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Ouray 2008: A Video Story

A climber swings his way out of the gorge just up canyon of the finals route. [Photo] Erik Lambert

Alpinist reported on the 13th annual 2008 Ouray Ice Festival competition in the January 12 NewsWire–but why read about it there when you can watch it here?

The Unitoolers

Click play to watch Rich Marshall fighting upward with a single ice tool.

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Not for faint hearts: fighting for a toprope in Ouray on Festival weekend. Flashing my just-sharpened axes threatened no one, and I considered my odds of winning an ax battle slim (although I did manage to win $10 arm wrestling a few hours later).

Climbing long ice just down canyon of the finals route. Note the flags: twelve of the seventeen finalists hailed from outside the US. [Photo] Erik Lambert

There are over a hundred lines in the Ouray Ice Park, but–if you’re actually looking to climb–any veteran’s recommendation is: “Wake up at 6 a.m., claim a line, and lap it all day. Best of luck.” Yet competition morning, January 12th, was different, if only for a few minutes.

No “Where you from? Texas?”

No “Can I get seventh dibs on this TR?”

No “Up rope!”

Will Mayo had captured the show. He cruised the opening mixed section of the finals route but accidentally dropped an ice tool 70 feet into a pool of water below. Flabbergasted at first, he converted with the help of the cheering throng. Folks down canyon stopped climbing to watch the unitooler continue through the man-made features, hugging hanging logs and strategically placing his single ax. Three minutes later he popped off, cashed. The crowd went wild–and with good reason: in the end, Mayo was the top US finisher thanks to his gloved groping.

As though jealous of Mayo, Rich Marshall (who last year competed in a spandex outfit topped off with a green wig) also dropped an ice tool at the same point and similarly fought for higher ground with one ax.

Afterward, when the announcer asked Marshall if he was trying to outdo Mayo, Marshall responded: “It looked like [the route] would be easier to climb with one tool. It’s a strategy I developed last night.”

Scroll down and click “NEXT PAGE” to watch Jeff Mercier win the 2008 competition.

Jason Stadler outfits a climber on competition day. Although the booth had almost no view of the finals route, it offered the best seats in the house when the strongest made it to the very top, the “diving board.” [Photo] Erik Lambert

The Underdog

Click play to watch Jeff Mercier working the upper section of the finals route and snatching the top.

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Like any well-designed competition, the top preliminary-round finishers were slated to go last in the finals. While waiting in anticipation for the favorites–Ines Papert, on her return to the competition scene, and Evgeny Kryvosheytsev, who owned last year’s finals route, quickly dispatching the difficulties then bat-hanging from his tools–the crowd watched a confident competitor #15 methodically work upward.

Mercier transitions from the “tuna rolls” to the “diving board” on his way to first place. [Photo] Erik Lambert

“Who is this guy?”

“Jeff Mercier.”

Interest quickly built for the underdog when he hooked the highpoint and gazed with incomprehension at the enormous last move above. So improbable was the lunge that Mercier yelled to the judges, wondering if they expected him to go up.

“Go go go! Go for the top!”

Tools matched on the final hold, Mercier pulled up for the 4-foot flight, caught the top, made the final clip and pleasantly surprised himself and the crowd. He was the only competitor of the seventeen finalists to finish the route.

Mercier’s best prior ice competition finish was 12th in the Ice World Cup, notable but not enough to put him in the finals for that comp. Not many in the US know much about the Chamonix-based climber, but competitor Turgeon noted that Mercier has long been “a really smooth and strong mixed climber. He’s climbed lots of hard stuff in the Mt. Blanc massif, and there’s hearsay that he’s onsighted M12.”

Papert and Kryvosheytsev who followed had heartbreaking disappointments at the top, Papert barely missing the final reach off a figure-four and Kryvosheytsev accidentally slipping off a hold.

Petzl’s Dress to Impress party (or was it Cross-dress to Impress?) that began a few hours later erased any lingering disappointment, and made me wonder: “Why don’t we do this every weekend?”