The Ouray Ice Park, perhaps the most famous ice climbing destination in the U.S., began as a humble leak in Ouray, Colorado's waterline in the 1970s. The drip trickled down the side of the Uncompahgre Gorge, and, once winter came, froze into a 100-foot wall of ice. Soon enough, climbers caught on and began drilling more leaks, spawning ever more ice climbing routes. Now, several decades later, the park features 200 routes in a one-mile span of the box canyon, and has become a go-to destination for the initiated. It's also one of the best places for newcomers to learn how to climb.
We hired San Juan Mountain Guides, the local experts, to teach us the ropes and furnish the specialized gear. At the company's office on Main Street, we each added a climbing harness, helmet, crampons, and two ice axes to our backpacks. Then we walked 10 minutes to the ice park. We started at the 30-foot Kids' Wall (more formally known as the Practice Wall). There, we got comfortable on belay and learned how to kick our crampons into the ice to secure footholds, as well as how to correctly swing an ice axe (it's a whipping motion from the elbow, a move that requires more finesse than force).
We then took our new skills to the School Room, a section of the gorge with beginner level routes similar in difficulty to the Kids' Wall – only three times as high. A handful of other climbers were already there, picking their way up the frozen waterfalls, the clicking sound of steel on ice reverberating through the canyon. And that's when the child's play ended. Even the easy (read: non-vertical) routes burn worse than a long run uphill, with 100 icy feet to climb requiring repeated kicks and axe swings. One climb each at School Room completely wore out our group – all active outdoors types themselves – for the day. [From $250 for a private half-day lesson, $350 for a full day, includes all gear; ourayclimbing.com]