Ouray, Colorado, already sits in a box canyon, with walls that climb hundreds of feet vertically from just a few blocks off main street. Along an even deeper incision in the canyon, piping and sprinklers have been installed to pour water down the rock walls and "farm ice." At the top, bolted hangars are ready to take climbing anchors and ropes, which ice climbers can then use to lower to the cliff bottoms and ascend the frozen rivulets, sinking ice axes and crampons into ice sometimes feet thick. Between the boosts to safety offered by the fixed gear and the curated conditions, the Ouray Ice Park is one of the best places in the region to learn to ice climb.
Twenty years ago, Kim Reynolds came to the park and noticed that men were the ones setting up anchors and top ropes, while women stood around.
"She wanted to change that," says Kitty Calhoun, who was among the first guides hired when Reynolds and Kellie Day launched Chicks with Picks, ice climbing clinics just for women, led by women. The company has since rebranded to Chicks Climbing and Skiing as its courses have grown beyond just ice climbing. "She wanted to help women become self-sufficient, independent climbers," Calhoun continues.
Calhoun worked almost every clinic until buying the business from Reynolds nearly four years ago, and she's developed an incisive opinion for why these chicks-only programs work best for women.
"They hold back when they're with male partners," she says. "They're worried about taking up too much time or asking questions or how they might appear. And so the thing is, with all women's groups, women tend to learn faster because they're less intimidated to ask questions. And the way you learn the most quickly, I've found, is by asking questions."
Chicks Climbing and Skiing will celebrate 20 years of encouraging women to take charge outdoors during the Ouray Ice Festival Jan. 24-27. The event will include a performance by Bibi McGill from Beyonce's backing band, screening of the film 20/20 produced by Zach Wolfson on female mountaineers, and a panel discussion on women outdoors moderated by Alison Osius, executive director of Rock & Ice. Panelists include climber Steph Davis, known for base jumping from the top of towers she's just climbed unroped, and Hilaree Nelson, who just became one of the first skiers to descend Lhotse, the fourth-highest mountain on the planet.
"What this film is about, and what I think the panel discussion will have time to explore more, is not just as women, but as climbers and skiers, how you face adversity and challenges, and what you take away from it," Calhoun says.
Panelists' resumes are varied, but they share a common ground that's appeared among female outdoor athletes for a century.
"There's some history of, at least women alpinists, using their sport or the attention they've gotten from their sport as a platform to speak about greater issues," Calhoun says.
When Annie Peck climbed to 21,000 feet in the Andes in 1911, she waved the suffragist flag from the summit. Now, female athletes use the attention they draw to direct some eyes toward other causes: sexual harassment outdoors, for example, or the environmental crisis that is climate change, which stands to impair coming generations' options to climb, ski and mountaineer.
For Calhoun, that message has come in form of a slide show and TED Talk she's given about "last ascents"—mountaineering routes climate change may have erased. The first on that list was Mount Kenya, which she climbed in 2005 by the Diamond Couloir, which once considered one of the world's greatest ice climbs—but has frozen with less and less frequency as the planet has warmed.
"I feel like, as an alpinist, we're like a canary in the coal mine," she says. Of the other panelists, she adds, "It's an inspiration to hear their stories and how they're taking that position to give back and for a greater good for the rest of our community and society. There's certain empowerment that comes from these sports, and when you are able to translate that to everyday life, then it's for the good of all of us."
Chicks Climbing and Skiing's 20th anniversary party will be held during the Ouray Ice Festival on Jan. 25. Details at chickswithpicks.net.
The Enthusiast is a twice-monthly column dedicated to the people in and stories from our outdoor sports community. Send feedback and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.