Local's Guide To Ice Climbing Ouray, Colo.
Planning on busting out the tools and crampons this winter? There may be no better place than Ouray, Colo. This small town tucked into the North San Juan Mountains is the undisputed ice climbing capital of the United States. Nowhere else can you roll out of bed and stand at the base of hundreds of ice climbs a couple minutes later. Add in a great selection of affordable hotels, restaurants and bars, and its no surprise why tens of thousands of ice climbers walk these streets each winter. Here’s an insider’s guide to sending your next trip to Ouray with style.
Getting to Ouray is super easy. It’s within driving distance of Denver, Salt Lake City, and Albuquerque, and the nearby Montrose, CO airport accommodates everyone else. The Ouray Ice Park, home to a linear mile of single-pitch ice climbing, is a five-minute walk from town, so if you’re planning on sessioning the ice park, you don’t even need a rental car. Western Slope Rides offers an ice climbers’ special—round trip from Montrose to your hotel for $75.
For lodging, Ouray offers dozens of options from budget motels to comfortable bed and breakfasts. Don’t hesitate to purchase a Ouray Ice Park membership, which will score you major discounts at nearly every hotel, restaurant and shop in town. With this discount, nobody should be camping or sleeping in a car. There’s nothing worse than coming home to your hatchback and trying to dry out your gear after a day on the ice. Plus, many hotels in Ouray have in-house hot springs, thanks to active geothermal springs in the town. The Weisbaden vapor caves are a Ouray staple, and the Orvis Hot Springs down the road in Ridgway are not to be missed—but take note, clothing is optional there.
Forget about cooking… after a full day of ice climbing, you’ll be psyched to take refuge behind a huge plate of hot food or a stein of local beer. Use your Ice Park membership discount to keep the wings and beer flowing at the Brickhouse, Ouray brewery, among other local favorites. Some hotels offer complimentary breakfasts, and Ouray’s coffee shops open early to the sounds of full-shank boots clomping across the welcome mat. The Ice Park doesn’t open until 8 a.m.—7:30 on weekends—so you’ll have time to fuel up properly. On cold days, treat yourself to a hot lunch in town. It’s literally a five-minute walk from the ice park.
The comforts of Ouray are nice, but of course, you came to climb. The park is the most popular venue, with hundreds of routes covering the walls of the Uncompaghre River Gorge. The ice park is free to use and open every day from mid-December to mid-March. Just walk in, find an anchor, drop your rope, and you’re climbing. It’s that easy. Recently, the Ice Park has gained popularity and might be nearing capacity on busy weekend days.
Be sure to use bolted or chain anchors, as many trees in the Ice Park look healthy but have been damaged by Spruce Beetle. Check to make sure you’re not dropping your rope onto anyone else, and be hyper aware of your impact on other parties. Knocking down ice is part of the sport, so climbing above or below others is a bad idea. Check out the Ice Park website for the full rundown of rules and guidelines. And if you see an ice farmer walking around, be sure to say thanks. They’re the ones up all night making sure the ice is growing fat and checking conditions all day to keep everyone safe.
Some Ice Park pro tips: When things are looking busy in the Schoolroom or South Park, head to New Funtier for empty routes. Bring a 70-meter rope and at least 40 feet of anchor cord to be sure you can rig any route in the park. And if you see an ice farmer at the bar, buy them a drink.
Beyond the Ice Park, Ouray offers easy access to a lifetime of backcountry ice. Camp Bird contains everything from easy single-pitch ice to mixed climbing test pieces, to sunny roadside drytooling. Silverton, one hour south of Ouray, is home to the longest water ice climbs in the Lower 48. Telluride, one hour the other way, has beckoned hardpersons from around the world since Jeff Lowe and Mike Weis first climbed Bridal Veil in 1974.
Ouray is the center of the ice climbing universe for a reason. Have fun, but remember: Ice climbing can be dangerous. Even the ice park should be treated as a serious winter alpine experience. Brush up on your technique or rescue skills with San Juan Mountain Guides, or sign up for a guided climb of a local classic to cap off your trip. The whole point is to have a good time, so don’t hesitate to spend some time with the local experts to get your ice game on point. It’s well worth the initial investment in a beginner or intermediate ice course, which will end up saving you time and money over a lifetime of fun.
I’ll see you in the vapor caves!