It’s -2 degrees Fahrenheit, but feels like -9 with wind chill. I haven’t felt my toes in two days and my speech is starting to slur–a warning sign of hypothermia. I have dressed in my most serious base layers under my micro-puffy, shell, big puffy combo and I’m lurching over the rails on the lower bridge in the Ouray Ice Park at the 18th Annual Ouray Ice Festival to watch Simon Duverney sack the Men’s Elite Climbing Competition on the Mighty Aphrodite route—it’s truly a thing of beauty.
I love ice climbing. I have gathered with thousands of other freezing fans (read: nutcakes) en masse at one of the nation’s most Siberian-esque destinations to delight in the cauldron of suffering and purpose with knowing strangers and friends who share in aches, triumphs, and perhaps, the screaming-barfies. Many festival-goers are there to watch some of the best climbers in the world demonstrate their athletic prowess in sub-zero temperatures. Others are there to demo new boots, crampons, ice tools, and other climbing accoutrements provided free of charge by festival sponsors. And some are there to sharpen their picking and kicking skills.
The festival in Ouray, Colorado reigns as the biggest in North America, but it competes for attention with Bozeman, Montana and Cody, Wyoming, which have dandy ice festivals of their own.
Bozeman Ice Festival
December (SLC – Bozeman = 6.5 hrs.)
The Bozeman Ice Festival (BIF) has been held the second week of December since 1996, and is attended by 2,000 people each year with 200 or so taking full-day clinics. It features world-class ice in Hyalite Canyon, which is home to more than 250 routes between the three main drainages and is considered an international ice climbing destination. The canyon features a sweep of waterfalls that quickly turn solid when winter comes knocking, making it an optimal proving ground for ice enthusiasts and Himalya hopefuls, whether they’re after the stochastic columns that appear almost only in folklore or the juggernauts that blithely adorn the steep canyon walls.
Montana Alpine Guides serve as primary host to 65 clinics at BIF to promote the sport of ice climbing to people of all ages and abilities. The Friday workshops are just for the ladies, making it the largest women’s ice clinic in the country. Clinic registration starts at the beginning of October and sells out fast. The venue for the Bozeman Ice Festival is 15 minutes from the airport, so participants can be climbing in Hyalite Canyon less than an hour from runway arrival. There are also many après-climbing commingling opportunities at the slideshows, talks, and dance parties, which also have some pretty stellar gear raffles.
Ouray Ice Festival
January (SLC – Ouray = 6.5 hrs.)
Ouray Ice Festival
With 3,000 attendees, over 70 clinics, 14 distinct climbing areas embellished with beautiful blue ice, and more than 200 ice and mixed routes in an extremely unique park design, it isn’t hard to see why the Ouray Ice Festival is mighty among winter festivals. The Ouray Ice Festival is attended by a global who’s who list of the best exhibition climbers and a roster of attendees that even includes toddlers in onesies wielding modified ice tools at the Kid’s Climbing Wall. San Juan Mountain Guides are the official concessionaire of the Ouray Ice Park and they work with partnering organizations, like Chicks with Picks and Mountain Education Development, to offer more than 70 full-day and half-day clinics at the festival. Online clinic registration begins mid-November and sells out within days or hours. After a day in the ice park, patrons can bask in natural hot springs and revel in the afterglow of successful ice adherence. There’s no shortage of stimulation to keep blood and interest circulating with zip-line rides, dance parties, free product demos, and gear giveaways.
Black Diamond’s Jonathan Thesenga has been attending the Ouray Ice Festival for four years and enjoys the sense of community the festival brings to the sport. “At Ouray, the climbing is so concentrated that everyone can climb together. That type of camaraderie and closeness is not very common in the world of ice climbing where the climbs tend to be spread out. The park itself is an ideal learning area, with plenty of easily top-roped ice, which makes it perfectly suited for the clinics and product demos that are an integral part of any climbing festival where a large portion of the attendees are beginner to intermediates.”
Cody Ice Festival
February (SLC – Cody = 7.5 hrs.)
While Cody may be more famous for its namesake, Colonel William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, who founded the region in the 1870s, the spectacular ice climbing in the South Fork of the Shoshone River also deserves a holler. It’s drastically smaller than the Ouray Ice Festival, with attendance at around 150 people. Jackson Hole Mountain Guide’s John Bates says, “The only competition visitors might see would be a pull-up contest.” Gear demos, raffles, silent auctions, music, dancing, home-cooked meals, and certain free libations are all part of this friendly little ice festival. It was started in 1997 by Foote Mountaineering, who partners with Jackson Hole Mountain Guides, as well as many other professional athletes and guides, to host roughly 30 clinics over the course of three days. The South Fork area has over 300 frozen waterfalls of varying size and difficulty ratings. Cody boasts one of the longest ice climbing seasons of all with ice coming in around mid-October and lasting through May.
The ephemeral nature of ice means that sometimes the lines are voluptuous and sometimes they’re emaciated, which makes the climbing all the more provocative−and equally difficult to plan an agenda. Check each state’s avalanche information center for details on current conditions.
Climbingweather.com or mtnguide.net are also good sites for specific data. The best resources are often other climbers, which is possibly the best reason to join the recreational rendezvous in the festival circuit. Plus, how else would one end up at a Lost in Space-themed dance party with legendary climber Conrad Anker?
Where to Sleep and Eat
Bozeman’s Western Heritage Inn
The Emerson Grill
Montana Ale Works
Twin Peaks Lodge and Spa
Chamberlin Inn chamberlininn.com
The Irma Hotel
irmahotel.com (307) 587-4221
Cody Wyoming Rib & Chop House
2013 Ice Festival Gear Trends
Popular picks from this year’s ice festivals.
Rab Infinity Jacket
La Sportiva Nepal Evo GTX Boot
Millet Peuterey 35 Mountain Backpack
Petzl Nomic Ice Tools
Black Diamond Stinger Crampons