By Sheridan Block
With the 19th Annual Ouray Ice Festival just around the corner, spectators and climbers alike are eager to see what’s in store for competitors during the Elite Mixed Climbing Competition.
A major attraction to the ice lover’s weekend, the mixed competition will feature 25 competitors who will race against the clock, climbing up a set route in the Ouray Ice Park. The challenge features a unique combination of natural and artificial elements, testing the strength and skill of the fearless racers.
Each year, the Ouray Ice Park, Inc., team prepares months in advance for the competition, working with expert route setters to design and build a new challenge for climbers. Over the last few years, the competition route has been created with the help of Vince Anderson, renowned mountaineer and a former Piolet d’Or winner, whose routes have a reputation for being tough.
New routes for the competition are established each year to rival the ever-evolving skills and talents of ice climbers.
“The route has to evolve but not just by making it more physically challenging,” said OIPI board president Mike Macleod. “We also want to test the competitor’s ability to interpret the route and make good decisions to take advantage of their athletic ability and equipment.”
While the mixed competition is an event that attracts much attention, the competition wasn’t always a major component of the festival. In its early days, the Ice Fest featured climbing exhibitions, where expert climbers like Jeff Lowe and his peers would show off the skills and expertise needed to take on the natural elements as they scampered up difficult routes in the ice park.
In time though, the exhibition developed into today’s competitions, pitting climbers against one another for the title and cash prizes.
This year, 18 men and seven women will go head-to-head on the route, trying to reach the highest point in the allotted 12-minute time frame. Of the 25 that typically compete each year, only one to three competitors manage to reach the top of the route in time. None of the competitors is allowed to preview the route beforehand, making it an “on-sight” competition, said Macleod.
The 2014 challenge will again feature the climbing tower that was unveiled during last season’s competition and the first two-thirds of the route are natural paths in the ice park that everyday users have access to.
One of the most significant aspects of the Ice Fest’s mixed route is that it must highlight natural climbing terrain within the park. While many other worldwide competitions and World Cup events are hosted exclusively on artificial structures, Ouray’s will always include a natural component, Macleod said.
Many spectators come to witness and admire the talents of competitive ice climbers during the festival, and many are inspired to get into the sport on their own.
Twenty years ago, ice climbing was more of a novelty for thrill-seekers and stunt performers, said Macleod. However, thanks to areas like the Ouray Ice Park and advances and availability of equipment the sport is much more accessible now.
“You really can get into ice climbing and many, many people are. As a result, more of the spectators are also participants,” said Macleod.
Ice Fest kicks off next Thursday, Jan. 9, with a presentation by Kristen Kelliher at the Main Street Theater at 6:30 p.m., followed by a party at the Beaumont Grill at 9 p.m. Along with new gear demonstrations and interactive clinics, this season’s festival will feature big names in the industry including Adrian Ballinger, Aaron Mulkey and world famous Ueli Steck.
The Elite Mixed Ice Climbing Competition will be hosted on Saturday, Jan. 11, at 9 a.m. in the Ice Park. For a full schedule of events visit ourayicepark.com.