Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Ice Climbing, Spaghetti Dinners and To-hell-you-ride

(watching the climbers from the upper bridge)

One of the advantages to staying at the Ouray Victorian Inn was how close in walking distance it was to the Ice Park. We woke up and headed up the hill around 9am to see what the festival was all about. Neil and Meghan had already been up walking their dog and said the competitors were walking around town in their harnesses and ice picks. Yet another perk of being in a small town, you're standing in line to get coffee next to someone who's probably summited Everest.

As we walked up the hill the first overlook we came to was, what I can assume as, the beginners ice park. We weren't able to pay the fees and sign up in time, but one of the best parts of the festival is you can take clinics to learn how to ice climb. Unlike rock climbing, when you ice climb you begin at the top of what is basically a giant ice cycle and climb down. The have chains and anchors at the top and someone supervises your descent down to the bottom of the canyon where then someone else was waiting to belay you as you climbed to the top.

(belayers below)

(more advanced climbers in the canyon)

We watched these people for awhile then walked up to the second bridge where you could really get a good look at where the ice competition was held. For purposes of the ice festival your goal as a competitor is speed and the route you climb is a mix of ice and rock which adds to the difficulty. Both men and women compete and truth be told the women usually out climb the men. It's that we are lighter and use our legs more than our upper body which is important when climbing.

(watching the competition. the people on the ledge are belayers and the climber is lead climbing which means when you fall you call from as far as your last clip in was)

Set up further on the hill were various vendor tents to browse should you be bored watching the climbers. There were crampons to try demo, ice axes to try, the latest technology in jackets to try out and extreme outdoor enthusiasts from all over the world. Everyone was so nice and informative and I got some good ideas on lightweight packs I want for this summer's hiking season.

After a few hours out in the cold we wandered downtown for a bite to eat and ended up at the Ouray Brewing Company. It's only been open less than a year and they had a good selection of locally brewed beers on tap (plus football games on tv as bonus for the men) so we tried it out. The food was a mix of everything from Bison burgers and wings to a shrimp salad and pulled pork sandwich. Their IPA (Ice pickers ale) must have been the most popular choice because they ran out before we could even try any. Ouray doesn't have a lot of food options but I think this place will do well especially with their roof top patio for summer.

We couldn't coordinate all the events we wanted to during the festival (such as attending some of the various Everest Movie previews and lectures from famous climbers) but we did attend the Fireman's Spaghetti Dinner that Saturday night along with pretty much everyone in town it seemed. For $20 it was all you could eat spaghetti, salad and bread as well as all you could drink New Belgium Brews. How much spaghetti can one person eat you might ask? Well I had two plates myself (with meatballs I might add) as well as 2 beers and 2 salads and God knows how many pieces of bread and butter. As a bonus they brought out cookies and brownies at the end of the night. Well the price tag may have been a little steep, all the money went to charity and you got to dine family style with the climbers you just watched scaling sheer ice that day. They also had a silent auction of various items which none of us had the money to bid on but were cool to look at. The firefighters cook this dinner every saturday and sunday night each year (I believe Sunday was lasagna) and judging by the people who attended it's probably their only fundraising for the winter.

Being so close to Telluride we had decided in advance that instead of watching more competitions Sunday we would drive over to the tiny mountain town. Anyone who has ever been to Telluride knows how isolated it is and how far from Denver (it's in box canyon so there is only one way in and one way out) so how could we pass up this opportunity to go? The initial plan was to ski but seeing as lift tickets were $98 per person, Meghan, Neil, Chad and I decided to forgo the downhill and try a little cross country while Jason and Angela explored the town.

I have never cross country skied before and so this was quite an experience for me. We rented our equipment at the Telluride Nordic Center for $22 each and then went off to explore the trails around town. Had we more time we wanted to go up the gondola and ski some of the trails on the mountain but Chad felt my learning curve may have not been up to par with those more advanced trails.

Cross country skiing is, in essence, very easy. In fact, I believe I over-thought it for the most part. Your heels are not attached to your skis which takes some getting use to but you are basically doing walking lunges on these little carved out paths. What is great about the sport is not only can you bring your dog, but you can ski alongside your friends, talk, and get to see the scenery better. We took a couple of practice loops around the lake near the Nordic Center then used the trail that went along side the river all through town and out into the wilderness area. I definitely overdressed for the occasion and found myself sweating despite the cold. It was much more of a thigh work out than I anticipated and, I would say a lot more work for less money.

After a few hours we were ready to call Jason and meet up at the bar so we went to one of the restaurants in the old town and had lunch. We chose the Floradora Saloon, at a friend of Jason's suggestion (that friend had lived in Telluride several years thus a trusted source) which had the best fried cheese medallions and sandwiches I've ever had. It's a casual place with wood floors and tables covered in paper (to which some of the guests have created amazing art with crayons which is displayed on the walls) and they served everything from Caprese Benedict to BBQ duck quesadilla's. It's a family-owned and operated restaurant and bar and they use natural and organic ingredients from region. Afterwards we walked up the street to the Steaming Bean, my favorite coffee place which I was introduced to in Steamboat. They have the spiciest chai I've ever tasted.

Even though lift tickets in Telluride are expensive, they have free Gondola rides that take you from the old town to the mountainside village. Dogs are even allowed in designated gondola's and you can take it back and forth until midnight. Taking the gondola is a great way to see the town as well as the tiny airport which is just a landing strip with a cliff at the edge of the runway. Seeing all the skiers come down the hill from the mountain side made me want to run to the nearest lift line and jump onboard, but I guess we will have to save the alpine skiing for another day.

After a full day in Telluride, complete with souvenir shopping we returned to Ouray to enjoy our last night in town. By this point it started snowing pretty hard so we what else to do but enjoy the hot tub? We actually ordered a few pizzas (which as a side not it's ridiculously hard and expensive to find pizza delivery in Ouray. There is only one place in town that delivers which I think is the restaurant in the Best Western) and had them delivered to the hot tub where we soaked and enjoyed the snow. By this time we were only one of about 3 groups left staying at the hotel so we had the place all to ourselves. You really get a feel for how desolate the town is in the winter on other weekends. There is a great hot springs in Ouray with swimming pool size outdoor pools but we didn't have a chance to make it over this time.

(beanies and bikini's)
I really enjoyed my whole experience in Ouray and Telluride. Small mountain towns are so nice to visit and the people there are friendly and accommodating, if not sometimes a little nosy (aka the manager of our hotel). While I didn't get to try ice climbing myself this year I now have a new appreciation for those that excel at the sport and how it keeps a small town like Ouray alive in the winter. I also hope to return to Telluride for the bluegrass festival this summer and perhaps do some hiking in the area. After all, I hear there are a few 14ers to be hiked nearby :)

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

HoURAY for the Ice Climbing Festival

After 4 months of waiting in anticipation, our chance to attend the 16th Annual Ice Climbing Festival in Ouray, Colorado finally arrived this past weekend. Ouray is approximately a six hour drive from Denver so Chad and I decided we would fly into Montrose where Jason and Angela would pick us up on their drive into town. Angela is fairly new to Colorado so Jason wanted to show her the scenery and since the Magee's fly for free we figured why waste a day in the car? The flight was even more scenic than the drive and gave us amazing views of all the Fourteeners and Crested Butte and the Black Canyon.

(crested butte mountain)
I have to admit I was excited to have an extended stay in Ouray. The only time I had seen the the town previously was while driving through and over Red Mountain pass on our way to a wedding in Durango a few years ago. I must admit Red Mountain pass was terrifying even in the early fall but I remember stopping on the side of the road to overlook the, "Switzerland of America" as it is often referred too.

Neil and Meghan arrived shortly after us that evening; meeting us at the Ouray Victorian Inn where we were staying. The hotel was referred to me by the clerk at the Best Western because it was the only hotel which had room enough to sleep 6 people and allowed pets (we left Bebe at home but N&M brought their dog Marley) AND was close enough to walk to the Ice Park. Of course you can pretty much get anywhere in town by walking around but, seeing as the main attraction was the Ice Park we wanted to be as close to there as possible.

(our hotel)

Ouray, like most small towns in Colorado (it's population is somewhere around 800) was established by miners chasing after silver and gold. It's entire economy today is sustained by tourism. In the summer visitors can soak in the hot springs, hike or take a 4 wheel drive tour over to Telluride or Yankee Boy Basin, visit Box Canyon Falls or take the pass over to Durango. However, since Ouray isn't a ski town, it relies on it's largest ice park in the country to draw visitors in. The ice climbing festival is the only one of it's kind and attracts visitors from all over the world which helps local businesses thrive which were once previously closed throughout winter. The world's first ice climbing park, expanding on previously-popular natural falls, consists of dozens of frozen waterfalls from 80 to 200 feet high farmed along more than a mile of the Uncompahgre Gorge. The water is supplied by a sprinkler system developed and maintained by a volunteer organization and supported by donations from local businesses, gear manufacturers and climbers. Best of all the park is free and so is the event!

(view of part of the ice park)
Living in nearby Crested Butte, Neil and Meghan have visited Ouray several times so they were our unofficial guides for the weekend. Since it was Neil's birthday on Friday we decided to go out and have some drinks and check out what this town had to offer. Neil took us down a side street to a bar called Grumpy Pants which he swore had the best beer in town. He didn't dissapoint us. Grumpy Pants is exactly the kind of bar you would expect to find in a small mountain town. The whole establishment is made of rough wood and the only thing they serve is beer which Mister Grumpy Pants brews himself. The owner, who probably lives above the bar, is there to serve you himself from a swing he built that he glides back and forth down the bar on. While there weren't many people in the bar at first, as the night continued and more ice climbers piled in, it became something out of a movie.

(Grumpy Pants himself with the mug he prefers to drink out of)

(sampling the local brewskis)
Everyone was friendly with everyone and one guy even climbed up on the bar and announced he was buying the whole bar a round of beer. We played several rounds of jenga and sang several renditions of Happy Birthday to Neil (which the whole bar participated in) and before we knew it, it was way past dinner (which we never ate) and time to walk back to our hotel. After all we had ice climbing to watch the next day...