Tension Mounts Between Miners and Climbers on the Camp Bird Road

by Samantha Wright
Feb 28, 2013 | 3040 views | 0 0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
COLD WORDS – Ouray County Road and Bridge Superintendent Chris Miller recently erected this sign along the Camp Bird Road, angering local guides and ice climbers. (Courtesy photo)
COLD WORDS – Ouray County Road and Bridge Superintendent Chris Miller recently erected this sign along the Camp Bird Road, angering local guides and ice climbers. (Courtesy photo)
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OURAY – Ice climbers and local guides were shocked and angered last weekend when they came across a sign that appeared to ban them from accessing a favorite backcountry climbing area alongside the Camp Bird Road.

The sign, placed by County Road and Bridge Superintendent Chris Miller, states that no rock or ice climbing is allowed within 60 feet of the road all year, advises that “violators may be subject to liability for injuries to people using the road and for damage to vehicles caused by falling rock or ice” and instructs climbers to “ask property owners for permission before climbing rocks or ice on private property.”

Since the late 1980s, Ouray County has opted not to maintain the upper reaches of the avalanche-prone Camp Bird Road (more officially known as County Road 361) during the winter months, and has prevented motorized traffic from venturing beyond a certain point near Senator Gulch by means of a locked gate.

Backcountry enthusiasts wishing to access the popular roadside ice climbing area known as Skylight have become accustomed to simply parking at the gate and setting out for a short hike of 15 minutes or so to reach the climbing area. The newly erected sign which met them at the gate last weekend sent the climbing community into a frenzy of indignation.

Called in to explain the situation at a meeting of the Board of Ouray County Commissioners on Tuesday this week, Miller said he had acted of his own accord in determining the need for the sign, and stressed that it was not his intent to ban climbers from the area altogether.

Rather, he told the BOCC, “The intent is to start making people aware that we are having an issue.”

Miller described an emerging conflict between miners and climbers who suddenly find themselves having to share the same thoroughfare. The climbers, he said, frequently station themselves in the middle of the road to belay their partners on the cliffs of ice above, as commuting miners try to squeeze by, often while hauling heavy loads up or down the treacherous, narrow road.

“The point of the sign is that they (the climbers) need to stay out of the road and the traveling public’s way,” Miller emphasized. “The county road right-of-way needs to be respected by everyone. We need to prevent people from getting hurt.”

Miller reported that there is increasingly heavy traffic on the road  – up to 100 cars per day – since the Camp Bird Mine and the Revenue-Virginius Mine recently started operations again, and that those numbers will escalate exponentially once the two mines enter production phase.

During the past two decades while the mines were dormant, the upper Camp Bird Road provided access to a winter wonderland that ice climbers and backcountry skiers didn’t have to share.

Now, as commuting miners and subcontractors are transforming the rugged, scenic road into a busy commercial thoroughfare, winter outdoor recreation enthusiasts are struggling to adapt to this shifting landscape. And they are asserting their right of continued access.

“I understand it is a difficult space up there along the road and it is becoming more and more busy,” said local ice climbing guide Kevin Koprek. “Mostly I’m concerned about the process by which the sign went up and lack of communication with the public. I thought the process was unacceptable; the climbing community would be really receptive to working with the county to arrive at a solution more appropriate to all user groups.”

Bill Leo, the owner of Ouray Mountain Sports, echoed Koprek’s concern. “I need to know what to tell climbers about this issue,” he said.

Commissioner Lynn Padgett expressed concern that the sign singles out a specific user group – namely rock and ice climbers. “The issue is that the county road right-of-way needs to be respected by everyone,” she said.

County Administrator Connie Hunt, meanwhile, tactfully admonished Miller for erecting the sign without first running it by her. “I would suggest that in the future we talk about the wordsmithing of signs, and make sure I’m aware of it,” she said. “Maybe there is a way to word the sign that addresses [the issue] and warns of liability but doesn’t make people feel like it’s a ‘Thou Shalt Not.’”

Star Mine Operations and Caldera Mineral Resources, the operators of the Revenue-Virginius Mine and the Camp Bird Mine, respectively, have winter maintenance agreements with the county, and are currently responsible for plowing CR 361 above the gate to ensure continued access to the two mines during the winter months.

This has led to the question of whether the county road should be open to the public now that it is once again being maintained, or only to the mine operators who are responsible for maintaining it.

At Tuesday’s meeting, county resident Bob Olivier observed that “it’s a rather bizarre scene at Senator Gulch; there’s a well-maintained road and a sign that says the road is closed. The road isn’t closed. It’s closed to some and open to others.” Olivier, whose home is on the lower Camp Bird Road, argued in favor of removing the gate and making the upper portion of the road open to everyone once again.

“It’s a fine balance of tension on all sides of the issue,” Ouray County Commissioner Lynn Padgett observed. “A really big conversation needs to happen.”

That conversation got underway later in the day, as representatives from the Ouray Mountain Rescue Team, the Ouray County Sheriff’s Department and the two mine companies engaged in a work session to discuss avalanche mitigation and rescue protocol along CR 361.

The work session teased out the mounting tension between the mine companies, which operate under a strict set of safety regulations spelled out by state and federal agencies, and members of the recreating public.

This tension will likely come to a head in the coming months, as the relatively slim numbers of winter backcountry enthusiasts give way to summer’s hordes, who often do not take care to distinguish between public and private property in the high country and feel entitled to access it all.

Next summer, Star Mine Operations Manager John Trujillo warned, “We will engage in an aggressive posting of all of our property. A lot of former recreational opportunities will be gone. We can’t take it in the shorts every time someone doesn’t like the fact we put a drill pad in the road.”



swright@watchnewspapers.com or Tweet @iamsamwright

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