Only in Colorado: In Ouray, they’re growing a different kind of crop

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This story originally appeared in Mile High Sports Magazine. Read the full digital edition.

Crazy. Dirty. Hippies.

That’s who would show up. There might be 15 or 20 – tops. And surely they wouldn’t be spending any money in town.

That was the prevailing gut reaction when the town of Ouray, and a handful of local decision makers, were presented with the notion that a few naturally-occurring ice climbing routes inside the Uncompahgre Gorge should be enhanced, added to and – for lack of a better term – formalized. Invest in the ice – that was the suggestion. Bill Whitt was going with the Field of Dreams Theory: If you build it, they will come.

Whitt’s vision, at least in the eyes of those with whom he’d shared it, had many of the same characteristics as his walls of ice – it was a slippery, uphill battle. Even Gary Wild, a lawyer by trade and Whitt’s business partner in the Victorian Inn, a hotel they’d purchased in Ouray, wasn’t buying it.

“This is so stupid,” Wild told Whitt when introduced to the idea that climbers would travel to Ouray from far and wide, if they only had one thing – more ice.

Whitt was just 26 when he moved from California to Ouray, Colo. A free spirit – maybe even a bit of a hippie himself – he wanted to climb ice, and he’d heard he could do so there. He and Wild purchased the hotel in 1991, but the ice was really what kept Whitt in the tiny Colorado burg. He felt that the ice could keep his hotel full, too – if only there was more of it.

In the Uncompahgre Gorge there were four main ice climbing routes, and Whitt knew them well. He noticed that, at least in part, they’d been formed by some holes that had eroded in the penstock, a giant iron pipe that ran from the dam to the Ouray Hydroelectric Plant. The plant had been supplying the town’s electricity since the 1880s, and every year the leaks grew and trickled down to the gorge, forming the ice he climbed daily. Whitt may or may not have snuck up to the penstock a time or two and widened the existing holes. He even tapped into a few rusty valves with a common garden hose from time to time to further assist the process.

Eventually, Whitt, with a six pack of beer in hand, went to talk about “his” ice with Eric Jacobson, the owner of the plant, the penstock and most of the land along the Uncompahgre. Jacobson had purchased the plant from the local utility company for $10 in 1991 during bankruptcy, and Whitt wanted to “borrow” the water above the table, perhaps a more sustainable, honest model.

With a friendly “arrangement” in place with Jacobson, Whitt spent a solid six hours welding on the penstock and creating new places for valves. He’d move his garden hoses around daily, and when they froze, he’d drag them into a hot tub so they could thaw. His ice climbing routes were beginning to grow.

“We were making some bitchin’ orange climbs,” says Whitt.

They were orange because of the iron that came from the pipe. The routes were effective but not pretty. They were also wet. While obtaining the water wasn’t a problem, Whitt’s system was still a bit archaic. When his garden hoses and shower heads would thaw, water would drip onto the ice when he didn’t want it to. As Whitt put it climbers “would always get a shower.”

These nuisances didn’t fit with Whitt’s wacky, long-term plan. The ice needed to be pretty and dry. Only then would they come to Ouray.

Maybe it was the fact that other climbers slowly began discovering Ouray and Whitt’s big, orange icicles. Or maybe it was just Whitt’s enthusiastic persistence. But eventually others started to see what he was envisioning. In 1995, the Ouray Ice Park was officially founded. In 1996, climber Jeff Lowe organized the Arctic Wolf Ouray Ice Festival; the expanded terrain attracted a surprisingly large group of climbers. So, in 1997, Ouray Ice Park, Inc. was formed in an effort to formalize the efforts and management of the park, which, as Whitt well-knows, were “grassroots” at best.

And one decade after Whitt and Wild had purchased their hotel, an agreement was made to tap into the City of Ouray’s water supply runoff. Wild understood easements and legalese, so this was done properly and formally. It was a real plan with long-term sustainability. And Whitt understood ice. The new arrangement with the city led to a significant increase in the ice “farming” efforts. New climbing routes were growing and old ones were getting bigger and better.

And their color was a magical, cool blue.

***

Dan Chehayl is a farmer – an ice farmer. And he knows that wonderful blue hue as well as anyone.

He came to know it as a college sophomore, when he and some friends headed west to Ouray from Sterling College in Vermont. Then he just kept coming back. He made the trip regularly for a few years after school and finally, in 2007, he stayed.

“I fell in love with the place,” Chehayl says.

He worked – in Ouray’s Mouses Chocolates store, no less – so he could climb. After a few offseason odd jobs in Telluride and back East, former Ouray Ice Park manager Kevin Koprek gave him a job – as an ice farmer. It was then that Chehayl not only knew the blue, he made the blue.

“It’s a lot of institutional knowledge that isn’t really written down anywhere,” Chehayl says of making the ice.

“Yet.”

He pauses.

“We’re planning on writing it down.”

He might do that. But spare time is hard to find these days, especially this time of year. Chehayl is more than just a farmer now – he’s the farmer. His business cards now read Manager, Ouray Ice Park. There was a time when farmers weren’t even paid; in fact, the first one, Bill MacTiernan, didn’t get paid until 1995. Chehayl now has a crew of three full-time farmers beneath him – Elias Jordan, Logan Tyler and Xander Bianchi – and they farm the ice that more than 12,000 climb each winter.

Whitt’s ice park is now a thing.

Whitt, now 52, is Chehayl’s neighbor. That “institutional knowledge” has been gathered from many sources, but it’s safe to assume that plenty of it has made its way across the backyard fence or perhaps over a beer on the porch. Chehayl’s knows of the rust-colored ice, the cranky old spigots and the hot tub and its hoses.

But Chehayl’s job today is a different kind of animal. Even Whitt could not have imagined what’s become of his four little climbing routes. The park is now fueled by over 7,500 feet of pipe, driving pressurized water to 235 spray nozzles spaced 10 to 15 feet apart along the Uncompahgre’s ridge. On any given day from mid-November through March, anywhere between 270,000 and half-a-million gallons of water are used to form the park’s icy walls. The park stretches for a mile and a quarter.

A typical day for Chehayl and his farmers begins at 6:30 a.m. when they shut off the main valve and open all the smaller ones so nothing freezes. The spend the bulk of the day making repairs and adjustments, meticulously maintaining the fixed anchors for climber safety and studying the beautiful blue ice to determine where and how it can grow next.

Rob Holmes, an early “paid” farmer, once jokingly dubbed himself a “High Altitude Low Temperature Creative Irrigation Specialist.” That title is ironically accurate for the job that’s required today. Growing the ice is a careful balance; it’s part science and part art. The farmers must determine which shower heads are needed, the volume of water that should flow, how big the water droplets should be in relation to the temperature, and the cause and effect of angle, pressure and all of Mother Nature’s uncontrollables.

Around 4 p.m. they’ll head back out to turn the water on. They tinker and tweak until six or seven at night, or whenever they can no longer see the canvas on which they paint. In the morning they wake up to see what they’ve created. And they do it all over again.

Most folks from Colorado love the snow. A fresh snow means great skiing, especially in a place like Ouray, but for Chehayl and his men a big snow means big work. Take this winter for example; a December blizzard yielded three days of “cleaning” the ice, not farming it. When snow sticks to the climbing walls it must be washed off. If it’s not, the ice cannot be formed safely. Snow creates a crunchy, “eggshell layer” that won’t support new ice. Anything that forms on top of it will eventually break and avalanche down the route. Cheyhayl skis recreationally, but the snow can always wait – it always messes with the farming.

Like any good farmer, Chehayl knows his crop. He can recall the best years. He remembers the toughest. He knows when the ice was its bluest and when it needed the most TLC.

This year, he thinks, looks like a fantastic year for growing ice.

***

Dawn Glanc does not – would not – call herself a skier. Like any good Coloradoan, she can ski. It’s just that she doesn’t “choose it.” And like many Coloradoans, she was not always from Colorado. She’s from Brunswick, Ohio originally, spent some time in the Black Hills of South Dakota and Bellingham, Wash., and has traveled all over the world.

But as is the case with many, Colorado called and she came. Now she calls Ouray home. But, again, not because it’s close to Telluride, home of some of the greatest skiing on the planet.

“I was drawn here 100 percent for the Ice Park,” she says.

In 1996, while studying outdoor education in South Dakota, Glance was introduced to the sport of ice climbing. She was hooked instantly. The more she climbed, the more she would say to people, “If I could get paid to do this, I’d do it all the time.”

She kept saying it. She kept pursuing it. And now that’s exactly what she does.

She found Ouray in 2005; she served as a mountain guide in Washington during the summer, but headed to Colorado to guide and teach ice climbing in the winter. In 2011, she stayed for good. Since 2009, Glanc has worked for a company called Chicks Climbing and Skiing; specifically, she’s taught within a program called “Chick with Picks,” which teaches women to rock and ice climb. Last year, along with four other partners, Glanc purchased Chicks Climbing and Skiing from founder and owner Kim Reynolds.

Within the climbing community, Glanc is considered “world class.”

“It’s like being a famous bowler,” she says. “You’re really famous in your own little circle. Once you get outside that circle, nobody knows who you are.”

She notes that a famous quarterback might make $1 million per game; the winner of a world-class ice climbing event held in Bozeman, Mont. this past December was awarded $300. The pursuit of anyone becoming great within the ice climbing world is largely spent being broke. As a matter of fact, she arrived in Ouray because the only person she knew there, a friend named Danica Gilbert, told her she’d have a free place to stay.

These days, however, she makes a living as a teacher of ice climbing, and her students consider her world class at that, too. Chicks Climbing has become known as one of the finest instructional and guiding companies in the world.

“We strive to teach women competency. So, it’s a weird business model because, at some point, we want them to flee the nest and be so competent that they don’t need us,” she explains. “But we believe that when their friend wants to learn to climb, they’re not going to teach their friend, they’re going to tell their friend, ‘Hey, you need to go to Chicks.’”

And they do. They come to Ouray to learn from Glanc or one of her business partners. Glanc wakes up at 5 a.m. every day, attends a guides meeting at seven, and then spends the rest of the day inside the Uncompahgre teaching and climbing until 4 p.m. when Chehayl and Co. turn on the water. She hits the gym, grabs a bite, goes to bed and then does it all over again the next day. Glance estimates – “on the low end” – that she has personally taught more than 300 women how to rock and ice climb.

“All of my learning has either been through Chicks Climbing or even private with Dawn,” says Dawn Rathburn, one of Glanc’s students who has become, as they like to say at Chicks, competent. “While on the blind she would yell out words of encouragement when you did things right and call you out when you [don’t]. It is amazing how helpful that is.”

Rathburn represents a typical scenario for Glanc. It’s this process that she finds so rewarding.

“A lot of times, I see people through their entire journey,” she says. “From the first time they learn to tie a knot, to the point where they say, ‘Hey, I’m doing my own trip by myself.’”

And so it goes. Chehayl makes the ice. Someone like Glanc teaches someone like Rathburn to climb it. And then Rathurn and thousands like her do just that; they come back to conquer that mystical blue ice.

***

“I’ve seen amazing growth,” says Glanc.

The plan, the one set forth by Bill Whitt back in the early ’90s, has ultimately seen many, many more than the 15 or 20 crazy, dirty hippies originally anticipated. Glanc notices the crowds – last year more than 12,000 people came to Ouray to climb the ice park, 3,000 came for the annual Ice Festival alone – and she notices more and more woman, many of whom she’s taught or will soon be teaching. She sees generations – kids of climbers, sometimes even their kids.

“Once on the wall, my mind finally goes quiet,” Rathburn says. “The only thing that matters is the next move and what’s in front of me. It’s quite meditative and peaceful, believe it or not.”

The ice, so beautifully built, beckons – just like it did for Whitt, for Glanc, for Rathburn.

And people will continue to come. And they will come back again. Some will even decide to stay.

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