OURAY – With the ice now quickly melting, the Ouray Ice Park is getting set to shut down for the season. The last day of climbing is Sunday, March 31 but all terrain downstream of the Upper Bridge is already closed due to deteriorating conditions.
It has been a busy, successful and injury-free season, said Ice Park Manager Kevin Koprek. User numbers at the Ice Park appeared to be up, as were revenues and attendance numbers at the annual Ouray Ice Festival held in January. However, Koprek added, even with increased use at the Ice Park, “this year felt less chaotic and less crowded.”
That’s largely thanks to the fact that Koprek and his crew (consisting of Dan Chehayl and Bud Miller) did some things operationally to encourage climbers to spread out more through the mile-long park’s icy terrain.
“We have put a bunch of time and energy into figuring out better practices for clearing snow from routes,” Koprek said. “Historically, climbers would congregate in a couple of areas that were clear of snow.”
Now, when it snows, Koprek and his team actually wash the snow off the ice with water. “We have taken the terrain we do have and made more of it more desirable to climb,” he explained.
The Ouray Ice Park and its infrastructure are jointly owned and managed by the City of Ouray, the nonprofit Ouray Ice Park, Inc., and a mix of other private and public landowners that until recently included the U.S. Forest Service. Last summer, the city closed on a deal with the USFS to acquire ownership of a key parcel of land within the heart of the Ice Park. Despite the high cost of its maintenance, the Park remains free and open for public use.
Interestingly, OIPI (which oversees daily operations at the Park through an agreement with the City of Ouray), does not have an accurate way to count the numbers of users there.
In keeping with the Ice Park’s loosely organized origins, independent climbers and groups are not required to register or even sign into a log book. So, Koprek admitted, his observation that the park has been busier than ever this year is not founded in hard data, but rather through anecdotal evidence and daily observations. Next year, he’s considering installing some sort of a counting system to gather more hard data about how the Ice Park is used, in order to determine how to manage it better.
Ice-wise, the 2012-2013 season got off to a slow start. The official opening was delayed by a week to Dec. 22 – on the late side of the three-week target window for opening day. “We were worried about getting open but then it became good in a hurry and we had great weather following the Ice Festival,” Koprek said. “It got really cold and there was not a lot of snow, which is really good for us.”
One problem this year was that, early in the season as the ice was forming, the nights were cold, but the days remained quite warm.
“It takes a few weeks to build a substantial amount of ice that way,” Koprek said. “What works best for us is if we get a week in the beginning of December where daytime temps are low, and we can run our water system 24/7.”
Over the past two years, the leadership of OIPI has shifted away from an Executive Director-driven model. The board of directors has been doing much of the visioning and grunt work to run the Ice Park and Ice Fest itself since 2011.
Through this process, one shift the board sought to make was to improve its relationships with the local business community. This year, that shift has paid dividends. “Support from the local business community this year was outstanding,” Koprek noted. “We changed the name of the program; it used to be ‘business sponsorships’ and we changed it to ‘local business partnerships.’ It seems like a simple thing, but it makes a big difference.”
OIPI has also lately experienced quite a changing of the guard.
Last year, longtime board members Bill Whitt and Mike Gibbs stepped down, leaving the OIPI board with just four members: Mike MacLeod (president), Cory Jackson, Clint Estes and Brad McMillon.
At its last meeting, Cory Jackson also stepped down, and five new board members were appointed: Josh Gowans, Sandy MacLeod, Jared Coburn, Ralph Tingey and Nicole Greene, all of Ridgway and Ouray.
“This is the first time we have seated a full board in about three years,” said MacLeod. “We really wanted to keep in mind how our mission in terms of managing things at the park has evolved recently. With the new operating agreement we recently entered into with the City of Ouray, our role has expanded and we have more responsibility to help the city manage the Ice Park as a recreational resource throughout the year.”
In recruiting new board members, MacLeod said, OIPI sought candidates with broad experience in nonprofit management and outdoor recreation. “In some cases the people we brought on are passionate ice climbers and users of the Ice Park, but others bring a background in financial management, fundraising, marketing and outdoor recreation industry management.”
Tingey, for example, has years of experience under his belt managing the guiding concession at Denali National Park where he spent his career as a National Park Service Assistant Director before recently retiring to Ridgway.
“There are some amazingly talented people in Ouray County,” MacLeod said.
One of the new board’s first tasks will be addressing group use of the Ice Park. This includes groups from schools, colleges and climbing clubs, often consisting of 20 or more climbers. “It’s a section of our user group that is on the rise,” Koprek noted. Currently, such groups do not have to sign in or make reservations to use the park, in contrast to commercial groups using a guide service which are subject to quite a strict set of rules and limited user days.
“It is nice that these groups are coming to town with 20 people,” Koprek said. “We just have to help them be better users of the Park.”
The Ouray Ice Park is a manmade ice climbing venue operated in a spectacular natural gorge just outside of Ouray. It is home to more than 200 named ice and mixed climbs, most within a 15-minute walk of the Park entrance. In nearly 20 years of operation, it has become one of the premier ice climbing venues in the world.