For the uninitiated, ice climbing is a rather bizarre sport -- people standing around in below freezing conditions waiting to attack a giant ice cube with sharp picks. Yet roughly 3,000 people from around the country converged on the small town of Ouray (population 800) in southwestern Colorado last weekend for the annual Ouray Ice Festival. NBC and OLN cameras were rolling, and 38 sponsors kicked in to make the event the most popular of its kind in the United States.
The Ouray Ice Park is the largest manmade ice climbing area in the world with more than 160 routes created by spraying water down cliffs. About 75 percent of its $45,000 annual operating budget is raised during the three-day festival.
For most of the attendees, a significant portion of which came from the Midwest (Kansas, Texas, Indiana, etc.), the free clinics by famous climbers (such as Pete Athans, Jim Donini and Ed Viesturs) were the main attraction. This year, the clinic program was expanded from 30 to 45 and filled up months in advance. To prevent no-shows, anyone who cancelled was required to make a $100 donation to the Ice Park.
Over 30 booths from outdoor industry sponsors gave consumers a rare opportunity to demo ice gear and technical clothing -- and many got their first taste of leashless tools and soft shell jackets. Quite simply, a company is not a player in the alpine climbing market if it doesn't have a presence in Ouray. Only two hardgoods brands were missing (DMM and Lucky), though a few were notably stingy in the popular gear auction (consumers noted who you were). The hands-on testing and word-of-mouth advertising are a win-win for consumers and sponsors.
The mixed climbing competition drew 26 climbers from around the world. While the Canadians have usually dominated in the past, the Europeans (Swiss and Slovenians) schooled everyone this year with some brilliant acrobatic performances. A real crowd pleaser, with falling climbers and flying tools, the comp should make for entertaining TV. Hopefully, a live video feed will liven up the booth area next year since the audio gets tiresome (athletes pick their music and some just sucks) even with Malcolm Daly's entertaining play-by-play. Proving that climbers are not Atkins fanatics, 34 kegs of New Belgium beer (Fat Tire and 1554) were consumed in two nights.
While Ouray is somewhat remote (six hours from Denver or Salt Lake City), it is still the best and closest ice for the western United States. The only other ice festival that rivals Ouray for numbers is the annual Festiglace (Feb. 20-21) held near Quebec. The Canmore festival (March 3-7) is said to be coming on strong, and is near Calgary, but may not attract Americans in large numbers. The Valdez festival has been around 20 years but is just too far away to ever be huge.
Since Ouray is a major summer tourist destination, though tiny, it has the infrastructure to handle an even larger festival. Given the good vibes from attendees, and positive feedback from sponsors, it's likely this event will continue to grow in importance. Ice climbing...weird but fun!