Ice climbing in Ouray, not just for the pros

When I told people I was going ice climbing in Ouray, they would say, “I didn’t know you were a climber.” I’m not a climber. I had never even sat in a harness until my first zip lining experience in 2012. However, when I was offered the chance to go ice climbing with San Juan Mountain Guides, for some crazy reason I said yes.

Heidi Ice Climbing in Ouray Photo by Ryan Schlaefer for March 2013

On our third day in Ouray, Ryan and I rose early, forgoing our morning soak in the Wiesbaden’s hot spring pool. We dressed warmly and drove the two blocks to San Juan Mountain Guides. Located in Ouray and Durango this company provides guides for all sorts of outdoor adventures, from ice climbing to canyoning.

They also rent equipment, which is good because climbing gear is pricey. A pair of ice climbing boots alone will set you back $700. Our guide, professional climber Dawn Glanc, got us all geared up and we drove the short 5 minutes to the Ouray Ice Park.

This is the only ice park of its kind in the United States, so it truly fits the definition of unique. It’s a magical place, so even if you don’t intend to climb, it’s worth the short drive to see it.

Other climbers in our section of the canyon at Ouray Ice Park. Photo by Heidi Kerr-Schlaefer for
Other climbers in our section of the canyon at Ouray Ice Park.

Every January, the Ouray Ice Festival attracts around 1,000 ice climbers from around the world to the tiny town. More and more events are being established around the ice park, including Chicks with Picks, ice climbing clinics. Women are becoming increasingly interested in climbing, a sport primarily dominated by men.

We parked the car and walked up the muddy road to done our gear before heading into the park. The park is owned and managed by the City of Ouray and the nonprofit, Ouray Ice Park, Inc. The ice is farmed, meaning it is manmade using water pipes that are turned on to create nearly 200 ice and mixed climbs ranging from beginning to expert along a mile of the canyon.

All geared up in harnesses, helmets, boots and crampons, Ryan, Dawn and I walked through the park, heading towards what’s referred to as The School Room – it’s where they train the newbies. My body grew stiff with apprehension as we traversed the metal walkway hanging high above the canyon.

This is a good time to tell you that I have a fear of heights. I’m pretty good going up a mountain, but I once sat atop a 14er and cried for a half hour when I realized I’d have to exit the peak down a slippery slope of shale. I’m not proud of this little incident, but it proves my point.

By the time we were positioned directly above The School Room, I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to do this. Once Dawn told us that we’d need to crawl under the fencing and rappelling down the ice cliff face to get to the training area, I knew for sure that this wasn’t going to happen. The thin metal fence I’d been holding on to during our walk was the only thing between me and a precipice of ice that shot straight down into what I assumed was a frozen river bed and imminent death.

over the cliff at Ouray Ice Park
This is the cliff edge beyond the safety of the metal walkway & fencing.

Once he was attached to the rope, Ryan, the athlete in our family and a guy with absolutely no fear, got the go from Dawn. He ducked under the fence and vanished. I stood quietly as Dawn fed the rope to Ryan. For a while, the only sound was the soft wind whispering through the canyon and the beating of my heart, now lodged firmly in my throat.

“We can walk down,” said Dawn.

I quietly considered this new plan as Dawn continued to feed Ryan rope. It seemed like a lot of rope. Was this a 500 foot drop off?

“We can also rappel down together,” said Dawn.

And then I realized something. If I didn’t rappel down that icy canyon, the one I was supposed to learn to climb up, the rest of the day was going to be a sham. How could I claim that I attempted to ice climb if I couldn’t make myself rappel to the start of the climb?

We went together, and I’ll admit, it was a terrifying experience, but somewhere in the middle of the rappel, my heart rate steadied. I focused on the task at hand, as Dawn instructed. I focused on my feet and finally, I was at the bottom of the canyon.

You couldn’t wipe the grin off my face for the rest of the day.

My smile after rappelling with Dawn at the Ouray Ice Park photo by Ryan Schlaefer for
I had this smile for the rest of the day.

We went on to learn the basics of ice climbing. It’s all fairly straightforward and Ryan got it right way, making two climbs to the top before noon. I wasn’t quite so good, and although I did comprehend what I was supposed to be doing I couldn’t always get my muscles to respond properly.

Ryan nearing the top of the climb at the School Room at Ouray Ice Park. Photo by Heidi Kerr-Schlaefer for
Ryan nearing the top of the climb at the School Room at Ouray Ice Park.

Dawn Glanc is a gifted climbing instructor and has in an incredible amount of patience and understanding. On our hike back up, which was actually another big hurdle for me because it was downright scary, she hooked up my harness so that I felt more secure.

So is this the end of my ice climbing career? Absolutely not. I would definitely try it again and perhaps I’d even advance to a solo rappel. Although before I do ice climbing, I may do some canyoning this summer, another growing sport in Ouray that involves rappelling into waterfalls. Sounds terrifyingly refreshing.

Heidi Kerr-Schlaefer and professional climber, Dawn Glanc at the Ouray Ice Park. Photo by Ryan Schlaefer for
Posing with my guide and instructor, professional climber, Dawn Glanc. Thank you Dawn!

If I can do this sport, you can do it! If you’d like to book a guided ice climbing trek with Dawn Glanc next winter it’s not too early because she books up fast. Dawn is a pro who travels the world climbing in amazing places like Iceland, Croatia and Greece, so be sure to like her Facebook page to follow her adventures. Also, please check out San Juan Mountain Guide’s online or on Facebook. Lastly, watch for Dawn Glanc at the ice climbing demonstrations at the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014.

This climb was sponsored by the  Ouray Chamber Resort Association.

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