Chatter about the world’s top ice climbing spots will always circle back to Ouray, a sleepy town in southwestern Colorado where more than 20 years ago, a few visionary climbers started teasing streams of water down the walls of a steep, shadowy gorge.
Since then Ouray Ice Park has blossomed into an ice climber’s dream-come-true, where ice farmers carefully tend hoses and showerheads to cultivate a mile-long network of magical ice.
Ice climbing is a delicate art of ascending frozen flows using ice tools and crampons. It’s slow and methodical, requiring careful pick and foot placement on ice formations that range from dangling fangs to chandeliers of fused icicles and lumpy mushrooms.
“It’s a mix of barbarianism and ballet,” says Gary Falk, a mountain guide for San Juan Mountain Guides. “You have these instruments that are so barbaric, but you have to be gentle.”
Ouray is also a launching point for prime backcountry ice climbing routes that drip down the rugged San Juan Mountains outside of town.
> When to Go:
Ice climbing season around Ouray runs from November to March. The ice park is open December through late March, depending on what the weather brings.
The Ouray Ice Festival, which takes place in January, is a great opportunity to sample the sport, with four days of clinics, demos, competitions, and parties. Try ice climbing for the first time, learn tips from the pros, or simply stare in awe at the spectacle of ice monkeys ascending the frozen walls.
> Getting Started:
The Ouray Ice Park is the ideal spot to get a taste for ice climbing. Beginner routes are the perfect proving ground, allowing you to ease into the experience. San Juan mountain guides can show you the ropes. They offer two-day “Intro to Ice Climbing” classes throughout the winter, as well as more advanced courses for those wanting to take their skills to the next level.
> Essential Gear and Tips:
Staying warm is of paramount importance when ice climbing. Dress in layers and bring extra clothing in a 35-liter pack. Be sure to have a waterproof jacket and pants, a substantial hat (that fits under a helmet), a face mask or balaclava, and full-coverage sunglasses. Consider packing a puffy down jacket to wear over everything else while you’re standing around.
You’ll also want at least two pairs of gloves in case they get wet. Make sure they allow for nimble fingers; you’ll appreciate the dexterity when working with your hands. Slather on lots of sunscreen.
Pack plenty of easy-to-eat high-calorie foods. Bring water in insulated bottles to prevent freezing, and fill a thermos with hot broth or tea for sipping throughout the day.
While you’re welcome to bring your own boots, crampons, ice tools, harness, helmet, belay device, carabiners, rope, and ice screws, outfitters can undoubtedly provide you with all the gear you’ll need.
> Where to Go:
With more than 200 named routes, the Ouray Ice Park is like an amusement park for everyone from first-timers to those who seem to have been born with an ice tool in hand.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
- Kids Climbing Park: This wall of short, easy pitches is perfectly suited for beginners of all ages. You can take a few laps, starting with just crampons, then progressing to two tools. Picnic tables at the base make easy spectating for parents who want to tend to their tots.
- The School Room: This is a popular quarter-mile stretch of ice with solid anchors at the top, and plenty of room at the base where climbers can belay each other and hang out. The canyon walls are less constricted than other areas of the park, letting in more sunlight—especially nice when the mercury dips.
- Lower Bridge: Prime views from a bridge and observation decks make for easy scouting of routes in the Lower Bridge area. Climbing access here is also a snap. It’s a quick stroll to get to the base of some of the park’s best mixed rock and ice routes.
> Other Top Ice Climbing Spots:
Sandstone, Minnesota: Robinson Quarry Ice Park in Sandstone, Minnesota, took a page out of Ouray’s book when developing its park, which is a partnership between the town and local climbers. Artificial ice complements natural flows, guaranteeing good climbing even in warmer winters.
Cody, Wyoming: Falk maintains that Cody offers the best backcountry ice climbing in the United States. With dozens of multi-pitch routes, the area provides a great training ground for climbers who are planning trips farther afield. San Juan Mountain Guides now offers treks in the South Fork Valley, near Cody in Shoshone National Forest.
Rjukan, Norway: A tight, steep valley punctuated by more than 170 frozen waterfalls draws ice climbers from across the globe to this village in southern Norway. Mid-January to mid-March, when daylight is more plentiful, is the prime time to go. An ice festival lights up the town in February.
Avery Stonich is a freelance writer based in Boulder, Colorado, who has traveled to more than 40 countries in search of adventure. Visit her website at averystonich.com and follow her on Twitter and Instagram @averystonich.