Ouray Ice Park Overcomes Rockfall, Community Discord to Open for the Season
Home » Climbing » Ouray Ice Park Overcomes Rockfall, Community Discord to Open for the Season
This summer, extensive repairs and cleanup at the Ouray Ice Park generated friction between multiple stakeholders. Although collaboration between public and private interests often proved tense, the park is on track to open for its busiest ice climbing season yet.
In March, 6 tons of rock poured into the Ouray Ice Park from cliffs above, destroying an access bridge and pipes that supply water for most of its routes. The Trestle bridge facilitated access to the Schoolroom, the park’s signature area. The lines fed it, as well as the entire southern end of the park.
The Trestle bridge and Schoolroom, before the rockfall; (photo/Jacob Raab)
In the incident’s immediate wake, opening the Ouray Ice Park on schedule in mid-December looked uncertain. But to put it bluntly, not opening the park would trigger an economic disaster — 65% of the southwest Colorado town’s winter economy relies on the business it generates.
On top of that, winter 2021-22 was set to be the park’s busiest ever. Three major competitions and festivals filled the calendar, including the International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation (UIAA) North American Championships.
Ouray, Colo., population 1,010; (photo/Jay Krishnan)
Repairs would be necessary. The separate matters of who would perform the work — and the pay — weren’t straightforward, as the park’s stakeholder group is diverse and complex.
Peter O’Neil is the executive director of Ouray Ice Park, Inc. (OIPI), which manages the park under contract from the City of Ouray. His assessment of the damage as “catastrophic” rubbed some local climbing professionals the wrong way. However, the OIPI successfully fundraised $101,000 for repairs. Eric Jacobson, who owns hydroelectric piping that runs through the park, also chipped in $150,000.
Fast forward through 8 months, a complicated construction project, and some unrest within the Ouray ice climbing community, and the park readies to open on schedule in mid-December. The process wasn’t always easy, nor was everyone involved always happy with how it went down.
But for better or for worse, repairs at the Ouray Ice Park never would have happened without a massive cooperative effort.
The Damage: What Exactly Happened?
The March rockfall took out a structure that’s perhaps more complex than meets the eye. Rudimentarily, it was a metal footbridge with water pipes attached to it. However, the Trestle bridge gave climbers access to the Schoolroom and gave “ice farmers” (Ice Park workers who create the ice flows for the routes) access to essential valves and junctions in the water line.
The bridge’s other function concerned Ouray Hydro West, Jacobson’s hydroelectric company. Thirty-inch pipes (called “penstock”) attached to the bridge carried water through the park from the upstream dam. Consequently, hydroelectric workers also often used the bridge.
When the structure ripped away from the cliffs, it also compromised 30-40 feet of penstock and Ice Park pipes (and the support struts holding it up) in both directions.
The aftermath, with the wreckage on the canyon floor and water gushing from burst penstock, required cleanup as well as repair.
So … Who Pays for What?
It’s important to understand that the Ice Park would not exist without Jacobson’s ongoing willingness to cooperate with ice climbers. His penstock runs through the entire 3-mile length of the Uncompahgre River Gorge that would become the park, and he owns easements that surround it within 50 feet. In the early ’90s, the Ice Park was born through handshakes between Jacobson and climbers.
Early days at the Ice Park. Dick Fowler works on the penstock.
OIPI board member Bill Leo has lived and climbed in Ouray since the park’s early days. “We operate the park at the behest of Eric Jacobson,” he said. “If it wasn’t for him, there wouldn’t be an Ice Park at all. And that relationship has been maintained at a high level for 25 years.”
While the penstock was the park’s earliest water source, that’s no longer the case. That fact simplified two line items on the repair invoice: OIPI would pay for 100% of its water lines, and Jacobson would pay for 100% of the penstock.
The next task was to decide how to split up costs for the bridge and associated support work. For that, Jacobson and OIPI turned to Chris Haaland, a local engineer. Haaland did the project’s structural drawings and agreed to act as a financial mediator between the companies.
“The cost-share agreement is simply to trust Haaland to come up with a ratio that he, as an engineer and intrinsically fair person, believes is appropriate and justified,” Jacobson said. “Both OIPI and I have agreed not to lobby Chris re: that ratio.”
Sometimes, the simplest answer is the best answer. Haaland resolved that OIPI and Ouray Hydro West would split the cost of any mutually beneficial work or structure 50/50.
Gushing penstock, property of Ouray Hydro West; (photo/OIPI)
As the work nears completion, most of the financials are set in stone.
“[OIPI and Ouray Hydro West] have received and approved my report,” Haaland said. “The finances have already been arranged. There was no pushback; everyone thought it was fair. It was a simple formula, actually.”
In Haaland’s report, OIPI paid $89,000 for its share of the work. O’Neil said the remaining $12,000 from the fundraiser would finalize the repairs and address some deferred maintenance discovered while assessing the initial damage.
Haaland pointed out that the project’s relatively low cost resulted directly from OIPI and Jacobson’s choice to source the work locally. He estimated that the quarter of a million-dollar project could have eclipsed $1 million if a bigger firm had executed it. Most of the construction required a helicopter, which was not cheap according to all parties involved. Welding accounted for the bulk of the labor.
“This was done by a group of people who are all intimately involved with the Ice Park. The reason we could do it cheaply was there was no profit; we all did it at cost, out of passion for involvement. And, because we all live here in town, there was no overhead.
“The project was not easy. But a lot of passionate individuals were involved. Jeff Skoloda of SKOL Studio and Design did a lot of the welding. And [OIPI operations director] Pete Davis, who has one arm, built the trail himself.”
Locals Raise Messaging Concerns, Suggest Alternative Methods
While the Ice Park repair work was impressive and coordinated, some prominent Ouray ice climbers felt disenfranchised by the process.
Andres Marin is a world-class ice climber and guide who has worked, set competition routes, and climbed at the Ice Park for nearly 2 decades. He took issue with the language O’Neil used to describe the rockfall damage.
To him, calling the incident “catastrophic” and fundraising with the plea to “save” the Ice Park registered as sensationalism. Especially when, as he pointed out, a more straightforward and far less costly option existed.
“You can walk to the Schoolroom on the bridge, sure,” Marin said. “But you can also take the trail, which adds maybe five minutes to the walk. And to re-open the Ice Park, all you needed to do was hang a 4″ PVC pipe and let Eric [Jacobson] fix the penstock.”
Marin’s statement is patently true, and no one I interviewed refuted it. It certainly presents a simple solution — but may not deliver the best one.
Haaland pointed out that the new structure, as it exists, “ensures stable access for future generations” and gives both Ice Park and Ouray Hydro West workers easy maintenance access to the pipes.
Other beneficiaries include the massive influx of visitors the park will host this year. The season starts with the inclusivity-focused All In Ice Fest on January 7-9 and stays busy.
The Ouray Ice Fest runs from Jan. 20 to 23, and the park’s first UIAA-sanctioned event, the North American Championships, takes place on Feb. 4-5.
The UIAA’s Impending Impact on the Ouray Ice Park
It’s a stacked calendar for the park, and the UIAA North American Championships could draw top ice climbers from around the world. The event’s effect on Ouray and the Ice Park will be profound but doesn’t guarantee a positive outcome.
Premier events notwithstanding, the Ice Park’s popularity is growing. Last winter, it reported 22,000 visitors — 5,000 more than the year before.
The Ice Park on a busy day; (photo/Amy Kuhn)
O’Neil talks about the upcoming festivals, especially the UIAA competition, with energy and anticipation. He’s also quick to point out that the park’s rapid growth demands corresponding management and infrastructure, which Marin also acknowledged.
When O’Neil addressed the Trestle bridge repair in contrast to the simpler alternative, he didn’t mince words.
“We could have put it back together with duct tape and baling wire. I said, ‘let’s rebuild,’” he noted. “The Trestle bridge is a great way to access the park. We wanted to bring it back and make it the iconic entrance into the Schoolroom that it used to be.”
O’Neil’s words sound fittingly aspirational for a park and city that’s about to host its first UIAA event. According to Marin and other career ice climbers, the UIAA can cost more money than it brings to U.S.-based hosts.
At the 2016 UIAA World Cup in Rabenstein, Italy; (photo/UIAA)
Ice climbing is more prevalent in Europe and Russia, and the UIAA’s stints in American destinations tend to be both rare and brief, historically. The UIAA season typically includes events in five or six host cities per year. In its 15-year history, three U.S. cities have hosted a total of just four UIAA events.
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Notably, this winter’s scheduled UIAA stops in Vail, Colorado, and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula were canceled.
Marin openly appreciates O’Neil’s drive and initiative but wants to urge the OIPI executive director — who assumed the position 15 months ago — to be more diplomatic in his approach.
“It’s no secret that [past UIAA] events were a money hole for the host city,” Marin said. “For the record, people like myself want the sport to flourish. But Peter, or anyone, can get themselves in trouble with their tone and the way they come across. It’s cool to have someone like him who has that drive and fundraising background. But at the same time, he hasn’t been here for 20 years like some of us have.
“How you treat the local community can make a big difference when you are working together toward the same goal — in this case, making the Ice Park a sustainable resource.”
GearJunkie contacted Marcus Garcia, who ran the 2017 UIAA Ice Climbing World Championships in Durango, Colo., but he was unavailable for comment.
Competitive ice climbing is less popular in the U.S. than it is internationally; (photo/UIAA)
A Call for Funding Transparency Triggers Social Media Backlash
Marin’s critique — that OIPI’s language and approach can be divisive to the Ouray community — also bore itself out in a social media flurry that started as a request for transparency.
On October 26, Ouray ice climbing steward Dawn Glanc addressed what she perceived as opacity over the bridge repair funding on Facebook. Using the word “misinformation,” she finished her post by asking OIPI for “a report to the public that shows the budget and outcomes of the project.”
On October 29, Pete Davis replied in the affirmative: “[o]nce the work is completed, OIPI will certainly provide a detailed report for the public,” he wrote.
Then, things went a little haywire:
“Your oversimplification of the issue and how to fix it in your narrative above shows how little informed you are about the complexity and magnitude of the bridge collapse and the ripple effect it has had on the Trestle and Schoolroom areas adjacent the bridge. You simply don’t have the facts Dawn and this issue is more complex than you realize so quit digging yourself a hole, a public report will be forthcoming as soon as we have a finalized solution in place.”
Davis’ harsh tone clashes against Glanc’s established reputation. As an AMGA-certified Rock and Alpine Guide, she has worked full-time in the Ice Park for San Juan Mountain Guides since 2012.
His promise of a detailed report also ran somewhat askance of O’Neil’s statements on the topic.
“I know the itemization. Do I want to publicize everything that went into it? That would be a board decision,” O’Neil said. “Our share of the costs were presented at the last board meeting. But does the public need to know how much we spent for our share of the helicopter? It won’t change anything.”
He then reiterated Haaland’s prescribed 50/50 arrangement. He also said that the OIPI would thank and communicate with donors through the GoFundMe campaign once repairs are finalized, but he did not specify further. Finally, he expressed his willingness to meet with community members one on one.
After Heavy Lifting, the Ouray Ice Park Opens
Opinions notwithstanding, the Ouray Ice Park is set to open as usual in mid-December. Pending cold overnight conditions overdue in the San Juan Mountains this winter, the park’s ice farmers will start work in time to prepare for the All In Ice Fest.
The OIPI looks forward to a season that promises to bring more awareness and diversity to the park. Local veterans like Marin brace themselves for impact, preparing for the influence of the UIAA and yet more tourist traffic.
Bill Leo, who sold Ouray Mountain Sports on November 1 after 25 years behind the counter, looks forward to climbing more.
“I’m going to take more time to ski and climb — just live life while I’ve got it,” Leo said. “With all the events at the park this year, it’s going to be an interesting winter.”
To find out about all things Ice Park, including information on this winter’s busy schedule, visit OIPI’s website.
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