PARK COUNTY • “Whooaa,” remarks Jim Barry when one of his Boy Scouts slides nearly 50 feet over a frozen waterfall.
The teenager is secured and buckled up. The other boy scout digs his feet in the ground and quickly stops the fall.
“Good catch!” Barry yells, adding to the applause here about 100 miles from the troop’s Highlands Ranch home.
The climber continues his ascent. And the fun afternoon continues at this private camp in Eleven Mile Canyon west of Lake George.
It’s a canyon known for climbing, not ice. Thanks to a long-term partnership between the Boy Scouts and Colorado Springs-based Front Range Climbing Co., a large, wide, and jagged frozen curtain is created over a cliff and maintained every winter.
In the Denver area, “we don’t have anything like that,” says Barry, the scout advisor who is accompanied by one of the guides from Front Range Climbing. “When I saw this was available, I immediately booked as many seats as possible.”
It goes like this every winter. Brian Shelton, owner of Front Range Climbing, estimates that between 60 and 80 beginners of the sport show up here every weekend between the Scouts and his customers – distributed in a way that is increasingly difficult to reach on Colorado’s increasingly precious ice.
“Overall, there are more climbers and we have a limited amount of resources,” said Stewart Green, a Shelton partner who has climbed similarly in Colorado his entire life. “When I say limited, I mean very, very limited.”
Take her home, Colorado Springs, for example.
Shelton and Green, founders of the nonprofit Pikes Peak Climbers Alliance, are viewed by the city as rather twisted routes in rugged parks and open spaces. By Shelton’s census, there may be 400 or 500 known climbs in the city.
“But only two ice climbing tours,” he says.
The two are no secrets, although some are reluctant to name and draw attention to them for fear of luring even more people into already squeezed neighborhoods. The falls are freezing and the connoisseurs flock to their slender bases, waiting in the cold for their turn. The situation can be tense – chunks of ice from above threaten heads below, the atmosphere between the devoted and the uninitiated is not always friendly.
The scene is similar across the state, with avalanche danger adding complications elsewhere. These aren’t places for tour guides, says Shelton.
So the safe, controlled venue here in Eleven Mile Canyon.
Among the customers who park in front of the huge, bluish curtain of daggers and overhangs, “it’s always a stunning thing,” says guide Jameson Fleck. “And they always have a bag full of questions. ‘How is it here? What is this about? ‘”
Ice farming is the explanation. Wintry, sun-drenched corners across the country followed the lead of the world-famous Ouray Ice Park in western Colorado: Cultivation of vertical worlds through water-conducting pipes, hoses and shower heads.
As soon as the temperatures drop between 18 and 25 degrees – much colder or much warmer and the result is too brittle or too firm for axes and crampons – Shelton and his crew arrive at the mountainous scout camp. You will be guided by spotlights during these midnight hours in hopes of escaping the region’s mountain lion. On the cliff, water is pumped from the well-fed swimming pool and sprayed in a misty form.
Two or three weeks later, the product is in place, the ice stretching nearly 50 feet high and 100 feet in diameter. There is usually room for a dozen routes.
“By far, this is the majority of the lines you can set up in the Springs area,” says Shelton.
But there are opportunities in the city, he says. “The site is definitely there. It’s just about overcoming the bureaucracy. “
The bureaucracy raised its head in 2013. Years earlier, enthusiasts had quietly built a stream-fed irrigation system around a waterfall in North Cheyenne Cañon Park. This should lengthen the ice and allow more space. Unconscious officials put an end to this, banned the equipment, and cited liability and water rights concerns.
The prospect has drawn other communities. In response to photos posted on Facebook of Front Range Climbing’s “private ice-climbing paradise” Green, Gunnison County’s chief inspector wrote, “I can’t believe no one found an ice-growing facility here in Gunnison!”
He can look south to Lake City, the hamlet that added another wall to its ice park this winter. At 100 feet tall and 600 feet wide, it’s roughly twice the size of the first one along Henson Creek.
“The new wall is likely to have more than $ 25,000 invested in it,” said Ben Hake, Lake City Leisure Director.
And the small town thinks that is worth a lot, he says, along with the liability costs.
“We’re doing it for economic development, that’s the main reason. But it’s also just a good pastime for people who live here and come from everywhere. We see a lot of it, from additional stays in hotel rooms and restaurants. We’ve definitely seen more tax revenue since it’s running. “
This was the observation in Ouray. In the winters of the early 1980s, the town was “essentially Rip Van Winkle-Ville,” according to the ice park website. “Driving through the backcountry town on the way to ski. Some mornings there wasn’t a single car on Main Street, not a human figure moving in the frosty air.”
That all changed after a group of locals banded together over the sight glittering through the darkness of the gorge at the end of the road: frozen formations from a leaky water pipe.
The group got to work. “Everyone thought we were mental,” the online story recalls. “They said it would never make any money and it was the stupidest thing ever.”
Now companies on Main Street have the Ice Park to say thank you for surviving the winter. Hundreds of climbers and spectators from all over the world now travel to the annual festival at the end of January. (This year’s event is scheduled for this weekend, but due to COVID-19, viewers are not allowed in competitions. Virtual broadcasts have been arranged.)
No artificial counterpart can be compared to the Ouray Ice Park – especially not this one in Eleven Mile Canyon.
Even so, it inspires its creator to keep dreaming. A very specific set of circumstances is required, Shelton says, but “we’d be buying real estate if we had that kind of ability.”
Climbers leave happy, even first-time teenagers on this day.
“Trust”, says her adult companion Barry, what they have won. “Great confidence. Self-esteem. That they did is one of the things that they will always remember. “