Beginner’s guide to ice climbing in Colorado

beginner ice climber first time ouray ice park

The thing I love the most about Colorado is how everyone embraces winter, and I took that love of winter to a whole new level this weekend. I spent four days at the Ouray Ice Park for its annual ice festival in southwestern Colorado.

The ice park prides itself on welcoming climbers of all abilities, and the festival hosts clinics for all ages. At first, I was bummed the women’s intro clinics were taking place before I got to town. But once I got there, I was introduced to the “adult walk-up wall.”

ANYONE can walk up to the wall, get gear, and try ice climbing. For free! The whole festival was free but the fact that this incredibly cool experience was also free and open to beginners was amazing. They prefer you’ve gone rock climbing before, but you don’t need to know anything or have any gear.

I went Sunday morning and had my saint of a husband stand in line for me while I got gear (which did take a while since the crack squad of teenage volunteers weren’t super efficient). The wait was up to an hour on Saturday afternoon, but I only had to wait a few minutes on Sunday morning.

There was also a significant amount of crampon (spikes on your feet) troubleshooting (very nice teenager but not super accurate) once I was actually about to start climbing. I took about three steps and my left crampon came right off into the snow.

The wind was gusting up to 40 miles per hour at this point, and my (again, saintly) husband stood out in the elements to take photos while they tinkered with my crampons for what seemed like forever. Everyone was really nice and I was so excited it didn’t really matter that it was taking a long time (plus, it’s free, so who can complain?).

Once my crampons were actually on the right feet, the right size, and properly fastened, it was time to get started. For once, my fear sweats were not kicking in, which I can either attribute to becoming more confident or not having any more anxiety left after spending the weekend talking to strangers for my day job.

Then they handed me the two pick axes you climb with and I got really excited.

I felt extremely badass with my pick axes, even if there was a steep learning curve to how hard I needed to hack into the ice with them. But once I got the hang of that, I was surprised by how well everything stuck in the ice. I felt super secure and it seemed easier to me than rock climbing did.

I was far from the only person who had absolutely no idea what they were doing, and the belayers were all super experienced and excited to share their knowledge. It was the ideal beginner environment. It was pretty surreal to be scaling this giant frozen waterfall (man-made, but still) in snow globe-like weather. I felt very Coloradan.

Not bad for a scaredy-cat from Maryland!

Now you may want to poo-poo the fact that the ice is man-made and not natural. BUT that’s what makes it so unique and beginner-friendly. The Ouray Ice Park was the first park of its kind and set the bar for others like it all over the world.

Before the park was established, ice climbing was only something you could do if you were down for miles and miles of backcountry hiking in avalanche-risky areas. Yeah, so not that many “regular” people. Thanks to the ice park, you can drive about a minute out of town and start climbing.

Although we were on the child’s wall, I didn’t make it all the way to the top. The snow was pelting my face and I also didn’t want to get trapped up there if I started freaking out. I realized when I tried rock climbing that coming down is actually the scariest part.

I had to take a few deep breaths and force myself to let go of the ice (no small feat) and lean back to get back down. It still scared the pants off me (temporarily), but no one judged me that I came down early and I also wasn’t the only one who didn’t want to go all the way up.

It’s wild to watch the pros, who make big moves to climb the ice and fall pretty regularly, or the climbers in the speed competition that just swing around after finishing. It seemed so natural to all of them to let go, and falling wasn’t a big deal at all. I’m still working on getting there.

The day before, when it wasn’t blizzarding.

If you want to embrace winter in a way that can only be done in Colorado, head to Ouray. If you don’t want to wait for next year’s ice festival, you can learn to ice climb with a local guide company. There’s a list here on the Ouray Ice Park website including Chicks With Picks that teaches women to ice climb.


Published by Laura Cardon

Laura Cardon moved to Colorado as an adult and quickly realized how difficult it was to get started exploring the outdoors in a state full of experts. She founded Outdoor Beginner in 2014 to fill the gap in beginner-friendly content for camping, hiking, skiing, and other outdoor activities. In addition to Outdoor Beginner, she coaches beginner trail runners and works at Runners Roost in Golden, Colorado, where she lives with her spouse and toddler.

2 thoughts on “Beginner’s guide to ice climbing in Colorado

  1. This is so cool! Ice climbing is huge in Alaska year round (the glaciers make it possible!) and I’m dying to try it sometime. Congrats for getting out there and trying something scary and new!

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