Every winter, ice farmers in Ouray sculpt the town’s most indispensable attraction.
In an elegant fusion of temperature, gravity and water, the farmers engineer a fleeting masterpiece, spraying tens of thousands of gallons of water a night into the Uncompahgre Gorge.
By January, the 3 miles of vertical ice draws climbers from around the globe. Without the Ouray Ice Park, the city of about 1,000 would not have a winter economy. Before the park, Ouray went largely dark in the winter. Today, a half-dozen restaurants remain open year-round and hotels are planning expansions.
A volunteer board has governed North America’s premier ice park for more than 20 years, shepherding both its annual birth and the festival that fills Ouray with thousands of climbers on a single, essential weekend in January.
But after two challenging seasons of warm weather and water woes, that volunteer board last year began planning to cede control of the park to the city. It hasn’t gone as smoothly as hoped.
This month the city and the board of the nonprofit Ouray Ice Park Inc., or OIPI, will meet with a mediator to help set a course to sustain the city as the country’s ice climbing capital. The one thing they do agree on is that they must protect the economic engine that is as fragile as the ice itself. They just can’t afford to mess it up.
“At some point we need to work our way into a more sustainable model,” said ice park board president Lora Slawitschka, who has spent more than two decades working to support the park, which helps fill her Ouray Chalet Inn in the winter. “What that could look like, that’s what we are trying to figure out. There are certainly some growing pains.”
The park uses about 200,000 gallons of water a night to create more than 200 precipitous ice routes along a mile of canyon above the Uncompahgre River.
But the water from spring-fed tanks is available only when all municipal demands have been met. During a particularly dry winter — like this one — water supplies can be pinched. A leak here or there in the municipal system on top of warm temperatures and dry winters can limit the water the park draws. That was the case in the winter of 2015-16, when the park was able to make ice only a few days before throngs arrived for the Ouray Ice Festival.
That was a rough season. Trees used to anchor routes were rotting from beetle kill, forcing the construction of concrete anchor pads. Climbers clamored for more routes while temperatures soared. The owner of a historic hydroelectric plant struggled with the city to reach a licensing agreement that allowed recreation around the pipeline — or penstock — that delivers water from one end of the park to his Federal Energy Regulatory Commission-licensed hydroelectric plant on the other end. A pipeline blew out during the festival, sending rust-colored water rushing through the park. Business owners began questioning the management of the park’s board.
The next season was a struggle too, as a warm winter and water access plagued the park’s ice farmers. Again, climbers waited as the park opened late in 2016 with limited terrain. And again, business owners groused as Ouray’s lodging tax collections fell almost 15 percent in the first two months of 2017.
“Just a lot of friction and angst at the end of these last couple seasons,” said John Wood, who runs the Wood Distillery in Ouray and was on a city-appointed ice park committee that suggested a stronger role for the city. “We’ve got to up our game, but we have to do it in a way that doesn’t just give the farm away to a group of people who are asking for complete and unfettered control.”
Ouray owns most of the land in the park, purchased from the U.S. Forest Service in 2007 and 2012 using Trust for Public Land and Great Outdoors Colorado grants.
It didn’t take long to realize there would be no swift hand-off. Thorny issues of liability emerged as the city pondered a move that could eventually treat the ice park like the city’s hot springs pool, with operating costs offset by entrance fees collected by the city or a concessionaire.
This is where Eric Jacobson comes in. He was the only bidder for the country’s oldest operating power plant at a 1991 bankruptcy auction in Denver. He paid $1,000.
Under FERC rules, he can allow recreation on his right-of-way, which spans 50 feet on either side of the 6,000-foot-long penstock and takes in a majority of the ice routes in the park, but only if access is free. He’s had a zero-cost annual recreation agreement with the city since the park opened.
The requirement that the recreation around Jacobson’s hydroelectric plant remains free also removes his liability under the Colorado Recreational Use Statute. That law says that landowners who allow recreation on their land — permitted or not — without charge are not promising safety and assume no responsibility or liability for any injury or death.
“I would very happily extend the lease, but I need government immunity under the landowner liability statute. I certainly don’t want to assume the liability for someone getting hurt in a dangerous sport,” said Jacobson, the hydroelectric tinkerer who for years ran the iconic Bridal Veil Power Plant perched above Telluride. “I love ice climbing and I want to see it succeed. I hate to say it, but my read is this is a little bit of a power grab from the city. With a very limited budget the OIPI has done a brilliant job.”
Jacobson said in his history of hosting ice climbers beneath his penstock, he’s never had an issue.
“You’d expect that conflict between a power plant and ice climbers, but they have been the most respectful, greatest community I can think of,” he said. “I’m never going to shut the thing down provided that the liability protections are there.”
But maybe there’s a loophole. The park today runs on donations, memberships and sponsorships. It’s unclear if FERC differentiates between charging a fee for recreation and asking for donations, which, according to veterans of the ice park, could easily be harvested from the more than 15,000 annual climbers who flock to Ouray’s ice.
The city’s long-term plan for the park includes the possibility of issuing a request for proposals from potential park operators, Ouray city administrator Katie Sickles said. Whether that includes a fee for entry has yet to be determined, she said.
“We are really looking forward to, at some point, having a business plan and looking at the cost-benefit analysis,” Sickles said, noting that the ice park is part of both the town’s ongoing master plans for water and recreation.
The park board has pivoted away from its original position to pass park operations over to the city and now hopes to maintain control for the near term, maybe another five years. That would give the city time to craft a more developed plan.
“The city is not in a position at this time to be able to take it over and have it be a seamless transition just because of the learning curve and some of the changes in city offices,” said Slawitschka, noting recent new additions to city departments. “This is not something that’s going to happen overnight and it will take some planning and some real long-term vision.”
Nate Disser’s San Juan Mountain Guides operation is one of several guiding outfits that operate in the Ouray Ice Park. He recently proposed building a via ferrata warm-weather climbing attraction in the park, opposite the ice walls. The city approved his project but that’s on hold while the park board and city work out a management plan.
There are many mercurial factors — like the right weather: not too much snow and very cold temperatures in November — that have to align to even build the ice. Everyone in Ouray is working toward eliminating the uncertainty around elements that can be controlled, Disser said. Like water and funding.
“It’s a complex thing with all sorts of challenges and opportunities,” Disser said. “This is really just a natural evolution and growth process and the maturing of the Ouray Ice Park as a highly reliable resource that people can count on year after year to be in great conditions.”
As Colorado champions recreation as a sustainable economic engine for rural areas, outdoor industry leaders are watching Ouray.
The park is a gem in the state’s crown of one-of-a-kind recreation attractions, drawing outdoor company leaders and climbers who can help influence the state’s blossoming outdoor economy. As other communities across the country develop ice parks and climbing festivals — like Cody, Wyo., and Winona, Minn. — Colorado’s recreation chief Luis Benitez has a simple message for Ouray.
“Get out of your own way,” he said. “This is the economic backbone of your community in the winter. You remember what it was like before the ice park? Do you want to go back there? This is critically important.”