Alpinism is Not Mixed Climbing

The Ouray Ice Fest is one of the best and biggest climbing festivals in the world. Every year, good friends descend upon this beautiful mountain town to share stories and drink swill. It’s super fun and everyone has a good time, and the Ice Park board does an excellent job of managing and hosting this event that the climbing community would be at a loss without.

I’ve been going to Ouray for the last four years, and each year the festival seems to be shrinking. But maybe that’s because I am growing.

I signed up to compete in the comp one year, but a wild trip to Mexico the week before the event yielded a torn shoulder and a digestive tract coated with beans, cheese and tequila kept me from summoning the psyche and courage to go mixed climbing, which I had not done in one year, in front of a large audience.

Usually, the comp is open to anyone who wants to enter it. There is a day of qualifying rounds on Thursday or Friday, which narrows down the field to the cream of the crop by Saturday. This year, in order to save money, they decided on an invitational format so that there would only be one day of competition–Saturday.

The unfortunate thing is that a lot of good mixed climbers didn’t get invited, and a lot of not-so-good mixed climbers were invited. It’s unfair to make assumptions as to why some people were chosen and some weren’t, but it seems to be true that the people who did get in were either good friends with the Ice Park Board or were famous alpine climbers–which, as we painfully saw–does not translate to being a good mixed climber. If the comp was a measure of who is the best mixed climber in the country, the application process was far from a meritocracy. Does climbing Everest or putting up a big route in the Himalaya automatically translates to an ability to dry tool overhanging rock? Except for the winner, Josh Wharton (who actually is an awesome all-around climber) no one in the field could climb 5.14! I saw a few competitors out there who I’m sure can’t climb 5.12.

Meanwhile, Sam Elias (my Arab brother pictured beside me above), who has climbed M12, 5.14a and boulders V10, wasn’t allowed in! (By the way, there’s a good chance he would’ve crushed the field and won).

I’m not really sure how to draw a parallel to this. Imagine having the biggest big-mountain ski comp of the year, and instead of getting the world’s best skiers to ski Highlands bowl, you just let people off the lift and have them go down the Temerity run.

Exclusive & Mediocre came to mind–two rotten adjective by themselves, but when combined, take us to a whole new level of lameness. One girl was barely able to climb the token ice, and spent nearly the entire 20 minutes figuring out how to pull onto the steep rock, only to drop her tools and fall at the first bolt.

The big thing that bugged me was the seemingly enormous disconnect between the Ice Fest congregants and this abstract mixed route that they are supposedly there to celebrate. There’s a few things that not many people know about the route.

First, it’s completely chipped. It was chipped a few years ago for the finals route then, but the holds were filled with putty, and new holds were drilled. Just so the competitors don’t spend too much time figuring out how to onsight the route, the route “setters” spray paint a green tick mark onto the wall that points to the chipped hold. This is only the rock. Some years they have giant swinging logs that the competitors dangle from while trying to gain a fake wooden wall with plastic holds.

I’m just having a hard time reconciling how this goes together with ice, alpine and mixed traditionalists who attend, support and put together this event. These are the same people who decry fixed ropes and any placement of a bolt (oooh!), and who completely dismiss sport climbing’s place in the larger world of climbing–a view that has severely stifled progress and standards in American climbing for the last 25 years. The great irony was watching these climbers–in some cases, truly amazing and accomplished alpinists–pump out after the token 25 feet of rock.

Are they really so unaware of what giant hypocrites supporting, climbing on, and cheering for this chipped pile comp route makes them? Or, more likely, do they attend the event and silently condemn it. You do get the sense that no one really thinks this is very cool, yet no one says anything. They put on their OR fake-smile faces and exchange pleasantries.


With that said, here’s some ideas about how to improve the mixed comp:

1.Get rid of the ice. No one falls on the ice ever (though that almost changed this year), and it takes each competitor an average of 5 minutes to climb it. Further, no one in the audience can even see the ice climb, so it’s wasted time. With 20 competitors, that’s 100 minutes of dead space. With that extra time, we could’ve had more competitors … or we could’ve stood out in the cold for less time. Either way, the ice part of the Mixed Comp needs to be put to bed.

2.Use a meritocracy for choosing the field. Favor people who have climbed hard rock climbs, not to mention hard mixed routes. Who cares whether they are a big name in the mountain world? Ideally, the field would be all 5.14 climbers.

3.Don’t have a theme party that encourages men to wear socks over their crotches.

4.Get rid of the Friday night event where the sponsors sit inside at tables and drink New Belgium (my least favorite Colorado beer). We do that all day outside, why bring it inside for a couple of more hours? Why not have something more entertaining, like a movie night, or a Rock and Ice slideshow? Some kind of multimedia presentation would be great. Also, since the Ice Fest happens right around the new year, there could also be some kind of award ceremony for the best climbing accomplishments of the prior year. Let’s open up the ice fest to a larger crowd than just the ice/alpine crowd. Why be so narrow when we have such a cool and expansive sport?


Well, that’s all I got. Toodles.