Ouray Ice Park: Generation Next ~~ Eric Ming ~~ The Watch

George Gardner Fund helps continue outdoor education

If I wasn’t just five minutes from my breakfast spot, I could easily imagine being on the edge of the last Ice Age as I descended into the Box Canyon that is home ground for the Ouray Ice Park. Looking up from the bottom is a chaotic glimpse of the frozen forces that shaped the surface of planet Earth, except the hanging stalactites of ice and frozen bulges of water that surround me have been intentionally sculpted by pipes and hoses. The tailoring of this canyon of ice is a man-made apparition that exists for a few short winter months. Then it is gone.

“This is the most unique facility of its kind in the world,” said Jim Nowak, the person most people point their finger to when it comes to assigning credit for getting 22 ninth graders into crampons and onto the ice walls at the park.

I followed guides Gary Ryan, Zach Lovell and a group of students into the area known as the Scottish Gullies. We all had crampons on for the descent, which Ryan explained was usually snow, but with the extraordinarily warm temperatures the past couple of weeks, the descent groove looked more like a winter gutter in New York City. There was a ratty rope line that acted as a handrail and we all hung onto it as we followed Ryan into the depths, as if he were the Pied Piper.

A piece of aluminum ladder had been laid across the creek to assist with crossing, and ropes were hanging everywhere as other climbers pecked their way up the steepest lines. Standing at the base of one of the gullies, Ryan tied into the rope and proceeded to demonstrate how to navigate the tricky bulges of ice.
Ryan and Lovell were at complete ease in this element. The students, Bianca Icke, Sawyer Morris, Hunter Gentry and volunteer assistant Chance Ronemus, were focused and attentive — maybe surprisingly so for an age group that might be thought of as rambunctious, but as I was to observe throughout the afternoon, this was an exceptional group of fledgling ice climbers.

All this had come about because of the late George Gardner, and the fund created in his name to help continue his work as an outdoor educator in Ridgway. Jerry Roberts, chairman of the George Gardner Fund, gave me insight into who George was.

“He was probably my best friend,” Roberts said. “I met him in 1980 over in Marble instructing an Outward Bound course. Mark Udall [also working for Outward Bound] asked me whom I wanted to team with. I saw George, sitting in the back of his truck with this great big smile on his face, and I was just drawn to him.”

“He surrounded people with this cool energy,” Roberts went on. “He knew that kindness was the highest wisdom. Kids just gravitated to him. I’ve never been with anyone else who had this ability to get people to open up. He taught kids teamwork and interpersonal skills that carried over into everyday life.”

Like Gardner, Roberts believes that through experiential education (such as this climbing program), “something happens between the body and the brain” that is intrinsically positive.

According to Steve Smith, the Ridgway Superintendent of Schools, “Jim Nowak and Chuck Siefken deserve credit for initiating this program. They have done all the leg work.” Nowak explained, “I have a history of ice climbing and being an instigator. Kids go climbing in Ouray County — I mean, every other person in this county climbs. This is low-hanging fruit.”

Thus it seemed an obvious use of the Gardner Fund: introduce Ridgway students to ice climbing by getting them out for three afternoons in February.

This is the first year of the ice-climbing program, a collaborative project that along with the Gardner Fund includes the Mt. Sneffels Foundation, Ridgway Secondary School, Peak Mountain Guides and San Juan Mountain Guides, as well as a group of volunteers that provide assistance wherever needed.

“We started the program this year because it was a workable size at 22, but next year there will be 34 ninth graders,” Nowak said. “We want it to be successful, we want the kids to have a good experience, we want it to be safe. So we thought, ‘Let’s start with a small group.’”

The real hands-on work falls to the two guide services.

“We went to Matt Wade [at Peak] and Nate Disser [at San Juan] and picked a slow day during the week to give the guides some work,” Nowak said.

Wade provides three guides and San Juan the same, totaling six for a student/guide ratio that Nowak estimated was “one to two-and-a-half” on this particular Wednesday.

“We decided to have more guides than we needed to make it super safe,” he said. “All the kids get a lot of climbing in and they get excellent instruction. You want to shoot long and make sure you have all the bases covered.”

Wade worked for the Ridgway school system for eight years.

“I taught outdoor education after George Gardner quit doing it,” he said. “I started Peak six years ago, and it is great to keep working with the school system. We do this program at cost to help support the school. It is not for profit.” Which is critical, because as Ridgway superintendent Steve Smith observed, “When budgets are tight, programs like this are dropped, and we are making an effort to resurrect experiential education.”

Later that afternoon, I walked up to the Overlook, above the School Room climbing area, an exhilarating spot on the walkway that hangs directly over the ice climbs in the south end of the canyon. I could lean over the railing and look straight down on two students, Samantha Medina and Emma Haaland, as they worked their way up their first climbs out of the canyon. It was clear that these student climbers were composed beyond what I expected. Watching their skill at movement and the persistence in their eyes was inspiring. The question I kept asking myself was, “How do these upstarts do this so well on their second afternoon on ice?” All I could conclude was that the right combination of mentors, guides and students had converged.

From the hours I spent with this spectrum of individuals, it became clear that you rarely ever know the full impact of your life on other people. There are so many who came together to make this happen and it all started from separate threads in their own lives. This person skied, that person climbed, this person met a guy in the back of a pickup, and it all seemed to coalesce in a man named George Gardner.

So they have conversations and make plans, and a group of ninth graders reap a benefit they probably don’t fully understand yet, because it is not just about ice climbing, or climbing at all, but about generating a positive connection to life. As Jerry Roberts put it, “George Gardner was a barometer of what’s good.”