Xander Bianchi moved along a 100-year-old, three-foot-wide pipe covered in snow and ice at a light jog. His target: the next sprinkler, one of some 300 poking out over the upper lip of the Uncompahgre Gorge. It was just after 4 p.m., light was fading, and a couple of climbers were still making their way up from the Uncompahgre River, below the gorge that is the backbone of the Ouray Ice Park.
The pipe Bianchi ran along snakes down from a series of holding tanks that sit a few thousand feet above Ouray, one of Colorado’s classic Victorian mining towns. The tanks receive overfill, water that would end up in the river anyway, and divert it toward the gorge.
When the pipe reaches the gorge, it splits into smaller pipes, and then smaller pipes, until it’s down to two-inch steel pipes capped by sprinklers. The water the sprinklers spray freezes into an icy playground that has attracted ice climbers from around the world since 1992, when the park officially opened. It also helps keep this little town alive in the winter months. The park is tended, with no inconsequential amount of affection, by a small crew of staff and volunteers who call themselves the Ice Farmers.
There are four ice farmers most winters. The farmers wake up at dawn and make sure the pipes haven’t exploded; they move along frozen pipes at a gallop, rushing to beat the freeze. During the 2018/19 winter, the farmers were Xander Bianchi, Logan Tyler, Justin Hofmann, and Lucas Carrion.
Bianchi has an engineering degree, but likes using his hands too much. Tyler has a pair of gloves with black sharpie letters on each finger so that when he makes a pair of fists it spells out “Fuck Yuppies.” His fellow ice farmers say it’s a joke. He says it’s only sort of a joke. Hofmann has been here five seasons. He’s the veteran. Carrion is unflappable, the man they lean on.
Together, they harbor a large portion of the world’s knowledge of how to build and maintain a man-made ice-climbing park.
“In my head is a pretty intricate map of every kink and turn in these pipes,” Bianchi said. “Like a cabbie who knows all the roads. You have to know how to trace a problem back, where the likely problem is. You learn to hear it.”
Further along the three-foot pipe, Bianchi reached the next spout. It juts over a drop that would kill you, but he skidded along with unnerving nonchalance. The end of each pipe has two valves. One dictates pressure, the other adjusts drainage flow. They work in concert. Small pipes freeze fast, and frozen water propagates, “like a virus,” says Bianchi.
The farmers are constantly making adjustments. They listen to the flow, and play with the two valves until it sounds right: spraying right and draining right. The valves not only affect each other, they also change the pressure for all the other valves along the line. So, after the main is turned on at sunset, the crew has to rush to all of them, adjust the spray and the drain valves, then double back and adjust them all again for the new pressure within the system. At one stop, Bianchi let me try. I got the water flow looking and sounding roughly like the last one he had adjusted.
“Yeah, good, good,” he said, but as I got up to head to the next one along the line, he reached down and readjusted my adjustment.
Valves sorted, it was time to whack some daggers. This means removing the long stalactites of ice that form along the edge of the gorge.
“It’s one of the most dangerous things we do,” said Bianchi. We watched as Tyler rappelled with a heavy axe tied to his harness. He planted his feet off to the side of the dagger and swung the axe.
“If it caught up in your rope as it fell, that’d be an issue,” said Bianchi, cracking a smile.
One time, he recalled, in an effort to avoid being right next to a huge dagger as it fell, they simply stood over it and fired at it with a 12-gauge shotgun.
“Unfortunately, that method didn’t work,” he said.
The Ouray Ice Park is free to enter, which is remarkable. “That’s part of the magic,” said Tyler. The farmers here work for Ouray Ice Park, which is set up as a nonprofit, funded largely by private donations. The park also hosts the annual Ouray Ice Festival, which is, like the park, free for anyone to attend.
The Festival had its 25th anniversary at the end of January, and turns Ouray into an unmissable ice-climbing mecca each winter. The Ice Festival goes for three days, and is replete with a tented vendor village where beginners can demo tools, gloves, boots, and just about everything you need to get your first stick. Guides and professionals run clinics all day, and on Saturday and Sunday mixed-climbing competitors tackle one of, and possibly the only, mixed comp wall in the United States. At night there are slideshows, videos, presentations, and plenty of partying.
We finished our tour in the powder hut, the warmly cluttered headquarters of the ice farmers. Thick stone walls with a one-inch steel door used to hold blasting powder for mining. Now, there’s a poster of Jeff Lowe, founder of the Ice Festival, in the corner, and plastic and metal pipes pile beneath a quiver of beater ice axes.
“Yes, it’s my job,” said Bianchi. “But it just feels like life. You know? This is, kind of, life for us. We just enjoy the hell out of it. It’s miserable. Some of the coldest times of my whole life. And when the water’s on, there aren’t a lot of easy solutions. Maybe that’s what we like about it.”
This photo essay appeared in ASCENT 2020.