Ouray Ice Park History
Since its inception over two decades ago, the Ouray Ice Park has BECOME one of the premier ice climbing venues in the world.
Part 1: The Genesis of the Ouray Ice Park
By Peter Shelton
Back in the early 1980s, Ouray in the winter was essentially Rip Van Winkle-Ville. Driving through town on our way to skiing the backcountry, some mornings there wasn’t a single car on Main Street, no human form stirring in the frosty air.
Then a remarkable and unlikely thing happened. People started coming to Ouray to climb manmade frozen waterfalls.
The genesis story of the Ouray Ice Park may be apocryphal, but I like it. It involves an old friend Bobo, née James Burwick, a jack-of-all-trades mountaineer come to the San Juan’s in the early 80s. 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 old penstock (a hydroelectric pipeline) wound down the gorge from a dam a couple of miles upstream. And everywhere it leaked, there was another icicle. Bobo and friends rappelled down the cliffs and spidered back up the undulating ice. They wore 12-point crampons on their clunky mountaineering boots, wool pants and boiled-wool Dachstein mittens. When they reached the top—oops—their big, clumsy ice axes sometimes accidentally punched new holes in the metal pipe. Well darned if a new climb didn’t materialize after a few days or weeks.
Of course, Bobo wasn’t the first to climb ice around here. In 1974, ice pioneers Jeff Lowe and Mike Weiss climbed Telluride’s Bridal Veil Falls, the highest one-stage drop in Colorado at 365 feet. ABC’s Wide World of Sports very publicly broadcast the attempt. The notoriety horrified the Idarado Mining Company, which owned the land. Lowe had to sneak past Idarado guards for subsequent climbs, as no landowner in those days would condone such death-defying craziness.
But Lowe wasn’t crazy; he was on the cutting edge.
Part 2: An Insider’s Story of the Ouray Ice Park
By Samantha Wright
In 1991, Bill Whitt, a California windsurfing bum turned ice climber, and local attorney turned real estate developer Gary Wild bought a hotel together in Ouray called the Victorian Inn.
They dreamed up the Ouray Ice Park as a way to drum up winter business. But before they could start farming ice, they had to get the blessing of Eric Jacobson, the owner of the Ouray Hydroelectric Plant, who owned an easement right through the Uncompahgre Gorge.
As Whitt tells the story, Jacobson and Wild were not crazy about each other. But then one day, “Gary walked over to the hydro plant with a six-pack, sat down with Eric, they started drinking beers, and it was like, “I love you, man,” and boom, it was solved. They worked it all out. Without that, there would never be an Ice Park.”
In the early days of ice farming in the Uncompahgre Gorge, “there was a lot of trial and error, Whitt said. “Nobody had done anything like this before. It was a grassroots effort personified. And it was also a pain in the ass. We’d run hoses and stuff, and that worked great for half a night, then they’d be frozen solid. So we’d strip the hoses, take them down to the Victorian Inn, put ’em in the hot tub, defrost them, than take them back up and hook them up again.”
Miraculously, it worked. The ice started growing, Ice climbers flocked to Ouray from around the world. Et. Voila, the Ouray Ice Park was born.
“Everyone thought we were mental,” Whitt said. They said it would never make any money and it was the stupidest thing ever. There are still locals that wish it never started.” But most folks today agree that the Ice Park changed Ouray, and the sport of ice climbing for the better.
Part 3: The Ouray Ice Park Today
Bill Whitt and Gary Wild’s effort to “farm” ice attracted enough attention that in 1997 Ouray Ice Park, Inc. (OIPI) was officially established to organize the Ouray Ice Park.
Nearly two decades later OIPI has continued to improve the Park’s plumbing system, increase access to new terrain in the Gorge, and finance and maintain extensive infrastructure throughout the Park. The Ouray Ice Park currently has over one mile of vertical terrain and over 200 ice and mixed climbs stretching along the Uncompahgre Gorge.
Each winter, OIPI hosts the Ouray Ice Festival to celebrate the Park and raise funds for its operation. Despite the high cost of its maintenance, the Park remains free and open for public use. In over 20 years of operation, it has become one of the premier ice climbing venues in the world.