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Cold Justice

What do a Rolling Stone cover, boy shorts and the 2009 Ouray Ice Festival have in common? Stephen Koch has graced all three.

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Josh Wharton battles the forcefield of despair on his way to victory at the Ouray Ice Competition.

What do a Rolling Stone cover, boy shorts and the 2009 Ouray Ice Festival have in common? Stephen Koch has graced all three. On January 10, Koch, wearing nothing more than skin-tight blue Speedos, the mandatory competitor’s bib and fruit boots, tied in to tackle Ouray’s mixed-climbing competition route. With a $2,000 first-place prize, and a crowd of as many as 1,000 spectators lined up like Antarctic penguins along the snowy rim of Colorado’s Uncompaghre Gorge, the mixed comp is one of America’s most anticipated climbing events.

Koch, celebrated for his spine-chilling snowboard descents, seemed relaxed as he flexed his ample thighs and buttocks. Buffed as a Chippendales dancer and with the obvious cajones to match, he dispatched the route’s initial ice pillar, then dry-tooled into the business: a steep overhang with bad feet. For a few minutes, maybe five (maybe 20), Koch manhandled the long pulls. A foot cut loose and Koch swung out and twisted, giving onlookers an eyeful of brown belly fuzz. He regained his feet, hacked again, and dropped into space. The crowd, which had expected great things from the man in the blue underpants, whimpered like children who had dropped their ice-cream cones on the sidewalk.

And so it went. Competitors climbed to roughly the same spot in the rocky roof and melted off their tools. For a while it seemed as if the route — said to be between M10 and M12 — had a bug-zapper-like death ray that fried anyone who tried to get past the blue light. Either that, or the diabolical Vince Anderson, who had set the course, had smeared whale oil on everyone’s tool handles.

Some spectators groused about the field being thin, none of the crushing Euros, preoccupied with a World Cup ice comp on the same weekend, had crossed the Atlantic. Eighteen of 20 competitors, including the four women, pitched less than a third of the way up the rock section, and the point was well taken until Josh Wharton stepped up to bat.

Standing next to me in snow up to his crotch, the photographer John Evans had, after six hours of staring through that little peephole in his camera, gone rotten in the head. He packed up his camera just as Wharton, climbing second to last, slipped on his Asolo Comp XTs and exhaled a spume of hot breath into the crisp winter air.

“Dude,” I said to Evans. “You better get your stuff back out.”

“You think?” Evans asked. “But I don’t have a 300 2.8, and we’re too far away for me to get the money shot with my 70-200.”

“Never show up at a professional event without a 300 2.8 again!” I spat. “Wharton is going to win, you old fool.”

I could tell I had hurt John, who is actually a dear friend, but he needed a sharp smacking, so I felt good about that.

Meanwhile, not three feet from us, the shooter David Clifford blazed away with a super-telephoto Canon 300 2.8, complete with image stabilization and monopod. Badda, badda, badda.

This is like cheating, he yelled as he punched the air with his fist like a Hell’s Angel who had just chain-whipped two little old grannies. Money! Money!

Josh Wharton was my favorite to win. Last winter, he nearly onsighted my mixed testpiece, but, being a gracious visitor, was kind enough to miss a clip and fall 25 feet to the ground. What a great guy!

In Carbondale, we consider Wharton a homeboy even if he lives 50 miles away in Rifle. Wharton is an artist in any climbing medium: strong as a full-grown python, and able to glide V10, 5.13 and M10 in a week. So, we’ve adopted him as our own and climb vicariously through him, which is exhausting in itself.

Wharton hucked out the roof like a chimp on sugar. Hooking and tapping along the rock, he progressed for some 10 minutes until his feet cut. Cursing, he chewed off his rubber gloves and spit them into the gorge for a better grip. It worked, and a few feet later he closed in on the exit, a footless curtain of white water ice.

Wharton smacked the ice, but his tool bounced off the kryptonite. Earlier, and unknown to him, he had torqued his pick in a placement, bending it like a lead nail. Wharton chopped and chopped but the gnar was just too great, and he too succumbed to the invisible force, plunging with a mighty grunt into the chasm.

For his efforts Wharton pocketed two grand. The Eastern strongman Will Mayo tagged second and Mathieu Audibert, who climbed last, finished in third. In the women’s, Dawn Glanc and Zoe Hart placed first and second, respectively.