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Ouray Ice Climbing

The Ouray Ice Festival is in full swing this week at the Ouray Ice Park.. Below is an article I wrote for Mountain Gazette a few years back:

Colorado Ice Climbing

I was reclining under a dark January sky as enormous snowflakes lighted on my face, feeling like a shower of tingling cold pinpoints. It was an excellent sensory contrast to the soothing hot water in which the rest of my body was submerged. The round wooden tub was fed directly from a natural hot spring behind the Box Canyon Lodge, and was positioned on a hill overlooking the mountain village of Ouray, Colorado.

I quaffed a cold beer, enjoying glimpses of town light glowing on the gray walls of the surrounding valley, walls that rose into a night fog so dense it could conceal this mountain refuge from the world of industry and schedules.

The sound of women laughing in the next tub wafted through the mist. “Yes… He’s a friend of mine and I talked him into letting me use his tool,” one of the women said. Another giggled in reply, “Well, what was it like?”

“It was fantastic!” she exclaimed, “The shaft had an easy grip and the length was perfect. The curve felt kind of strange, but believe me, when I got busy it made all the difference.”

“Did you get wet?” a third woman asked. “Of course! How could I do it without getting wet, silly? You should try it!” They all laughed.

Yeah. Ice climbing. In Ouray, the ice climbing capitol of the West, you rarely hear talk of much else. I took a deep breath of the crisp, pine-tinged atmosphere well below freezing. As I kneaded stiff muscles in the calescent pool, I reflected on my need to ritualistically suffer on frigid walls of ice. The motivations are complex, but let’s immediately put to rest the idea that ice climbing is merely another sport for adrenalized thrill-seekers attempting to live on the edge.

Of all my climbing experiences, from the thin air of high-altitude mountaineering to roped technical rock, ice climbing is uniquely gratifying. Unlike a rock route literally fixed in stone, the line of an ice route is essentially as you choose it. It is like the difference between a resort skier descending a groomed run versus a telemark skier savoring first powder tracks in a backcountry bowl.

On ice you must be completely self-reliant. Because your life and limb depend on your actions, you are forced into Zen-like clarity of mind directed at your very place and moment. Like a Buddhist master, you are fully immersed in here and now.

At the finish of a difficult route, you enjoy the victory of having crafted your own line of ascent. It is not uncommon to feel like a prophet reeling from a metaphysical vision. Your core spirit is energized, enlightened, and you know you are alive.

Much of the time that vision extracts a toll. Among the most-common and excruciating experiences ice climbers suffer is the rewarming of hands. The thickest practical gloves used by ice climbers cannot perfectly insulate. And gripping an ice tool above your head further drives the blood from your fingers.

Re-establishing full blood flow can be tortuous. Your fingers feel as if they are being crushed by pliers as a blowtorch sears your flesh. No kidding. It is perhaps one of the most painful experiences possible that does no actual harm. There is no relief as your world spins in eye-watering agony for several minutes.

By the time the water had re-warmed my body, the snow had accumulated two inches outside the tub. I scurried to my room with my hair and beard encased in ice. After drying off, I dressed and hiked a few blocks to Buen Tiempo, a bar famous for warming fleece-clad climber’s fresh off the ice. I sipped margs with climbing buddies old and new, laughed at our ice follies, admired tales of difficult ascents and anticipated ambitious plans for the next day. Climbers from Colorado and beyond crowded in and loud conversation reverberated off the walls. We were a tribe celebrating our bonding rite.

The next morning I was shivering in knee-deep snow at the base of a blue-gray ice wall, intentionally stripped down to minimal clothing. I would soon work myself into a sweat. I struggled to tie into a frozen-stiff rope. I swung an ice tool, sinking the pick into plastic ice. I repeated the action with my other tool. I then kicked my right foot into the ice knee-high, sticking my crampon frontpoint perpendicular to the wall. I stepped up. I alternated this action, tool and crampon, until I was twenty feet above the ground.

I twisted a screw into crackling ice. Frigid water that was running down the wall also ran into my sleeve, sending a cold rivulet down my arm and torso. I clipped my rope and continued up, shoulders and calves burning. I hammered the ice and unintentionally cracked off a chunk the size of a dinner plate above me. It nailed me in the face, drawing blood and swelling my lower lip. I looked like I was on the losing end of a bar fight. I continued up.

The ice constantly changes. I love it.

—Mark Scott-Nash

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