The Ice Farmers of Ouray
There’s a new kind of farmer making their way through the world of agriculture.
This kind of farmer isn’t making his money out of traditional crops, he’s not struggling to predict weather systems or haggle prices with food manufacturers. This man is an ice-farmer, his ‘farm’ is based in a small mountain town called Ouray, in Colorado, which is home to one of the biggest ice climbing parks in the world.
Ice climbing has been a popular hobby in the US and and mainland Europe for the last 50 years or so, branching out of the heady days of exploration and adventure that succeeded the partition of conflict that World War II had enforced upon the world. Once borders began to open up and international flights became more accepted amongst consumers, more and more intrepid hikers, skiers and ice-climbers made their way to the mountainous regions of the Alps and Rockies to develop the tradition that has continued to this day.
For those fledgling years, climbers were feeling their way through the sport. Most people who attempted ice-climbing already had some form of climbing training, so they understood the basic mechanics of pulling themselves up a sheer cliff, but they had yet to practice on sheer walls of ice. Back in these early days, the only to practice was by doing it out in the wild.
That was, at least, until the advent of the ice climbing park
Ouray Ice Park first opened in the 90s, a natural gorge sprayed with water during the Winter months to form huge walls of thick, climbable ice. The ice farmers, as they became known as, start their work in November, running water from the nearby city water overflow supply down onto the rock with the use of dozens of shower heads. By manipulating the position and strength of these showers, these farmers can create huge walls of thick, blue ice – a bit like free-form ice sculptures.
It often takes around a month for the farmers to create ice climbs that are safe to climb on. Once the Winter climbing season is in full swing, however, there’s no beating Ouray for the sheer breadth and variety of ice-wall challenges on offer. Each season, between seven and eight thousand visitors flood the tiny one thousand strong population of Ouray, bringing thousands of dollars into the economic infrastructure of a town that had previously struggled to attract tourists during Winter.
Since the Park opened in the 90s, it has been free to climb in Ouray.
Ice Operations Manager Dan Chehayl, who has worked at Ouray for over six seasons, leads a small, dedicated team of ice farmers to ensure that the Park is constantly growing. Each year, during the off-season, the farmers are kept busy with maintaining the Park. They need to keep the rock clear of vegetation during the warmer months, so that the ice can form cleanly in the Winter.