OURAY – The centerpiece of the Elite Mixed Ice Climbing Competition at the 2012 Ouray Ice Festival is an aberration of nature, wedged into the Uncompahgre Gorge’s narrow, icy maw.
“We call it ‘Povitica,’ after the Slovenian sweet loaf,” route-setter Vince Anderson explained. “Slovenia is well known for some of the world’s greatest climbers.”
No Slovenians will be competing at the fest this year. But those climbers who do tackle Anderson’s route on Saturday, Jan. 7, may find adjectives other than “sweet” to describe the narrow manmade loaf of ice they will have to traverse as they cross from one side of the gorge to the other while dangling 50 feet above the canyon floor.
Anderson has developed a reputation at the Ouray Ice Festival for his devious, difficult mixed rock and ice comp routes that foil even the world’s best climbers. For each of the past three years during which he has been route-setter, only one or two competitors have managed the full pull.
Anderson’s routes also typically reflect his alpinist sensibilities, mimicking conditions found in nature and eschewing manmade obstacles and enhancements.
Not so this year.
Povitica is a thing of steel grates and canvas walls, stuffed with a frozen snow-water slurry then clad in layers of carefully cultivated ice. Ouray Ice Park Operations Manager and chief ice farmer Kevin Koprek constructed it. About two body-lengths long, it’s bolted into the opposing walls of the gorge, and just to be on the safe side, also chained to the bridge high above.
It’s in the same vicinity as the Flying Circus comp route of 2008, “a wild creation of ice, rock, plastic, and tuna logs” as described by that route’s maker, Jason Nelson.
Perhaps inspired by Nelson’s whimsy, Anderson started thinking about how to set up a new route in this area last year. After doing three comp routes in a row at the Upper Bridge, it was time to move downstream once more for the 2012 fest, where the walls of the gorge are equally steep but shorter, and much closer together.
(Competition routes at the Ouray Ice Park are always staged in either the Upper Bridge or Lower Bridge climbing areas, in order to provide the best eye candy for spectators.)
The route Anderson’s devised this year has climbers starting at the bottom of the gorge on its north wall. They will have a set amount of time – five minutes for men, and perhaps a bit more for women – to ascend a crescent-shaped scoop of rock with a modest overhang before reaching the sweet loaf.
“The bottom of the climb is not supremely difficult, but it’s slippery,” Anderson said. “All the lower parts of the gorge have been polished by water over the years; it’s like somebody took a buffer to the rock.”
The time limit will force people to move quickly. “That will make it feel a lot harder,” Anderson predicted.
Then comes the route’s crux: the icy traverse which will see climbers scuttling like upside-down spiders across Povitica from one side of the gorge to the other. “It should be real different than anything we’ve had before,” Anderson said. “Climbers will have to get their axes into the ice on the side of the loaf; they won’t be allowed to grab the top.” (Walking across the loaf like a balance beam is also not an option.)
Climbers who successfully navigate this bit of treachery then must ascend the upper portion of the route – a smooth, largely ice-free wall on the south side of the gorge, before topping out beside the Ice Park’s Lower Bridge.
Here is where climbers will encounter the most “thought-provoking” climbing of the route, as Anderson puts it, and will have to exert finesse as well as raw athleticism.
“The last bit is gently overhanging, and it’s technically difficult,” he explained. “The holds are really small. It would be – I can’t say impossible, but darn near it – for a rock climber with bare hands. Ice axes can grab onto it, but just. And they’re spaced out a fair bit; they’re not right next to each other.”
One thing is certain – competitors will need to draw on reserves of both strength and experience to do well on the course this year. It’s anyone’s guess who will win.
Reigning champ Josh Wharton (aka J-Dub), who has won the Ouray Ice Festival competition for three years running, will not be returning to protect his title again this year. The likely top competitor will instead be a hotshot Petzl athlete and World Cup titleholder from France, Simon Duverney. “He’s climbed some incredibly difficult routes, so he definitely has the guns,” Anderson observed.
Ridgway climber Bryan Gilmore should also shine at this year’s competition. “He’s got quite a few years of climbing the routes around here,” Anderson said. “And his knowledge of how to climb on this kind of rock may give him a bit of an advantage.”
Among women competitors, local Dawn Glanc is expected to have a strong showing once more. She’s bagged the women’s division title two out of the past three years, and will be up against Canadian Jen Olson and Boulderite Emily Harrington.
“Our women's field is small, but incredibly strong,” said Ouray Ice Park, Inc. Board President Mike MacLeod. “Dawn, Jen, and Emily are elite climbers, and I can't wait to watch that competition unfold.”
Rounding out the suite of local competitors this year is the 20-something Logan Tyler, the first true Ouray native ever to compete at the Ice Fest. “We are all really excited to see Logan jump into the mix,” MacLeod said.
Many other familiar climbers from across the country are also expected to compete in Ouray this weekend, including sponsored athletes Sam Elias and Will Mayo, who have both had strong showings at the Ouray Ice Festival in the past.
In all, a total of 15 men along with the three women will be vying for the title of Ouray Ice Festival champ this year. “The bulk of the field has climbed in the comp before; it’s a very strong field,” said competition coordinator and Ouray Ice Park co-founder Bill Whitt.
The Elite Mixed Ice Climbing Competition takes place Saturday, Jan. 7 at the Ouray Ice Park’s lower bridge from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
17th Annual Ouray Ice Festival Elite Mixed Ice Climbing Competition line-up
1. Dawn Glanc
2. Jen Olson
3. Emily Harrington
4. Logan Tyler
5. Simon Duverney
6. Sam Elias
7. Andres Marin
8. Will Mayo
9. Whit Magro
10. Matt Giambrone
11. Rob Cordey-Cotter
12. Marcus Garcia
13. Stanislav Vrba
14. Kyle Dempster
15. Bryan Gilmore
16. Josh Worley
17. Marc Beverly