Ouray: A World Away
By Domenic Pascariello
National Program Manager
Over the past 25 years, the Ouray Ice Park has become world renowned for its impeccable ice, its vibrant community, and its dedication to climbers. It’s not hard to believe that this ice climbing epicenter attracts over 10,000 climbers each year and has changed the small town into what it is today – a year round adventure destination. The foundations of Paradox Sports is rooted in this community, and we make the trek back to this town each year for the climbing, the hot springs, and some of the most amazing scenery in all of Colorado.
There is no shortage of spectacular ice climbs in the San Juan mountains. In fact, routes such as Bridalveil Falls, Bird Brain Boulevard, and Cascade Falls saw first ascents through the 70’s and 80’s as ice climbing began to progress into more vertical, technical climbing. The perfect mixture of temperature and altitude in the San Juans create some of the best ice in the world – freezing snowmelt runoff into columns of pristine vertical pillars, sometimes hundreds of feet tall.
Within the San Juans lies the sleepy town of Ouray. Originally named “Uncompahgre” by Ute people, the word translates to “hot water springs” of which there are many. The Ute people traveled these lands for centuries before colonization eventually brought miners and prospectors to one of the most mineralized places of the Colorado Rockies. Through years of delegation and conflict the Ute people eventually lost access to their lands, but their legacy lives on as the town is now named after their powerful leader, Chief Ouray.
Fast forward 100 years and climbers were eventually the ones developing infrastructure, businesses, and recreational opportunities to try and bring people back to the nearly derelict town. According to the Ouray Ice Park, which was officially formed in 1997, climbing in the gorge was all started by a single person, James Burwick. “…a jack-of-all-trades mountaineer came to the San Juan’s in the early 80’s. One day, legend has it, he peered into the dark slit of the Uncompahgre River Gorge upstream of the Camp Bird Road bridge and saw an eighty-foot icicle dripping out of a leaky water pipe.” The rest is history. After some exploration, Burwick realized there were many of these slow drips all throughout the miles of piping laid above the gorge. The potential for new routes was quite literally endless, as long as the water supply and overnight temperatures could keep up with the holes the climbers happened to pop in the penstock.
Although climbing and exploring the gorge was an excellent adventure, some began to see the potential of what Burwick had created, and knew it could benefit the town and its residents. In 1991 Bill Whitt and Gary Wild went into business together opening the Victorian Inn in Ouray, and after seeing the hotel suffer during the winter months they knew that he needed to act, and fast. Whitt and Wild saw the opportunity that the gorge created for climbers and they wanted to share it with the world. One thing stood in their way, and that was the property owner.
Delegations began with the owner of the Ouray Hydro-electric plant, as they owned much of the land through the gorge. After splitting a 6 pack with the owner over a heart-to-heart, Whitt was able to strike a deal with the power plant and Ouray Ice Park was officially born. From here, Whitt and Wild spent their days running hoses from the penstock to the edge of the gorge to create more routes. They spent their evenings trying to thaw out the hoses in a hot tub, and spread the word of the newly developed lines. Overtime, their plan worked! As they began to attract climbers from all over the world, they knew they had created something special. A place for anyone to come and share the love of climbing no matter their background or experience.
Today while climbing in the Ouray Ice Park, you can think back to the original ice farmers and their vision for the ultimate ice destination. After climbing, you can visit multiple hot springs in town to soak in the therapeutic geothermal pools that have been providing relief to people for centuries. As you look at the surrounding Box Canyon from the steaming water, you can imagine the scene of development as thousands of settlers hand built the roads and homes that surround main street. Along with every other traveler who has passed through, you are sure to leave a piece of your heart in Ouray.