OURAY – Ice farming season is in full swing at the Ouray Ice Park, and according to chief ice farmer Dan Chehayl (aka El Jefe), the ice is coming in nice and fat, boding well for opening day at the Park in just two short weeks on Saturday, Dec. 14.
Chehayl and his team of fellow ice farmers, Steven VanSickle and Beth Goralski, went to work Nov. 1, revving up the system, tweaking and improving it here and there, and putting in plumbing for some new climbs in the Five Fingers area.
They turned on the water shortly before Thanksgiving. It took just four days or so for the ice to start forming throughout the Ice Park. “Now we’re just watching it grow,” Chehayl said. “We have had really good temps, with a lot of nights below freezing.”
Chehayl reported that the ice is “really fat on the south end,” while the more fragile pillars in the north end of the Park may take a bit longer to set up, since they get more sun exposure.
Ice farmers have been cultivating vertical ice in the Ice Park for over two decades, but new this year, Ouray Ice Park Operations Manager Kevin Koprek is growing a crop of flat ice, as well. He has been working with the City of Ouray to create a small ice rink in the Box Canyon Falls parking lot, that will be available for use during the upcoming 19th annual Ouray Ice Festival, Jan. 9-12.
This is Chehayl’s third season of ice farming, and, he said, he loves it. So does his yellow lab, Koyo, who has become the unofficial mascot of the Ice Park as he tags along with Chehayl each day.
The ingenious plumbing system that provides the water to make the majority of the climbing routes in the Ouray Ice Park dates back to 1991, when Ouray ice climbing enthusiast Bill Whitt and hotelier Gary Wild (hoping to attract ice climbers to stay at his hotel) placed half-inch PVC pipe and sprinkler heads to flow water over the sides of the Uncompahgre Gorge and “farm” climbable ice.
Their effort attracted enough attention that in 1997 the nonprofit Ouray Ice Park, Inc. was formed to formally organize the Ouray Ice Park, tend to the plumbing system, and put on the annual Ouray Ice Festival, which raises 70 percent of the operating funds necessary to keep the Ice Park going.
Over the years, OIPI has continued to improve the Ice Park’s plumbing system, working with private and public stakeholders to increase access to new terrain in the Uncompahgre Gorge, and finance and maintain extensive infrastructure throughout the Ice Park.
Today’s sophisticated, gravity-fed plumbing system uses more than 7,500 feet of pipe and 235 shower heads, spraying more than 270,000 gallons of water on the canyon walls on a typical winter night.
The plumbing system is utterly unique, and a constant work in progress. As Koprek puts it, “There is no manual.”
Here’s how the system works.
Starting from the source– the City of Ouray’s municipal water tank about a quarter-mile up County Road 361 – a six-inch stainless steel line delivers water downhill to a vault in the central portion of the Ice Park, where the line splits into a “T” to form north end and south end systems.
All climbs in the Ice Park downstream from the Trestle & Mixed Alcove climbing area are part of the north end system. Everything else is in the south end.
The system is completely gravity-fed. At the source, the water pressure starts out at a powerful 125 psi. By the time it reaches the far end of South Park, it has diminished to 25 psi – not much, but enough to keep things moving, and a lot better than it used to be in more primitive versions of the system, in which frozen lines were an all-too frequent occurrence.
To make each climbing route in the Ice Park, water flows from 2” and 4” Yelomine PVC pipes into 1/2” galvanized pipes fitted with perforated nozzles, or showerheads, that spray water out over the rim of the Uncompahgre Gorge and onto the canyon walls each night, where it freezes to form pillars of climbable ice. Two valves supply and drain each shower head, and control how much water is hitting each specific area.
There are 235 shower heads in all. That makes just shy of 500 valves that must be opened and closed, twice a day.
“It’s pretty crazy,” admitted Koprek. “It ends up being fairly high stakes stuff.”
Ice farming is a crepuscular occupation. In the quiet chill of dawn, Chehayl, Van Sickle and Goralski work together as a team to shut down the irrigation system that has been spraying water on the canyon walls all night. One of them reports to the far south end of the Ice Park, and another to the system’s vault (near the Kids Wall) where the big valves are. They communicate with each other via cell phone, confirming at a set time that they are all in place.
The person at the vault turns off the water to the south end system. The person stationed at the south end then moves efficiently along the rim of the canyon toward the vault, opening every single valve along the way to let the system drain for the day.
Once the south system is taken care of, they repeat the same process for the north end of the park.
There is some work to do during the day – hucking ice, cleaning anchors, brushing accumulated snow off of the climbing routes, checking water lines and otherwise monitoring the park.
Then at the end of the day, as twilight casts blue shadows across the Uncompahgre Gorge and the temperature begins to plummet, the ice farmers set out along its rim once more, closing the valves and activating the showerheads to let water spray – and freeze – on the walls of the gorge all night.
The ice farmers work closely with the City of Ouray public works crew, checking the municipal tank’s water level every night before they fire up their system and every morning before they shut ’er down, making sure water levels are at a healthy level.
Timing is all-important. “We do a lot of practice runs in November, before it gets cold, when we have lower consequences,” said Koprek, who supervises the ice farmers’ efforts. “There has been a lot of trial and error over the years, but we seem to have arrived at a system that works.”
Except when it doesn’t. Once in a while, in spite of their meticulously coordinated efforts, an ice plug develops in the system.
“Then we go on an Easter egg hunt,” to find the frozen section, Koprek explained.
First, they isolate the frozen section and turn off the water source to that area. Then, they insert a 250-foot fish tape into the pipeline to figure out exactly where the ice plug is. Once the frozen segment is found, they take the pipe apart and replace that section.
In the early days of ice farming, water was sprayed uniformly from each showerhead throughout the Ice Park. Now, the ice farmers approach their job more like artists, or scientists – carefully gaging the droplet size and air to water ratio at each shower head to create different effects for different routes.
“It’s like using a paint brush,” Koprek explained.
The Pick o’ the Vic, an iconic route near the Ice Park’s Upper Bridge, is a good example of the artistry that ice farming requires.
“Because it is such a long climb, in a really dark, cold section of canyon, we would end up with a giant bulge of ice at the top if we just sprayed water over the edge,” Koprek explained. “We end up making most of the long climbs in that area with water out of a drain. It forms a more natural type of ice. Big seeps come out from the middle of the climb,” to keep the quality of ice consistent all the way down to the bottom of the gorge.
For shorter climbs in other portions of the Ice Park, the ice farmers flow more water out of shower heads, and less out of drains. This helps to create steeper, frothier climbs.
It all adds up to more than 200 carefully cultivated ice and mixed climbs, three vertical miles of terrain, and one world-class climbing venue.
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