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How Ice Farmers Create Ice That's Good For Climbing At The Ouray Ice Park

Daniel Chehayl
Courtesy of the Ouray Ice Park
Ice at the Ouray Ice Park.

The 25th annual Ouray Ice Festival, a celebration of ice climbing, began on Thursday and runs through Sunday in Ouray, Colorado in the southwestern part of the state.  

Tim Foulkes, an ice farmer at the Ouray Ice Park joined KUNC’s Colorado Edition to talk about the ice park, and how ice farmers help create an environment that’s good for all levels of ice climbers.

Interview Highlights

These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Erin O’Toole: For those that haven’t been, could you start by describing the Ouray Ice Park for us?  

Tim Foulkes: Just a little bit of an overview of the greater Ouray area, the San Juan Mountains, Red Mountain Pass — we have tons and tons of natural ice climbing formations all over the area, one of the greatest natural ice climbing venues in the world. And then nestled right above the town of Ouray is a man-made ice climbing park in the Uncompahgre Gorge where we actually manufacture ice for the public to climb, and it’s like a perfect place for all levels of people, from brand new up to the very advanced, to come and try their skills in a variety of fashions.

Credit Daniel Chehayl / Courtesy of the Ouray Ice Park
An ice climber climbs at the Ouray Ice Park.

And you are an ice farmer at the park. What does an ice farmer do?  

As I said, this is a man-made facility, so we have an extensive plumbing system built where we get an approved amount of water from the Ouray city water supply. Once the Ouray city water supply tanks are full, overflow, run-off which usually runs into the Uncompahgre Gorge, we can harness in our plumbing system, and then we run that water throughout the park, on top of the cliff. And then at nighttime we fire up the plumbing, fill it all with water — we don’t pump the water, it’s all pressure — up and down the park, and then we have a series of showerheads and drains, which we fluctuate to create ice.

Natural ice is made by dribbling water behind the ice and then eventually it juts grows and grows and grows. We do two things: we do that, we run water on the cliffsides, dribbling water, and then on the outside we have shower heads and so we can build it from the back and from the outside in too, so we can build it rather quickly if temperatures are on our side.

Credit Rhys Roberts / Courtesy of the Ouray Ice Park
An interactive climbing clinic at the Ouray Ice Park.

What makes ice good for climbing? How do you make it good for climbing?  

Basically it just has to get to a point of a certain thickness, to where the climber can trust it, to where it can support the weight of a climber. It’s really hard to describe because we get this question a lot. I’ve been personally ice climbing for 20 years and people ask this: how do you trust it, how do you know? It comes with experience and it comes with time.

When you swing your ice tool into it and you kick your crampons into it, which are the sharp things on your feet, it makes sounds. If it sounds hollow or if it’s a solid ‘thunk’ and anywhere in between, you have an idea of if that’s going to  support your weight, or if it’s not. Then you make choices based on experience and your level of what risk you’re willing to accept, and then you go from there.

This interview is part of KUNC’s Colorado Edition for Jan. 20. You can find the full episode here.

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