Sitting in the sauna at Orvis Hot Springs in early January, junior Luke Marshall and sophomore Paige Hansen were frustrated in their first-ever attempt at ice climbing.
Marshall, an outdoor recreation in parks and tourism major, and Hansen, an engineering and technology major, were near Ouray, Colorado after barely missing out on a bid for a guided ice climbing trip.
Ouray may very well host the most popular and accessible ice climbing park in the world.
“Are you here for the ice climbing?” came a voice from across the sauna.
Marshall, who was sweating out his disappointment, looked up to awkwardly lock eyes with a man who was taking advantage of the clothing-optional resort policy.
Having never been ice climbing before, Marshall and Hansen were in need of some expertise for the endeavor.
“I can take you,” the naked guy said. “All you need to do is rent crampons and I have all the equipment.”
It was with certain shock that Hansen (who had left the sauna earlier due to some understandable discomfort) then received the news that a guide had been secured: that guy.
The uncomfortable encounter was quickly forgotten after Marshall and Hansen had successfully completed 5-6 different routes in a thrilling first time on the ice.
What makes Ouray such a destination spot for ice climbing is the consistency of the ice. Accessing water from the city, the climbing park farms ice throughout the chilly season.
“Ice ambassadors” volunteer their time to check gear and setups for safety. The varying difficulties attract a range of climbers from humble beginners to expert ice fanatics.
“The ice park in Ouray is super cool because it’s like a river bed and the whole thing is just ice,” Hansen said. “There’s routes after routes and people climbing right next to you to help out.”
Ice climbing is similar in concept to its cousin, rock climbing, though there are a few more factors that up the risk inherent to scaling massive sheets of ice.
Jake Manning, Assistant Professor of Outdoor Recreation, is a seasoned ice climber who knows that many factors can affect the outcome of a climb.
“You might be committed to a route, and conditions have been excellent, but you might reach a new drainage or a higher elevation,” Manning said. “There’s so many things that affect the quality of the ice.”
When the ice starts getting sketchy, the climber has to decide whether to attempt towards possibly better conditions further above or to begin downclimbing, which is an arduous process.
Climbers are also surrounded by a lot of pointy objects. Ice picks, crampons and harnesses all contain sharpened points and screws which wouldn’t feel good in the event of a tumble.
Mentally, aside from physically, the challenge of ice climbing can be exhausting. Just knowing that ice as a medium is always changing can be a bit nerve-wracking.
“It’s a pretty obscure thing, but as I learned to ice climb it became a pathway to get to new areas,” Manning said. “Once I get a rhythm going and my movement flowing it feels like I’m on an escalator.”
Despite the risks, the extensive planning involved and the short window of opportunity, the exhilaration of a good day of ice rivals any other activity in Manning’s mind.
Marshall and Hansen experienced some similar anxiousness about the risks as they first ascended the Ouray ice. However, caught up in the thrill of the sport, they soon found the only thing melting was their fears.
So how exactly does one get into ice climbing?
There must first be an accessible place where there’s consistent ice. Such places close to Cedar City are few and far between, save Benson Creek up Parowan Canyon where there’s a reliable multi-pitch climb each season.
As for learning the skills, an ice climbing class at SUU isn’t really plausible right now. Initial costs for student’s ice climbing gear and the narrow selection of adequate spots near campus make the logistics challenging.
Manning mentioned the possibility of organizing a multi-day class that would travel to Ouray, where rental gear, instruction and good ice are plentiful.
The Outdoor Rec Department has some contacts with credentialed guides who can take learners out to safe environments near Cedar City. Ice-climbing festivals, such as those held in Ouray, also hold opportunities for inexpensive rentals and lots of expert instruction.
However, Assistant Director of SUU Outdoors Keith Howells has a well thought out theory on how to make Cedar City the hub of ice climbing in Utah.
A stretch of canyon wall on SUU property between the Graveside rock climbing site and the SUU Mountain Center alongside Highway 14 gets some solid ice flows from time-to-time.
Howells suggests taking a page out of Ouray’s book by piping water down the canyonside from a university-owned source that is currently used by the agriculture department for watering sheep.
The endeavor would not only bring more tourism and money into the community, but Howells believes it could spark synergy between different SUU programs to complete a unique project.
“This is a huge opportunity sitting there. Imagine creating ‘The Southern Utah Climbing Festival’ and increase winter recreation and solidify Cedar City as a winter sports destination.”
The location just a few miles up Cedar Canyon would be an ideal place to create an ice park that could serve both newcomers and veterans.
“Most beginners aren’t going to be able to find much [suitable climbing], whereas this would offer an opportunity to help train and execute and really bring in a sport and a whole industry/adventure landscape that doesn’t exist within Utah.”
Though the pieces haven’t yet aligned for Howell’s ambitious idea to take form, ice climbing as an industry and as an enjoyable outdoor activity is still prevalent in the SUU community.
Story by: Reyce Knutson
Photos by: Paige Hansen and John Bakator on Unsplash