This Yosemite Climber Free Soloed Fitz Roy in Patagonia

3 Apr

Chunks of ice hurtled down the headwall. The rime, which coated the top of Fitz Roy like a cap, was melting in the midday sun. A direct hit would be enough to pluck Jim Reynolds off the wall. Climbing free solo—with only his rock shoes, a chalk bag, and a pack—he veered off route, sidestepping the immediate danger, and continued climbing into unknown terrain on the adjacent rock face. A few hundred feet later, at 3:13 p.m. on March 21, the 25-year-old from Weaverville, California, reached the summit of Patagonia’s iconic peak. But the climbing for Reynolds was only halfway over. Instead of rappelling the granite monolith, the usual method of descent, he was about to do the inconceivable, something that had never been done before. He was going to free solo down-climb the entire 5,000-foot spire.

“By the time I got down to the lower slabs, they were soaking wet,” says Reynolds. “Imagine what a nightmare it was, down climbing in the dark with a dim headlamp, on wet, insecure slabs, not knowing exactly where the route went. And that was probably after 12 or 13 hours of non-stop movement.”

You may recognize Jim Reynolds as the man who partnered with Brad Gobright in 2017 to break the speed record on El Capitan's Nose route. But his free solo ascent and descent of Afanassieff (5.10c) on Fitz Roy, which might be the longest free solo ever, has launched him to the next level. The climb itself is huge, and no one has ever down-soloed anything of this caliber. “It would take a competent team of two, pitching it out, two days to do that climb,” says Ted Hesser, a climber and photographer who also summited Fitz Roy this season. “To commit to something like that, free solo, is so bold because there’s so much terrain, and it’s very alpine in nature—there’s loose rock, snow, ice, and variable conditions. It makes my stomach drop.”

To put this ascent into perspective, when Alex Honnold completed his ground-breaking free solo of El Capitan’s Freerider (5.13a) in Yosemite, he climbed 3,000 feet in 3 hours, 56 minutes. Including the down climb, Reynolds free soloed 10,000 vertical feet in 15 and a half hours. While Afanassieff is technically easier than Freerider, it’s on a remote alpine peak with serious objective hazards and route-finding challenges. Freerider, in comparison, is a well-traveled route with clean rock in one of the busiest national parks in the U.S.

Before his free solo of Freerider, Honnold spent countless hours on a rope, rehearsing and memorizing every hand hold, foot hold, and move on the route. Reynolds, on the other hand, climbed Afanassieff onsight, meaning he had never climbed the route before (except for the first third, during an aborted free-solo attempt the week prior, when it didn’t “feel right”) and had no prior knowledge of the sequences of moves. To be clear, both feats are ridiculous—possibly insane—but Honnold's climb is maybe the only other exploit available to place what Reynolds has just pulled off in its proper context.

Reynolds is on the Yosemite Search and Rescue team (YOSAR). He knows the risks of climbing firsthand. “Mountains are beautiful, but they’re brutal as well,” he told National Geographic. “I have seen the consequences of what you look like when you fall 1,000 feet to ground. Those images of death are a part of me.”

In the weeks leading up to his Fitz Roy solo, Reynolds also onsight free soloed—up and down—two other Patagonian peaks. On March 9, he free soloed up Filo Oeste (5.11a) on the West Ridge of Aguja Rafael Juarez, and then free soloed down the Anglo-Americana (5.11b) for approximately 4,600 feet of climbing in total. Only two days later, he free soloed up Chiaro di Luna (5.11a) on Aguja Saint-Exupery, and then free soloed down the chossy Kearney-Harrington (5.10b) on the tower’s North Face, approximately 3,800 feet of climbing.

Reynolds didn’t head to Patagonia this season, his first time there, with the intention of climbing ropeless and alone. He began the trip climbing with partners as a roped team, the way most people ascend the region's large granite peaks. “I really enjoyed those experiences, but each time, I felt like I wasn’t able to express who I was as a climber,” he says. “And I didn’t really know what that meant.”

The answer for him was free soloing—not just up, but back down as well, in the purest style of climbing he was capable of. For Reynolds, free soloing is deeply personal, not something to be glorified nor condemned. Like an echo of Dean Potter, he describes climbing as a form of art, and to him, free soloing is pursuing that art to its highest level. “Maybe you climb every pitch ropeless, but is it a true free solo if you rappel?” he says. “The fact that there’s a question doesn’t mean that it’s not a free solo, it just implies that there’s a higher level of style possible.” He’s quick to add: “It’s not like I did it in the highest standard possible—I still used climbing shoes and a chalk bag, so there’s still a greater style out there for someone else.”

He carried a rack of gear for protection and a thin rope he could use to rappel on his free solos of Rafael Juarez and Fitz Roy (but he left his pack at the base of the Chiaro di Luna). He planned to down climb the routes, he says, but that wasn’t his expectation. “The expectation was to do whatever made the most sense in the moment and to have options,” he says. “You want to have as many options as you can to keep your safety margins as wide as possible so that if anything goes wrong, you’re not like, Oh, this one small mistake means I’m going to die up here.”

Climbing, especially free soloing, often gets a bad rap as a selfish and solitary pursuit. But Reynolds doesn’t see it that way. To him, climbing is about the community—people supporting each other, learning from each other, and drawing inspiration from one another. “Without that, I don’t think any of these solos would have been possible,” he says. He mentions piggybacking off of Marc-André Leclerc and Brette Harrington who both free soloed Chiaro di Luna, and Potter, the only other climber known to have free soloed Fitz Roy, but taking those accomplishments further (all three of those climbers rappelled).

“They showed me what was possible, and I was able to envision this next style,” he says. “We’re standing on the shoulders of those who came before us, and we’re paving a path for those who come after us. It’s not something we’re doing alone.”

Ice Climbing Proves It’s Worthy of the Olympics

31 Mar

Late last month, Denver’s Civic Center Park hosted the sixth and final UIAA Ice Climbing World Cup of the 2019 season. And for the first time in the competition circuit’s 19-year history, the action took place in a large metropolitan city center.

Thirty-eight men and 26 women from 15 countries fought their way up a 50-foot-tall arch for a spot on the podium and for the overall World Cup title. An estimated 25,000 people came out to watch over the weekend—more than an average Denver Nuggets game and the largest-ever live audience at an Ice Climbing World Cup.

The event was an experiment of sorts. Most Ice Climbing World Cups are held in small mountain towns, such as Saas-Fee, Switzerland, or Rabenstein, Italy. But as rock climbing prepares to make its debut at the 2020 Olympics, officials at the International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation (UIAA), the governing body for competition ice climbing, see an opening for their sport. The goal is the 2026 Winter Olympics. 

“Before Denver, the biggest attendance at an ice-climbing competition was 2,000 people,” says Phil Powers, CEO of the American Alpine Club, the organization that hosted the competition. “So I think we’ve proven a point.”

Attendance at the event got a boost from a concurrent festival on the same grounds called Barbegazi, named for the mythical French and Swiss gnomes. Spread out in the park before the climbing tower were about a dozen stations for weird and wintry activities, such as human curling (on snow tubes), ax throwing (hatchets, really), lumberjack games (sawing logs), arm wrestling, fat biking, snowskating, a snowball slingshot, an obstacle course, and a mini ice maze. Entry to the festival, and to watch the climbing competition, was free.

Ice-climbing competitions can use all the help they can get. Even within the climbing community, ice climbers are a tiny minority, and competition ice climbers are a fraction of that. So it’s no wonder that ice competitions have never garnered much attention. Still, competition ice climbing is arguably more exciting to watch than competition rock climbing. Like in rock competitions, ice also has lead and speed disciplines (bouldering is left out for the obvious reason that landing on the ground with sharp, spiky ice tools in your hands and crampons strapped to your feet is a recipe for disaster).

In the lead event, difficulty is the game. Athletes climb a route of plastic and metal holds with their ice tools and kick their crampons directly into the plywood wall wherever they want. Their goal is to make it to the top of the route, or as high as they can, within a set time, generally between four and eight minutes. The route gets progressively harder the higher it gets.

Speed climbing, on the other hand, is usually on real ice. The speed wall in Denver was imported from Austria and made from eight-inch-thick panels of ice. In speed, two competitors race side by side up the wall, then switch sides and repeat. Top competitors’ times range between seven and 15 seconds. Picture vertical running up a featureless skating rink.

While rock climbing is very precise and subtle, ice is barbaric. It’s full of swinging and kicking and flying shards of ice. It requires precision and brute force. From a nonclimber’s perspective, it’s easier to grasp. “Not only is ice climbing a legitimate international sport, it’s also wild and crazy, and the athletes are doing these interesting, acrobatic actions 40 and 50 feet off the ground with spikes on their hands and feet,” Powers says. “The struggle is more obvious, and the falls are dramatic—there’s real risk involved.”

Over the course of the weekend, at least two competitors stabbed themselves with their own ice tools during the speed competition. David Bouffard of Canada punctured his thigh badly enough to need to go to the hospital, yet he still managed to take home a silver medal. American Marcus Garcia gashed himself in the thigh during the semifinals (and kept climbing) and again in the arm during finals. “He should have gone for stitches both times, but he just kept competing,” Powers says. Officials had to shovel the blood out of the snow at the base of the wall.

Ice climbing was an exhibition sport in the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics—the competition wasn’t included in the medal count, but it took place during the Games to show off and promote the sport. Several now classic Winter Olympic sports debuted as demonstrations and later evolved into medal events: curling, freestyle skiing, and short-track speed skating, to name a few. If last month’s World Cup was any indication, we might see ice climbing earn its own place as an official Olympic sport sooner than we think. And even though the Olympics won’t have a Barbegazi festival, Powers isn’t worried.

“The Olympics want things that are attractive,” he says. “And ice climbing is attractive.”

Eric Larsen Abandoned His South Pole Solo Speed Attempt

19 Dec

For three weeks, Eric Larsen slid one foot in front of the other on his way to the geographic South Pole. But more than 400 miles into his journey, the 47-year-old from Crested Butte, Colorado, is calling it quits.

Larsen, who has been to Antarctica five times before (and has successfully reached the South Pole four times), was hoping to break the solo, unsupported (no outside resupplies), and unassisted (no aid from sled dogs or a kite) speed record on the 700-mile Hercules Route, set in 2011 by the Norwegian Christian Eide at 24 days, 1 hour, and 13 minutes.

Since the day he set out from the Hercules Inlet on November 23, however, Larsen battled frequent whiteout conditions. “The weather this year has been my biggest adversary,” he posted to his blog on December 16, the day he abandoned his attempt. “The constant snow (Antarctica is a desert ironically) has impeded my progress significantly.” Weather in Antarctica is always a mixed bag, but this season has been far from normal, according to Larsen. During his first nine days on the trail, he rarely saw the sun, even though it never sets in the austral summer.

Larsen needed to ski an average of 30 miles per day to break the speed record, but because of the conditions, he fell short of that target over the first week of his journey. For the past two weeks, he attempted to make up time by skiing 15 hours per day and cutting sleep to four hours a night. But he started the expedition with only 23.5 days’ worth of food and fuel—which he could stretch out to 26 if need be—leaving him only a narrow margin of error if things did not go according to plan.

Twenty-one days into his journey, with supplies running out and 290 miles still to go, Larsen gave up hope of reaching the South Pole. “Even with my miserly saving on rations over the past week to extend that timeline even further, I don’t have enough to reach the pole,” he wrote. “It would be close, but it would also be outside the realm of what I consider safe.”

His attempt may be over, but he’s not out of the snow globe just yet—he’s still hundreds of miles from any semblance of civilization. For now, he’ll about-face and backtrack to the Thiel Mountains Skiway—an unattended ice landing strip and aircraft fuel cache located halfway between the Union Glacier Camp and the Amundson-Scott South Pole Station—to await pickup by a Twin Otter or Douglas DC-3 plane.

He can reach the skiway in two days of skiing, but once there, he’ll be at the mercy of Antarctic weather. Antarctica is the windiest continent on earth and it’s anyone’s guess as to when a plane will be able to fly. “Luckily,” he writes, “there is an emergency stash of food and fuel there so I won’t go hungry.”

Even though this expedition got the best of him, he’ll be returning home with all of his fingers and toes, and a positive attitude. “I am a firm believer in failing forward,” Larsen writes. “To me any great undertaking is a process not a singular destination and I have come up short on grand adventures many, many times before. (It never gets easier). The insights gained here and now will, in the not so distant future, provide valuable insights into overcoming the next difficulty I encounter.”

Why Eric Larsen Is Skiing to the South Pole Alone

6 Dec

Draw a line across a blank sheet of paper and you’ll have a map of Eric Larsen’s route to the South Pole. On November 23, the 47-year-old from Crested Butte, Colorado, set out from the Hercules Inlet on the edge of the continent and began to ski more or less in the same direction, solo, unsupported (no outside resupplies), and unassisted (no aid from sled dogs or a kite), for 700 miles. “It’s really just a conveyer belt of white,” he told Outside before leaving. “It can be a pretty big mind-fuck.”

Larsen would know. He has been to the South Pole so many times he couldn’t remember if it had been four or five when we spoke on the phone (we checked; he’s successfully reached the South Pole four times). To most people, reaching 90 degrees south would seem like a once-in-a-lifetime deal, with the severe cold (down to minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit in the austral summer), sensory deprivation, and suffering it requires. So why is he going back yet again? 

On a personal level, his expeditions are about being creative and unique, he says—a way to push our boundaries of knowledge. That was easy to define in the Age of Exploration, but when few firsts ascents or blanks on the map remain, how can a polar explorer still discover the unknown? “We can try to find the few corners remaining where no one has been,” he says, “or we look at traditional adventures and find new ways to make them more compelling and, quite honestly, just more difficult.”

In other words, style is everything. Take the example of rock climbing. In 1958 when Warren Harding, George Whitmore, and Wayne Merry made the first ascent of El Capitan in Yosemite after a 12-day push, it was a ground-breaking achievement. No one had done it before. But as climbing progressed, getting to the top by any means necessary—such as using aid for upward progress, fixed ropes, or siege tactics—was no longer a challenge or admired. Enter the free climbing revolution, in-a-day ascents, speed climbing, onsight attempts (sending on the first go with no prior knowledge of the route), and solo climbing, culminating, for now, with Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson’s first ascent of the Dawn Wall and Alex Honnold’s epic free solo of Freerider. Once most logical routes on El Cap had been climbed, the way to push the sport further was to repeat the same in better style.

Polar exploration is no different. In December 1911, a Norwegian team led by Roald Amundsen became the first expedition to reach the geographic South Pole. Since then, only around 300 people have skied from the coast all the way to the South Pole, by various routes. Larsen has done it twice already, once on the Messner Route and once on the Hercules Route (he’s also guided two "Last Degree" trips where he skied or fat biked from 89th to 90th parallel), but never alone or for speed. In 2011 the Norwegian Christian Eide took polar exploration to the next level when he set the solo, unsupported, and unassisted speed record on the Hercules Route at 24 days, 1 hour, and 13 minutes. Before Eide, simply getting to the South Pole under human power was the challenge, and typically required 50 to 60 days.

Concurrently this season, Colin O’Brady, a 33-year-old American, and Louis Rudd, a 49-year-old Brit, are separately attempting to complete the first solo, unsupported, and unassisted crossing of Antarctica—a 921-mile journey from the Hercules Inlet of the Ronne Ice Shelf to the South Pole (a similar route to Larsen’s) and then on to the Ross Ice Shelf on the other side of the continent.

“Unfortunately for adventure travel, we don’t have a rating system like climbing has, so putting on these other parameters is part of that leading edge,” Larsen says. He hopes to break Eide’s speed record on the Hercules Route, with a goal of 22 days, and will also travel solo, unsupported, and unassisted. But “the margins are pretty slim,” he says, “and you can go from status quo to total shitshow in a matter of seconds.” Any small problem, like a blister on the foot or a sore knee, can have a huge impact, especially when it comes to speed.

Larsen calls polar travel “death by 1,000 cuts.” With modern satellite phones and rescue a call away, his life is never in imminent danger—in fact, he dislikes hyperbolic statements like “death defying”—but every day, he’s losing a bit more energy than he can gain back. He compares it to a game of chess and says, “You’re trying to make your initial moves carefully so that when the expedition is the hardest near the end you have enough resources both physically and mentally to be able to push through.”

The key to success, as he sees it, has less to do with speed and strength than a strict schedule, efficiency, and the ability to slide one foot in front of the other over and over again for 14 to 16 hours per day. Larsen plans to ski in hour-long intervals with quick breaks in between to rest or force down some calories. When the day’s over—although the sun never sets during the Antarctic summer—he’ll pitch camp, melt snow, eat dinner, and go to sleep as quickly as possible. Then he’ll wake up to do it all over again. “It’s total Groundhog Day,” he says. “I’m doing one thing for three and a half weeks straight, nothing else, with no other stimuli.”

On the surface, it might look like he’s just determined to break a speed record, but Larsen’s motive goes much deeper than that. “For these big solo missions, you’re not necessarily pushing the limits of a place, you’re pushing the limits of yourself in that place,” he says. “To me, that’s the leading edge of adventure. That’s why I do it.”

So far, the South Pole is playing hard to get. Since leaving the Hercules Inlet, daily whiteout conditions, soft snow, and sastrugi (elongated snow drifts) have slowed Larsen’s progress and have made navigation a literal pain in the neck, since he must constantly look down to check his compass. “Normally, I don’t complain about the weather—especially in Antarctica. You get what you get,” he posted to his blog on day five, November 29. “But now, so much of my speed is directly connected to the weather and Antarctica isn’t giving me any breaks. Five and a half of the last six days have been whiteouts.”

But on December 5, the clouds began to lift somewhat. “For the first time in the last ten days I was able to ski at a normal pace,” he wrote. “Good night from Antarctica pleas [sic] sit in a chair for me!” 

Our Next National Park Could Be in New Mexico

3 Jul

I’m standing in the heart of White Sands National Monument, in southern New Mexico, the largest gypsum dune field in the world. A sea of sand stretches as far as the eye can see—white waves and crests and curls, all uniformly rippled on the surface. The place is so vast that it’s visible from space.

If new legislation introduced in May makes it out of committee and passes, this area will become our nation’s 60th national park. Achieving that, however, is a feat on par with finding parking in Yosemite. But Senator Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, who introduced the White Sands National Park Establishment Act, is on a mission to make it happen. “There is no downside to this legislation that I can see,” Heinrich says.

Of course, not everyone is so thoroughly optimistic.

Once in place, a national park is more or less permanent—unlike a monument, the impermanence of which we saw last year when President Trump shrank Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante. The good news is that monuments like White Sands should, in theory, make the process of turning them into national parks easier. Of our 59 current national parks, 29 were once monuments. The bad news is that new national parks are incredibly difficult to create because they depend on Congress coming to an agreement, a task that these days seems tougher than ever.

Why White Sands?

The greater dunes cover about 275 square miles in southern New Mexico. The monument itself—designated by President Herbert Hoover under the Antiquities Act in 1933—covers approximately 41 percent of that area. Each wavelike drift can reach 60 feet high, and they’re constantly moving—the winds push them up to 30 feet a year.

On a recent visit, I hiked through soaptree yucca, cane cholla, and tufts of Indian ricegrass with Kelly Carroll, the monument’s chief of interpretation, who is in charge of public education and outreach. As we walked, he pointed out the faint tracks of a bleached earless lizard, a spadefoot toad, an Apache pocket mouse, and a camel cricket, all of which have adapted to life in this bizarre scenery.

white sands
A bleached earless lizard. (Hayden Carpenter)

Before White Sands was a monument, and before the Mescalero Apache and Jornada Mogollon peoples inhabited the area, now-extinct animals also thrived here. Their tracks are preserved in the alkali flats of the valley floor—mammoth, dire wolf, saber-toothed cat, North American camel, and giant ground sloth, all dating back to the last ice age. In fact, White Sands has the highest concentration of megafauna tracks in the United States. More recently, a team of scientists, whose study was published this year in the journal Science Advances, found fossilized human footprints surrounding circles of giant ground sloth tracks—rare evidence of a Pleistocene hunt.

Today, the monument is the most popular National Park Service site in New Mexico, drawing more than half a million annual visitors and generating $29.3 million for the local economy, according to Heinrich’s office. “White Sands is such a quintessential New Mexican place,” he says. “The question is why is it not already a national park?”

The answer to that lies partly with the park’s peculiar neighbor.

Dealing with the DOD

The monument lies entirely within the White Sands Missile Range (WSMR), part of the largest military installation in the United States and the site of the Trinity test, the first atomic bomb detonation. Once or twice a week, the monument, and often Highway 70 leading to it, is closed for military testing for three hours to keep visitors away from any potential hazards, like stray missiles. WSMR only needs to give the Park Service a 24-hour notice prior to testing, so many unsuspecting travelers have found themselves locked out at the gate.

Since the 1970s, the Department of Defense (DOD) has had its eyes on land within the park that would make for easier access to its sites. Congress authorized a land exchange in 1996, but it was never executed because of longstanding disagreements between the Park Service and WSMR over property boundaries. “For decades, there has been an attempt to resolve that,” Heinrich says. “We were able to thread that needle of figuring out how those lands should be divvied up in a way that benefits both.”

The swap Heinrich devised with the bill’s co-sponsor, New Mexico Senator Tom Udall, is less an exchange of one chunk for another and more a complex patchwork of trades. In all, the proposed legislation would move 5,766 acres to the Park Service and 3,737 acres to WSMR—a net gain for the park of 2,030 acres.

That deal would give the U.S. Army the transportation access it wants; in return, the Park Service would acquire land outside the evacuation zone so visitors have somewhere to hang out during the tests. Before any of that can happen, the Army would need to clean up unexploded ordnance from its tests, which could be costly and take a while. But that aside, and now that the Park Service and WSMR are in agreement, the land exchange has the support of the DOD, which puts serious political muscle behind the bill.

Titles Matter

According to a recent study by Headwaters Economics, national monuments that are redesignated as national parks see about a 21 percent spike in visitation in their first five years.

The study also investigated what such a change could do specifically for White Sands and found that redesignation could attract more than 100,000 additional annual visitors and generate between $6.2 million and $7.5 million in new spending, on top of the $29.3 million the monument generates today. That increase in visitors could create 84 to 107 new jobs and plop between $2.7 million and $3.3 million in extra local labor income into the area.

There’s already a lot of support for the bill, including from the mayor of nearby Alamogordo, the Mescalero Apache Tribal Council, the National Parks Conservation Association, and the Southern New Mexico Public Lands Alliance, to name a few. And yet Otero County, which covers about half the monument, doesn’t back the idea. In a letter to Heinrich sent in May, a few county commissioners expressed frustration at not being consulted in the planning process. They said they worried park status would discourage Hollywood filmmakers from shooting in the park because of higher fees and increased regulation. They also expressed concerns about the additional wear and tear to park infrastructure if visitation does increase and the fact that White Sands “does not have camping available for anyone other than backpackers.”

The 11-page letter closed by stating, “When it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.”

The Waiting Game

After Heinrich introduced the bill to the Senate on May 7, it was referred to the Committee of Armed Services, likely because of the land-swap element. “So far, this is going quite well and moving quickly,” he says. “But I think that’s an indication of the five-plus years of trying to get the details correct.”

It also helps that Heinrich is one of 27 members of the committee.

As for how and when the bill might pan out, “You never know that in Congress, frankly,” Heinrich says with a laugh. “I’m not in the time estimation business. But so far, my experience on these kinds of projects is get the details right, play the long game, and they will happen.”

On Thin Ice in Ouray

24 Apr

Take a walk down Main Street in Ouray, Colorado, on a winter day and you’ll see throngs of pedestrians in bright, technical outerwear—some wearing backpacks, helmets, and harnesses—and a steady stream of cars heading to the Uncompaghre Gorge above town, home of the Ouray Ice Park. You could mistake yourself for being in the Alps. Coffee shops, breweries, and restaurants that previously shuttered through winter now have the lights on and “Please Remove Crampons Before Entering” signs on their doors. This wasn’t always the case. 

Prior to the ice park’s official opening in 1997, the historic mining town, population 1,000, hibernated through winter. Businesses would close, waiting for the peak tourist season of summer. Main Street was a ghost town. The steady growth of visiting ice climbers over the years, along with Ouray’s internationally-renowned annual ice festival—which attracts upwards of 3,000 climbers for a single weekend—has kept Ouray alive through the cold months.

Yet in this seemingly utopian mountain town, a streak of short and challenging winters combined with growing overcrowding issues and a management dustup has given rise to a new anxiety: How can a small rural town make outdoor recreation both environmentally and economically sustainable in a rapidly changing West?  

For the park to open each winter, the ice farmers—a four-member team that manages a complex irrigation system of 7,500 feet of pipe and 250 showerheads and drains that run water down the 45- to 150-foot-tall cliffs—typically need a month and a half of lead time from the first frost. But the ideal temperatures for ice farming—26 degrees or lower at night—are arriving later and later. As a result, the farmers have less time to build a big enough ice base to make it through warm spells in January and February.

“We start running water in the beginning of November,” says Dan Chehayl, executive director of Ouray Ice Park Inc. (OIPI), the non-profit that runs the facility. Historically, the park would open around the second week of December and continue until the end of March. A typical season lasted 90 to 100 days. The winter of 2013–14 was a banner year at 108 days. But ever since then, the season has shrunk, with 2016–17 lasting just 46 days.

Even when it’s cold enough, the park doesn’t always have the water to sustain full operations. The farmers need 150,000 to 300,000 gallons every night to repair the damage done by climbers swinging ice tools and kicking crampons during the day. That water is the overflow from the city’s spring-fed storage tanks above town. In recent years, however, the volume has diminished significantly thanks to the drier winters, mining diversion, increased demand from the growing city, and an aging infrastructure. “There were leaks that got bigger and bigger until they were basically the size of all the water allotment we needed,” Chehayl says. (After last year’s early closure, the city fixed the major leaks in their infrastructure over the summer. This year, the ice park opened on December 23, delayed by warm temperatures, but they remained open until April 1, a date they haven’t reached since the water issues began in 2014, for a 100-day season.) 

Chehayl and park staff work with the water they have or shut off the park’s pipes altogether. To cut their losses, they’ve already closed three areas that weren’t worth their diminishing resources. They dropped from a peak of around 200 routes within a one-mile stretch of the Uncompaghre Gorge to approximately 150 routes after the 2013–14 season. 

Despite the uncertainty of park conditions in recent years, annual visitors are steadily on the rise and overcrowding is becoming a new headache. OIPI is playing with the idea of a visitor cap. The problem is, staff have no visitation data beyond an educated guess. The park is free, there are multiple entrances, and people come and go throughout the day, so it’s difficult to get an accurate count. Chehayl estimates around 14,000 visitors a season.

OIPI currently runs the ice park on a thin budget of donations, memberships, and sponsorships from the ice festival. “We’re slowly understanding that it’s going to require revenue streams to protect and defend certain portions of our sport,” says Louis Benitez, director of the Office of Outdoor Recreation Industry in Colorado. But, he says, “The question of who pays for what when it comes to conservation and stewardship will always be a challenge in small, rural communities.”

In the world of outdoor recreation, the ice park and the city of Ouray have a unique, symbiotic relationship. Nowhere else is a local municipality and climbing organization so intertwined or dependent on one another. The city owns the water needed to farm ice and the majority of the land that encompasses the ice park. OIPI, contracted by the city to operate the park, keeps alive the core of Ouray’s winter economy and attracts new residents to the area.

This relationship, however, is becoming increasingly strained. OIPI’s current five-year contract with the city ends in May. The park’s board of directors previously considered handing over the management of the park to the city, but ultimately decided against it. Ouray and OIPI are in talks for a new contract. “There’s a lot of things that we want, and there’s a lot of things that the city wants—so all getting on the same page has been a rough go,” Chehayl says.

The future direction of the Ouray Ice Park, and therefore Ouray’s outdoor-recreation-based economy, depends largely on the new agreement between the city and OIPI. Both parties are hopeful that they’ll see a contract signed by the end of May, if not earlier. 

In the next five years, Chehayl hopes to see the park grow from “more of a cowboy-run operation to a really well-oiled machine,” with a fulltime staff and reliable fundraising, all to help better weather the changing times.

Whatever Ouray decides, it will set the precedent on how a whole community—outdoor recreationalists, guides, business and land owners, local government—can, and should, all come together to create a long-term, sustainable plan around outdoor recreation. If other outdoor industry leaders are not watching Ouray, they should be—the city is navigating uncharted waters. 

“Ouray is setting an example for everyone,” says Benitez. “The outdoor industry is starting to wake up to the fact that conservation and stewardship are deeply connected to how effective we are as an economy.”