The quiet town of Ouray awakens as thousands of ice climbers make the pilgrimage to the canyon to climb ice. It is here that I have visited every year since 1999. Executive Director of the ice park, Peter O’Neil, likens the ice and the festival to skiing in Telluride. Without skiing, Telluride would not exist. Similarly, ice climbing defines the life blood of the small vale of Ouray, and, January is the crowning jewel of Ouray’s ice. People mark their calendars and businesses ready themselves with the build-up for the Ouray International Ice Festival. While the town normally has 900 inhabitants, the population easily triples as ice climbers from all over Colorado, United States and even internationally, come to celebrate the cold. Clinics are available for anyone to learn from North America’s best ice climbers. Tens of companies stake out their tents just above the ice for the throngs to visit and rent gear. Elite climbers congregate for the world-recognized mixed climbing competition.
For most years of my adult life, I have participated in the festival, and it was the prospect of teaching clinics and taking part in the competition that pulled me powerlessly in. How could I turn away from joining my best friends to try and unlock each year’s mysterious competition route? All of us would throw ourselves at the line, overhanging the canyon, matching our minds and fitness to decipher how to reach the top. Few ever make it to the top, however, the mere possibility of reaching a little farther than you ever expected was the carrot. Even after the competition, participants would gather in local restaurants hooked on solving the mystery.
This year was a little different. I could tell in my bones that I wasn’t ready for the competition. Perhaps I needed a break, and I had not been training. So, I explored the idea of participating in the festival in a new way. By coupling the visit with a passion project that has occupied my attention for the last year or so.