For climbers who favor ice over rock, the Ouray Ice Festival is most celebrated gathering of the winter season. An eclectic climbing mix of gear manufacturers, world-class athletes, and weekend waterfall chargers, the Ice Fest has drawn hardcore members of this small tribe to the Uncompahgre Gorge for seventeen consecutive seasons. Eddie Bauer First Ascent guide Caroline George has maintained a special connection to Ouray since she packed her life into two duffels seven years ago, made the migration to the Ice Fest, and nearly speared the man who would later become her husband with two stray axes on a classic local route. It’s been three years since she’s been back, but in her latest report for the Live Your Adventure blog, George revisits the community and returns to the elite mixed climbing competition that first drew her to the festival. What she found is the something special that still remains. -LYA Editor
Words by Caroline George; Images by Caroline George and Jay Smith
I first attended the Ouray Ice Festival seven years ago. I flew in from Switzerland with only two bags to my name in the world. I had sold everything prior to this trip, thinking I might move to the USA for a while. The Ouray Ice Festival was a great excuse to make the journey over the pond. A few days prior to the event, I went on one of the most classic ice climbs in the area, Ames Ice Hose (WI5 M6 R), with then local and ice fest organizer Michael Gilbert. It was a very cold day. Maybe my hands were frozen when I reached the top. I don’t know. But what happened next changed my life forever. As I was getting ready to rap back down to the ground, I watched as my ice axes made the journey quicker than me, speeding up into the abyss and nearly hitting the man who had started to climb below. A few months later, that man became my husband.
Needless to say, the Ouray Ice Festival is a very special event to me! And after a two-year hiatus (Winter 2011: Antarctica, Thailand, Jordan; 2012: pregnancy), I was all the more excited to return to Ouray with my daughter Olivia in tow. I was excited to teach clinics, share my passion for ice climbing with others, introduce Olivia, see old friends, meet new ones and maybe even enter the competition. That though was unclear: it’s hard to train with a newborn baby. It takes time to find a partner, drive to the crag, hike in, get a few pitches and mostly find someone to watch the baby while you are going to scratch some rock with ice axes. Somehow, that was hard to justify.
Plus, this past fall, we were busy with house projects, translation work, taking care of my parents, who both had very invasive surgeries, and traveling to New Hampshire for the holidays. Life gets in the way.
But I did manage to find the time to climb enough to feel strong and motivated for the comp. On days when everything went smooth, I was really excited for it. But on days when I couldn’t train and felt so conflicted, I wondered why I was putting so much pressure on myself. Was it even worth it?
When I arrived in Ouray the Sunday before the start of the event and saw the comp route, I felt a deep sense of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). I felt like it would be more heartbreaking to me to not compete than to not do well. It wasn’t until two days before the event that I asked the organizers if there was any way I could possibly enter the comp. I was so excited! I was able to climb with no jitters or stress for the first time in a competition. I didn’t win, but I might just have had the most fun out there. The route started on ice and followed a beautiful steep wall of orange gneiss to an ice curtain. I made it to there. Then the route kept going up a seemingly impossible artificial wall that started on a wooden log. I had a hard time reaching the log and eventually timed out. But I was ecstatic nevertheless. It was great to watch the others climb and learn from watching how they move up such weird features. It motivated me to train for next year. Hopefully the next 365 days don’t get in the way of motivating.
But Ouray is not just about the competition. It’s about the people you meet at the festival and while teaching clinics. I taught a women’s introduction to ice climbing and a multi-pitch belay transition. I am always in awe of how people love the ice, the cold, and learning everything they can about it. This, more than anything, gives meaning to what I do. The ice festival is also a great time to see long lost friends who share the passion, and although I missed out on the last two events (one year I was in Antarctica and the other I was 8 1/2 months pregnant), it always feels like no time has gone by: we meet to climb before the ice fest starts, we share a little hot-tubbing at the hot springs, we meet for dinners in town to catch up on life, and everything revolves around the love for climbing. This deep sense of belonging is what brings me back over and over again. And this edition was all the more special because Olivia got to be part of it.
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