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(AP File Photo/Donna Bryson)

Iced-over waterfalls, frozen pines – the perfectly chill Ouray Ice Festival

What began as a way to fund the Ouray Ice Park has grown into a nationally recognized exhibition started by famed alpinist, Jeff Lowe.

Ah, February: perhaps the most frigid of our winter months here in Colorado. All the snowfall from December and January has formed a layer of ice that never quite melts but becomes harder and thicker as the months go by and the snows keep falling. By this time of year, higher-altitude regions glitter less from soft powdery snow and more from the sun dancing off iced-over waterfalls or icicles dripping from the frozen pines. It’s no wonder why February is a big month for ice around the Centennial State. The ice castles over in Dillon are still in full swing, Cripple Creek is gearing up for their annual ice festival, and over on the Western Slope, Ouray is just winding down from its own world-famous annual ice festival.

Known as the “Switzerland of America,” Ouray is a former mining town in the San Juan Mountains approximately 50 miles from Telluride: one of the premiere destinations for skiing and snowboarding west of the Continental Divide. Safe to say, an affinity for winter sports runs rampant here. Unlike other ice festivals, such as the one in Cripple Creek, that act more as a showcase for ice sculptors, the ice festival in Ouray is all about ice climbing. That’s right, for three days and four nights out of the year this tiny mountain town transforms into an all out ice-climbing mecca. Athletes from around the world both professional and novice alike turn out each year to this one-of-a-kind event, now in its 24th year of operation, to compete, demo new gear and apparel, and celebrate the sport of ice climbing.

Famed alpinist, Jeff Lowe, founded the Ouray Ice Festival in 1996. Considered a revolutionary of sorts in the ice-climbing industry, Lowe started the festival after a rare degenerative disease all but ended his career as an ice climber. What began as a way to fund the Ouray Ice Park has grown into a nationally recognized exhibition, consistently raising a majority of the park’s hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual operation costs. Last year’s turnout was the highest attendance of any Ouray Ice Festival to date.

To prepare for the festival, Mother Nature gets a little help from the Ouray Ice Park’s “ice farmers” to design a landscape of artificial ice features riddled with more than 200 different complex climbing routes. The ice farmers use a gravity-fed system of over 7,000 feet of irrigation pipe and hundreds of shower heads to craft every slab, pillar and fang of their stunning formations that ice-climbers by the thousands come to dig their picks and crampons into. The mixed and speed competitions are perhaps the main events of the festival, boasting such high-profile competitors as Angelika Rainer, Ryan Vachon and Will Gadd. Even Aron Ralston – the man whose unforgettable story was portrayed by James Franco in the movie “127 Hours” – has reportedly made an appearance at the ice festival before.

Despite this, the festival isn’t strictly for professional ice-climbers. All levels of experience are welcome and even encouraged at the festival, with close to one hundred different interactive educational clinics and seminars taught by a mixture of professional athletes and guides – each of whom represent the best in knowledge and instruction for their field. The clinics range from introductory all the way up to advanced. These clinics generally require a registration fee, ranging in price from about $70 for Ice Park members to $80 for nonmembers. Clinics are typically two and a half hours long. Seminars tend to be a little more in depth and, consequently, higher-priced. These typically last for five and a half hours and range in price from approximately $140 for Ice Park members and $150 for nonmembers. A portion of registration fees (about $20) is donated to the Ouray Ice Park Inc. and directly supports continued park operations and initiatives.

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However, walk-up climbing is available for free all day throughout the park during the festival. The festival also features a free kids “Climbing College” where kids can try their hand at the fun. The Outdoor Gear Expo is also free to festival attendees, where you can peruse or demo the latest in ice-climbing tools, apparel, and gear from many of the outdoor industries’ leading retailers. There’s also plenty of beer and food to enjoy from local breweries and vendors.

The event takes place each year at the end of January. Even as a mere spectator, the Ouray Ice Festival is something to behold. The festival is one of those “bucket list” experiences that you at least have to be a part of once. It also happens to be an experience completely unique to the state of Colorado. What better excuse to pack up the family, travel through some new territory, and get a taste of life on the other side of the mountains?

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