OURAY – A Minnesota native who makes his home in Ontario, Canada, seemingly came out of nowhere to take the men’s title at the Elite Mixed Ice Climbing Competition at the 2012 Ouray Ice Festival, held here last weekend.
“Nobody in the competition had ever even heard of this guy,” competition director and Ouray Ice Park co-founder Bill Whitt said of Nate Kutcher, 35, who was considered the dark horse in a field of 15 male climbers and three women from across the U.S., Canada and France. Kutcher’s stated goal, when he was accepted into the competition, was simply to not come in last.
“But he came in and dominated,” Whitt said.
Emily Harrington of Boulder was the top female finisher, and by coincidence, the first climber out of the starting blocks last Saturday – typically a position which puts climbers at a disadvantage. She and Kutcher each take home a $2,000 prize.
Climbers had 15 minutes to finish the M10 rated route. Winners are determined according to who climbs the farthest in the fastest time.
This year’s field contained quite a few elite sponsored athletes, including Petzl pro Simon Duverney of France, yet Kutcher bested them all, as one of only two climbers to complete the difficult competition route set by Vince Anderson.
Its centerpiece, located directly below the Ouray Ice Park’s lower bridge, was a tricky loaf-shaped horizontal feature referred to by its makers as as Povitica (after the Slovenian sweet bread), which climbers had to carefully pick their way across, while dangling upside down, in order to traverse from one side of the Uncompahgre Gorge to the other.
Andres Marin, an animated 28-year-old climber and sky diver from Ibague, Colombia, who for the past several years has wintered in Ouray working as an ice and mixed climbing guide for San Juan Mountain Guides, performed well enough on Saturday for a dramatic second place finish. The Petzl and Gu sponsored athlete topped out just six seconds slower than Kutcher. Whitt said it was the closest contest in the Ouray Ice Festival’s recent history. Marin’s previous best showing here was sixth place overall in 2010.
Among other local competitors, Ouray’s Dawn Glanc fumbled her climb midway across the loaf, coming in second among the three women. “She easily could have won this thing, but she screwed up her moves,” Whitt said.
Logan Tyler, a Ouray native in his early 20s who grew up climbing here and was competing at the Ice Festival for the first time this year, fell less than five minutes after starting. “He was plenty strong,” Whitt observed, “but he made a screwy move and popped off.”
Ridgway’s Bryan Gillmore put in a stronger showing, coming in fourth overall. He made it across Povitica, but fell off while attempting the course’s upper headwall, a smooth rock face which route-setter Anderson considered to be the true crux (the most difficult part) of the climb.
Because of the notable difficulty of the lower portions of the course, however, only a handful of climbers made it to this upper headwall. Predictably, many met their match on Povitica. “The loaf was a stopper for most people,” Whitt said. Among those who managed to survive the crossing, several found their downfall as they negotiated the tricky transition off the loaf and onto the other side of the gorge.
“It was a hard course; it was very technically as well as mentally challenging,” Whitt said. “It was not a giveaway.”
Anderson concurred that his route this year did the job it was meant to do.
“I was really ecstatic how it worked out and held up, and how people did,” he said. “Over the past several years as route-setter at the Ouray Ice Festival, I’ve always experienced nervousness and anxiety – first that no one will be hurt, and second that the course has the appropriate difficulty.”
Povitica lived up to its name, hitting a sweet spot that was plenty challenging, but not too much so, and fun for climbers and spectators alike.
“I’m finding people are climbing stronger, but not necessarily smarter,” said Anderson of the field of Ice Fest climbers who compete from year to year. “Since the Ice Park is not going to get any steeper, my only resource to make the route difficult is to outsmart these incredibly talented and strong climbers.”
Anderson admitted to a moment of panic when Kutcher, who was among the first handful of climbers to compete Saturday, mastered the course so smoothly.
“I didn’t know how good of a climber he was, and I worried, if this guy can do the climb, maybe everyone else will too.”
But after that, as the course stymied one climber after another, with the exception of Marin, Anderson’s fears were allayed.
He said there is a “good chance” that he will be route-setter again next year.
The Elite Mixed Ice Climbing Competition is the centerpiece of the annual Ouray Ice Festival, a four-day annual event held here every January, which also includes climbing clinics, a free Kids Climbing College and adult walk-up climbing, parties, slide shows and other festivities, and which is hailed as the premier gathering of its kind in the nation.