By Samantha Wright
The 2015 Ouray Ice Festival may be over, but two events this coming weekend celebrate the bright future and rich legacy of alpinism in the Western San Juans.
This Friday, Jan. 16, from 6:30-9 p.m., Ridgway teen Chance Ronemus offers a multimedia presentation about his recent back-to-back ascents of The Nose of El Capitan and the northwest face of Half Dome at Yosemite National Park. The evening event takes place at Ridgway’s Sherbino Theater and is a fundraiser for the George Gardner Scholarship Fund, which supported Ronemus’s adventure.
Entry is $10 for adults and $5 for students. Classic dirt-bag climber fare of beans and hotdogs will be provided.
Then, on Saturday, Jan. 17, there’s a screening of Jeff Lowe’s Metanoia at the Wright Opera House in Ouray at 7:30 p.m. Lowe, who founded the Ouray Ice Festival in 1996, is widely considered to be the godfather of modern mixed climbing.
Metanoia is a years-in-the-making film project that follows Lowe’s life and climbs, through his visionary ascents in this region and around the world, up to his current dance with a terminal disease.
With support from the San Juan Independent, the film screened to a large and appreciative audience of Ice Festival goers last weekend. It’s back for a second screening at the Wright Opera House this Saturday evening at 7:30 p.m. Advance tickets for premier seating cost $20 and are available at Ouray Mountain Sports. Tickets for general seating are available at the door and cost $15. Doors open at 7 p.m. All proceeds go to support Jeff Lowe.
It’s hard to believe that Ronemus, 17, used to be scared of heights. His dad told him that if he didn’t want to be a climber, that was fine.
“But at some point, when I realized ropes worked and that I could be safe, I started getting more and more confident in my abilities,” Ronemus recalled.
Last weekend, he became the youngest climber ever to compete in the Elite Mixed Climbing Competition at the Ouray Ice Festival. He came in 11th place out of 20 male competitors, besting some of his longtime climbing idols. Fest organizers had to draft their first-ever parental consent form to allow him to compete.
The feat came on the heels of Ronemus’s climbing adventures last summer, when at age 16, he drove on his own to Yosemite National Park and climbed the iconic towering granite faces of Half Dome and El Capitan that have captivated him ever since he first traveled to Yosemite on a 5th grade class trip.
“I went out there by myself and stayed in Camp 4, the classic climber camp. I lived out the dream,” he said.
He found his climbing partner on the website Mountain Project. “We did this route called the Free Blast, and then took one rest day then started packing up for The Nose (one of the original technical climbing routes up El Capitan) the next day. It was pretty wild,” he said.
They spent two nights bivouacking on The Nose, and completed the climb in three days.
Then, after taking one rest day, they tackled Half Dome, climbing three-quarters of the face before bivouacking on that too, so they wouldn’t have to do the walk-off in the dark.
What stands out for him about the experience?
“It smelled like piss,” he laughed. “But it was just awesome spending the night up there on the wall. At a certain point, it wasn’t like climbing as an activity. It was like that was your life in that moment. You woke up on the wall, climbed on the wall, went to sleep on the wall. That was kind of a wild but cool feeling. At a certain point it’s easier to go up than down, and that’s when you know you’re fully committed.”
The experience ushered Ronemus into “the tribe” of climbers that call Yosemite the center of the universe. “I will always be drawn back there. It is definitely a special place,” he said. “A lot of the history and the spirit of climbing resides there. It’s like Mecca. If we were to lay down our prayer rugs, they should all point to the Yosemite Valley.”
The late George Gardner would have wildly approved of the adventure. He had a simple, yet profound, philosophy: Get outside and play.
“He was a great believer in the outdoor classroom,” said his wife Colleen Gardner, who helped found the George Gardner Scholarship Fund after her husband died in a mountaineering accident in the Grand Teton in 2008.
GGSF (now a licensed Colorado nonprofit organization that operates under the umbrella of the Telluride Foundation) focuses solely on providing financial assistance to Ouray County teens ages 14 to 19 who wish to pursue alternative/nontraditional educational opportunities or self-designed adventures – and especially outdoor educational programs.
Scholarships are awarded on an ongoing basis as new applications roll in.
“We are just looking for kids with enthusiasm,” said board member Jerry Roberts, who has worked as an avalanche forecaster in the San Juan mountains for the past three decades. “That’s what George was about. Getting kids to experience the outdoors so they could become better people.”
For more information about how to support the George Gardner Scholarship Fund, or how to apply for a scholarship, visit GeorgeGardnerScholarshipFund.org