I attended the first ice climbing festival in 1993 -- when Ouray resembled a ghost town -- and have been to several others since. Unquestionably, the recently concluded event was the best to date with 28 happy sponsors and hundreds of climbers enjoying warm temps, blue skies and great ice.
As the sport of ice climbing has evolved, so has the continent's premier celebration of this somewhat demented, wickedly fun activity. The new leadership this year decided to place greater emphasis upon the folks who matter most -- average consumers -- and less upon the elite climbers.
Two days of free clinics were quickly booked and proved a huge success (more will be added next year). The competition was whittled down to one exciting day with men and women competing on the same mixed (both rock and ice) route -- as it should be. Putting microphones on the elites as they showed there stuff on challenging routes was also a crowd pleaser. The fashion show (featuring local jail bait) and the live auction (where gear and climbers were hawked) proved uproariously fun and raised money for the Ouray Ice Park.
Over the three-day event, I talked with scores of climbers from Texas, Kansas and other states where quality ice climbs are but a dream, as well as the expected contingent from Colorado and Utah. This event has become so important that retailers in Boulder (six hours away) say they see a surge in sales afterward that are directly attributable to the free gear demos in Ouray.
So how big was it? Well it's hard to get figures since it's a free event but here's some perspective: Last year, the festival consumed 15 kegs of beer over the entire weekend. This year, that quantity was consumed on Friday night alone and the heroes at New Belgium Brewing (think Fat Tire Ale, praise be!) made an overnight 14-hour run to fetch an additional 16 kegs that were also sucked dry.
There is no doubt that the Ouray Ice Festival will continue to reign as THE event to attend for ice climbers. Sure there are others, which are quite popular, but Ouray is what most climbers lust after -- the man-made flows and camaraderie just can't be beat. While it probably won't grow much larger, the Ice Fest is certainly going to keep getting better. -- reported by Clyde Soles