Monday, January 16, 2006

Ouray Ice Festival 2006

I’ve been off the net traveling to and competing in the 2006 Ouray Ice Festival, so sorry for the lack of verbage.

The Ouray Ice Festival is likely the largest ice festival in the US (Conway and Keene might be bigger, they are both good "big" festivals too). I first attended the Ouray Ice Festival back in about 1996 when I was living in Colorado, so this was my “decade" anniversary for the ice fest. I always try to make it to Ouray, but often can't--I think I've only made about five festivals over the years, although things have gotten a bit fuzzy. The festival is a gathering of ice freaks, gear freaks, and the town of Ouray around the Ouray Ice Park, a deep narrow gorge with a fat pipe full of water running along the top. The fat pipe of water is critical, as the Ice Park taps into that water and creates more ice along the mile-long length of the gorge than all the rest of the ice in the state of Colorado put together. There are hundreds of fantastic ice climbs, and an increasing number of entertaining mixed climbs. Gear manufacturers lend out all the latest ice toys, clothing, boots and whatever else is related to climbing--one booth this year even had a very cool folding kayak (they did not offer demos in the gorge), so the "try this out" section of the show is pretty broad.


2006 Ouray Ice Festival Comp results here:

I usually compete in the "difficulty" and "speed" competitions, held on Saturday and Sunday respectively. I've competed a lot over the years in ice/mixed climbing, and now regard myself as "semi-retired." It takes a special comp to get me motivated to strap on a bib and get amongst it all, but Ouray is definitely special. For starters, most of my ice-related friends show up here, and with the nightly dinners, slideshows and parties, the opportunities for serious debauchery are pretty good. I'm hung over for the second day in a row, but back to the comp.

Normally Ouray is an invitational event, meaning the organizers only invite whomever they feel are the top climbers around. This year Michael Gilbert and the rest of the crew here added an "open," meaning anyone who wanted to could compete for a space in the finals. Those of us who had either won the event or done well in the past had a "bye" into the big show on Saturday. Men and women compete on the same route in the final, which is cool as it can show exactly how strong women have gotten at mixed climbing--especially Ines Papert. Last year she, Harry Berger and I were the only people to complete the final route, and Ines did it the fastest for the overall win. All three of us were back again this year, and as we were seeded to climb last due to our places last year we warmed up together. It felt more like any day out mixed climbing with friends. Eventually Harry headed off to compete, while Ines and I continued warming up. Ines and I did a very, very thin mixed line called "Seamstress," and it was just nasty thin climbing complicated by the fact that Ines and I had taken off our crampons to get a better pump. I got stupid pumped finding the micro flakes, and it took a little bit longer to climb the line than I thought so I had to rush right off and rap down into the canyon.

It's always a bit intimidating rapping into the bottom of the Canyon to wait your turn to do battle on the route. The noise from the huge crowd reverberates dully over the rush of the water, and the sky is only a sliver of blue above the dark walls. I always feel like I'm on a mission to escape back to the sun...If you climb the route then you get to untie in the sun, but if you fall off then you have to do what the competitors were calling "The Walk of Shame" out the bottom of the canyon. I wanted no part of the walk of shame... I told Harry, "Good luck" as he left our small alcove and started up the ice to the start of the mixed route. He didn't get lowered back down, so I figured he had managed to avoid the walk of shame, which meant he had done the route. My turn.

I still felt a bit pumped from my "warm-up," but I often climb better a little pumped than cold, and the opening 50 feet of ice was pretty casual and got me into a climbing groove. There was a small wooden platform where you switched belayers before starting about 40 feet of overhanging rock to an ice curtain and the sun, and at the platform I suddenly noticed the massive crowd lining the viewing stands. The crowd was loud and positive, I could hear a lot of my friends yelling and it fired me up. Belayers at many comps are kind of stern and objective, but at Ouray they always have a smile and a "good luck," it makes things feel a lot friendlier. The opening hooks on the mixed section were bomber--I'd just done battle with micro hooks on the warmup, so this just felt super casual and solid in comparison. I had a good time pulling from jug to jug to about the halfway point on the route, where things got a bit steeper. I knew I had to climb fast to beat Harry, but I was having so much fun I totally forgot about Harry. The music and the crowd were going off, it was a hell of a lot of fun and totally motivational. I got a bit confused just past halfway up the route and wasted some juice, but eventually found a hidden hold. I could hear the crowd laughing when I finally spotted it and pointed it out with my finger. I looked back at my belayer and he was laughing with me too, it was a moment. The last 20 feet of the route went well, I had to do the "hug a tool" trick (elbows wrapped around a cammed tool instead of hands to take a load off the forearms), but made it onto the ice without too much of a battle. On the ice I could hear the crowd yelling, "Go, go!" and remembered that I was in a comp and raced to the clip the final draw. My time was faster than Harry's, he came up to me and said, "Damn on-sight mixed climbing..." It's really hard to find the folds on natural rock compared to most artificial comp routes. Harry is likely stronger than me, but I had read the holds faster, probably because I've spent so much more time on natural routes than comp routes in the last few years. Harry had redpointed Alcatraz, M12, on his second try last week, bareback style. He can remember sequences better than anyone I know and is very fit this year.

Last year we had both sent the route and then watched Ines climb it faster, so we found a spot to watch Ines, climbing last. She, Harry, Louis-Julien Roy, Jay Audenart, and a bunch of other people were all climbing sans spurs. The rules this year banned "trickery" such as leg hooks over tools and so on but spurs were allowed, it takes some commitment to just head up a mixed competition route without spurs when many of your fellow competitors are using them. Ines had a hard time finding some sequences low on the mixed section, but as usual climbed smoothly and cleanly up to the hidden hold move that had baffled me. She is clearly a lot stronger than almost all of the male competitors, and has put tremendous time into her climbing--despite climbing with no spurs and on a still-broken ankle she made it look smooth. I respect that a lot. Unfortunately she just missed a small ice hold and put her pick in a bad spot. Without spurs to hold her feet onto the rock she had to do a swing out onto the ice hold and it blew when she loaded the swing, dropping her back into the canyon. She still handily won the women's division, and would have placed fourth overall against the men. Harry and I were the only two to climb the route, and I found the sequences a couple of minutes faster so I won.

I sometimes start to feel a bit old at 38, but then guys like Guy Lacelle (over 50) remind me that age doesn't automatically mean dysfunction. Guy placed a strong 8th! My bud Rich Marshall, now 42, placed a very strong third. It's good to see my friends rip it up, especially those older than I am--I'm not going away anytime soon, grin... The "Eh Team" was well-represented in the finals, with Canadians taking 7 of the top 15 places. Jason Nelson, a local, was the top-placing American. He's going to show me some of his new routes tomorrow, fired up for that! There was a bit of a judging cluster on the final route. One of the reasons I really don't compete much is that I hate scoring/rules clusters. Kim C. shot video of almost everybody in the finals and took some from various vantage points--based on this video I don't think the judges had a very good view of the route, and the confusion with the results reflect this (nothing huge, but every place is meaningful for the competitors). In Ouray ties are also broken by time--if two competitors reach the same vertical height then whomever fell off the hold first wins... Most of us at the competitor meeting wanted this changed, but it stayed the same. I try to basically ignore the rules and just climb the routes in competitions, it's more fun for me that way, but I have an over-developed sense of fair play and seeing some of the scoring issues takes a bit away from the overall stellar event that Ouray is. I'll continue to compete and am getting together with some of the officials tonight to talk judging/rules; hopefully this will be sorted for next year.

Sunday's speed event was fast and, for me in my hung-over state, brutal. Sean Isaac and I went head to head, but it was Vince Anderson, fresh from climbing a big new route in Pakistan with Steve House, who put the heat on me, coming to within two seconds of my combined time. I respect Vince and Steve, two "Alpine Style" mountaineers, for competing in a mixed competition, good style. A lot of mountaineers won't compete in Ouray for various reasons, but Steve and Vince showed that there are at least two alpine climbers in North America who can climb technically hard outside magazine writing. Scott Semple deserves some respect as well, I tried to kill him a week ago while training (dropped a block of ice on his arm), he qualified through the open then landed on his bad arm while walking out after the open, and felt it crunch some more... An X-Ray confirmed that he had indeed broken it (likely the week before). So, despite climbing with a broken arm in the Open he still made the finals... Tough. He couldn't climb in the finals due to pain but wanted too.

The more times I visit Ouray and climb here the more I like it. If you've never been here it's absolutely worth a trip, the easy access, sunny skies and most of all the great community make it a "must climb" place. There's really no other place in the world with such easy access supported by a great town. I'll be back.

Some good photos up here


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