icons/avalancheicons/bootscompassfacebookicons/gloveshandsicons/hearticons/helmeticons/ice axeinstagramminusmountainicons/pathsMap Pinplusicons/questionicons/guideicons/ropeicons/gogglesicons/stafftenttwitteryoutube
Mountain Madness Climber

Ice Climbing in Ouray, Mountain Madness Style!

Spe­cial thanks to MM client Andres Car­dona, who wrote this guest post for us!

Some­times in our lives we all catch a break and call it good tim­ing, but some­times its bril­liant timing. 

That would be the case in my recent trip to Col­orado, where not only did I get to enjoy the 15th annu­al Ouray Ice Climb­ing fes­ti­val, but also learn first­hand the tech­niques of the trade from Moun­tain Mad­ness guide David Ahrens, in a 3 day Ice climb­ing school, fol­low by a week­end of ski­ing and snow­board­ing with friends from Tam­pa. So yeah, the tim­ing, it was more than good.

The famous Ouray Ice Climb­ing Fes­ti­val, a small gath­er­ing of elite climbers and fans from all over the globe, come togeth­er to com­pete, hold sem­i­nars , gear expo, and dress up in fun­ny super­hero cos­tumes to par­ty it up, in an area of the San Juan moun­tains known as Lit­tle Switzer­land” . Here you can rub shoul­ders with some of the most elite climbers in the world such as Steve House, Will Gadd and the always com­i­cal Tim­my O’Neil. Don’t believe me when I say his com­i­cal? Check out his pre­sen­ta­tion from the festival:

After a week­end full of shenani­gans, beer, and watch­ing pro­fes­sion­al ice climbers do their thing, it was my turn to drop down the canyon and hit the ice…literally. Ouray has the largest ice park in the US; The Box Canyon was prac­ti­cal­ly built for this stuff, if god could puke ice, this is what it would look like, and with almost 200 routes, it’s a climber’s non­stop playground. 

My adven­tures with David start­ed ear­ly Mon­day morn­ing fol­low­ing the fes­ti­val, after pick­ing me up from the hotel it was one quick stop to the out­fit­ters to pick up the rental gear, and we were soon mak­ing our way to the far­thest area of the park known as South Park, where all the routes have been named after South Park episodes (Ken­ny Dies, Cartman’s Anal Probe, Towelie).

Here, begin­ners can focus on their foot­ing and ice tools place­ment tech­niques, grad­u­al­ly mov­ing to more inter­me­di­ate routes. With a day full of sun­shine, and the crowds from the fes­ti­val all gone, it was time to fol­low David and start climbing.

The first route was fair­ly easy and enjoy­able, so much so it was a con­fi­dence boost­er, that had me guess­ing what was the big deal of the fes­ti­val to begin with?(ok, maybe not that much, but you get the point).

Either way the Col­orado native David had some­thing up his sleeve for this Florid­i­an. The next route start­ed out with a WI4+ almost ver­ti­cal 10m wall, yeah real­i­ty check.



While slow­ly mak­ing my way up this wall of ice, near­ing the top, and very clear­ly remem­ber­ing David men­tion some­thing about nev­er lose your tools, bang! I lose foot­ing and slip, leav­ing both of my tools firm­ly set on ice, a meter above me. Did I men­tion it’s almost impos­si­ble to hold on to water ice with your bare hands? Believe me I tried. 

The best thing was to be low­ered down, bor­row David’s ice tools and go back up after my rental ones, cause as the say­ing goes … no tools no game, no game no fun”. After res­cu­ing my rental tools, I was beat, the wall had won, but I would come back for revenge. Wall: 1, Florid­i­an: 0.

The rest of the day was going over plac­ing pro­tec­tion, prop­er climb­ing tech­niques, swing­ing of the ice tools and climb­ing mul­ti­ple routes along South Park. After a full first day it was time to head back into town for some beers and snacks with David at the local Irish pub. 

Mus­cle mem­o­ry likes to sleep, and it showed. The next day, it was back to the park for more beginner/​inter­me­di­ate routes along the New Fun­tier area, where the train­ing from the pre­vi­ous day real­ly start­ed to show. The swings and the kicks were becom­ing more effi­cient, mak­ing for stead­ier enjoy­able climb­ing. Dur­ing lunch David and I start­ed talk­ing of what would be the grad­u­a­tion route for the next day; it had to be some­thing in the back­coun­try, prefer­ably long, and prefer­ably hard.

It was set the WI4/WI5 horse­tail would be. It was a bit wor­ri­some not know­ing what I was get­ting myself into, but excit­ing none the less. Plus with a name like horse­tail how bad could it be? I mean, if it was called, I will eat your babies for break­fast, then I might have said some­thing, but in this case I think I’ll just go along for the ride. Actu­al­ly I think I’ll name my first route I get to lead, I will eat your babies for break­fast, and it’ll be a WI2. Now I just got to find a frozen water­fall that looks like a cere­al bowl. It’s out there, I’m sure. 

After lunch it was time to head out to a beau­ti­ful area of the park named The Scot­tish Gul­lies. Not for the claus­tro­pho­bic, the gul­lies turn as they taper at the top, for some great chim­ney climb­ing, right as you top out. Here David and I got to prac­tice mul­ti-pitch tran­si­tion­ing, required for longer routes such as horse­tail. The gul­lies were fun; actu­al­ly the gul­lies were a lot of fun, and not too tech­ni­cal to be exact. Anoth­er route that David sug­gest­ed was The Boat Ramp, right along­side the low­er bridge. It’s a bit of a tech­ni­cal route for me, I thought, but the lure of the chal­lenge and of its ice chan­de­liers drove me in. 

Oh, there’s one thing about this route though said David. You can­not drop your tools here!

You see, there’s an expose unfrozen creek run­ning right below this route, if you drop your tools, you’ll be fish­ing for them …” this com­ment made me sec­ond guest the notion of climb­ing this route at all. Min­utes lat­er after top­ping out on the gul­lies again, we come across a friend of David, and he is look­ing for the mag­i­cal and majes­ti­cal­ly Mag­net on a stick. David’s friend was just climb­ing the Boat Ramp, and dropped one of his tools onto the creek, and it’s such a com­mon prob­lem that the local out­fit­ter has attached a large mag­net to a broom stick, to help climbers fish for their tools.

After hear­ing about this inci­dent we decid­ed to avoid the creek expose Boat Ramp and fin­ish the day in the Scot­tish Gul­lies. It was anoth­er great day of climb­ing in Ouray.

Last day of climb­ing in Ouray; I was excit­ed know­ing that it was going to be a long day.

Pulling up to the curb, near­ing the Horse­tail trail, we notice a jeep already parked by the trail­head, shuu, theirs climbers on the route already” I men­tion to Dave, let’s go check it out”.

The climbers were just set­ting up belay for their first pitch, so we had to give them some time before fol­low­ing them up the route. Let’s go back to the park, and do some warm up climbs” said David in a non­cha­lant way. I agreed, as I had my eyes set on that WI4+ wall, and get­ting my revenge.

After two days of train­ing, the wall was fair­ly easy and straight for­ward. Just com­pre­hend­ing key climb­ing points such as, steady small steps up, min­i­miz­ing the num­ber of swings and climb­ing as high as you can on your set tools, real­ly max­i­miz­ing effi­cien­cy is the name of the game; makes things a lot eas­i­er and enjoy­able. Wall: 1, Florid­i­an: 2.

Now back at the Horse­tail trail­head again, and we could not believe that after almost 2 hours the oth­er climbers were only 13 of the way up the route! That’s slow­er that malais­es” exclaimed Dave, let’s go some­where else”. A short dri­ve away and I found myself walk­ing up a dirt road, where it was noth­ing but ice climb­ing routes after ice climb­ing routes. Dave could not help him­self, and was point­ing out all the pop­u­lar routes. That over there is The Rib­bon”; this is Sky­light, a very wet Sky­light to be exact.”

Some of the routes we already being climbed, some even had pro­fes­sion­al pho­to shoot going on, nice 

Place for a stu­dio, I thought. Even­tu­al­ly we walk into oth­er guides and friends of Dave, they had just fin­ished doing a route, and after chat­ting for a bit, we nat­u­ral­ly pick that same route. 

Slip­pery When Wet. Hav­ing some fat ice, and an easy first pitch, we quick­ly gear up, and start climb­ing. After belay­ing for Dave on the sec­ond pitch and avoid­ing falling ice the size of small TVs, it was my turn to climb. The sec­ond pitch was a lot trick­i­er, slip­pery when wet indeed; as cold blue water drips down the ice, onto your ice tools, soak­ing your gloves and hands, and with the tem­per­a­ture in the teens; it could be numb­ing at times. 

Above the sec­ond pitch, it’s an open area with lots of sun expo­sure, mak­ing the ice thin, very thin in this case, and wet. Climb­ing and slow­ly gain­ing weight, as I’m clean­ing all the pro­tec­tion left by Dave, all the ice screws, bin­ers and run­ners even­tu­al­ly become a notice­able weight on my right hip. 2 short but hard WI4/WI5 climbs, some bro­ken ici­cles, chan­de­liers and I find myself at the top of the route. Wow. Need­ed that rest bad­ly. Now it’s just a mat­ter of set­ting up for a repel (the fun part), and with­in mat­ter of min­utes we were both down by the curb side again, clean­ing up the gear, and chat­ting up with the oth­er climbers. Soon we were back in the pub again, beer and wings this time, shar­ing sto­ries and climb­ing point­ers. Ouray, what a climb­ing expe­ri­ence! A gem­stone of a town, with ice routes for Jewels.