How to Make—and Climb—a Frozen Waterfall

By February 1, 2018News

EACH WINTER, CRACKLING and splintering ice echoes across the Uncompahgre Gorge, roughly 10 miles northeast of Telluride, Colorado. The sound signals high season at Ouray Ice Park, the world’s first and largest man-made frozen climbing grounds. The gorge’s walls are crisscrossed by 2 miles of pipes, crowned by a network of valves, showerheads, and faucets. Each night, the fixtures unleash more than 100,000 gallons of runoff down the jagged cliff face, cooling the rock. Once the temperature dips below 28 degrees, that gushing water is turned to a mist and the droplets freeze together to form a blanket of ice more than 10 feet thick. Then ice farmers like Xander Bianchi, a former mechanical engineer, shape more than 100 routes into the pitch, dribbling water down freezing chains to form ice columns. Last, climbers suspended by ropes hurl axes into the precipice to hoist themselves up glacial pillars and bright blue curtains. Come spring, the frozen cascade melts away, trickling into the Colorado River.


Ice farmers use pickaxes to remove brush—a process called de-vegging—which can hijack the water supply.

Water permeates the rock’s crevices so that the ice forms a stronger bond.

The smaller the water droplet, the faster it freezes to the craggy cliff face.

Farmers create climber­-friendly 3-D features like columns and corkscrews.


STAY: The new Dunton Town House is just a two-minute walk from the free gondola to Mountain Village.
DO: Score some snow gear at Wagner Custom, where mechanical engineer Pete Wagner fits bespoke skis via algorithm, then reinforces them with aerospace-­grade fiberglass, viscoelastic carbon-fiber, and titanal aluminum.
EAT: Dig into square pies and spiked hot chocolate at Brown Dog Pizza.

This article appears in the February issue. Subscribe now.