OURARY, COLO. — Ice climbing is a dangerous sport. Ice climbers wield an ice tool in each hand, which they swing forcefully into a large, vertical ice formation, relying on spikes in the crampons attached to their feet to take steps up the ice wall.

It is dangerous. And yet people still do it.

Walk into Ouray Ice Park in Ouray, Colo., and you see many people who would fit the ice climbers' stereotype. But you also see children and older adults, as well as people who are just astounded at the magnificence of the surroundings.

To get a handle on ice climbing — especially for beginners — it can be a good idea to start with an experienced guide.

Dave Cooper ascends to the top of the ice wall at Ouray Ice Park on his 64th birthday on Jan. 5.
Dave Cooper ascends to the top of the ice wall at Ouray Ice Park on his 64th birthday on Jan. 5. (Molly Maxwell — Special to The Daily Times)

Mark Allen, is a climbing guide for International Mountain Guides in Ouray. He is certified through the American Mountain Guides Association and the International Federation of Mountain Guides Association.

At 7 a.m. on Jan. 4, he met with his two also highly-qualified assistant guides and group of seven clients for breakfast at Backstreet Bistro in Ouray. He told them the plan was to "go hard in the morning and wrap up by noon."

"Sometimes, there is a stigma about guided tours," explained one of the other guides, Erica Engle. "Look at a guide ... as a means of learning quickly and efficiently. It is like looking in your tool chest and finding the perfect tool. If you are going to learn piano, you take piano lessons."

A two-and-a-half hour drive from Farmington, Ouray Ice Park is not to be missed. As you wind down off Red Mountain Pass into the valley right before Ouray, you immediately meet Uncompahgre Gorge.

Every night, close to 300,000 gallons of water flow through hundreds of cone-shaped or flat "shower heads" from a gravity-fed system to create the ice formations, said Kevin Koprek, a park manager in his third season. The nonprofit Ouray Ice Park manages this high-maintenance ice playground on land partially owned by Ouray Hydroelectric, which leases their portion to the city for $1 per year.

Entrance to the park is free. It is funded solely by membership dues and money generated by the annual Ouray Ice Festival in January.

"Ouray takes the adversity out of ice climbing — like a climbing gym," Allen said. "(It gives) accessibility, but there are still reminders that we're still outside in the elements."

Justin and Chasaleena Baxter were drawn to Ouray Ice Park, a seven-hour drive from their home in Syracuse, Utah, because of its convenience and variety.

"I like that you don't have to hike that much," Chasaleena laughed. "It's climb, after climb, after climb."

The box canyon contains 14 different climbing areas of varying difficulty with more than 200 routes to climb. Most people use ropes for protection. And many routes require building anchors off of trees, but there are fixed anchors in some places, too.

Justin Baxter lowers down into the canyon as Jared Jones, right, belays from above on Jan. 4. Baxter was lowered down, and then climbed back up.
Justin Baxter lowers down into the canyon as Jared Jones, right, belays from above on Jan. 4. Baxter was lowered down, and then climbed back up. (Molly Maxwell — Special to The Daily Times)

Allen's clients hailed from different places, and they had their own objectives. But they all strongly agreed on the importance of having a guide to learn to ice climb. It was the most difficult thing Savine Scott, who lives in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., had ever done, she said.

"But we learned how to use our feet, 'sit' on our ice axes. That made it a lot easier," she said.

Even so, Scott said she still feels she has a lot to learn.

"I still stagger my feet," she said. "It is hard for me to trust my feet. I need to find better places to place them."

The group may not have gone into an extensive lesson on building anchors, but they left their second day on the ice confidently knowing what an anchor should — and should not — look like. And that's basic, vital climbing knowledge.

Other lessons included climbing the "kiddy wall" with no ice tools and then climbing it with just one.

At first, climbers think there are many options for where to swing an ice tool. But, Allen said, "Ninety percent of the wall you will be out of balance. ... You learn to climb in a single line."

Think of employing a proficient guide as a life-long investment. Yes, it may be expensive. But a guide can teach skills in a matter of days or hours that would demand years of practice on one's own.

Engle summed it up in broader terms.

"Life is a lot easier with good technique," she said.

WHAT DO THEY MEAN

American Mountain Guides Association: An educational nonprofit organization that sets the standards of mountain guides in the United States.

International Federation of Mountain Guides Association: An association made up of mountain guide associations from all over the world to set an international standard for mountain guides.

GUIDES

San Juan Mountain Guides: Ouray’s official guide service. They contract out to the other guide services available. Go to mtnguide.net for details.

International Mountain Guides: mountainguides.com.

Peak Mountain Guides:peakmountainguides.com.

Several other guide services can be found at ourayicepark.com.

Ladies, check out Chicks with Picks at chickswithpicks.net. They offer guiding packages, as well as a supportive community for lady climbers

Molly Maxwell covers the outdoors for The Daily Times. She can be reached at mollykmaxwell@gmail.com.