Scarpa North America Blog

Sam Elias: On the Ouray Ice Fest, the climbing community and learning opportunities

Jan. 12th 2012

Sam Elias at Ouray Ice Fest 2012SCARPA athlete, Sam Elias spent last weekend at the Ouray Ice Festival in Colorado celebrating frozen water, climbing, camaraderie and learning. Sam has attended and taught at five Ouray Ice Fests and cannot wait for the next one. Here are Elias’ reflections on the 2012 festival:

Nestled at 8,000 feet in the San Juan National Forest at the beginning of the San Juan Mountains is the sleepy mountain town of Ouray, Colorado. The first weekend of every January, the town is illuminated by those brought together by climbing frozen water. Within the boundaries of this town exists a park unlike any other – a gorge that has been created into a global ice climbing mecca through the specific gravity fed diversion of the city’s water supply overflow. A complex system of pipes and 150 shower heads distribute between 150,000 and 200,000 gallons of water per night, creating an ice climbing mecca that is more than a mile long and offers more than three cumulative miles of vertical climbing terrain.

This place at this specific time is the Ouray Ice Festival and this was my fifth year participating. It is three days filled with gear demos, exhibitions, clinics, nightly presentations, and a mixed climbing competition. These days capture the essence of community. Every one of all ages and abilities has something to share, and the added element of discomfort that the cold can bring, along with the dangerousness of the pursuit brings people even closer.

One of my roles at this event was to teach a clinic on behalf of SCARPA. The clinics are made possible by The San Juan Mountain Guide service. They chaperone and facilitate every single one, and work tirelessly during the days of the festival. So, a big thanks to them.

My clinic title was Intermediate Ice. Despite any efforts at formality during these instructional occasions, it is so interesting to observe the unique differences between people, and also to see that I have as much to learn from these people as they do from me. I abandoned structure for a more personal approach.

This year there was Frank, Jason, Jenny and Scott. Frank was stocky and strong, and he had the most experience. He could read the ice well, and knew when to hook and when to swing. His swing was stable and accurate, but his footwork was sloppy and imprecise. Jason was tall and lean and had the most solid swing – not any more than 2, and the pick had made the comfortable “thunk” with the observable vibration of the axe head. However, he had trouble finding a rhythm of movement, and would get his hands further and further from his feet, until he was completely spread out with every part of his body close to the ice, and thus unable to kick or swing well. Jenny had the best footwork and was the most graceful. She read the ice well, but her swing was her weakness. It was uncoordinated and lacked the necessary speed. It took her a long time to get good sticks. Scott was the least experienced. Most of his energy was exhausted in fighting the equipment and the ice, and trying to muscle everything into submission. However, I could see a childlike enthusiasm and fascination – ice climbing was the only climbing that he had ever tried.

I am grateful that they each participated, and for their thoughtful approaches to implement my feedback and observation. I believed that I saw improvements for them all. This is a rare type of reward for me, and contributes to my deep connection with that place and time. So, until the few days of next year that the people congregate in Ouray to celebrate winter, ice climbing, and each other – I will be waiting.

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