ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Crampons, ice tools and sheer willpower are the means by which champion climbers make their way up seemingly unscalable sheer sheets of frozen waterfalls.
That challenge – and watching those make the attempts – is at the heart of annual Ouray Ice Festival (ourayicepark.com), coming up Jan. 18-21.
Carved from one of the seemingly few relatively level sections of the northern San Juan Mountains, Ouray is a quaint, historic mining town that now lives for its ice climbing and natural hot springs.
And while the elite ice climbers in the world enjoy pitting themselves against each other in various competition on the big walls, there are plenty of opportunities for newcomers to enjoy the sport as well, said Dan Chehayl, Ouray Ice Park executive director.
“We have a kids’ wall with free walk-up climbing for kids,” he said. “Parents can bring kids and we give you all the gear, a guide to get you up there and talk you through it.”
The park is formed as ice farmers spray water down the canyon walls of the Uncompahgre Gorge, creating walls of ice through the use of overflow water from the City of Ouray and more than 250 sprinklers. Within a one mile span of the Uncompahgre Gorge, the Ouray Ice Park contains more than 150 man-made ice and mixed climbs, 11 distinct climbing areas and three miles of vertical terrain.
“It’s like no place in the world as far as the accessibility,” Chehayl said. “It’s a five-minute walk to town.”
It is also a great way for adults to learn the sport or for others to brush up on their techniques in addition to climbing competitions, there are many clinics taught by experts in the field, Chehayl said.
Each Saturday of the event is the premier showcase, however as it features a 30-athlete, mixed-climbing event in which the competitors try to climb up a 70-foot-high route called Mighty Aphrodite, capped by a 35-foot steel tower that’s bolted to the rim of gorge.
“Two long-time athletes set a route for the competitors to climb,” Chehayl said. “It’s really hard so not a ton of people are getting to the top. It’s definitely a sight to see. They’re doing stuff that most people would not even consider attempting to try or even think are possible.”
After a day scrambling up the ice falls, there’s nothing like a soothing dip in the naturally, geothermal-heated pools and spas that abound in the area, said Heidi Pankow, spokeswoman for the Ouray Chamber Resort Association.
Ouray “has the most fantastic, sulfur-free hot springs,” she said. “After a day of playing in the ice park or any of the outdoor activities, soaking in the hot springs is pretty magical.”
The city-run, public Ouray Hot Springs (ourayhotsprings.com), which just underwent a $10 million facelift of its 90-year facility, is one of the top hot spots.
An eight-lane lap pool that rises to 6 feet in depth is actually cooled down to a rather tepid 82 degrees. The massive hot pool, which can comfortably accommodate 300 people sits between 100 and 106 degrees and the shallow pool, complete with volleyball court, sits at 92 to 98 degrees, said Josh Vincent, assistant pool manager. Each of the pools has a continuous flow for fresh, soothing waters.
The Wiesbaden Hot Springs Spa and Lodging (wiesbadenhotsprings.com) vapor cave offers an unusual way of soaking.
“The folklore is the cave could have been used as a ceremony area,” said Delinda Austin, Wiesbaden general manager. “It’s a rock cave that the hot springs comes right out of the ground and into.”
Originally built as a sanitarium around 1880, the inn sits atop the cave entrance, which holds the soaking pool that is 8-feet- by-10-feet with 18 inches of continuously flowing water with rock ledges all around. With the water at about 108 degrees, it also makes a great natural sauna, she said.
And for a little taste of something completely different, the town is home to the Ouray Alchemist (ourayalchemist.com), which offers private, guided tours of a frontier pharmacy. Although a relatively new building, the front facing is from the original Aspen Drugstore from 1888, said owner and retired pharmacist Curtis Haggar.
“I’ve been collecting for 48 years,” he said, adding the twice-a-day tours are limited in numbers. “We have some unusual things like a stone vessel with a snake carved on it. Leech jars. We have some things from the 17th and 18th century. I talk about how 113 years ago it only cost $10 to become a pharmacist by mail order.”