co-led an ice climbing essentials clinic on Friday. “I didn’t know any queer ice climbers when I first ice climbed.”
Sahagún, who received her doctorate in neuroscience and behavior last May, was a graduate student when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, forcing her to teach remotely. She had begun ice climbing in 2018 and found herself falling in love with the sport, but struggled with the lack of diversity within it. And so, in winter 2020, she went on a road trip to visit some of the country’s premier ice climbing crags with the intention of expanding her circle of diverse climbers.
“I really wanted to start building this community if I’m going to continue doing it (ice climbing),” she said.
When she got to Ouray, she met Peter O’Neil, executive director of Ouray Ice Park Inc. Although the idea of a festival was only in its infancy, Sahagún brought it up with O’Neil.
“We pitched it to him and he was really psyched,” she said. “... He was super excited, he was like ‘Let’s make it happen. How can we support you in this?’”
O’Neil said the park had considered ways to expand diversity in ice climbing, but had yet to land on any concrete, effective solutions.
“Liz had the concept and I was like, ‘Yes! What a great idea,’” O’Neil said. “... Someone has to take a leadership role and set an example. I’m glad Liz had the idea and I’m happy to support it.”
Using connections she formed in the Scarpa Athlete Mentorship Program – a brand initiative to help athletes from historically marginalized communities advance their athletic careers – Sahagún began to assemble a team to wrangle sponsors and put on an event. And despite her inexperience putting on a festival, the first All In Ice Fest took place last winter.
For climbers who face challenges other than the steep grade of a frozen waterfall, All In is a place to celebrate the strength it takes to confront those challenges, whatever they may be. And attendees say the community makes all the difference.
True to the mission of the festival, the climbers who scaled the park’s walls in scores last weekend were an amalgamated cohort of ice enthusiasts. To look around the park and see parka-ensconced belayers securing ropes for climbers of diverse backgrounds of all kinds created a unique and important learning environment, attendees said.
Kory Lamberts, who lives in the Bay Area, said he found the festival last year through a group call “Negus in Nature.” Lamberts, who is an adaptive climber as the result of a gunshot injury that left him without feeling in his left hand, said the festival was “pretty special to me.”
“Usually, it makes me self-conscious not being able to climb how good I think I should be able to climb,” he said. “But being in a space where other people are going through different types of things or having to find different ways (to climb) makes me feel more comfortable.”
Many climbers consider the sport to be as much a mental challenge as it is a physical one. To climb well demands scrupulous concentration – something a climber cannot always attain if self-consciousness, social discomfort or anxiety demand mental energy.
Cody Bean said one of the first times they felt comfortable coming out as nonbinary was to a transgender athlete named Nikki Smith at an ice climbing festival in 2020. When Bean saw that Smith would be at All In, they jumped in the car.
“A lot of climbers might say that when they’re climbing, that’s when they detached from the world and focus on that problem,” Bean said. “But if you’re always having something in the background like white noise, trying to conceal a part of your identity or concern for your safety, it doesn’t allow you to fully connect with the adventure. A space like this – there’s nothing like spaces that are focused on marginalized identities.”
Carlin Reynolds, a rock guide and the curriculum and technical director at OUT in the Wild Adventures, said the environment of All In released much of the outside pressure that can compromise a climber’s ability.
“Often I show up somewhere and I’m the only person outside the gender binary and maybe other people have only met a couple nonbinary people before,” Reynolds said. “If I’m bad at the thing, then they will probably assume that nonbinary people are bad at it. So it’s a lot of pressure on me to be representing this entire population.”
The sense of comfort and safety that the festival provides is not just from the attentive belayers and guides running clinics – it is about who those guides and belayers are.
“A lot of the relationships that I built in mostly non-diverse spaces tend to be a little bit more one dimensional,” said Stefan Hadeed, the other guide leading the ice climbing essentials clinic. “Maybe we can hang out and talk about climbing, but talking about other stuff, like life experience and all that, it feels like there’s a disconnect. It feels good to be here in a more diverse place and feel like I can connect to the community.”
After showers and some well-deserved food, the event’s 160 attendees headed to the Wright Opera House for the festival opening. Organizers hosted a delegation from the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, which previously resided on the land where Ouray sits before forcible relocation.
For Briana Mazzolini-Blanchard, the co-founder of an advocacy organization named the Indigenous Field Guide, it is important that climbers leave the festival with specific actions they can take to preserve landscapes where Indigenous people have historically and continue to live. She sat on a panel Friday evening after the festival’s opening and an event with the delegation from the Southern Ute Indian Tribe.
Cassandra Atencio, the Southern Ute Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, said she and her people maintain a powerful connection to the land upon which the festival took place and to the water used to farm the park’s climbing routes.
“Welcome to my homeland,” Atencio told the crowd assembled Friday evening. “Welcome to where my people have lived forever.”
This element of the festival ties into its larger mission.
“That’s what we’re doing here – reflecting our values and what climbing means to us and what challenges we face and celebrating that we’ve made it this far,” Sahagún said.